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

 

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Exercise – alternative captions

All of these images appeared in the Times of 17 April 2017. I have retained the original captions as part of the scans.

The exercise is to write my own captions and comment on how they recontextualise the image. I have attempted to find both anchorage and relay meanings.

Times 20170417003

Surprise winner of Walt Disney lookalike competition.

This caption gives an alternative anchorage, explaining the delight of the crowds but relying on the appearance rather than the identity of the person being celebrated.

“Tomorrow belongs to me”

This caption gives an alternative anchorage for the image, through a relay comment, giving a connoted meaning. It relies on an assumed cultural experience between the writer and the viewer (the crowd scene in the 1972 film ‘Cabaret’) to draw a parallel with Germany in the 1930s and Hitler’s progressive subversion of the democratic process.

There was a young fellow from Ankara …

Another relay comment, relying on some shared cultural experience. In this case, it is a reference to Boris Johnson’s winning entry in the Spectator magazine’s President Erdogan Offensive Poetry competition, and is intended to hold Erdogan up to ridicule.

Times 20170417002

Ghost riders in the sky

A relay caption, echoing the 1948 song of the same title. The horses are in the sky and have no riders.

Firefighter hallucinates after blaze at cannabis farm

This caption gives an alternative anchorage to the image, although the viewer would have to share the subject’s hallucination for it to work. This is an image which is not explicable without some sort of caption, whether the original or one of my alternatives.

Times 20170417001

WW1 veteran promotes the anti-ageing qualities of mud-packs

Notionally an anchorage caption, but with elements of the surreal.

“Mud, mud, glorious mud”

Another quotation from a song (Flanders and Swann, 1956). This caption could be taken as anchorage, explaining the subject’s expression, or as relay – linking to the song and the hippopotamus, which leads to:

I keep thinking it’s Tuesday

This is a sort of ‘second generation relay’ caption, referring back to Paul Crum’s 1937 cartoon but first requiring the viewer to pick up a hippopotamus reference via the mud, the subject’s expression and Flanders and Swann.

Aftermath photography

This posting is inspired by the course notes, pp28-30 and David Company’s 2003 essay ‘Safety in Numbness’ (online at Campany 2017). Campany starts with Joel Meyerowitz’s photography of ‘Ground Zero’ in the aftermath of the September 2001 attack on, and collapse of, the World Trade Centre to comment on what what he calls ‘Late Photography’.

Actually, it is at one further remove; Campany comments on a Channel 4 video report on Meyerowitz photographing (as official photographer with exclusive access) the aftermath and clear-up of the event.  Meyerowitz spent 9 months at Ground Zero photographing with an 8×10 view camera and many of his images are surprisingly beautiful, which Campany appears to regard as a problem as it decontextualises the document from the event.

I disagree with Campany. As an occasional view camera user myself I know that this type of photography brings about a considered and close relationship between the photographer and the scene, in a way that ‘spray and pray’ with a DSLR simply cannot manage. A considered and reverential approach is entirely appropriate to this subject and the scale of the tragedy.

Of course, there were the news photographs and video of the events as they unfolded, including the second impact captured on live TV,as was the collapse of both towers but that was all too raw to assimilate. The immediate images and Meyerowitz’s aftermath images serve two different purposes; a point which I will return to.

Campany discusses the history of news images which, for him, occurs in three phases up to the time of his writing. I believe there is a fourth phase, post-2003.

The early history is exemplified by Fenton’s Crimean War and Brady’s American Civil war images. As noted in the course notes, these do not show the fighting itself but the prelude (staged portraits and groups) and the aftermath; see Fenton’s ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’ and Brady’s ‘The Dead of Antietam’ as examples. The reason is simple practicality; before 1871, both photographers would have been using wet collodion plates and the middle of a battlefield is no place for a darkroom cart.

We enter Campany’s second phase with the advent of dry plates, then celluloid film and, more particularly the Leica and its 35mm cousins. With portable cameras, photographers such as Robert Capa and Nick Ut were able to take photographs in the middle of the action. Distribution was not immediate as photographs had to be transported physically to the newsroom and newspapers had to be transported to the point of sale. Still photographs were, therefore, ‘immediate enough’.

The third phase starts with the spread of television to the point that it took over as the primary news medium, coupled with electronic and satellite communication allowing news (especially images) to travel from camera to viewer in minutes. This picks up Company’s second thread – the relationship between still and moving images. Newspapers require still images; television works best with moving images. Campany sees the moving image as more immediate, and stills more contemplative and suited to aftermath. My take on this is that a moving image says, “This is happening now” while a still says “This has happened”.

There is a clear parallel between the two periods of aftermath photography in the Paul Seawright image, ‘Valley’ shown in the course notes. The similarity with Roger Fenton’s valley is obvious.

Safety in Numbness was written in 2003 when digital cameras were in their infancy, the internet was still a toy for academics and computer hobbyists, and the cameraphone had not been invented. Since that time, I believe a fourth period in photojournalism is occurring fuelled by the rise of social media and citizen journalism. Images of unfolding news stories, particularly disasters and terrorist attacks, can be around the world on Twitter or Facebook before the conventional media networks can mobilise. This has an upside in immediacy but a downside in compromising objectivity and in the out-and-out ‘fake news’ currently being debated. Although both still and moving images can be transmitted in this way, bandwidth considerations mean that stills are currently preferred.

Returning to Meyerowitz’s aftermath still images of Grand Zero, compared with the video images of broadcast media as the attacks, fire and collapse occurred, I am reminded of Susan Sontag’s comparison of moving and still images (1979,18), ‘Television is a stream of under selected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.’ The viewer can decide the order of viewing and spend as much time as he/she needs with each image. The aftermath image and Sontag’s concept of memento mori appear ideally suited to each other.

References

Campany, D. (2017). Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’. [online] David Campany. Available at: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ [Accessed 9 Mar. 2017].

Sontag, S. (1979). On photography. London, United Kingdom: Penguin, [1979].

Context and objectivity

This post is inspired by pp24-25 of the course notes (OCA 2017) and a first reading of Richard Salkeld’s ‘Reading Photographs’ (2014, 90-93). Objectivity can be compromised, with the risk of bias being introduced, at several stages in the process of getting a photograph or other information to its viewer, even (it would appear) if the information presented is a discussion on objectivity.

Of course, I have to guard against losing objectivity myself while writing this post, but that way leads to infinite regress so I will have to trust myself and hope that my readers will trust me.

The discussion focuses on the American Farm Security Administration documentary project of the 1930s and 40s and, as with the Time ‘100 Photographs’ book (reviewed here), it uses Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ as an icon. This image is also used by Liz Wells (2000, 35-45) as a case study.

The starting point for an image is the briefing, whether self-directed (such as Lewis Hine’s child labour photographs – also briefly noted) or given by a client or boss. In the case of the FSA images, there are differing accounts of how prescriptive Roy Stryker’s briefings were. According to the Library of Congress website (a US public sector organisation, therefore unlikely to criticise another such) ‘A basic shooting script or outline was often prepared. Photographers were encouraged to record anything that might shed additional light on the topic that they were photographing’  The Wikipedia article on Stryker (which will favour the views of whoever made the last edit) expresses it, ‘The photographers involved attested to the fact that Stryker was expert at getting good work out of them. He made sure that the photographers were well briefed on their assigned areas before being sent out’. The OCA notes quote Lange’s criticism of the detailed briefing, ‘To know ahead of time what you are looking for means you’re then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting’.  There is scope for control and loss of objectivity at this stage, but no reason why a photographer might not produce images off-piste as a personal project.

At the point of capturing the image, I believe the camera itself is completely objective; it will record faithfully what it is pointed at. However, the photographer will be be subjective in choosing viewpoint, focal length, focus etc. which will influence the image taken and the likely reading of it. ‘Migrant Mother’ itself is semi-posed and is the tightest-framed of five images that Lange made of the scene (the others are reproduced in Wells (2000, 38)). The Thomas Hoepker image used by Salkeld (2014, 90-93) as a case study was taken for subjective reasons; Hoepker saw the scene as Brooklyn residents apparently unconcerned by events in Manhattan on 11 September 2001, stopped his car, took the photograph and drove away without speaking to any of the subjects.

The next threat to objectivity comes in editing or selecting images for publication, from a contact sheet or memory card. There will be multiple, very similar, images from which one is selected. There will be only a limited number selected from dozens, if not hundreds, captured. The process is seen and well-described in the Magnum contact sheets book (Lubben 2014). The selection may simply be based on the art director’s view of what will look good on the page, or it may reflect editorial policy. The story of the FSA images necessarily includes Stryker’s heavy-handed policy of editing by ‘killing’ negatives with a hole-punch. Ironically, these ‘black sun’ images have subsequently been the subject of exhibitions and web pages; examples here and here.

See also my EYV blog posting ‘The camera never lies … huh?’

Finally, the context in which an image is seen can influence the viewer’s reading of it. A 5’x3′ print, framed on a gallery wall will be viewed more reverently and taken more seriously than the same image as a 5″x3″ enprint in a Boots envelope. In printed media, an image in a ‘serious’ newspaper will be read differently from the same image in a coffee-table art book and, of course, the surrounding text will have profound impact – especially if it is a headline or a caption. ‘Migrant Mother’ has made the jump from a documentary image to an art icon, partly assisted (in my opinion) by the change of title from the factual ‘Destitute pea pickers in California, a 32 year old mother of seven children. February 1936’ to the snappier modern name, reinforcing the Madonna-and-child associations.

The Hoepker image was originally published five years after 9/11 in a context suggesting that the subjects were relaxed and uncaring or unknowing about the event taking place in the background. The view was forcefully challenged by one of the group – asserting that he and his girlfriend were discussing the WTC attack with strangers, all of whom were stunned and overwhelmed, something that Hoepker would have known had he spoken to them. This is a fitting close to this post, with an example of a situation where subjectivity gets us closer to the truth than detached objectivity.

References

Library of Congress (s.d) Farm security administration/office of war information black-and-white negatives – background and scope – prints & photographs online catalog. [online at:] http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/background.html (Accessed: 24 February 2017)

Lubben, K (ed) (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets (compact edition) London: Thames and Hudson

OCA (2017) Photography 1: Context and Narrative (updated 2017, document control number PH4CAN240117) Barnsley: Open College of the Arts

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

Wells, L. (ed.) (2000) Photography: A critical introduction. 2nd edn. London: Routledge

Wikipedia (2017) Roy Stryker. [online at:] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Stryker (Accessed: 24 February 2017)

Exercise • Citizen Journalism

A Google-trawl, search term ‘citizen journalism’ brings up multiple examples and multiple definitions of the phenomenon. I would broadly classify them under two headings – ‘citizen news-gathering’ and ‘citizen news-broadcasting’. There is a also a pedantic quibble about whether a stateless person could properly be described as a citizen-anything.

Citizen news-gathering is the concept illustrated by the CNN billboard above. People caught up in a news story, and equipped with a camera, mobile telephone or smartphone, can contact the ‘established media’ and report breaking news before the network media have time to mobilise. The early example quoted in several sources is Abraham Zapruder, whose 26.5 seconds of 8mm cine film of President Kennedy’s assassination have been the source of news stories, books, films and conspiracy theories since November 1963. Slightly later, we have John Filo’s images of the Kent State shooting (although, as Filo is described as a student and part-time news photographer, this might not strictly be citizen journalism) and coming right up to date, every terrorist attack sees our newspapers full of smartphone images by victims and passers-by.

Citizen news-broadcasting seeks to break away from the ‘established media’. Jay Rosen (2008) described it thus:

When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.

News, gathered by ‘citizens’ or established media sources is distributed by an anarchic network of websites, blogs and social media. Images and film, such as the death of an innocent bystander shot during an anti-government protest in Iran, can ‘go viral’ and be around the world in hours. More relevant to the question asked in the course notes is Tami Silicio’s image of flag-draped coffins being returned from Iraq, in defiance of a  a government ban on such images which some considered to be part of a policy of sanitising the conflict.

A UK example is the death in April 2009 of Ian Tomlinson, a bystander caught in a police riot-control ‘kettle’ in London, who died after being attacked by a balaclava-wearing policemen with his badge number covered to avoid identification. (Lewis 2009). Video shot by an American hedge-fund manager also caught in the ‘kettle’ gave the lie to the police account of the incident, resulted in the identification and prosecution of the policeman and led to changes in the policing of protests.

We are asked to comment on the objectivity of our examples.

In my opinion, the Zapruder film and the Tomlinson video were objective at the point of capture; in both cases, an unexpected event occurred in front of an unprepared observer who happened to have a camera running. The relevant question is one of  objectivity in distribution. Zapruder gave copies of his film to the Secret Service for investigation/evidence purposes and sold the rights to Life for $150,000 (1963 currency) (Wikipedia, 2017). The Tomlinson film was provided (price, if any, unknown) to the Guardian publishers, rather than to the investigating authorities, five days after the event because the photographer had read of a conflict between the police story and that of protestors and others caught in the ‘kettle’. Would the film have come forward if the controversy were not already being reported?

The Iranian bystander and the Kent State images arose because each photographer had seen an event, then filmed the aftermath. I suspect an element of subjectivity in each case; would a government supporter in either case have filmed and distributed their images? We must consider that the photographers were shooting images that supported their own world-views and, again, there is the question of objectivity in the method of distribution. Filo sold images to an already-sympathetic press. The Iranian photographer used social media (YouTube) because the local media could not be relied upon.

The Silicio image of the coffins is objective – the scene existed in front of the camera – but shot for subjective reasons. ‘Tami Silicio was moved by the increasingly human freight she was loading and felt compelled to share what she was seeing’ (Dyer, 2015)

Objectivity in news images is uncertain. If an event is unfolding in front of the photographer’s eyes, he has no opportunity to ‘pose’ the subjects, but he may be able to influence the look and apparent context of the images by a choice of lens, technique or viewpoint. If shooting aftermath images, then there is more opportunity for posing or ‘gardening’ (Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima or Fenton’s cannonballs, for instance).

In post-production, at editing and selection stages, there is a risk to objectivity by selecting one image over another from the contact sheet or memory card. The selection of an image might simply be a function of page design but it may represent the editors world-view.

References

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

Lewis, P. (2009) Citizen journalism counters police propaganda. [online at] https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/aug/04/ian-tomlinson-death-g20 (Accessed: 16 February 2017)

Rosen, J. (2008) PressThink: A most useful definition of citizen journalism. [online at] http://archive.pressthink.org/2008/07/14/a_most_useful_d.html (Accessed: 16 February 2017).

Wikipedia (2017)  Abraham Zapruder. [online at] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Zapruder (Accessed: 16 February 2017)