The Documentary Impulse

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Stuart Franklin has good credentials as a documentary photographer. He is a member and past-president of Magnum and one of the photographers who recorded the ‘Tank Man’ incident in Tiananmen Square in 1989. That story makes the major part of essay 5 in The Documentary Impulse.

The Documentary Impulse (Franklin 2016) is a set of eight essays (plus introduction and afterword) by Stuart Franklin on various aspects of documentary photography. His definition of the term means

… the passion to record the moments we experience and wish to preserve, the things we witness and might want to reform, or simply the people, places and things we find remarkable (Franklin 2016,5)

The key words are (for me), ‘record’, ‘witness’, ‘preserve’ and ‘reform’. Every documentary photograph must do at least two of those things, or what’s the point? Franklin goes beyond the layman’s idea of documentary as non-fiction and adopts John Grierson’s phrase ‘creative treatment of actuality’, which appears to combine Ruskin’s concepts of ‘material truth’ and ‘moral truth’ (ibid, p6)

The first essay traces the pre-photographic documentary impulse from cave paintings, through Egyptian pyramid decorations to John Singer Sargent and the other war artists, followed by a potted history of photography.

The second essay, Lost Eden, looks at the reporting of so-called primitive tribes and peoples through time, which is partly informative and partly designed to reinforce Western feelings of ethnic superiority. It is interesting to view different reporters/photographers  approaches to the same peoples, some concealing modern influences – giving a romantic pre-lapsarian gloss – and others emphasising the changes that contact with ‘civilisation’ has wrought.

Other essays deal with war reporting, crusading for social change (Lewis Hine etc.) and the documentation of the routine of everyday life. The final essay deals with staging and manipulations and argues for a documentary impulse even in the fully-staged work of Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall.

Overall, a readable and thought-provoking look at documentary and narrative. It will be useful for the OCA course, but worth reading in its own right.

Reference

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon Press Ltd.

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David Bate on portraits

My tutor’s list of recommended reading following assignment 3, the self-portrait, included a chapter by David Bate, ‘Looking at portraits‘ from his 2009 book ‘Photography: the key concepts’ (Bate 2009, 66-86). The chapter covers some key concepts in a readable way, demonstrating that being theoretical and accessible are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The 2009 edition is available as a free download, and there is a 2016 second edition (which I have just ordered) with new chapters on snapshots and ‘the act of looking’. The snapshots chapter will feed into another suggested line of enquiry and a probable future posting.

If the photographic portrait is a shorthand description of a person, then portraiture is more than ‘just a picture’, it is a place of work: a semiotic event for social identity. (Bate 2009, 67)

A portrait ‘fixes’ the identity of the subject/sitter in some way, dependent on why it has been taken and for what purpose it is used (gallery, social media, police mugshot, etc.). The photographic portrait is ubiquitous as a result of, and arguably was a driver for, the massive impact of photography itself.

Over the next six pages (68-73) Bate looks at the history of photographic portraiture, linking it both to painterly conventions and to the development of photographic technology. When cameras were constrained by tripods and long exposures, the artist’s studio was a convenient location and had lights, props, backgrounds etc. There was a two-way flow of influence – Bate tells us that the chin-on-hand pose was a photographers’ device to keep the head steady, which then appeared in painted portraits as well. Improving and cheapening technology led both to the carte-de-visite and the passport/bureaucratic identity image (‘mugshot’). There is a brief discussion of eugenics, the images of Francis Galton and the effect of facial expression on apparent character.

Unsurprisingly, the face and its expression takes up the major part of the next section, the elements of a portrait. Bate lists these as the face, pose, clothing and location – which can be thought of as a hierarchy, each as the ‘external context’ of the previous element. Facial expressions (and, as viewers, we are attuned to even very minor changes) and poses can hide or reveal elements of character – or simulate or falsify our reading of the subject’s character: a consideration in advertising or propaganda.

Clothes (or lack of them) and setting give clues to social status, occupation, etc. and are also capable of manipulation. Bate describes the combination of the four elements: setting, clothes, pose and face as the ‘rhetorical argument’ of a portrait, a phrase which I would normally regard as relevant to language rather than images, and segues neatly into the final section on ‘reading’ portraits.

In reading a portrait (photographic or not) we are literally expected to take the image at its ‘face value’; Bate’s discussion starts from Plato’s distrust of surface appearance. This section deals with the interlinked concepts of recognition (even if only that we are looking at a human face) and identification (‘of’ and ‘with’), digressing into narcissism, projection, soft-focus and deadpan blank expressions.

In the concluding paragraphs, Bate argues for the role of the viewer (‘the processes of spectatorship) in fixing the meaning and value of a portrait.

If various forms of portraiture are concerned with establishing social identities, then we surely need to consider the pleasure in viewing these images and begin to interrogate our own investment in them, if only to begin to understand how and why pleasure in looking, and psychological and social identity, are all intertwined within the external question that portraits seem to address: who are we? (Bate 2009, 84)

Reference

Bate, D. (2009) Photography : the key concepts. Oxford UK: Berg.

Criticizing Photographs – Terry Barrett

Criticizing Photographs is a work of metacriticism, defined by Barrett (2006, 231) as the criticism of criticism. Does mean that a review of it is metametacriticism, or is it best not to overthink and just get on with writing about it?

This is a scholarly book, having started as a PhD thesis (my tutor has a copy) and expanded as an educational text on criticism. The style is formal and chock-full of references, so it is not for the casual reader and (as I discovered) it is useful to have some  prior knowledge of photographers and critics in the ‘art world’. That said, as a student text it provides a good analysis of criticism and an introduction to ‘art theory’

According to Barrett (2006, 2), any piece of criticism does one or more of four things: description of the work, interpretation, evaluation, and using the work as a basis for theorising. The first three are reasonably clear and sequential – theorising is more difficult to explain, which Barrett does at some length and, in my view, unbalances the book as a result.

After a first chapter introducing the notion of criticism in its various styles, the relationship between critics and artists, and the value of criticism (it encourages the readers to increase their own understanding and appreciation of the art) he devotes a chapter to each of the four functions of criticism.

Describing an artwork or exhibition seems prima facie simple but, by considering the example of three critics views of a single exhibition (Avedon’s In the American West) we see that there can be differences depending on what the critic is looking at, his prior knowledge and outside sources of information, in addition to the obvious noting of subject matter, form, medium, style etc. Description is not entirely separate from interpretation and evaluation. Barrett sees the three as interdependent, and a good factual description is an important part of meaningfully interpreting or evaluating an artwork.

Interpreting an artwork is to go beyond describing it (asking ‘what is it?) to attempting to make sense of it (asking ‘what does it mean?’, ‘what is it about?’ or ‘what is its purpose?’). We are introduced briefly to Barthesian semiotics (through the example of the Panzani advert deconstructed in Rhetoric of the Image) as one of several approaches to interpretation, including consideration of the style or tradition in which the image is made, its general external context and the perceived intent of the photographer. We are warned against the ‘intentionalist fallacy’ but, as a photographer,  I still have difficulty with the concept that my view of my intention is no more or less valid than anybody else’s.

Before moving on to evaluation, Barrett devotes two chapters to describing types of photograph and the way their meaning is affected by the context in which they are seen. In particular, using an image by Robert Doiseneau of a couple in a café, the way in which accompanying text can radically change a reader’s perception.

Evaluation or judgement asks the question ‘is it good?’. To answer the question, we need to set some criteria and to make a reasoned argument on whether the photograph fits the criteria. The criteria set will vary between critics and may not always be expressed (although they will always exist in some form). It may include considerations of ‘realism’,  ‘expression’, ‘formalism’ or ‘fitting its intention’. My own criterion, craftsmanship, is relegated to an also-ran status. This chapter is illustrated by considering opposing critical judgements on Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1993 exhibition.

The chapter on Photography Theory is, at 56 pages, by far the longest in the book, hence my comment about unbalancing it. Theorising is to attempt to answer the ‘big questions’ (actually, it seems necessary first to formulate the questions) such as ‘is it art?’, ‘is it true?’, “is it moral?’, ‘what do we mean by art, truth or morality anyway?’ and uses photographs as a starting point for some major digressions. This is a chapter that I will return to when I am ready for it. Although it unbalances a photography book, it appears to be a good starting point for considering art theory in general.

The final chapter, on writing and talking about photographs, has a different style from the rest of the book and appears to be bolt-on content that does not flow from the preceding chapters. It deals with example content of Barrett’s students’ work and studio discussion.

Overall, the book is a good and useful read, and I expect to dip back into it many times during the rest of my OCA studies.

Reference

Barrett, T.M. (2006) Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding images. 4th edn. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Burning with Desire – The Conception of Photography

I bought this book, Geoffrey Batchen’s 1997 alternative take on the history of photography, based on a footnote in the EYV course notes which promised ‘a fascinating account of the origins of photography’. I eventually read it as part of my procrastination over assignment 2 of C&N.

The central part of the book is a post-modern take on what could be thought of as the pre-history of photography. Taking as his thesis the notion that Daguerre and Fox Talbot did not come up with the idea (of fixing the image of a camera obscura) from thin air, he looks back at philosophical thought and art in the 18th and early 19th centuries, to see the notions evolve. This is not something that started in one mind or one place; Batchen tracks down 24 people, who he dubs the ‘proto-photographers’, from eight countries, who expressed ‘the desire to photograph’ (although not in those words) before 1839. Beyond that, there is a cast of characters who have influenced or documented them.

The account is scholarly, picked-up in a lot of detail, well-referenced and difficult to summarise in review. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 carry the story and are worth reading. Chapters 1 and 5 are mainly postmodern theorist-speak and can be ignored if one is only after the history.

A final section, ‘Epitath’ (Batchen 1997: 204-216) echoes Delaroche’s ‘From today, painting is dead” with a prediction that digital imaging would be the death of photography as practiced for the previous 150 years. Like Mark Twain’s obituary, it was premature. While the popular use of film has fallen dramatically, it is enjoying a hipster revival. Of more concern is Batchen’s thesis that, with computer-generated imagery indistinguishable from in-camera digital imaging, photography would lose its privileged status as evidence of the real. With ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ very much to the fore at present, watch this space …

Reference

Batchen, G. (1997) Burning with Desire : The Conception of Photography. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Don McCullin – Unreasonable Behaviour

Sir Donald McCullin CBE HonFRPS is probably Britain’s greatest living documentary photographer. Known mainly as a war photographer, he has also covered poverty in Britain and abroad and the famines in Biafra (man-made) and Ethiopia (natural). In recent decades, he has reinvented himself as a landscape photographer, but that postdates this autobiography, first published in 1992. I read the 2002 edition, unchanged apart from a single-page preface.

The writing style is very direct and unflinching in its detail. This is not the work of a man showing off his education and erudition (McCullin is dyslexic and left school aged 15, on the death of his father) but one who has seen the worst that mankind can dish out and is trying to make sense of it for the general reader.

The early chapters cover his childhood in Finsbury Park, one of the poorer and rougher areas of London at the time, as a war child and occasional evacuee. He speaks first-hand of poverty and street gangs. He buys a camera during National Service, and afterward photographs Finsbury Park life and the street gangs. In 1959 a member of one of the gangs was arrested for killing a policeman and the Observer used one of McCullin’s photographs of the gang. An illustrious  career is started, with commissions to record poverty and street life elsewhere in Britain.

The main part of the book, however, deals with McCullin’s documentary work in pretty much every international trouble spot from the raising of the Berlin Wall, up to but not including the Falklands (McCullin is bitter about being excluded – too independent to toe the official propaganda line), in the Middle East, Vietnam, Africa and South America. He spent time in Idi Amin’s jail and has been wounded and caught malaria, in the course of pursuing his  stories.

In the context of this course (Context and Narrative) it is interesting to see how McCullin builds up his philosophy of what photojournalism and documentary mean to him. He pursues an individual course, even when on a commission, independently and honestly showing us what he sees. He deals with the question of voyeurism by concentrating on the ‘ordinary people’, civilians caught up in the horror, ‘other ranks’ soldiers etc. and bringing their story to the fore, and to the attention of readers (starvation in Biafra, for instance)

In the latter part of the book, it is clear that the work is taking its toll, and McCullin also charts the changing attitudes of newspaper owners and editors, looking for softer ‘lifestyle’ stories rather than the uncomfortable dramas he is used to recording. In the final chapters, he is obviously at a low ebb with rejection from the Falklands and the death of his first wife. The book was originally written as a form of therapy and ends on a low note. The 2002 preface tells us of a general upturn and his taking up landscape work.

I see that there has been a 2015 update, written to celebrate McCullin’s 80th birthday. It is on my Amazon wish-list.

Reference

McCullin, D. (2002) Unreasonable Behaviour London: Random House

 

Rhetoric of the Image – Barthes (a first reading)

The text of Roland Barthes’ ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ can be found in numerous places online. My version is a book extract posted as a PDF by Georgetown University (Barthes 1964).

Barthes’ writings, to borrow a phrase from Paul Seawright, ‘give up their meaning slowly’. I have been able to extract sufficient meaning for use in this project ‘Image and text’; the deep theory of the latter parts of the essay will have to wait for another day.

The essay centres on the deconstruction of an advertising image into its various messages (significations). Barthes chose an advertising image on the basis that all signification in the image is intentional; we read into the image what its creator intends us to read.

panzani-preview

There are multiple instances of this image online. My source is https://tracesofthereal.com/2009/12/21/the-rhetoric-of-the-image-roland-barthes-1977/

Barthes analyses the signifiers into three parts: the linguistic message and two forms of visual message, the literal (denoted) and symbolic (connoted). Later he notes that linguistic messages can be further subdivided into ‘anchorage’ and ‘relay’. I see an imperfect analogy between the two splits – anchorage can be related to a literal visual message, and relay to a symbolic message.

The literal image denotes what we see at what Barthes calls the ‘first level of intelligibility’. Against a red background is a string bag filled with, and spilling out, the ingredients of a pasta meal. Some are natural produce (tomato, onion, peppers) and some are the manufactured product of the firm (Panzani) being advertised. The products are oriented so that we can read the manufacturer’s name on the labels – which becomes part of the linguistic message.

The connoted message(s) are those things that the viewer ‘reads into’ the literal image. The string bag and the unwrapped vegetables imply a return from market with fresh ingredients. At a second level, this suggests personal choice or selection rather than a ‘Saturday big shop’ stocking-up at the local Tesco. Placing the manufactured goods in the same bag implies that they are as fresh or ‘natural’ as the vegetables, and selected as carefully.

The connoted image, to some extent, depends on the viewer’s cultural background and experiences. Barthes claims to see ‘Italianicity’ in the vegetables and the colour scheme – I only see fresh vegetables, but take ‘Italianicity’ from the labels and the nature of the product (pasta)

There are two sources of linguistic message, the caption at bottom right and the labels on the products. In this case, both fall into the category of ‘anchorage’; they ‘fix’ the meaning of the image, effectively selecting between alternative possible connoted meanings and directing the viewer toward those that the advertiser wants to promote.

Barthes says that every image is associated with some linguistic message, either (as in this example) in the image itself or in the context in which it is seen – for instance, the text in a book, the caption in a newspaper or the wall-notes of a gallery. In the case of still images this is most likely to be anchorage – either the image illustrates the text or the text attempts to fix the meaning of the image; one is subservient to the other.

The other form of linguistic message, ‘relay’ is more common with moving images (for instance a ‘talking-head’ TV broadcast) than with still images; Barthes mentions cartoons and comic strips as likely examples of relay in still images. For me, one of the best examples is Paul Crum’s brilliantly surreal 1937 cartoon in Punch.

The image and the text have equal status and bounce off each other to give an overall meaning that is not complete in either.

Going back to the example picture essays in project 1 (Telling a story), I see Smith’s text and captions as being pure anchorage. Briony Campbell’s picture captions are a mix of anchorage and relay.

Reference

Barthes, R. (1964). Rhetoric of the Image. 1st ed. [ebook] Available at: https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Barthes-Rhetoric-of-the-image-ex.pdf [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017].

Reading Photographs – Richard Salkeld

‘Reading Photographs’ is the first of Bloomsbury’s Basics: Creative Photography series. It is not on the reading list given in the course notes but it is on my tutor’s personal reading list and is the book that he recommends reading first. Having now read it (not first, unfortunately) I find that it has given meaning and a degree of understanding to some of my earlier reading.

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source: amazon.com

The book is an introduction to many of the concepts of photography criticism, written in clear language, with interesting example images and case studies and (unlike many texts) does not assume any prior knowledge on the part of the reader. The six main sections introduce key concepts and will be more or less relevant depending on the reader. For me, section 1 (dealing with the history of photography) was revision and sections 4 and 5 (portraits and representations of people, and surveillance and voyeurism) may become relevant later.

Section 2: Identity  is an introduction to semiotics. It gives the clearest explanation I have yet seen of the vocabulary of signs and reading images.

Section 3: Truth and lies covers documentary photography with a discussion of ‘reality’, manipulation, objectivity and viewpoint.

Section 6: Aesthetics introduces the ‘… is it Art?’ question with a potted history of photography’s relationship to the ‘fine arts’, together with comments on postmodernism, conceptualism, appropriation and the current attitude of galleries to photography.

I doubt that there are any really deep insights in this book but, as an introduction allowing this level-1 student to approach the works containing the deep insights, it does exactly what it says on the tin.

Reference

Salkeld, R. (2014) Reading photographs: An introduction to the theory and meaning of images. London: Bloomsbury.