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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Book Summary: Visual Methodologies by G Rose

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Chapter 1 starts with a brief survey of researching with visual materials.
The 1970’s showed a change in our understanding of social life. Culture was seen as a process. Production and exchange of meanings. We are reminded that we are surrounded by visual technologies. There are different views of the world, but people’s interpretations may vary. WWe see before we speak, so this is how we come to know the world.
It is assumed that in pre-modern society visual images were not especially important. Barbara Maria Stafford (1991) is a historian of science images, construction of scientific knowledges – the world has become more based on image rather than written texts.
Travel photography – people see images and want to visit those places. There may be link between images and language. There are so many types of images – satellite, manipulated, MRI etc. Pervasiveness of images – linked to amounts of digital storage and communication devices.
There are differences between analogue and digital images. Analogue – better correspondence for what they show. Conversions in digital can change images.
David Rodowick (2007) said that digital images should not be called photos. This raises an issue regarding reality, but we know that film images could also be unreal in some ways. There is a difference in signals between analogue and digital TV. Family photos taken digitally are similar in composition, but there are different ways to take and share them.
In anthropology and human geography – images are used as research tools. There was discussion about an interest in how images can make you feel something.
p12 Effects of visual images.
Images – social. Power relations can be shown, such as in war (loc. 626). How we see different races etc. How do we look at images? Are we the surveyor or surveyed? (loc 652).
Social differences, culture, social relations and social power can be depicted.
How different audiences see work. Display etc.
p15 – It is very unusual that we encounter work without any text – we usually have at least some information, for example in a gallery. This can make a difference to how we see it.
p16 – A critical approach to visual culture:
Takes images seriously
thinks about the social conditions and effects of visual objects
considers your own way of looking at images
p17 Visual imagery is never innocent. It is always constructed through various practices, technologies and knowledges.
p20 When we think about and look at images from the past – we need to consider what was available at the time. By 1948 cameras were light and film faster so people did not have to stand still for long periods. Snapshots were now possible.
p23 Documentary photography originally tended to picture poor, oppressed or marginalised individuals, often as part of reformist projects, to show the horror of their lives and thus inspire change. The aim was to be as objective and accurate as possible in these depictions. However, since the apparent horror was being shown to audiences who had the power to pressure for change, documentary photography usually pictures the relatively powerless to the relatively powerful. It has thus been accused of voyeurism and worse.
p38 Social practices of looking of spectating – look at images and creating other versions of them. Social identities of the spectators.
p48 has good information about how to use images for research.
p51 We need to take images seriously, look at them very carefully. Effects of the image – power.
p63 Paintings have different effects depending on perspective.
p77 Compositional interpretation – ways of describing content, colour, spatial organisation, mise-en—scene, montage, light and expressive. Content of various kinds of still and moving images.
p88-89 Content analysis – how to select images – random/stratified/systematic/cluster depending on results.
p101 Content analysis is a clear method for engaging systematically with large numbers of images.
p105 Semiology (semiotics). How images make meanings head on.
p108 Semiology assumes that these constructions of social difference are articulated through the working of signs of images themselves. Many studies concentrate on the image itself as the most important site of its meaning.
p109 These studies require extensive knowledge of the type of image the case studies will examine.
p149 Psychoanalysis and visuality. Freud suggests scopophilia – pea sure in looking – was one of the basic drives with which all (sighted) children are born, and the visual is especially important in the work of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.
p150 Different psychoanalytic concepts brought to bear on the same image can produce very different interpretations of the same image.
p151 The power of images – the relationship people have with images. Why are we drawn to certain images?
p152 We are reminded that psychoanalysis deals with subjectivity, sexuality and the unconscious. Emotional reactions to images may be unconscious.
p190 Discourse – refers to groups of statements that structure the way a thing is thought, and the way we act on the basis of that thinking.
p193 Foucalt was concerned with how power works in institutions.
p230 Describes the Panopticon – this was invented by Jeremy Bentham in 1787. How to view people.
p261 How TV audiences make meaning from what they watched. People watched TV together and chatted with people the next day. Now we have more TV’s and the internet, changing our viewing habits.
p267 Describes the impact of media messages on the audience – things like violence. Fan bases – culture.
p293 Are images seen the same way on different screens, ipad vs large screen TV.
p297 Describes images made as part of a research project. Used actively – evidence. Photo-documentation, photo-elicitation, photo-essays. Doc – planned series of photos to document and analyse a particular visual phenomenon. Elicitation – participants take photos and discuss in an interview. Photo essay – a series of photos and possibly text to interpret a situation.
p301 Photo documentary assumes that photos are an accurate method. Systematic taking of photos – not used much.
p304 Elicitation – widely used. Photo Voice etc. There are lots of links to my own studies here, I completed some participatory projects in the past for my MA and for a project with a boys shelter in Vietnam. Time consuming.
p317 Photo essay – a combination of writing and photos. Could both be done by one person or 2 people, one doing the writing and one the photos. Evokes the senses. Analytical and evocative. Relationship between photos and text.
p334 Discusses ethics of both found and new photos. Consent. Using google street view. This made me think of Mishka Henner’s project using street view to show prostitutes. Copyright.

Rose, G. (2012). Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials. (3rd ed). Sage. [ebook]

Book Summary: The Photograph by Graham Clarke (1997)

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The book starts with a chapter named “What is a photograph?” which is a debate about the history of photography and how photos are seen. There is a quote from Barthes that all photos are history as they are something that no longer exists. There is also some debate about images that exist on paper such as photograms, where do they fit? The size an image is displayed can also affect how we see it,
The second chapter is about how we read photos, and talks about how the meaning of photos can be complex- there may be a literal meaning but there may also be a connotative meaning. There are so many levels – is it a real insight into the world?
My own photography developed as I lived in New Zealand, so far from my family. I wanted to show them New Zealand, but what was I leaving out? What was the story behind the images I chose?Telling the story in an image. There was debate about photos making statements (Friedlander, p38/39).
The next chapter deals with photography in the 19th century. It describes how photography tried to emulate painting in some ways, like combination prints by Gustave Rejlander (p43). There is an element of selectivity – for example London may be shown as individual buildings or as sprawling chaos. p50 describes the start of travel photography, where people were able to record new cultures, but also impose their own cultural view on scenes. On p53 there is a quote, ‘To photograph ‘is to give evidence to facts.”’ This goes along with many other views we have seen on the course so far, that documentary is the pure form of this, showing the real world. It is a pure form.
The next Chapter (4) deals with a sense of scale (p60), where people wanted to show just how vast the landscape actually is, with some kind of reference. Overseas photos appeared idyllic to some – certainly something I have wanted to see on more than one occasion, leading sometimes to disappointment. p65 described imaging an ideal land, untouched by humans. Brits like Martin Parr and Chris Killip rather documented the social side of landscapes, unemployment and poverty for example. A Westerner’s perspective of overseas can be seen.
Chapter 5 is about the city in photography. Robert Barker took 360 degree views. In the 1790’s there were panoramic exhibits of the world’s main cities. They depicted cultural icons, and showed a view from above. They showed urban poverty. Weegge, mentioned on p85, took photos of the ‘dark side’ showing murders and other such events. On p87, they mentioned Walker Evans who in 1938 used a concealed camera to photograph people on the subway etc, appearing alone. Night photographers showed the other side of the cities.
Chapter 6 was about Portraits. These express our inner being. p101 talks about social identity. There are lots of staged events, construction. p106 mentioned carts de visit which were fashionable in 19th century Paris as a mark of identity and social significance.
Portraits were often taken with someone’s social environment. There were self-portraits, of photographers, such as Edward Steichen in 1908 – he took a photo of himself holding a paintbrush.
Some photographers explored identity, such as Mapplethorpe who explored homosexuality. He took his own self-portraits, some of which were very provocative. Sherman’s series, Untitled Film Stills offers an alternative to reality. In some cases, the size images are displayed can have an impact. I saw an exhibition of hers in London, where there were only about 5 or 6 images, printed larger than life size.
The next chapter, 7, talks about the body. This includes depiction of the nudity and sexual acts. It was mentioned how women can be posed to appear passive/submissive, but this can also be the reverse. p129 Muybridge studied human motion in the 1870’s, with a series of photos of people moving. An image by Sherman mentioned on p130 (Untitled, 1992) talks about male power, a constructed image.
Jo Spence is famous for her documentation of the effects of breast cancer on her body.
Chapter 8 discusses documentary photography, which dominated the photographic history of the 20th century. On p145, the say that document means evidence – truth. Events may be approached in different ways by different photographers. p147 mentions a project by Jacob Riis in 1890 called How the other half lives. This is visual and written accounts of living conditions in New York’s lower east side. It showed appalling conditions and deprivation. There is some discussion about exploiting subjects on p148. On p149, Margaret Bourke-White’s Sharecroppers 1937 project is discussed, telling a story through framing – poverty, injustice of the political system. p153 discusses the famous image of the migrant mother taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936, and later Robert Frank’s The American’s is discussed as showing traditional American icons. Having seen the exhibition of this at Pingyao in China in 2007, and found it quite an insight into America and fulfilled some cultural stereotypes. p158 discusses images by George Rodger in 1945 of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. There was one image of a boy walking past dead bodies, and looking away. Lots of war images.
Chapter 9 is titled ‘The Photograph as Fine Art. This is an ongoing debate, about whether landscapes can be seen as art. P169 talks about a photo by Stieglitz of people, describing them as shapes rather than items. An image by Ansel Adams, Picket Fence, taken in 1936, has a sense of uniformity and form. Transforming ordinary objects into something unique. Some people put an emphasis on form. There is a notion that art photographers work in studios. An image taken by Eliot Porter in 1953 (p178) called Pool in a brook looks like a painting.
Chapter 10 – The photograph manipulated. This talks about the period from 1900 onward, abstraction etc. Constructivism, p189, is mentioned. Some images are a mix of photography and painting, and there is also a mention of photograms and montages.
Chapter 11, the cabinet of infinite curiosities mentions the decisive moment, and documentary, the meaning of images. Art in images is discussed, along with the pattern found which may be a form of symbolism. Images can be put together in a certain way.

Graham Clarke: The Photograph (1997) New York: Oxford University Press.

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?