Tag Archives: Bernd and Hilla Becher

Researching and Completing Assignment 5

Fig. 01 Cattle on The Common - 1/60 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 01 Cattle on The Common – 1/60 at f/16, ISO 100

Introduction

Assignment 5 has a straight forward brief, the essence of which is to create a magazine story in the form of a picture essay and to design the cover of the magazine that will run the story. The final result should ideally incorporate both illustrative and narrative techniques.

As this assignment comes at the end of TAoP it is an opportunity to bring together elements of the whole course and it was always my intent to allocate a disproportionate amount of time to researching, planing and undertaking this assignment. TAoP naturally led me to researching a wide selection of established photographs, many of whom have very directly influenced my thinking even when their style or chosen field is not directly relevant to my own work but more than this influence they have collectively taught me a set of basic principles that I wanted to take forward into assignment 5 and beyond.

Working in a Series

The first principle, which is especially relevant to narrative, is that work is more effective when presented as part of a series. Nearly every photo book that I have studied and reviewed is greater, more powerful, than the sum of the individual photos within in. Sometimes this is because of the story line but often it is simply the effect of developing and building a conversation with the audience,  exponentially drawing the viewer deeper into a subject as each image is revealed.

See – Planning Assignment 3 with Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr

Quality of Research and Understanding

The second principle relates to the ethics of documentary photography. Respected photo journalists such as Stuart Freeman (1), and Phillip Jones Griffiths (2) both point out the importance of the photographer immersing themselves in their subject so that their work respects and honestly represents it. Freeman states that “storytelling in photography must be as vigorous in thought and research as it is beautiful in construction and execution” and this aide has directed my whole approach to assignment 5.

This ideal is best summarised by a quote from Tod Papageorge (13).

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t reading enough.”

See – Philip Jones Griffiths – An Engaged Observer

Contextualisation

The third principle flows from the second. Jones Griffiths points out that documentary images must be properly contextualised. His example is that a picture of a starving child is just that, it doesn’t mean anything. The photographer must provide the context, why is this child starving? what events led to this point? who is depriving him of food? Jones Griffiths believes that this can only be done by combining photographs with text, he argues that we live in a literal society so words are an essential element of photographic story telling.

See – Captions and Other Words in Photo Narrative and Phillip Jones Griffiths and the Use of Captions, Cutlines and Other text in Vietnam Inc.

Respecting the Subject Through the Quality of the Image

For the final principle I will refer back to the second part of the Freedman quotation. Understanding the subject is not enough, we must use whatever skills we possess to bring beauty to the construction and execution of the photographs. Exhibit one to support the case for this principle can be found in the work of Josef Koudelka (4) who has championed isolated and suppressed communities for much of his career and who makes these marginalised people important, human and valuable by the art and technical excellence that he brings to every one of his pictures.

See – Josef Koudelka – Wall and The Role of Olive Trees in Koudelka’s Wall

The Concept

Choice of Subject

It was always going to be important to select a subject that I already, at least in part understood, I felt that my classmate, Adam Newsome, had been so successful with his assignment 4 on IEDs (Adam’s Assignment) (5) because he had based it on a subject with which he was already intimate. This intimacy allowed him to explore and document the subject in real depth and to offer the audience an unique viewpoint.

I chose to look at my own childhood and the village in which I grew up.

Parallel Timelines

Having looked at a wide range of narratives and photo stories I wanted to develop a story line that had multiple strands. I had connected with Julian Germain’s For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness (3) for many reasons but I especially responded to the idea of combining his “current” photographs with the subject’s own photographic memories, this gave the audience two timelines to follow and the opportunity for juxtaposing past and present. This worked well because Germain gave both sets of pictures equal prominence and therefore equal value, there was no suggestion that because the subject’s photos were amateur ‘snaps” that they should be treated with any less respect.

To enable me to introduce multiple timelines to my narrative I decided to base part of the story on the writings of George Sturt who lived in “my” village between 1891 and his death in 1927. Sturt was not a typical man of his times, a self confessed socialist who was also a business owner and employer and who saw his employees as people and friends. A number of his books are heralded as classics but his most moving works are a trilogy of books (6), (7), (8), based on conversations with his gardener whom he calls Bettesworth. Bettesworth, or Fred Grover, was an old man when Sturt first employed him and the stories of his life in a tiny Surrey hamlet tell the story of that village from the 1840s until his death in 1905. Sturt’s other book, Change in the Village (10) and his Journals continue to map the evolution of the area until Sturt’s own death.

The concept was to trace the spirit of Fred Grover and to document his path through this landscape and to overlay that with own childhood in the same place. I hoped to find places where Fred and I could meet and ideas upon which we might have agreed or even argued. I aslo wanted to draw on any similarities that I could find between my family history as it related the the village and Grover’s.

From the outset I wanted to use a small number of photographs from Grover’s time and from my family album. This would enable me to not only juxtapose past and present but to also provide visual variety.

Text and Captions

Whilst recognising and accepting that this assignment was about photography it was also clearly set as a magazine article and for that reason alone it needed text to complement the images. My study of the early photo stories had been informative but it was also obvious that this approach is now historic, Life and its competitors have long gone and the Sunday magazines, National Geographic and specialist magazines that are image heavy such as travel magazines have a high proportion of text to image. I am sure that there are examples of pure photo stories in magazines but I would more see this to be the province of the photo book or internet slide show.

More importantly I considered whose work had influenced me the most when researching narrative and quickly concluded it was Kodelka’s WallJones Griffiths’ Vientnam Inc and Lam’s Abandoned Futures. Each of these books are heavily reliant on the written word to contextualise the photographs.

It also seemed relevant that as I would be researching the subject matter in some depth part of the story would only be told effectively by combining words with the photographs. I made the decision to format the story as if it was to be published in a magazine but to adopt a text / picture mix similar to Jones Griffiths.

Appropriation

The use of old photographs would already introduce an element of appropriation to the project but I was also keen to try and link the modern photographs with the past by using quotes from George Sturt’s books as captions. This approach also linked this assignment back to assignment 3 and my research into Anna Fox and Victor Burgin.

Other Influences

Different photographers and writers influenced different parts of the assignment.

Joachim Brohm and the Bechers influenced the way I approached a double page spread typology of cottages and other buildings that I knew as a child and that Grover would have known.

I researched a number of different views on how a photo story should be created and took forward ideas from Harold Evans’ Pictures on Page (11) regarding layouts and the relationship between pots and text although there was, of course the need, to translate the ideas from broadsheet to a smaller format. His ideas on how to build a story are invaluable an, being a newspaper man, he likes words so further justified my essay writing. Equally useful was Derek Birdsall’s Notes on Book Design (12), his ideas on how to layout a page were inspiration even though I know that I fell way short of his high standards.

My general background research is summarised in my post Narrative andI endeavoured to carry forward that research into this assignment.

Overall my strongest influences were the photo journalists such as Jones Griffiths, who I have already mentioned, Stuart Freedman, Chris Steele-Perkins, and Eugene W. Smith (for Minamata rather than his work for Life Magazine). In each case these men talk about and follow the principles I have discussed above. Quite clearly they are usually documenting subjects of world importance and I had no such subject in leafy Surrey and their technical excellence is way beyond my limited skills but their real influence on me was to set a pace for the assignment that allowed me to become absorbed in my subject and think through the photographs I wanted and how I wanted to use them.

The Process

Developing the Concept

The concept was developed in parallel with the research described in Narrative but, even before I started with OCA, I was planning a project to look at the journeys of William Cobbett or the writings of George Sturt. Partly because they were both local men and partly because they wrote about the countryside  I love and rural issues which are important to me and that always take a back seat in our urban dominated political landscape. However, I realised that the scale of the research required to deal with Cobbett was inappropriate for a single assignment and I also wanted to bring a personal element to the work and that would have been harder to achieve with Cobbett.

I felt that I already had a number of personal connections with George Sturt. My father had collected his books and as another passionate socialist shared many of Sturt’s views about the treatment of the rural poor. I had walked past his house everyday on my way to school and knew all of the places he wrote about but, more to the point, I knew these places not as a visiting student but as someone who had grown up in the lanes, fields and commons that he describes. His countryside was my countryside and it was this shared landscape that I mots wanted to explore.

Research

The first step was to re-read Sturt’s books and as I did this I formed a strong affinity with Fred Grover who had lived in a tiny cottage a few hundred yards from where I grew up, moving there around a hundred years before I was born. Sturt’s conversations with his old gardener revealed a complex life hidden behind the simple and stereotypical facade of the Surrey labourer and my copious notes centred around the important moments in Gover’s and, his wife, Lucy’s lives. His war service in the Crimea,  the enclosure of the common, the birth and death of their children, Lucy’s decline as her epilepsy worsened, the shadow of the workhouse and destitution that was the end of the road for so many of the rural poor.

Each strand opened up new avenues of research including:

  • Roger Fenton and his Crimean War photography, specifically searching on-line libraries for a photograph of the men of Grover’s regiment. I had looked at Fenton’s still life work during assignment 4 so it was interesting to look at a different aspect of his career.
  • Farnham Museum, who were most helpful with searching their photographic archives for pictures of the 19th century village, Sturt’s house, Grover’s cottage and, after much searching, a single photo of Fred Grover himself talked by George Sturt.
  • Simon Fairlie’s “A Short History of Enclosure in Britain” (15) was invaluable and provided much needed historic context and that helped explain Sturt’s thoughts on the matter.
  • I met and talked to Wendy Maddox, who co-incedentially had been taught by my Father at The Bourne School in the late 1940’s, and who is an amateur but dedicated historical researcher who has carried out extensive work on the history of the village and specifically on the old graveyard. She was part of the team who identified Fred and Lucy Grover’s unmarked graves. The results of some of this research can be found on The Bourne Conservation Society website (16)

Photography

It is not really appropriate to describe my photography trips as shoots. Over a period of nearly three months I kept visiting the village, walking through different areas, talking to the people I met and taking photographs that seemed to capture the village I remembered. My aim was to find Grover’s spirit or part of my own history so other than starting my walks from obvious landmarks such as his cottage, Sturt’s house, the houses where I had lived, the school or the pub I did not plan shoots.

Over time I began to find themes and that invested my work with a little more purpose. I began to form an idea of wanting an element of typology in the final piece and a lot of my walks were in search of cottages that had been the homes of the original squatters who inhabited the village.

A number of my walks were on, what had been the common land, and is now either part of Frensham Common which is managed by the National Trust or The Bourne Woods which are owned by the RSPB and has become quite well know for its staring role in films such as Gladiator and Robin Hood.

My photographic technique changed significantly during this time as a heavy DSLR and camera bag became too restrictive and, given I was often photographing people’s home from the lane in front of their house, it also felt too invasive. Instead I started carrying a mirror-less Fuji XT-1 and this liberated my approach and led to, what seemed, simpler and more appropriate compositions.

Sources

 Books

(3) Germain, Julian (2005) For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness. Gottingen: Steidl MACK (Reviewed o line via a combination of Julian Germain’s web site – http://www.juliangermain.com/projects/foreveryminute.php and the MACK web site – http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/16-For-every-minute-you-are-angry-you-lose-sixty-seconds-of-happiness.html

(4) Koudelka, Josef. (2013) Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Landscapes 2008 – 2012. New York: Aperture

(6) Sturt, George. (1902) The Bettesworth Book: 1978 Edition, a facsimile of the second edition published in 1902. Firle: Caliban Books.

(7) Sturt, George. (1907) Memoirs of a Surrey Labourer: 1978 Edition, a facsimile of the second edition published in 1907. Firle: Caliban Books.

(8) Sturt,George (1913) Lucy Bettesworth. London: Duckworth & Co. Sturt, George (1907) Memoirs of a Surrey Labourer. 1978 facsimile of the 1st Edition. Firle, Sussex: Caliban Books

(9) Sturt, George (1912) Change in the Village. 1955 edition. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co.

(10) Sturt, George (1923) The Wheelwright’s Shop. First paperback edition 1963. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(11) Evans, Harold. (1979) Pictures on a Page: Photo-journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing. London: Book Club Associates.

(12) Birdsall, Derek. (2004) Notes on Book Design. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Internet

(1) Freedman, Stuart. (2010) Ethics and Photojournalism – http://www.epuk.org/The-Curve/952/ethics-and-photojournalism

(2)  Photo Histories (August 2014) – Philip Jones Griffiths – http://www.photohistories.com/interviews/23/philip-jones-griffiths

(5) Newsome, Adam. (2014) IEDs – https://adamnewsome.wordpress.com/2014/08/31/level-1-art-of-photography-assignment-4/

(13) Foto8. Mark Durden Interview with Tod Papageorge – http://www.foto8.com/live/tod-papageorge-interview/

(14) Smith, W. Eugene and Smith, Aileen M (1971) Minamata vs. Chisso Corporation – Magnum Photography site – http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2TYRYDDWZXTR

(15) Fairlie, Simon (2009) A Short History of Enclosure in Britain. First Published in The Land Magazine – http://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/articles/short-history-enclosure-britain

(16) The Bourne Conservation Society – http://www.bourneconservation.org.uk/index.htm

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Jaochim Brohm – Typology 1979

Fig. 1 Typology for Assignment 5 – Double Page Spread

I was drawn to Joachim Brohm’s Typology 1979 *(1) for two reasons.

Typologies

Firstly, as part of assignment 5 I wanted to have at least one page that showed cottages in a village that existed in my time and at the time of the old Surrey labourer that was part of the story. I therefore wanted to look at some different photographic typologies to see whether there were approaches that worked better than others. My first thought was to look at Bernd and Hilla Becher *(2) who started creating grids of black and white photographs of industrial structures in the 1960s. These are methodical and highly detailed records of 19th century constructions taken head on from similar distances against flat grey skies and have become much sought after art prints. Their original intent was to capture these structures as reference material for Bernd’s paintings but, in doing so, they created a photographic archive of buildings that were destined for demolition as industrial processes advanced and changed and a photographic style that has been much copied. For reasons best known to the art critics of the time they were initially considered to be conceptual sculptures rather than photographs but Gerry Badger neatly links their work to the boards used by lepidopterists to pin collections of butterflies to allow comparison *(3). The Becher’s philosophy has been to find a subject and pursue it obsessively for your whole career.

Slightly aside from the purpose of this review I was intrigued that the Becher’s work had two connections with Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh. The first link, as mentioned above is that the Bechers like Billingham were taking photos as “models” for their paintings, the second link comes from the comments made by Gerry Badger on page 217 of The Genius of Photography. Badger records that the way that the Bechers displayed their work as wall-sized prints had art critics “drooling about seriality, presentational rigour, minimalism, comparative typologies and other art-speak words.” He believes that this diverted attention from the real intent of these photographs which was more about seeing the beauty in these structures and creating architectural photographs with, what he calls, “head on austerity”. The link being that the art world saw something in these photographs that the artist had not necessarily intended to include.

Other than being German there are no specific connections between Joachim Brohm and the Bechers although the timing of Typology 1979 suggest some level of influence. The Bechers were running the Dusseldorf School of Art while Brohm was studying at the Wolkwang University of Art in Essen. Looking at the broad spectrum of his work one might assume that he has been more influenced by Stephen Shore, especially, Lee Friedlander and William Eggeleston more than by the Bechers. In an interview with ASX *(4) he explains that, in the 70s there were few outlets for artistic photography in Germany and he became orientated towards American practitioners and finished his formal education at the City of Columbus, Ohio.

Typologies 1979 is a recent publication of his student work. When asked why he has waited so long to publish his early work he suggests that the world, or perhaps just Germany, wasn’t ready to look at it and that German photography was dominated by the Dusseldorf, and by inference the Becher, School. It is therefore interesting that one of the pieces of his early work that he has chosen to publish thirty years after it was completed, is a typology. It is in colour rather than black and white and the other obvious difference from the Becher’s work is the variety of compositions, angles and viewpoints that he uses, it is less rigourous. However, one clear similarity is the choice of working under pale grey skies.

Allotments

The second attraction to Brohm’s Typology 1979 is the subject matter. There is an element of the banal in systematically documenting the structures that people build on German allotments but I was more interested in the culture that they represent. I have worked extensively in Frankfurt and a number of other German cities and was always drawn to the fringes of the cities where the allotments are found. Very unlike British allotments, that always have a “Dig for Victory” feel about them with their compost heaps and rows of vegetables, a German allotment is like a detached garden, a place that the family can visit for the evening or weekend to escape their apartment in the city centre. They are more personal and varied that our remote vegetable plots and most include structures intended for socialising and relaxing rather than for just storing a fork and spade.

Brohm set out to document the allotment structures of one city, Essen, and, like the Bechers he approached the assignment in architectural terms. There are traces of people but no people appear in the photographs. The buildings are small but are strong personal statements, some are austere, some colourful, some brick, some wood and all nondescript in the context of the city’s architectural heritage. I cannot pretend to know what people travel to Essen to see but it’s not the allotment buildings.

Frankfurt, an otherwise pleasant city, lacked places to eat or drink outdoors and when the weather was hot and humid I was always envious of the German families enjoying a cool drink on the verandas of their little houses overlooking a tiny lawn and neat flower beds. It always struck me that there is something very specifically German about both the allotments and the structures in them and how the close proximity of one summer house to the next appeared un-noticed, the skill of city dwellers to edit out the presence of others.

The Photographs

Having looked at Brohm’s more recent work on line I see a very direct relationship with the work of Stephen Shore. There is a same era feel to both the subject matter and the prints. A certain pale, desaturated look reminiscent of slightly faded prints. If anything, Shore’s work is a little more saturated than Brohm’s but the similarities are there. There is a more subtle relationship with the American colourists, Brohm is interested in marginal places “with all their seeming lack of significance” *(5) an idea that is at the heart of Shore’s Uncommon Places. Typology was obviously completed at an early stage of his career but it is unquestionably about marginal places. In the traditions of the banal movement and the American colourists this study brings importance and significance to a marginal or unnoticed subject.

The book is collection of square prints, each little building is placed in the context of its allotment so we do not have the austere representation of the Bechers. For this project it is a valid decision as we are being shown significant variations on a theme so an identical approach to composition would have told us less that the varied angles arising from placing the buildings in context. As mentioned previously the whole set were taken under grey skies which provides a diffused lighting lacking in contrast, they are also taken in late autumn or early winter so the trees provide a dark, often black, natural frame to many of the buildings. In some of the photos the path across the allotment is used as a compositional device to lead us to the structure.

There is no sense of trespass, no physical invasion of private spaces, the little houses were probably all photographed from outside their gardens and fences are often included as if to make this point. These are private and personal spaces and the photographer has not become intimate with the detail of their structure, we see them as a passerby, a stranger looking over the garden fence. It is interesting that the photographer chose to carryout this study at a time of year when the houses are generally deserted, this choice allows us to see the buildings with no distractions, no colourful flowers or lush foliage but it also makes the allotments look sad and neglected, lonely, drab places on the margins of the city. Only the occasional toy left on the frosted grass hints at these buildings being enjoyed by families. My own experience in Frankfurt is that these are vibrant, joyous places in mid-summer, children playing on the lawns, adults drinking beer in the shade, barbecue smoke drifting on the sultry evening air so the dilapidated feel of so many of these photographs is a slightly misleading picture, an example of the truth not being the truth.

Part of the value of this type of documentary, in the true sense of the word, is that it imparts, records and stores information that we would not otherwise have. One might argue that it shouldn’t matter whether that information is interesting and, interest, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but ignoring my prior knowledge of these structures or my desire to learn something from Brohm’s style I found these photographs compelling. Once again it underlines the importance of working in series because the interest lies in the variety of these structures, the comparisons, the typology. Bohmn shows that the residents of Essen have taken their inspiration from a glorious range of architectural styles, we have ginger bread house, minimalist white box, romantic plantation house, pure garden shed, blue and white Greek Café, suburban bungalow, log cabin, Scandinavian chalet,  ramshackle stable and many more. The colours are uninhibited and bold, Farrow and Ball would have had little success in 1970’s Essen.

This might be a love it or hate it book. It asks the viewer to take time to understand the subject and his approach. Compared with his more recent work it is understandably raw and a little less sophisticated and, I suspect, less generally appealing but it is a book firmly within the banal tradition addressing a ordinary subject that is, in itself, unique and that provides an insight into an aspect of German culture. The simple design, one square print per spread, works well with the subject matter and the introduction by Ulf Erdmann Ziegler provides helpful background to the project and the history of “Schrebergartens”.

Inspiration and Assignment 5

Typology 1979 has been less directly useful in bringing assignment 5 together than I had hoped but the process of looking at typology and the work of the Bechers and Brohm was useful. The way that the Bechers presented their work has helped with deciding on my typology page layout and Bohm has shown me that it is possible to move away from black and white, austerity and rigour and still compile a typology.

Looking at Bohm, going back to Shore, and recently visiting Russell Squires’ D-Day Landings exhibition has left me with a unresolved question on how to deal with colour. I have touched on the subject before and no doubt will again. I cannot decide whether my colour work is generally, or always, too saturated and contrasted or whether it a simple matter of style but there is no doubt that many contemporary photographers present, what to me, is low contrast and desaturated work, many appear to only work in flat light on cloudy days. This in itself is certainly not an issue and a difference in stylistic approach is understandable but my predicament is that I respond positively to this approach in the work of others but never feel comfortable when I process my own work in that manner.

For the sake of completeness I have included the draft versions of my cottage typologies for assignment 5. My main concern is a lack of consistency in terms of light which is somewhat inevitable when the photographs are collected over an extended period of time. Initially I considered using the Becher front-on and consistent compositional approach by having discovered Brohm and liked his work I decided that this was an unnecessary and potentially counter productive approach given my subject. I am also looking for one more image as the photo that I have placed bottom right on typology 2 seems out of scale and therefore not a good fit. The building, now a scout hut and once a temperance hall has some relevance to the narrative so I would prefer to photograph it again from a different angle.

Fig. 2 Typology 1 (left) for Assignment 5

Fig. 2 Typology 1 (left) for Assignment 5

Fig. 3 Typology 2 (right) for Assignment 5

Fig. 3 Typology 2 (right) for Assignment 5

Sources

Books

(1) Brohm, Joachim. (2014) Typology 1979. First Edition Published by MACK. Mack Books (a small selection of the plates can be seen at http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/1028-Typology-1979.html)

(3) Badger, Gerry. (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography Has Changed Our Lives. London: Quadrille Publishing Limited.

Internet

The Telegraph. (2013) Joachim Brohm Q & A. The Telegraph – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/9949287/Joachim-Brohm-QandA.html

(2) Museum of Modern Art. (2008) Bernd and Hilla Becher: Landscape Typology. The Museum of Modern Art Exhibition Review – http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/95

(4) American Suburb X (2013) Interview with Joachim Brohm – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2013/03/interview-joachim-brohm-asx-interviews-joachim-brohm-2013.html

(5) CPH Mag (2013) A Conversation with Joachim Brohm – http://cphmag.com/a-conversation-with-joachim-brohm/

(6) Squires, Russell (2014) D-Day Landings Exhibition – http://russellsquires.co.uk/d-day-landings/

Banal and the Topographical Movement

This post is continuing the process of reacting to the comments made by my tutor is his feedback on Assignment 1. He said:

“… I’ll also try to get you to accept the banal and bland as we venture further down the line with this module !  I don’t necessarily expect you to like it, but I’ll need you to know about it and who was involved and why they have approached image making in such a manner etc.”

This was an intriguing comment calling for early investigation as I had not heard of “the banal and bland”  in the context of photography. Little did I realise that this comment would lead me into hours of on-line reading and the introduction to many contemporary photographers whose work I had not seen before. In fact the topic is so large that I have only started to skim the surface both in terms of the people involved and their work. My tutor said that he didn’t necessarily expect me to like it and after about three weeks of intermittent study I can safely say that I do and I don’t but I might have begun to understand some of it.

The more I researched the topic the more photographers names I noted down. Looking for some of their work often led me to other photographers, essays and exhibition reviews which led to more photographers and so forth. After a while I realised that I had to narrow down the research if my aim was to write an essay not a book.

Until the 1960’s the art world mostly had photography placed in a neat box. First and foremost “photographic art” was expected to be presented as black and white prints and those prints would typically display the attributes most closely associated with the medium. Steven Skopik, in his lecture to the National Conference of the Society for Photography Education (Chicago), March 2013 (*1), calls this “hyper-availability” and defines these attributes as deep depth of field and luscious and unrealistic exaggerated tonal range which could only be achieved by difficult-to-master large format cameras and complicated dark room processes. Seeing what was to follow I would add to this list that much of this work also conformed to compositional rules inherited from the wider art world.

At some point in the 60s a number of American photographers began to question whether there was another path. In his Hasselblad Award essay in 1998, Thomas Weski (*2b) tells the story of William Eggleston’s visit to a an industrial photofinishing laboratory where he watched an endless stream of amateur photos being processed and printed by machines. This was to be his Damascus Road experience and led to a radical shift in his style from being a disciple of Henri Cartier-Bresson to becoming a pathfinder in the world of colour photography. But this new style was more than a change of medium, it was a move away from photographing the magnificence of the landscape or the decisive moment, he started to photograph the everyday world around him, mundane, common place, ordinary America in all its normality.

Eggleston was by no means the only photographer turning their back on conventional wisdom and creating serious and thoughtful work away from the main stream. In 1972 Stephen Shore, who had  already made his mark with his black and white photos of Andy Warhol’s factory, photographed a road trip across America in a series of images that were later to be published as “American Surfaces”. To look through these images today they might be interpreted as a nostalgic look at Middle America which would be to miss the point. In an interview with Rong Jiang in 2007 (*3) Shore makes a number of points that define his work in the early 70s. “I wanted to see the ordinary things that were not the news”, “I wanted to see what our culture was really like”. Shore’s early colour photographs of America are what he saw without edit and without embellishment. They range from, what can only be described as snapshots, of people he met, beds he slept in, meals he ate to more carefully composed urban landscapes that faithfully document 1970s America, and therein lies the link to Eggleston. Both men were working in colour, both were photographing a time and place in its entirety, not just beauty nor just ugliness, but just what was there. Shore explains that the beautiful landscape is not difficult to spot, “anyone would notice it” but he believes that you have to be paying close attention to notice the ordinary.

Early in the 1970s tiny, but influential corners of the art world began to notice this new wave of colour photographers. It is important to understand that taking colour photographs was anything but new; magazines, postcards. amateur photography, advertising was all in colour, in fact as Shore points out the only photographs not in colour were in newspapers and art. It is equally important to recognise that whilst Eggleston, Shore and others were photographing the  mundane, ordinary and banal side of America in colour other highly influential photographers were choosing similar subjects to capture in black and white. The “New Topographics” exhibition in 1975 at George Eastman House in Rochester NY was, according to Leah Ollman (*4) of the Los Angeles Times and writing in 2009, “a landmark show”, and Sean O’Hagan (*5) writing in The Guardian in 2010, said that it was “not just the moment when the apparently banal became accepted as a legitimate photographic subject, but when a certain strand of theoretically driven photography began to permeate the wider contemporary art world.” All but one of the photographers exhibiting in that exhibition presented their work in Black and White; Stephen Shore was the notable exception. But at the time the critics were less complimentary, Ollman says that one of the artists, Frank Gohlke, remembers “that almost nobody liked it”.

In 1976 The Museum of Modern Art exhibited 75 “selected” William Eggleston prints. The prints selected by John Szarkowski, the museum’s Director of the Department of Photography, were in colour. This was the first time the museum had presented a colour photographer’s work and as the exhibition was supported by a catalogue which was also their first publication in colour the art world sat up and took notice. However, it quickly sat back down. Hilton Kramer in the New York Times described it as “perfectly banal, perfectly boring ” and went on to consign Eggleston’s work “to the world of snapshot chic” (*2b). My reading tells me that John Szarkowski was a progressive and far-sighted man who could see that photography as art was hidebound with rules, many of which dated from before any living photographer had been born because they had been passed down from the wider art world. In his press release for the 1976 exhibition, which can be found on the William Eggleston Trust Website (*2a) he talks about a new generation of photographers who were using colour with “a confident spirit of freedom and naturalness”, I especially like his comment that they work in colour “as though the world itself existed in colour”. In the context of banality he makes the key points that Eggleston work is about how he sees the world, how he interacts with his personal world and that his photographs are “fixed facts of the real world impartially recorded by the camera”.

I have focussed my attention on these two men, not because they were the first people to capture the ordinary, the mundane , the banal without comment and without gloss but because at every turn in my research they are named time and time again as major influences on a whole generation of contemporary photographers. Given my objective to write an essay and not a book these constant cross-references led me to mostly spend my time with them and their work. A valid judgement I think as In The Photograph as Contemporary Art, Charlotte Cotton (*6) tells us that their greatest contribution was to create a space within art photography to allow a more liberated approach to image-making.

So, that is the history and the on-going influence that is felt by a connected but not formal movement of photographers who moved away from photographing the majestic, the beautiful, or the important and, instead, turned their cameras on what was on their doorstep or what they saw when traveling through America. But, what of their images ? Steven Skopik (*1) argues that the image of a banal subject can become an art form when it is approached in a certain way. He believes that either the banal subject is transformed by the photographer’s technical skills in composition, management of tone (or I presume colour) and lighting so the subject is transformed by the actual process of being photographed in a meticulous manner; or, the photographer can discard technique and form in the service of content which is effectively banal technique, a sort of considered casualness.

Whilst I take his point and can see these facets in some of the work I have reviewed I am coming closer to knowing which style of work appeals and that I can relate to and where I am a lost soul desperately wishing someone behind me would explain why I am looking at “this” photograph.

To return to Eggleston and Shore, or Bernd and Hilla Becher for that matter. Much of their work fits into Skopik’s category of technical skills pointed at a banal subject but it goes much deeper than that. They were consciously documenting a culture by capturing the details of life, whether they were large details such as power stations or small details such as what they ate for breakfast. By its very nature photography captures what has passed, it may have only passed 1/2000 second ago but it is now part of a greater history, by pointing their cameras at mundane, ordinary, day-to-day and banal subjects they were recording the details of life.

I see a parallel with archeology, in the early days of that science the focus was on the huge, the magnificent, the great stories of the world. Troy, Athens, Stonehenge, the Colosseum, empire and great events. The early archeologists were in such a rush to get to the big story, the great find they ploughed through and often discarded the detail, their big questions were about where people lived. The modern archaeologist is more interested in how people lived and why they lived there and why they made “this” or how they made “that”. The form of banality in photography that I have enjoyed getting to know are Eggleston and Shore’s images of an America that, to my generation, was very recent but has already gone. I know that Shore does not want nostalgia to get in the way of appreciating the image but with this work from the 70s and 80s it is unavoidable.

However, the banal image does not have to be of a time long gone to catch my attention. As a new student of contemporary photography I am not able to put photographers into the correct pigeon holes and I note that Charlotte Cotton (*6) says that she is at pains not to fetishise contemporary art photography into categories of style or heritage. Having looked at Eggleston and Shore’s work and come to understand a little of what they were trying to achieve I see relationships with photographers that I am already trying to become engaged with, Camilo José Vergara is systematically documenting the streets of urban America, his images often employ bold colours and strong shapes to present banal subjects such as shoes outside a street shelter. I also think that the banal found its way into the work of Lewis Hine who we can now look back on as a man who documented a specific facet of the American way of life but in his own time was photographing subjects that were common place and mundane. I think I see the point and understand what these photographers are showing me, I respond positively to many of the images and especially like when the mundane detail draws me into explore every corner of the frame.

But…… there is a lot of work that I have found by other photographers that I just do not understand and do not respond to on an emotional level. I am not intending to be judgemental but a series of photographs of concrete storm drain covers and the securing ring for an electricity pole leave me cold. I question why and I think it is a lack of context and a lack of composition that leaves me disconnected. If I pick, nearly at random, a Eggleston image of the detailed landscape, the piles of rubbish in “Troubled Waters” I am drawn in. I like the composition which is thoughtful and, to my eye, precise, it probably uses thirds but it wouldn’t matter if it didn’t. The splash of colour from the orange diamond and then all the detail of the bags. I want to know what is in them, I zoom in to try and read labels on the boxes, I am engaged. There is context, a story line and it is consciously composed.

I think my summary is that, if the photographer wants me to engage with his or her photograph, they are asking me to invest my time in understanding their art. I’m happy to do that if my sense is that the artist has invested at least as much time and hopefully more in putting his or her image in front of me. It can be consciously casual and seemingly unstructured, it can be formal and structured, it can be of mundane content (Eggeston’s rubbish, Shore’s meals) or nearly no content at all (Richard Misrach Untitled 2004 of a women in a vast sea) but I want to sense that the photographer is treating me, their audience, with respect, and that this image is the result of a train of thought and the application of conscious technique.

I have taken a lot from this little piece of research and suspect that I will sub-consiously use many of the ideas that I have read and seen. I have had a long term interest in photography as a record and as I get older often think about how my grandchildren will look at work when I am but a fuzzy memory. I think the process of documenting what is there before it isn’t is a valid contribution and, like the modern archeologist, the real interest may lie in the most mundane or banal subject just because I bothered to notice it and photograph it.

Sources:

Books

*6 Cotton, Charlotte, (2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art, New Edition. London, Thames and Hudson

On-Line

*1 Skopik, Steven. Steven Skopik Photography. Lecture to the 50th National Conference of the Society for Photography Education (Chicago), March 2013 www.ithaca.edu

*2a Eggleston, William. Official website of William Eggleston and the Eggleston Artistic Trust. (First accessed 2014) www.egglestontrust.com

*2b Weski, Thomas. The Tender-Cruel Camera, Essay from the Hasselbald Award 1998. Published on the Official of William Eggleston and the Eggleston Artistic Trust.  www.egglestontrust.com

*3 Jiang, Rong. The Apparent is the Bridge to the Real. An interview with Stephen Shore, June 4 2007. Published at www.americansuburbx.com

*4 Ollman, Leah. ART : Banality, in black and white : Exploring the rise of photography’s New Topographics movement, whatever it may mean. Published on the Los Angeles website November 2009. articles.latimes.com

*5 O’Hagan, Sean. New Topographics: photographs that find beauty in the banal. Published on the Guardian Website, February 2010. www.theguardian.com