My research on narrative has generated many disparate leads so I’ve decided to document my research on individual photographers and narrative series before trying to summarise my overall thoughts in a later post.
Chris Steel Perkins is, perhaps, best know for The Teds (1979), a study of that very British group spawned by the early rock and roll years whom I remember well from my childhood and that is still an active movement. Since joining Magnum his work has tended to focus on the third world and I looked at some of his work when researching reflections for assignment 3.
Narrative in photography is a broad subject and can be achieved from a single image, a structured magazine style photo story such as W. Eugene Smith’s Country Doctor or through an extensive collection of photos of one place such as Josef Koudelka’s Wall. In his two tsunami series *(1) Chris Steele Perkins offers a quite different approach.
Tsunami Streetwalk 1, Kesennuma and Tsunami Streetwalk 2, Kamaishi * (1) can both be viewed in the essays section of the Magnum Inmotion site which showcases its members’ multi-media work.
These two essays are very simple in concept. Kesennuma and Kamaishi are two of the many Japanese coastal cities that were devasted by the 2011 Tsunami. There is some startling footage on the BBC website of the wave passing through Kesennuma. Initially there is a steady flow of water moving empty cars, then it swells to a strong flowing river carrying containers and lorries and finally houses. It reminds us of the unrelenting power of this destructive wave.
For Streetwalk 1 Steele Perkins visited Kesennuma 23 days after the disaster and took the approach of selecting a single. quite ordinary, road, Nainowaki Street, where he took a photograph of the remains of the properties every 20 paces.
He returned to the same road seven months later and took exactly the same photographs. For each visit he has joined the photos together into a rolling strip and placed the later set beneath the initial set so the properties perfectly align and we can see the direct comparisons.
The message is simple, there was unimaginable destruction in this city and seven months after the event there has been no re-building, the place is still devastated, it is just a little neater with some of the worst of the debris having been removed. Any one of these continuum is powerful enough to bring home the message that nothing was left standing. A long road has been flattened, every home and business has gone but by bringing time, an essential aspect of narrative, into the presentation he also shows that the scale of the damage was so great that, after seven months, minimal progress has been made.
The third layer of information is provided by rolling captions that detail basic statistics, 15,369 homes destroyed, 1,030 people dead, 3,380 people still missing in this city alone. 1,054,610 homes destroyed and 15,845 dead across the 250 miles of coastline that was affected. One of the factors that might be lost on many viewers is that Japan is a coastal country, the centres of these narrow islands are mostly mountainous and the vast majority of the population lives on the coast so whilst the distance along the Japanese coast is approximately the same as the distance from Plymouth to Dover the impact was more like Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Sussex and Kent being flattened.
The sequence of photos is supported by hauntingly beautiful Japanese flute music.
Steele Perkins opens this presentation by asking “How can you convey the scale of destruction visited upon japan by the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11th 2011?”
What follows has a sense of being a diary, the photographer very directly involves himself in the narrative by saying “I walked down Nainowaki Street ……..” he is intentionally connecting us to the event through his eyes. “a wasteland of shattered homes and businesses and damaged lives.”
After using text to ensure the viewer understands the context he remains silent for nearly half the rolling presentation to allow the visual messages to sink in before starting to provide the cold facts I referred to above. Around the middle of the sequence there is a single image which affected me more than any other. A man is standing next to his parked car, we only see his back but it is possible to guess that his arms are crossed, a defensive gesture, and he is staring at an empty plot. We are not told whether it was his home or his business or a property that belonged to someone close to him, perhaps someone lost in the disaster. Asking the viewer to invest their imagination into the work is another important facet of narrative. A sophisticated audience does not need or want all the answers, they are capable of asking their own questions and drawing their own conclusions. The man by his white mini is a sad figure, One hopes that he only lost a building and is not thinking of someone he loves and lost but he reminds us that this is not a story of damaged real estate, it is a story about badly damaged lives.
The story ends by telling us that it is estimated that it will take ten years for the city to return to normal.
The treatment of the other city, Kamaishi, is much the same.
This is a narrative approach that might seem to have very limited application but it is in fact a developed form of “then and now”, a format much loved by a certain type of local history book and the whole basis of the work of men such as Camilo José Vergara whose Tracking Time projects *(2) document buildings, streets and neighbourhoods by taking photos from the same positions over more than 40 years.
Greg Battye, in his book Photography Narrative Time *(3), refers to Werner Wolf’s “multifactorial and gradable sliding scale of narrativity.” Wolf defines three cultural functions for narrativity:
- “enables a conscious perception of time”
- “provides a possibility of accounting for the flux of experience in a meaningful way”
- “the basis for communicating, representing and storing memorable sequences of experience”
The “then and now” approach to narrative appears to deliver against each of these criteria. Steele Perkins uses time in three ways:
- the presentation using the extended panorama of a long street creates a sense of the time it took the photographer to walk its length;
- he shows the then and now separated by seven months;
- and, he foresees the future, a much longer period of time that it will take to rebuild this city.
(3) Battye, Greg. (2014) Photography Narrative Time: Imaging our Forensic Imagination. Kindle Edition Bristol: Intellect.
(1) Steel-Perkins, Chris. (2011) Tsunami Streetwalk 1 Kesennuma. Magnum Inmotion – http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essays
(2) Vergara, Camilo José. Tracking Time – http://www.camilojosevergara.com