Exercise: Article by Elizabeth McCausland 1939

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Read the 1939 article on documentary photography by Elizabeth McCausland. Write a short bullet list of the main points. Explain, in your own words, why this article is relevant to this part of the course.

Rapid growth of documentary – strong creative impulses seeking an outlet.
Not a fad.
Application of photography to chronicle the external world.
Whole and unretouched.
New eyes looking at external world. Honesty.
Symbolism – what is seen from an image of hands. Photographer finds truth and gives it significant form.
Not many opportunities for publishing honest photos of present-day life.
Farm Security Administration photographers and Federal Art Project series – government are the best sponsor of knowledge.
Painting has survived despite the rise of photography.
Turn of the century – is photography art?
More to realism than art.
The arts alter mode of expression etc as society changes.
We want the truth.
Work of art must have meaning and content and must speak to the audience.
No limit to what the photographer may record. Can say what we want.
Needs to have a clear purpose and not let personality influence.

This is relevant to the current part of the course where we have been looking at the history of documentary and what it actually is. There is also the start of the art and photography debate, which still exists today. The purpose of documentary and portraying reality is something that we have been looking at, and certainly something I believe in. We need to show the truth of situations. It goes with the previous chapter’s ideas about objectivity. This was written early on but I still feel that it is totally relevant today, that although photography has moved on in some ways, the basics are still there regarding composition and what we do with the images, especially where documentary photography is concerned. It generally provides a summary of what we have done so far and what is to come.

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Exercise: Photo festival and Foto8

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We had to select a body of work from a leaflet from the Hereford Photography Festival 2011 and writ a reflective commentary about it.

The work I chose was Interrogations: Big Zone, Small Zone by Donald Weber. The image I could see was fascinating, and the write up mentioned that the photographer had befriended a Ukrainian policeman and took photographs of criminals at the point of making a confession. I looked up more of the images as I was intrigued, and found images of people looking distressed and upset. There were some of people with guns to their heads. They all look really uncomfortable, which is also the feeling I had when I was looking at the images. This is usually a very private moment between the police and criminals, and to see it documented in this way made me feel like I shouldn’t be looking. Some are smoking and all are looking anxious. Knowing their lives may change for ever is also something I thought about, how this image also marked the end of their life as a free person, most are probably going to spend time in prison and things will never be the same for them and their families. I think this is a really thought-provoking body of work, and was fascinated by looking closely at more images as I found them online. It is documentary in the true sense, nothing about it is set up.

The second task was to watch a video of Jon Levy, the founder of Foto8, talking about documentary in the art gallery.

He talked about the main premise of the magazine being about storytelling, as reports rather than fictional stories. That is more about what documentary is in it’s raw form, presenting facts in the form of images. He mentioned a lot of issues that get reported on, such as political and environmental, and the fact that how different people may get involved in stories that may be close to them or in places far away. There are so many different perspectives out there and they want to show as many as possible within the gallery. This may be from people with a lot of experience or people with a little only. The intention of the photographer when they took the image is important – was it intended to tell a story or just as a piece of art?

He mentioned that some quieter stories may attract more than well known ones, something that I always like to see in galleries. He mentioned that photojournalism is sometimes perceived as the Western view of the world, but I hope that they are challenging that by presenting other views too. Since living in Asia, I have seen many other versions which challenge this. Jon also says there is no real hierarchy, it is more important how the images are shown in order to get us closer to the story.

Exercise: Reflective commentary (Bazin and Sekula)

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Write a 250 word commentary on the quotes by Andre Bazin and Allan Sekula. Briefly compare their respective positions and record your own view on the issue of photographic objectivity.

Bazin writes about the photograph depicting reality, and how the only intervention by the photographer is the selection of what is being photographed, without creative intervention – can be argued etc- we need to accept image as being real. However, framing can change an image somewhat and as we only ever see what is within the frame, it can hide some crucial information. Perspective can be a factor. I personally saw some photos of a Thai island I wanted to visit and got really excited about the white sandy beach. Imagine my disappointment when I went and found that the only beach on that particular island was tiny! the photographer had taken it near the ground with a wide angle lens. I was able to take a similar photo and it made me more aware of how we can alter reality.

Sekula mentions that the way we see an image is influenced by our cultural background, meaning there is no intrinsic or universal meaning. This rings true from my time in China – we were set an assignment to go and photograph something the Chinese students would probably not think was interesting, and they had to take a photo Europeans would not think interesting. The whole exercise sparked a lot of debate. My image was also influenced by my background being bought up as a vegetarian, and so I saw another cultural aspect. The photo was of a pigs head in a market. The Chinese students deemed it too normal a sight to photograph. I would argue too that someone who ate meat may not have taken the photo as they may prefer not to see the head of the animal they are about to eat. There are other cultural implications here, as I live in Malaysia, a Muslim country where even mentioning pigs can spark a reaction let alone showing a photo of the head of one. Being exposed to a lot of certain types of images may also mean we react less to that type of image. In some countries, images of dead bodies are commonly shown in the news, but on other countries a different perspective is shown and so people may react more if they see a dead body or body parts, something discussed after the Madrid train bombing where some British newspapers altered images to take out or blur body parts.

Our culture and background can influence how we interpret images, and maybe this will also influence how we show ‘reality’ as described by Bazin. Gender may also affect how we interpret images, as well as age.

Exercise: ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts’

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Read the article ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’ by Martha Rosler in Bolton, R. (ed.) (1992) The Contest of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (p.303).

This article starts off describing a well-documented place in New York and how it has attracted lots of photographers, despite the presence of drunks being there. It describes the ‘muckraking’ associations with documentary photography, situations of poverty and despair. There is now concrete proof that these exist, due to them being photographed.

p304 quotes Jacob Riis (The Making of an American) talking about going to the ‘worst’ places in the early hours of the morning. There is mention of how photographers feel about the situations they are documenting. Lots of photographers are involved in some kind of social work. They are trying to reform what is happening. The situations are seen as a threat to rich society, as well as the photos helping to provide sympathy for the poor. There are lots of pictures where no-one is looking at the camera, they don’t appear aware that it is there. Sensationalism.

There is further discussion about the ‘Bowery’ subjects potentially being victims as they are unaware of what is going on. They may also become hostile when they find out they are being photographed. Documentary is seen as carrying information about a group of powerless people to another group addressed as socially powerful. The portrayal of people as helpless, pathetic migrant farm workers is one example. (p306).

The more liberal documentary of natural disasters is where there is no blame. They portray lots of children – charity etc.. There is also discussion about photos that will sell – do these exploit the children was a question that came up for me. Later pages talk about how photographs provide a historical record, for example an image by Elliott Erwitt, a staged image of a boy and man. (p312/3) There is then discussion about what happens to those who are photographed – is this relevant?

Dorothea Lange took a photo in 1936 of Florence Thompson who was later interviewed and and said that she got no financial gain from the photo and wonders what good it did her. (p315). The image portrayed the suffering of mankind. But there is a chance that others MAY have benefitted, it is hard to tell. There is later a discussion about how the poor are ashamed of being exposed as being poor, their images shown to the world. (p319).

Winogrand (p320) mentions that images can yield any narartive, and we are reminded that we only see what is in the image, not the whole situation. Later on, the author mentions how people judge those drunks portrayed in images taken at the Bowery. There is then a discussion about the relationship between text and images, and also power discussions. Women may be more critical of power relations as they have less power (p332).

Again for me the main issues brought up made me think about how we frame images to suit the audience, who are we trying to tell and what are we trying to tell them? Are we exploiting those less fortunate by telling their story, or is there a way we can genuinely help? I am also reminded of my time in China, where mainly positive events were documented, little evidence remains of negative situations.

Exercise: 5 Photos

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For this exercise, we had to post 5 images in the OCA Flickr group with no information, and ask people to provide short captions or explanations.

The photos are here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/125594361@N06/sets/72157645919514632

Most of the explanations were spot on and it was a vey interesting exercise. I have come back to it 2 months after choosing the images and it was a good process of reflection to remember why I chose the particular images in the first place. Would I choose the same ones now?

Exercise: What Makes a Document?

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We had to read a post on the OCA blog and then all the comments and decide if time or context were what made a document.

An interesting discussion! I believe that a photograph does not need context to be a document – even if we do not know what exactly it is showing, it still fulfils the definition of a document, which is a record of something. Whatever we shoot becomes a record of that moment, even if what we are shooting is a set-up shot. Like RobTM says, a photograph still exists without the back story. If we did not know the context for Jose’s photo, we would think up our own story for it, or see it as a record of something if we had a little information like where and when the photograph was taken. Richard Down also mentions that no context is needed for a photo to be a document.

Our view of a photo is influenced by our culture, and experiences. When I look at the photo of the 2 men in Spain, I see something totally different to someone who may be in Spain or related to the person like Jose. I would not have guessed that the person on the right is a member of the clergy! Whilst studying photography in China, we did some interesting comparisons of what we thought Chinese photographers may not shoot but we found interesting, and we also compared the photos from the same brief taken by Chinese and European photographers which was fascinating. How we all interpreted the brief was very much influenced a lot by culture it seemed, and what we were used to – for example the Chinese photographers often documented more positive moments but the Europeans might include more negative moments – like the photo of Notting Hill Carnival. Stan Dickinson also mentioned the influences on us.

I agree with MattJames who mentioned that selfies posted by teenagers are a document. A lot of my friends post various selfies, including myself when I run in races, in order to show their friend what they are doing – they want to document the moment, make it real. I hate photos of myself generally but will post them of myself after running a race – to prove I was there.

Time is an interesting one. The way we have taken photographs has changed and many now will grow up without even seeing many prints possibly. Does that mean it is not a document, if there is no physical print? That is another question I was thinking of at the start. We are able to find out a lot about historical events through photographs, but I also don’t think time is important when considering if a photo is a document. I believe as soon as the shutter is pressed, a document is created.

The Berger book looks good, but not so easily available where I am in Sabah, they only have used copies on Amazon which is not so easy. I may well find a random copy somewhere……The bookshop in Kuala Lumpur couldn’t get it as far as I know from my friend. Thankfully by the magic of Kindle, random book buying over the last few years and getting some ordered in KL I do have a fairly good collection….

Exercise: Transparent pictures

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Read the first 3 sections of the essay “Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism’ by Kendall L Walton. Outline your views about Walton’s idea of photographic transparency. 

 

The article starts off with opposing views of photography – one from Andre Bazin which says photography represents reality, and one from Edward Steichen who says that all images are fake. I think it depends how the images are set up and taken to an extent. He goes on to say that photos of crime scenes are seen as more concrete evidence than paintings would be. There seems to be more emotion evokes from photos. Today there were lots of images online of flight MH17, and I noticed most of them are either taken from angles that do not show any parts of dead bodies, or the bodies are blanked out. In some cases, almost half the photo has been blurred so we cannot see the full horror of the incident. Most of the ones on UK news sites had been censored, but the Russian and Australian ones have not. Some showing just hands or arms are still full images, but all the ones with bodies have been blurred or modified in some way. Compare this to the images we looked at of the Opium wars and Crimean wars when researching the last topic, I find it interesting that now images are seen more widely, we feel the need to censor them. I found myself searching more to see the full images as I am more curious about it. 

 

Page 3 gave us 2 war images, one a painting and one a photography, and I have to say I felt more emotion looking at the photograph. I can distance myself from the painting more as it is less ‘real,’ and could be a made up scene. But how does this compare with photographers who make up scenes, which are totally fictional, like Gregory Crewdson’s film sets and Cindy Sherman becoming a character. How ‘real’ are those. We also need, as the author goes on to say, to be aware of the photographers attitudes, interests and prejudices as these can influence what they choose to shoot. This could totally change our view of a situation. What has been photographed and what has been left out. Would we see something totally different if the photo was slightly to the left or right? Have they not shown the rubbish? We have, I am sure, all experimented with perspective at some point. making a small beach appear big, or missing out the fact there is a rubbish dump at one end of it. In China, we experimented and Chinese and Western students got set a task where we had to photograph something the other students would not photograph, then show them and see if we were right. I took an image of a pig’s head in the market. All the Chinese students commented that the market was so common they would probably not take a similar image. In turn, they shot scenes we may never have thought interesting enough to shoot! There is also the issue that photographs can be reaslitic or we may choose to blur something which can make it less so. 

 

Walton talks about photography being an aid to vision. I think it can be useful to show us things we might never see, other countries for example. It can be how we find out more about the world we live in, and it enables us to continue to see loved ones after they have departed. Now, we can continue to see them as people seem to have more images digitally these days, and people keep facebook pages to remember loved ones for example. He argues that paintings are just a representation of someone rather than the real thing. But surely photos are too – they show a moment that will never occur again. There is also discussion about distinguishing fiction from reality – the Loch Ness monster is given as an example. The  more I think photos are real, the more photos I see that clearly are not and I start to doubt the medium as the truth!