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.

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

 

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.

100 Photographs from TIME

If you ask a photographer’s opinion of the most influential photographs of all time, you will probably get a list of 5-10 images. Of course, we will each have a slightly different list but most of us will find our lists well-represented in this book.

‘100 photographs’ (Dyer, 2015) is the book of the website of TIME’s project to assemble the most influential photographs of all time (or at least since 1826, which is when time started for photography – and, yes, the Niepce rooftops image is here).

There is no formula that makes a picture influential. Some images are on our list because they were the first of their kind, others because they shaped the way we think. And some made the cut because they directly changed the way we live. What all 100 share is that they are turning points in our human experience. (100photos.time.com)

An influential photograph is not necessarily a good one – the book includes the 2014 Oscars selfie yet has nothing from Ansel Adams or Walker Evans. It is also rather US-centric (unsurprisingly given the source) and appears biased toward more recent images. In part, this is because there are overwhelmingly more photographs taken since the birth of digital than before (see previous post) but I suspect the same kind of bias that packs lists of ‘the ten best films (or songs, albums or whatever) of all time’ with recent examples.

The book is divided into three parts, Icons, Evidence and Innovation.

Icons are the images that stick to your consciousness in a way that a mere photograph does not. Examples are Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ (presented here, rather than in the ‘Evidence’ section), Joe Rosenthal’s flag-raising on Iwo Jima or – more quirkily – Betty Grable’s legs and the vertigo-inducing ‘Lunch atop a Skyscraper’

Evidence is the largest section and contains the photos that say “This is happening now”. From Gardner’s 1862 ‘The Dead of Antietam’ which brought the reality of the America Civil War home to New York society, through Nick Ut’s napalm girl which did the same for Vietnam to more recent images of famine in Africa, these are the photographs that changed public perception and, indirectly, changed the world. We also see the rise of the citizen-journalist with Filo’s Kent State shooting and Tami Silicio’s defiance of the ban on showing flag-draped coffins.

Innovation is the shortest and, perhaps, the lightest section and covers the development of photography itself and of photo-journalism. [If I may ride a personal hobby-horse for a moment – while the Niepce rooftops picture and Daguerre’s Boulevard du Temple are landmark early images, why is there nothing from Fox Talbot? After all, the daguerrotype was a technological blind alley while the calotype ushered-in the negative-positive workflow that dominated the film photography era and which made photographs infinitely reproducible, therefore democratic and influential.] This section includes Muybridge’s horse, Röntgen’s X-rays and the Apollo 8 ‘Earthrise’ picture which showed us just how delicate our planet is.

Not all is doom and gloom. We also see the Beatles pillow fight, Buzz Aldrin on the Moon and Michael Jordan in flight. Plenty for everyone.

I have referenced 18 images, which means I have missed 82. None of them is trivial; all repay viewing, but I have to stop somewhere.

Having said, in the first paragraph, that most of us will find our personal lists well-represented I would go further and say that, after reading this book, most of us will add a few images to our lists. I know I did.

References

Dyer, G. (ed.) (2015) 100 photographs: The most influential images of all time. United States: TIME

TIME (s.d.) TIME’s 100 most influential images of all time. [online at:] http://100photos.time.com (Accessed: 13 February 2017).