Joel Meyerowitz at B+H

The Beetles+Huxley exhibition Joel Meyerowitz: Towards Colour 1962-1978 presented a very different view of Meyerowitz’ work from the large-format Ground Zero images discussed previously. Unsurprisingly, given that the exhibition was mounted in conjunction with Leica, it deals with his 35mm early work before he bought his 8×10 in 1976.meyerowitzBH

Meyerowitz’ photography is largely self-taught having been inspired to pick up a camera when, as a junior art director, he was briefed to ‘supervise’ Robert Frank on a photoshoot. Being self-taught, and therefore unladen with the baggage of art-world received wisdom, he was attracted to colour from the start. As a matter of practicality, however, he carried a camera loaded with monochrome film as well as one loaded with colour, and much of his early published work is in mono.

There seem to be two threads as we look at the work chronologically. First, the move from predominantly monochrome into exclusively colour work. Meyerowitz regarded a European road trip in 1966 as his coming-of-age as an artist, and had excluded mono from his work by 1972.

Colour describes more things – more radiance, more wavelengths, more sensation. (Meyerowitz, concatenation of two quotes from the exhibition catalogue)

Second, there is a move away from the traditional ‘decisive moment’ images (epitomised by the ‘Kiss Me Stupid’ image above) to something more decentralised or non-hierarchical in which everything, including the colours, contributed equally to the image.

I was trying to unlock photography from the aesthetic of ‘the decisive moment’ – a difficult thing to give up – and to bring the photograph closer to the experience itself, which is inchoate and unresolved in ways that I had been reluctant to deal with before. (Meyerowitz, exhibition catalogue)

Although I have enjoyed Meyerowitz’ later large-format colour work, I found that my preferences in this exhibition were towards the earlier work, mono and colour. Analysing my own reaction, I believe it is because I am reluctant to let go of the concept of the decisive moment.

As always with B+H exhibitions, they make good use of a fairly small space – the photographs are close together but never feel crowded – and the catalogue is excellent value at £10.

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

 

Photographing the Unseen – Exercise (three OCA alumni)

All references are to the OCA course notes, Context and Narrative, pp 62-68, unless otherwise noted.

Peter Mansell

Pete Mansell is paraplegic from a spinal cord injury sustained at the age of 20. His projects discussed in the course notes deal with the unseen effects of his injury.

The ‘seen’ effects would be comparatively easy to document, with photographs (selfies or taken by others) of Mansell in his wheelchair or coping with daily life. However, the unseen effects are known only to Mansell himself and given shape by his photography. We are given three examples:

Drug Packaging, seen alone, is a simple macro pattern shot of part of a package of drug capsules, with one apparently popped out. A pleasing image with a strong diagonal composition but one likely to be passed by. However, seen as part of Paralysis, a series showing the medication, equipment, scars and infections that are a part of his life at Maslow’s base ‘physiological needs’ level (Mansell is confused with Herzberg’s hygiene factors) gives the viewer some insight into the sheer ‘guttiness’ of living with his kind of injury.

Examining shows us a corner of a room, apparently in a medical institution, with the end of a hospital bed. On the bed is a transfer blanket with carrying handles; it is a reminder that patients, including Mansell, are unable to get onto the bed by themselves but have to be manhandled onto it. This is part of the series, Check Up, which shows us details of the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Mansell is very positive about this place and claims an emotional connection; the staff already know the issues so there is no ned to explain. Again, the individual image is only a part of a much greater sum. Each of the nine images in the set has a one-word, ‘…ing’ title; ‘Inspiring’ shows us a portrait on the wall of a wheelchair athlete.

My Space is a stand-alone (if that is not a tasteless word in the circumstances) image, rather than part of a series. It shows the detail of a room, presumably the lounge at home, with part of a door opening, a standard lamp, coffee table/cabinet and one edge of a sofa or armchair. Their is a chair-width length of blank wall and the coffee table is pulled away from the wall, creating a space into which a wheelchair could fit. This is not a wasted space – it is there to accommodate Pete Mansell’s wheelchair, not there at the moment, because Mansell is sitting in it to take the photograph. We are reminded of the adjustments to daily life that are required to accommodate disability; we assume that other rooms have similar dedicated spaces.

Dewald Botha

Dewald Botha is, with Mansell, a member of [6], a group of OCA alumni who started collaborating as undergraduates. Ring Road is a set that, at one level, is of a subject very much ‘seen’. It shows the concrete structures of a raised roadway around the city of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province, China. However, Botha tells us (in a brief website caption) that he is using the road as a metaphor for boundaries and limitations. Boundaries are usually visible, limitations often are not. One distinction is that a boundary is a physical constraint, whereas a limitation is a mental one.

I have more difficulty extracting meaning from this set than from Mansell’s work. For instance, if he is ‘searching for pockets of calm and quiet’, why do several of the images show the road surface itself, near junctions (one with oncoming traffic stopped at a signal on the top-left third-point of the image). Other images show greenery (apparently tended) around and below the road structures, indicating that these are spaces that somebody cares for. I can also get the sense of ‘boundary’ or ‘limitation’, from the view that any ring-road (even the M25) necessarily separates inside from outside of itself and imposes a restriction on growth of the urban centre. I suppose, in the context of the present exercise, I am having trouble seeing the unseen.

Jodie Taylor

Jodie Taylor’s series Memories of Childhood was also referenced in Expressing Your Vision, Assignment 1 (Square Mile). Unfortunately, her learning blog no longer exists and a Google search reveals that there are several Jodie Taylors with a web presence as photographers (plus an Arsenal footballer), so it has not been possible to find the full set and I must rely on the description and three images presented in the weareoca blog posting.

The premise can be simply stated. Photography represents the past as soon as the shutter is clicked (Barthes, Berger, Sontag and others have made similar points) and we become nostalgic about it. Taylor’s series is about that nostalgia, provoked by moving back into a house that she grew up into. The surviving images are of rather scruffy, intimate areas (two paths/alleys and a row of domestic galleries). These are the sort of places that evoke memories of school summer holidays and teenagers simply ‘hanging out’. I have memories of attempting to ride a friend’s motorcycle outside just such a set of garages and, doubtless, other viewers will recall a first cigarette or a first kiss (I’m keeping it clean here). Reading the weareoca posting, I see that it has evoked similar memories in Sharon, the reviewer.

Taylor tells us that this is to be a ‘fine art-based project’ but presented it as a set of machine-prints from 35mm in a cheap plastic album with ‘warts and all’ scratches an blemishes. I am unable to reconcile ‘fine art’ (or at least my vision of it) with the scruffy approach, but I have to admit that it will work on a conceptual level as further context to evoke nostalgia – which was the point of the exercise. This comes back to the question of the ‘snapshot aesthetic’ that my tutor has referred to, and which will have to be the subject of a future posting. However, I wonder about the artificiality or contrivance of the approach. If a set old old prints were found in a shoebox in the attic it would invoke genuine nostalgia; is that a different thing from deliberately trying to manufacture it?

Coursework questions

Which of these projects resonates most with you, and why?

It is easy to pick out the ‘third place’. I had difficulty engaging with Botha’s Ring Road, for reasons noted above.

Jodie Taylor’s and Pete Mansell’s work resonated in different ways and for different reasons. Taylor evoked direct memories; Mansell gives me a vision of an alternative past and present. We have probably all had traffic accident near-misses; is this how life would be if something had been only a few inches or a few seconds different? If deciding between them, I would go for Mansell because I have been able to find more of his work online and, therefore, to engage better.

How do you feel about the loss of authorial control that comes when the viewer projects their own experiences and emotions onto the images you have created?

Some years before starting the degree course, I read Terry Barrett’s Criticising Photographs and was annoyed at his statement that the photographer’s interpretation of an image was no more nor less valid than the viewer’s [reference to be added when I find it on re-reading]. I assume that this is what the questioner means by loss of authorial control. While studying over the past 16 months, I have come to revise that opinion. The viewer is an integral part of the subject/photographer/image/viewer sequence and will extract his/her own meaning from the image. However, the viewer can only react to what is in front of him/her; it is the photographer who places it there.

My nearest experience of this loss of authorial control must be competition nights at my camera club when the judge comments on my entered images. Sometimes, the judge will interpret the image very differently from me and I might seethe ‘he’s missed the bloody point’. In many cases, mature reflection shows me an alternative or deeper meaning that I did not fully appreciate at the time of taking. I don’t have to like it, but it is often instructive.

Combining text and image

The course notes introduce three more photographers whose projects intertwine text and image. In these cases, image and text are not inseparable but there is a clear symbiotic relationship – the text effects the reading of the image, and the image gives meaning to the text.

Kaylynn Deveney

The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings is a collaboration between Deveney and her octogenarian neighbour, Bert Hastings. Bert, living alone, had developed a routine and rhythm in life.

In the best Ronseal tradition, this series ‘does what it says on the tin’ and pictures the routine and banality of Bert’s everyday life, but Deveney would then give prints to Bert and he would write a note or a sentence to accompany it: sometimes matter-of-fact, sometimes whimsical.  It could be said that many of the texts are anchorage (“My inevitable cuppa char”) but taken across the entire series, the effect is mainly relay.

Text and image form the context for each other and overall I feel that I know Bert.

Karen Knorr

Gentlemen, in common with Knorr’s other 1980s series Belgravia (encountered early in EYV) and Country Life, is presented as a series of high-quality monochrome prints with accompanying text. Knorr’s text style is unusual, with unconventional capitalisation and a deliberate splitting of the text into short lines giving the appearance of blank verse.

newspapers-are

source: karenknorr.com

Gentlemen presents a caricature of life in the gentlemen’s clubs of St James’ in central London. The text gives a first impression of anchorage but on closer reading is almost pure relay. The series reminded me of the cartoons  of Glen Baxter; although the subject matter is different, the sense of humour and dislocation is very similar.

Duane Michals

Many of Duane Michals’ individual images and short series have the artist’s handwritten text on the face of the image. Mostly, these are rather quirky relay comments (I particularly enjoyed the 1998 series Madam Schrödinger’s Cat, but perhaps that is the Physics A-level speaking) but the two reproduced below show an element of anchorage. Both are rather long texts, in the context of Michals’ other work and both are self-referential – in both cases, they are comments about the nature of the photograph itself and only indirectly about its subject.

f2002d44-5581-4fc2-97fd-151b39564ad8

source: http://www.lensculture.com

097f925f05cf81328e3a79442bb69f18

source: dcmooresgallery.com

References

DCMooregallery.com. (n.d.). Duane Michals – Artists – DC Moore Gallery. [online] Available at: http://www.dcmooregallery.com/artists/duane-michals/series/photographs-with-text?view=slider#7 [Accessed 15 May 2017].

Deveney, K. (n.d.). The Day to Day Life of Albert Hastings. [online] KayLynn Deveney Photographer. Available at: https://kaylynndeveney.com/the-day-to-day-life-of-albert-hastings/ [Accessed 15 May 2017].

Knorr, K. (2014). Gentlemen | Karen Knorr. [online] Karenknorr.com. Available at: http://karenknorr.com/photography/gentlemen/ [Accessed 15 May 2017].

Strecker, A. (n.d.). Storyteller: The Photographs of Duane Michals – Photographs by Duane Michals | LensCulture. [online] LensCulture. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/duane-michals-storyteller-the-photographs-of-duane-michals-2 [Accessed 15 May 2017].

Briony Campbell – The Dad Project

A man lies on a bed, apparently asleep, in a light-coloured room with open curtains. He wears indoor clothes (rather than pyjamas) and is above the bedclothes, so  we understand that this is a daytime nap. His face is gaunt and his mouth suggests a background of pain. He lies with his head near the left of the frame. At the right of the frame, and partially out of it, a young woman sits at a table eating a meal. She has a worried expression and her eyes are fixed on the camera. Details of the furniture, and the vase of flowers on the bedside cabinet, suggest an institutional (hospital or hospice, rather than a home situation.

These are psychologist and family therapist David Campbell and his daughter, the photographer Briony Campbell. The image is from their collaborative series ‘The Dad Project’, detailing the last six months of David’s life and the period immediately after his death from cancer. Images and captions may found at Campbell (n.d). Briony’s account of making the series and its later exhibitions and other manifestations are available as a PDF (Campbell 2011) and as a video with contributions from David (Campbell 2010). The video includes stills from the series that are not on the website.

It is difficult to be dispassionate in reviewing this project (the deaths of my own parents are recent enough to empathise) so I am not going to try. This is a photo-story about love, sorrow, departure and family. David and Briony are each using it to understand the other and to come to terms with the coming separation by death.

There is a variety of images. As expected, we see David and other family members, some happy times and some pain; there is even a photograph with the paramedic on what we take to be his final ambulance journey to the hospital. Briony turns the camera on herself; we see tears, and we have the image described above in which she finishes his hospital meal. There is also a set of detail pictures, unremarkable in themselves but powerful when taken in context; the empty milk bottle, the drinking glass and straw and the hospital menu with ‘Welcome back to Keats Ward, David’ written on it.

The photography is light-coloured and light in tone, but tells the human story.

The project has been seen in various forms; exhibitions, magazine articles, the video noted above, and as the inspiration for many third-party websites.

The phrase ‘an ending without an ending’ is a reference to David’s death but also to the continuing influence of ‘TheDad Project’ as an inspiration and comfort to viewers, and as a way of keeping David Campbell alive in memory at least.

References

Blackwell, J. (n.d.). The Dad Project. [online] Joblackwell.co.uk. Available at: http://joblackwell.co.uk/the-dad-project/ [Accessed 10 Apr. 2017].

Campbell, B. (n.d.). The Dad Project. [online] Brionycampbell.com. Available at: http://www.brionycampbell.com/projects/the-dad-project/ [Accessed 10 Apr. 2017].

Campbell, B. (2010). Saying goodbye with my camera. [online] Vimeo. Available at: https://vimeo.com/12600297 [Accessed 10 Apr. 2017].

Campbell, B. (2011). The Dad Project. 1st ed. [ebook] Available at: http://www.brionycampbell.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/The_Dad_Project_Briony_Campbell.pdf [Accessed 10 Apr. 2017].

Exercise – Public Order

Sarah Pickering describes herself on her website as ‘ a London based, British artist interested in fakes, tests, hierarchy, sci-fi, explosions, photography and gunfire’. The photo series ‘Public Order’ is about fakes but in a context that indirectly references explosions and gunfire.

The course notes have already explained the premise of the series, but I have tried to view the images as if coming to them afresh.

At a quick first reading, these are views of buildings and streets, but they look odd, with no roof or eaves details. The station turnstiles are just lumps of concrete and everything is constructed in grey concrete clockwork – very rarely seen as an external finish in the UK. Intrigued and looking closer, we see that many of the ‘buildings’ are simply flat facades and we realise that they are supported by steel frameworks. In some images, we see that some higher-level walls are of painted plywood.

At a second reading, then, perhaps this is a film or stage set, which would explain the sterile appearance and lack of people. But this explanation is also unsatisfactory because of the unconvincing surface finishes. Some kind of drama is played out here, but not for public display. Detail touches, roadblocks, derelict vehicles, piles of tyres, and scorch marks on the walls suggest that some sort of violence either occurs or is simulated.

The C&N course notes and various reviewers tell us something that Pickering doesn’t (at least, not on her website (Sarahpickering.co.uk)). These images are police training grounds, environments set up for practicing for real-life emergencies, riot control etc. In her Vimeo interview for the Aperture Foundation (Vimeo 2010) she tells us that she started off photographing riot-control exercises but realised that the empty images had more power, what she describes as a ‘sense of latent violence’. I appreciate being allowed to use my imagination, although Pickering tells us that the police were initially disappointed about it. The depersonalised treatment gives at least an appearance of objectivity.

The series is good documentary because it brings the viewers’ attention to aspects of policing that we may not have considered. Of course the police need training in crowd-control and riot-control techniques – it would be dangerous to rely on on-the-job training and it is vital to practice alternative tactics. We now have some idea of how it is done, if not where. We are reminded that policing is about more than detecting crime.

References

Kuball, L. (2010). Explosions, Fires, and Public Order Special book review. [online] http://www.sarahpickering.co.uk. Available at: http://www.sarahpickering.co.uk/images/pdfs/Texts/Book-Review_Liz-Kuball.pdf [Accessed 26 Mar. 2017].

Pickering, S. (n.d.). Public Order. [online] Sarahpickering.co.uk. Available at: http://www.sarahpickering.co.uk/Works/Pulic-Order/workpg-01.html [Accessed 26 Mar. 2017].

Vimeo. (2010). Sarah Pickering on Public Order & Explosion series: Excerpt. [online] Available at: https://vimeo.com/11931505 [Accessed 26 Mar. 2017].

Research point – Sectarian Murder

Paul Seawright grew up in Belfast during the period euphemistically called ‘The Troubles’. During 1987/8 he made a series of images based on visits to murder sites or body-dump sites from the sectarian killings of the early 1970s. Seawright did not give them a title but reviewers always refer to them as the ‘Sectarian Murder’ series (Kelly, quoted in britishphotography.org (n.d.))

Each work in the series is a combination of image and text. The image is a colour view of the site from a low viewpoint, as if giving a victim’s-eye view. Lighting is a controlled combination of daylight and obvious fill-flash, mimicking the lighting of a scene-of-crime officer’s photograph. The text is precis’ed from contemporary news reports of the murder, edited to exclude the victim’s name or any indication of his religion.

The text goes beyond simple captioning; it is essential to the understanding of the image which would be meaningless and rather banal without it. Taken together, particularly if seen as a group, there is a powerful message giving the viewer some insight of what it was like to live through the period. In removing any reference to the religion of the victim (which was the defining characteristic in what was essentially a tribal conflict) Seawright emphasises that these were innocent bystanders caught up in something terrible.

How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art?

This quotation from the course notes begs the question of whether there are boundaries between documentary and art, or any other genres of photography. I do not believe the terms ‘documentary’ and ‘art’ are mutually exclusive. Meyerowitz’s Ground Zero images, for instance, fall into both genres.

Documentary photography has (or, in my opinion, should have) characteristics of factual accuracy, objectivity and explanation. Its natural home is the newspaper or magazine. Characterisation as art implies acceptance of the work by ‘the art-world’ on whatever criteria; its natural home may be the gallery wall. Publication in book form is, perhaps, a halfway house.

Seawright discusses his work (he does not specifically refer to Sectarian Murder) in in interview on the Imperial war Museum channel of Vimeo (Seawright (n.d.)) in which he draws a distinction between journalism and art photography. He describes his work as art and sees the distinction in terms of how quickly a piece ‘gives up its meaning’ or how much work the viewer has to do to understand the narrative of the piece. In his view, if a piece is too explicit then it becomes journalism; if it is too ambiguous then it is meaningless. The ‘holy grail’ is a piece that gives up its meaning, but slowly. The viewer has to work for understanding but will achieve it.

Viewing this video has helped me with my own queries about the nature of art. My new working-definition distinction has four cases. If a piece has no meaning, it is neither art nor journalism, merely an image. If it has alleged meaning but is impossible to understand, then it is obscurantism rather than art. If it has meaning that is explicit, it is journalism. If it has meaning that the viewer must work for (but can extract) then it is art. Simplistic, I know, and it will need tweaking for genres other than documentary, but it is a good start.

Sectarian Murders may not be strictly documentary (or journalistic) but stands at one remove from documentary. We are not seeing the murders or their immediate aftermath. Seawright was working 15 years after the event, so we see the site subject to whatever changes have occurred in the intervening period, and sanitised by the effluxion of time. It is the text that brings the meaning back – or brings new meaning. These are images for the gallery wall (and have been exhibited over 20 times since 1988 (Seawright 2013)) and, therefore have to be considered as art rather than journalism.

If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning?

This is a wider question than the first one, but still makes the unchallenged assumption that there is a difference between documentary and art. As noted above, I do not consider the two as mutually exclusive.

The narrative does not change. The context does. Viewing a piece as an artwork rather than as documentary does not change its intrinsic meaning, but will affect the nature of the consideration that a viewer gives to it.

References

Britishphotography.org. (n.d.). Paul Seawright. Sectarian Murder (1988) – Hyman Collection. [online] Available at: http://www.britishphotography.org/artists/17199/ei/1739/paul-seawright-paul-seawright-sectarian-murder-1988 [Accessed 25 Mar. 2017].

Seawright, P. (n.d.). Sectarian Murder. [online] Paul Seawright. Available at: http://www.paulseawright.com/sectarian/ [Accessed 25 Mar. 2017].

Seawright, P. (2013). Catalyst: Paul Seawright. [online] Vimeo. Available at: https://vimeo.com/76940827 [Accessed 25 Mar. 2017].