Tag Archives: Chris Steele-Perkins

Captions and Other Words in Photo Narratives

Smokey Mountain, Manila1989, Metro Manila's largest garbage dump was home to 30,000 people who made their living searching for saleable items in the rubbish. 50% of Manila's 11 million population live in slums.

Smokey Mountain, Manila1989, Metro Manila’s largest garbage dump was home to 30,000 people who made their living searching for saleable items in the rubbish. Ineffectual government policies leading to the repeated failure of re-housing schemes means that even now 50% of Manila’s  population of 11 million still live in slums.

Introduction

Researching narrative has revised my interest in how words and pictures work together and it is obvious that there are a number of different ways to incorporate words within a photo essay ranging from their complete absence, through captions, cutlines, appropriations, to written essays.

The history of the photo story and photo essay is closely linked to photo journalism, magazines and newsprint so it is no surprise that many such narratives are published with text but it is also common for photo books to use captions, cutlines or editorial text to support the photographers’ work. So, whilst some photographers’ work is inevitably destined to be published with associated text because they are working for news or magazine publishers it is clear that many photographers with editorial control are still making the decision to incorporate text with or within their work and it interesting to look a little more closely at why and how this is done.

When first researching  narrative photography it became clear that there is the photo journalist’s and news editor’s view on one hand and the photography critic’s and writer’s view on the other and an attempt to simultaneously consider both views is often trying to square the circle. It also leads to a semantic debates on the meaning of story versus essay and documentary versus journalism and so forth. It could be that this difference of opinion has its roots in what Graham Clarke *(2) describes as the “extent to which photographic practice has been haunted in its development by what has been termed the ‘ghost of painting'”. In simple terms “great art” before the invention of photography rarely, if ever, resorted to using captions beyond assigning a title so, perhaps, great photography is expected not to need or use them.

Absence of Words

It can be argued that the perfect photographic narrative needs no words and many such narratives exist. Richard Billingham’s Rays a Laugh *(6) tells the story of life with his alcoholic father and was published with only a short photographer’s statement on the inside cover to introduce the characters in the photographs, after which there are no captions of any kind, not even the place and date form of captions found in Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Eggleston or Stephen Shore’s work. These works are not lessoned by a lack of captions, the photographers felt no need to offer Cartier-Bresson’s “verbal context” and this approach is clearly highly effective in a photo book or exhibition context where the story can be completely communicated through the images.

A further argument would be that the “norm”, the standard starting point is for there to be no words. The pictures speak for themselves and the photograph only controls the content of the image and the context in which they are made available to the audience. The audience is left to interpret the pictures. If we accept that is the status quo it would appear that we are only looking for arguments for why we would use words.

Appropriations

After assignment 3 I looked at the work of Victor Burgin (Victor Burgin and Appropriations) who has produced a number of series where his photographs appropriate types of words, such as marketing-like slogans, or pieces of text from other sources. In Burgin’s case he is placing an image into a context where we would not normally expect to see it and thereby unsettles the audiences expectations and interpretation of that image.

Anna Fox used the same idea in Work Stations by selecting extracts from corporate “literature” as ironic texts to accompany her images of office life in the 1980s. I had adopted Fox’s approach to my own assignment 3 and attempted to highlight issues with the fashion industry by using their own marketing material as ironic captions.

Fox and Burgin both use appropriation by juxtaposing text and image that are in conflict with one another. For example a piece of fashion speak that celebrates the virtues of a pale skin with a photograph of a black women in a bus queue. (Burgin “Life Demands a Little Give and Take”) *(1).

Appropriation could be a valid technique to use in a photo story or essay and I am considering using it in assignment 5 but, this time, in a less ironic manner by combining the written words of a late 19th / early 20th Century writer who published several books about the village in which I grew up, combined with current images of the same village.

Other Examples of Combining Words and Pictures

Research into narrative has led me to several other photographers who use text as part of their work, or who have produced work that is nearly always seen with the original magazine text in place; I have previously made notes on:

Photo Journalism

Although I can’t find the origin of the quote Harold Evans *(3) quotes Cartier-Bresson as saying “The who or what and the why are incorporated in the subject – or should be – and the how is unimportant.” However, in The Mind’s Eye *(4), Cartier-Bresson also says “in A Picture Story, the captions should invest the pictures with a verbal context, and should illuminate whatever relevant thing it may have been beyond the power of the camera to reach.” It appears that even Cartier-Bresson had more than one view on the role of the caption.

Evans is less ambivalent believing that the idea that words “pollute photographs” is “a piece of intellectual debris from the early idea that photography was art or it was nothing” and, in his world of newsprint, we would expect no other view. The typical process of understanding a news photo is to first look at the picture, then read the caption and any short descriptive extension to the caption (what the American press calls the “cutline”) and then to return to the photograph for a second look. This process builds an understanding by ‘reading” and absorbing the information in the picture, reading the caption and its associated text to gain any helpful explanation or additional data and then revisiting the image to use the context provided by he caption to reveal any nuances missed on the first visit. Newspapers and magazines are expert in the field of caption writing because they know that only headlines have a higher readership that photo captions *(5) and readers are drawn deeper into the editorial or news text through the process of reading photographs and their captions.

Photo journalism, photo stories and photo essays as published in magazines and newspapers are rarely offered as stand alone pictures, in fact, it is so rare that it is only a slight exaggeration to say that this type of photography always includes a caption and is often linked to a more detailed descriptive context or, is providing a visual context to the text.

Not surprisingly, as a newspaper man, Evans, is an advocate for words; he believes that, by adding text, the editor can enhance both the emotional and cognitive experience of viewing a photograph or a series of photographs. In the world of newsprint the aim of this text is to add to and explain the story by providing descriptive detail although Evans recognises that too often it repeats the facts we can see on the photograph because it has been badly executed or is unnecessary but this doesn’t detract from the fact that many news photos are enhanced by their relationship with text. When this is done well the photograph and the text each contribute to the story and the relationship is inevitable, it is a known result that both photographer and writer are working to.

Summary and Next Steps

The two ends of the spectrum are the pure visual story and the story embedded within and closely related to text. In the middle there are a significant number of photo books that extensively use text to provide context, additional information and explanation and, whilst assignment 5, is set as a “magazine cover and article” and therefore inextricably  linked to text if it is to be authentic, it is this middle ground that interests me most. Why does a photographer choose, in Evans’ words, “to pollute” their images with text?

The relationship between words and pictures in a photo book is complex and not inevitable. Anna Fox explains that, whilst she knew that she wanted to use text from the corporate world in a association with her photographs in Work Stations, she collected the pictures and text quite separately, only selecting combinations when she was collating the final presentation. I followed this approach in assignment 3 by collecting phrases during the same few weeks that I was taking the photographs but selected the pictures and decided on my final sequence before starting to look for, what I saw as, natural matches from my collection of quotes.

To explore how text is used by different photographers I have looked at three books.

Koudelka’s Wall –  that I have looked at twice already once as a general review (here) and once in the context of how he used olive trees as a metaphor (here).

Josef Koudelka and the Use of Captions in Wall

Philip Griffith Jones’ Vietnam Inc. that I have looked at in the context of The Engaged Photographer

Philip Jones Griffith and the use of Captions, Cutlines and Other Text in Vietnam Inc.

Tong Lam’s Abandoned Futures that I have not previously reviewed previously in this blog.

Tong Lam and the Use of Text and Appropriations in Abandoned Futures

Conclusion

In each case the photographer has decided that his photographs only tell part of the story. Koudelka provides short captions that explain and educate to ensure that we see past the beauty of his images. Jones Griffiths is constantly explaining “why” so that we understand the history, the back story the broader context of he Vietnam war and its impact on the people and their culture. Lam is offering us two ways to see and understand post industrial landscapes, the words and essays are blended but neither fundamentally relies on the other, they are two parallel data sources.

These different approaches show that words and pictures can be successfully integrated in media other than news or magazines. In the case of Jones Griffiths his book is a direct reaction to the what he sees as the way that the news editors take photo journalist’s work out of contact to illustrate the story they want to publish.

My final conclusion is to agree with Jones Griffiths when he says that we live in a literate society so, if we believe we have a story to tell why would we limit ourselves to using pictures as a complete narrative form? It is essential that the words compliment the photographs, they must add to the story and not be simple and redundant descriptions of the image. The ideal is for the photograph to be strong enough to provide the majority of the information and for the caption or essay to provide the context that explains why the event is happening, or how others events have unfolded to lead to this moment. The two forms of communication need to work together to gain an emotional reaction.

Sources

Books

(2) Clarke, Graham (1997) The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

(4) Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1999) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. New York: Aperture Foundation

(6) Billingham, Richard (1995) Ray’s a Laugh. Books on Books Edition (2014). New York: Valerie Sonnenthal

Internet

(1) Zero Focus – Victor Burgin – Life Demands a Little Give and Take – http://shihlun.tumblr.com/post/84456144504/victor-burgin-poster-life-demands-a-little-bit

(5) University of Kansas web resources – A picture is worth a thousand words (but only of it’s got a really good cutline!) – http://web.ku.edu/~edit/captions.html

 

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Narrative

Seeking A Simple Definition

A study of narrative in photography soon leads to a multitude of different interpretations of, what seems at first glance to be, a simple idea.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines narrative as an “account of connected events”, but goes on to say “in order of happening” so, whilst we might bank the idea of connectivity, the idea that narrative must be chronological is quesionable. Tate Modern Art Terms is equally clear.

“A narrative is simply a story. Narrative art is art that tells a story.”

Harold Evans, once the editor of the Sunday Times, and the author of Pictures on a Page *(1) suggests that story and narrative are interchangeable terms so, in that regard he might agree with the Tate but he quickly brings the concept of narrative being linked to an event and connectivity back into the mix. “The picture story is essentially a narrative, the record of a single event or aspect of it, or a simple chronology” He goes on to say, however, that the picture story is descriptive in nature not declarative whereas the photo essay is not restricted to a time or an event and can analyse rather than narrate.

Michael Freeman, in the Photographer’s Story, *(2) sees story telling as a “classic, essential and pure form” of photography and an integral part of creating a coherent body of work. He sees little distinction between the photo essay and the photo story but he believes that an essay implies one photographer with a single vision working in a consistent style whereas a picture story might be sourced from different photographers.

Kenneth Kobré, in Photo Journalism *(3) is certain that the photo story is chronologically sequential whereas the essay is not and is a more general study. This seems close to Evans’ definition so perhaps this is the traditional newspaper or magazine view but, as discussed later, it is just as likely that a photo story appears to be sequential through the way it is edited rather than having been photographed in the sequence in which it is presented.

Maria Short, in Context and Narrative *(4) takes a broad view arguing that narrative is a structure that enables an audience to follow the artist’s idea or to grasp a concept and it is this thought that helps us to move away from narrative being linked to an “event”. Greg Battye *(5) appears to agree and suggests that narrative is way of structuring the “construction, arrangement, organisation, transmission and understanding of information” and whilst this is a rather cumbersome definition it has the advantage of removing any restrictions based on a place or an event but still infers connectivity.

My summary is:

  • Narrative is story telling, fact or fiction.
  • It is a structure for communicating an idea.
  • Connectivity or an continuant subject is an essential ingredient.
  • Time will, in some way be involved, but the story might be linear, non linear, cyclical or only linked to time in the sense that there was something before and there is something after.

The Characteristics of Photographic Narrative

Having somewhat tentatively established what narrative is it logical to next try and understand what constitutes a successful narrative. Having looked at a number of different viewpoints and considered the commonalities and the exceptions my chosen starting point is a lovely thought expressed by Tod Papageogre *(6) who is quoted by David Campbell *(7):

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

This adaptation of Robert Capa’s axiom “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough” speaks to a theme that I have found prevalent amongst respected, more traditional and established photo journalists such as Stuart Freedman *(8) who believe that too much contemporary narrative is based on limited research and/or understanding of the subject. He argues that:

“Story telling in photography must be vigorous in thought and research”

The idea being that the photographer must understand the context of an issue or an event or a situation to be able to tell its story and this knowledge can only come as the result of research unless an appropriate level of knowledge has been acquired by more organic means as might be case for an essay about a close family member.

In some cases the event or the issue might, in fact, come first and be followed by research to gain an in-depth understanding or the subject may arise from researching a broader topic so my second characteristic is entwined with the first. David Campbell puts it quite simply:

“The most important thing to ask is what is the story I want to tell ?”

This is especially appropriate because it is expressed as a personal question; the story I want to tell, not the story someone else has asked for, the story that is expected, the story that people want to hear. This principle is at the heart of Phillip Jones Griffiths’ highly acclaimed book Vietnam Inc. *(9) which I discussed in An Engaged Observer. Jones Griffiths, who was president of Magnum for five years, believed that his role was to take the pictures that he thought were important, he went as far as to say that it is an “obscene concept” to give people what they want *(10). Vietnam Inc. is a series of anti-war photographs taken at a time when the American people generally supported the war and when the American media didn’t want to publish the dark side of what the US was doing in South East Asia. As a result Jones Griffiths’ images were unsaleable as news photos but when published as a book they played a significant role in changing public opinion in America.

Karin Becker Ohrn, as quoted by Maria Short *(4),  defines social documentary photography, which often uses narrative structures, as setting out to “bring the attention of an audience to his or her work and, in many cases to pave the way for social change.” In this context the concerned photography of Jones Griffiths not only meets the first criteria but can be credited by accelerating social change.

This debate is as current now as it was in 1970. Stuart Freeman believes that if the photo journalist is not intending to bring about change within what he calls the “humanist documentary tradition” they are merely voyeurs.  Like Jones Griffiths he argues that the photographer must be telling the story they want to tell and not illustrating someone else’s story. So, we can add personal engagement and:

A desire to tell a story, with an aim to draw attention or to pave the way for change.

Once we have a story, the desire, enough knowledge of the subject and a reason to tell it we need a way of constructing the story and narrative is that structure. There is plenty of advice available on structuring a narrative but most of it can be summarised as having a beginning, a middle and an end. A piece of string has all those things and very few pieces of string are interesting so it appears necessary to look a little deeper.

The first rule of structure is connectivity or a continuity of subject; without connectivity the audience only sees isolated and individual pictures. In a narrative the pictures are building blocks that the photographer is linking and combining into a story; so, as David Campbell says:

“The photographer is making the relationship between event – issue – story”

He refers to Alan Feldman who argues that we don’t find an event with its meaning fully formed, it only becomes understood as an event through narrative. Historical events from the industrial revolution to the swinging sixties weren’t  seen as events by the people involved, they became events through histories and stories, the narratives that told us about them. If we follow this thought to its logical conclusion the narrator is part of the process of defining an event and forming its meaning.

Regardless of how comprehensive the narrative sets out to be it can never been compete, it will always be based on the inclusion and exclusion of subject matter at the point of capture and again at the point of editing. This selectivity and editing is fundamental to the process of construction and the skill of the editor is to select a series of images that each contribute to the story line and that build upon one another as the story unfolds. David Campbell points out that:

“Everything within a narrative has a particular function [ ] nothing is superfluous”

The scale of the photo essay will always be limited. This limit might be self imposed or established as part of a brief, the size of an exhibition or the economic constraints of publishing but, in every case, each image within a narrative, a story or an essay must have a clear purpose and support the telling of the story. The penalty for ignoring this rule is likely to result in being unable to present the essay to its intended audience and thereby being unable to drawn attention to the issue or the event. As was the case when W. Eugene Smith refused to allow editors to select too small a set from his Pittsburg collection. A stance that delayed its publication for decades. Nearly sixty years after they were taken the Sam Stephenson curated exhibition Dream Street *(12) showed, depending on venue, between 85 and 190 prints from the the 11,000 negatives Smith collected. Smith saw Pittsburg as the most important work of his life yet its publication was delayed so far beyond the right moment it decayed from being a powerful and current narrative of an industrial city to being an aesthetically pleasing historical document.

Alan Feldman *(10) is quoted by David Campbell as saying:

“Narrative is the organisation of events into a system”

This builds on the idea of working within constraints by highlighting that the  narrative needs organisation because it is simply the presentation of information, it must systematic, planned and directed. I am increasingly appreciating the power of a series of photographs where the photographer leads the audience along the path that he or she thinks best communicates the underlying idea. This idea might be broad and loosely defined such as the sweeping portrait of Israel presented by Stephen Shore in From Galilee to the Negrev *(18) or the tighter, more focussed, narrowly constrained essay about the same place by Josef Koudelka in Wall *(17). There is little or no similarity in terms of style or theme but In both cases there is an identifiable structure to the presentation, the photos weren’t shuffled before being published, they were carefully arranged to catch our attention, hold our attention and to ask us to emotionally respond to the artists’ perspective. They are organised.

Koudelka is a story teller but not by using progressional images, we do not see the wall being mapped, then designed, then built before seeing its impact on the environment and population. It is there, in all its ugliness, in the very first plate and it is there on the last plate. In between, we see it snake across the landscape, we see it as a wire fence in the mist, we see it as a road block and we see it as a gate. He has documented its every aspect showing it in the broadest context of the rural and urban landscape. It is a model of how to present a large idea and is highly effective.

Stephen Shore takes a different approach, his narrative in Galilee to Negrev, is a broad, documentary sweep of the land. As I described in my review of the book there is a pattern in that he starts by putting Israel into the context of its ancient history before introducing the vast and untamed wilderness of the land, closing in to show man’s impact on the landscape, moving closer still to see the ugly urbanisation and then on to investigating ordinary people and the trivia of their ordinary lives. Because the book is ultimately a travelogue that spans the length and breath of this sliver of a country this sequence is generally repeated as Shore investigates each of the four main regions. I felt changed by Shore’s Galilee to Negrev, I was moved by Wall.

The form of construction is multi-various. It may be simple, linear, chronologically organised or, more likely, appear to be those things once the editor has finished. W. Eugene Smith’s Country Doctor is often held up as the definitive photo story. It has all the appearances of a linear “day in the life of” story but it is well documented that this is a highly edited series and there is little or no likelihood that the pictures were taken in the sequence in which they were published. Even if the emergency amputation had occurred five minutes after Smith arrived to start the project his editor would never have shown it as the opening shot because it would appear out of context despite being “correctly” positioned. This shows that photo stories not only have an external context they need to be constructed so that internal context is developed to enable the individual pictures to be understood.

The construction could be non-linear with flash-backs or links to parallel stories, which is part of the beauty of Julian Germain’s For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness *(11) that uses the subject’s own photo albums to tell the  “back story” in parallel with Germain’s images telling the “present” story. The way that Germain weaves these two stories together, whilst giving equal weight to the importance of both timelines, might be viewed as a structural technique, which of course it is, but it is also the soul of the narrative. We understand the subject by simultaneously seeing his past and his present and through this learn why he is content and fulfilled. Every Minute represents another characteristic of a wide body of narrative, described by Maitland Edey, once an Editor at Life Magazine , as:

“Great stories have to do with people; with human dilemmas, with human challenges, with human suffering”

Every Minute is essentially about one man, although it could be argued that it is also an essay about the common human condition of a person surviving their life partner. When, as in that case, the structure of the narrative is based, not on an independent event or on specific timeline but on a person or a place or on the activities of a particular group of people or a social trend  we see more complex constructions and more challenging constructions as, without a timeline, the path through the story must use other linkages to hold the audience’s attention. There needs to be a flow, a continuity and internal connectivity so that one image leads from its predecessor and onto its successor.

Another example of this type of narrative would be Anna Fox’s Resort 1 *(13) which I looked at earlier in the course. Resort 1 tells the story of families holidaying at Butlin’s in Bognor Regis, so in that sense it is a story about a place and the people within it but through her photographic style and choice of subject it is also a social story about what people do, how they act, what they wear and how they relate to each other and to the theatrical setting of a holiday camp. In short it tells us much more about the times than just what Butlin’s looks like. Martin Parr’s Last Resort  *(14) would be another example that tells us simultaneously about place, people and society or social trends. In both cases there are multiple linkages being used, subject matter is often grouped together, colours carry over from one image to the next and the sub-plots are changed by punctuating the series with different colour sets or types of subject, the sequence is carefully planned but they are not progressional in terms of time or subject. Consistent style including, lighting, framing, composition, mood and repeating vantage points is the glue that holds the narrative together.

Each of the above examples are quite traditional and their style pre-dates the internet age. This does not lessen their effectiveness and it is interesting to note that W. Eugene Smith’s photographs are less dated in terms of subject and style than the words that accompany them. I have a collection of Life Magazine photographs and this is true of many of them. The photos are usually still engaging but the captions and accompanying text often seems naive, condescending and superficial, but this is a digression. To complete my look at narrative forms I want to include two pieces that embrace current technology.

Chris Steele Perkins’ study of the effect of the Tsunami that hit the coast of Japan in 2010 is published, on-line as Tsunami Streetwalk 1 and 2 *(15) and which I looked at in some detail in an earlier post. Amongst the same set of Magnum  “Inmotion” essays is a contribution by Bruce Gilden, Foreclosures *(16). In Foreclosures Gilden tells the story of the major social crisis caused by the sub-prime mortgage catastrophe that kicked off the Northern Hemisphere’s financial crisis that we are only now limping out of. This is a huge story with multiple beginnings and no clear ending as yet so it might still be impossible to tell. Gilden resolves this by focusing in on a single place and a finite group of people but by telling this tiny piece of the story he, in effect, tells the whole story. He is using Las Vegas as a metaphor for the near collapse of the global banking system. The fact that it was a “near” collapse is irrelevant to the people in his essay who live in the “foreclosure capital of America” with one in sixty homes being foreclosed in Las Vegas and Reno (or in English repossessed) .

The way Gilden tells the story is current and contemporary. He combines simple black and white photographs, contact sheets, animation, voice overs, music and appropriation to create an on-line slide show which, in just under five minutes, tells the story in a powerful and effective manner.

Tsunami Streetwalk by Chris Steele Perkins is equally contemporary but uses less techniques. His approach is to combine two rolling threads of photos that, together, form a vast panorama of a single street with straight after the Tsunami at the top and seven months later below so the audience can make a direct comparison of, what used to be, houses and businesses in two different cities. To support the rolling photos he uses scrolling captions and haunting music.

These two approaches show that the photo story or essay that, many say, started with Life Magazine in the 1950’s is still alive and well sixty years later having evolved from its magazine origins into photo books and, even more recently, on–line media. However, the fundamentals of narrative are still the same:

  • A story worth telling;
  • Research leading to knowledge and understanding;
  • An engaged photographer who has invested themselves in the narrative;
  • A construction that creates a story from an issue out of an event;
  • And, the organisation of information into a connected and coherent structure.

I have a closing thought.

All of the above fails if the quality of execution is poor. To complete the Stuart Freedman quote I used earlier:

“Story telling in photography must be as vigorous in thought and research as it is beautiful in construction and execution.”

We are bombarded with thousands of images every day on social media, news programmes, newspapers, film, TV drama, advertising hoardings. For the photographer’s story to be “heard” over all this background noise his or her images better be good.

So, therein lies the challenge for assignment 5.

Sources

Books

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

(2) Freeman, (2012) The Photographer’s Story: The Art of Visual Narrative (Kindle Edition). Lewes: Ilex Press.

(3) Kobré, Kenneth (1996) Photo Journalism: The Professional Approach, 3rd Edition. Boston: Focal Press

(4) Short, Maria (2011) Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA Publishing.

(5) Battye, Greg (2014) Photography, Narrative, Time: Imaging our Forensic Imagination- Kindle Edition. Bristol: Intellect

(9) Jones Griffiths, Phillip. (1971) Vietnam Inc. : First Published by Collier Books 1971, this edition published in 2001 and reprinted in 2011. London: Phaidon.

(11) 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

(13) Fox, Anna (2013) Resort 1″ Butlin’s Bognor Regis. London: Thames and Hudson

(14) Parr, Martin (2008) The Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton. Stockport: Dewi Lewis

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

(18) Shore, Stephen. (2014) From Galilee to the Negev . New York: Phaidon Press.

Internet

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

(7) Campbell, David. (2010) Photography and narrative: What is involved in telling a story? – http://www.david-campbell.org/2010/11/18/photography-and-narrative/

(7) Campbell, David. Official Website – http://www.david-campbell.org

(7) Soundcloud, recorded by Matt Johnston. David Campbell – Narrative, Power and Responsibility – https://soundcloud.com/mattjohnston/david-campbell

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

(8) Freedman, Stuart – Stuart Freedman Blog – Examples of Photo Narratives – http://www.stuartfreedman.com/blog/

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

(10) Feldman, Allen. (1991) Formations of Violence: the Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. – http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=sVe1hmsR8J8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=Formations+of+Violence&source=bl&ots=ZNquSTkoCz&sig=pkZCSyUcUrZSG6eUkHpCBwPSljg&hl=en&ei=UTrlTPC8OoaXhQe6j7DADA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CDgQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false

(12) Carnegie Magazine – Carnegie Museums of Pittsburg – W. Eugene Smith and the Pittsburg project. An exhibition curated by Sam Stephenson

(15) Steel-Perkins, Chris. (2011) Tsunami Streetwalk 1 Kesennuma. Magnum Inmotion – http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essay/http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essay/tsunami-streetwalk-1-kesennuma 

(16) Gilden, Bruce. (2012) Foreclosures: Las vagas and Reno. Magnum In Motion – http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essay/foreclosures-las-vegas-reno

 

 

Chris Steele Perkins Tsunami Streetwalk 1 and 2

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.

Sources

Books

(3) Battye, Greg. (2014) Photography Narrative Time: Imaging our Forensic Imagination. Kindle Edition Bristol: Intellect.

Internet

(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

 

Researching Assignment 3 – Practictioners

Fig. 01 Signs - 1/125 at f/13, ISO 1,250

Fig. 01 Signs – 1/125 at f/13, ISO 1,250

In parallel with considering an approach to assignment 3 and working on test shots (here and here) I have been looking at the work of established practitioners. My subject is to look at the changing high street using reflections in the physical sense and mannequins in a more metaphysical sense.

There is a wealth of material available for both window reflections and mannequins and a combination of the two so the hardest challenge was to focus in on contemporary practitioners that were using reflections and mannequins in a way that helped me think about my own angles, lighting, composition and subject matter.

Having said “contemporary” I started somewhere quite different. Eugéne Atget worked in Paris at the turn of the last century and viguorously pursued a personal project to document the changing face of the city. What makes Atget unusual for his time, and especially relevant from my perspective, is that he saw Paris as a complex series of intimate spaces, he photographed the streets not the famous landmarks, the shop fronts and their interiors, the ordinary people not the gentry because he saw that this, close-up of the City, was what was important to document as it changed and disappeared. Graham Clarke in The Photograph (1) describes him as “the photographer as archaeologist” and his huge catalogue of images of a discrete part of Paris supports this view.

I cannot say whether Atget had any particular interest in either reflections or mannequins but he inevitably captured both during his mission to document the store fronts of Paris. I found a small collection of these images at www.atgetphotography.com. (2)

Fig. 02 Eugene Atget Whiteboard

Fig. 02 Eugene Atget Whiteboard

Having tracked down six Atget images that featured mannequins I put them up on a whiteboard to try and better understand his approach. his style is direct and unfussy, there is nothing fancy about his approach, he does not appear over concerned with neat edges but he does keep his verticals aligned to the frame. The angles are quite soft, that is not far from front-on and he takes full advantage of the logic of the window displays to give balance to his pictures. Importantly the reflections appear very intentionally composed, they do not obscure the main subjects in his shop interiors which tends to indicate that his motive is  to record and document either fashion or shops but to use reflections as context and highlights.

When searching for more contemporary inspiration I found references to a photobook by Gary Dwyer. “Window Dressing”  (3) which can be viewed on line at www.openisbn.com/preview/0981884431/. Many photographers have photographed mannequins as part of a wider assignment or project but Gary Dwyera travel photographer and the producer of many photobooks, has made them the central and single theme of a complete collection as published in “Window Dressing”. There are a number of aspects of his approach that I find interesting; in common with Atget he uses reflections to frame the mannequins, he composes the reflections to serve the features that he wishes to emphasise so a white face will appear out of a dark reflected building or bright, reflected lines from the street lead the viewer to the subject inside the shop window. In one image a reflected, blue sky forms an arrow that points in and overlaps the mannequin’s head. As a result many of Dwyer’s images are three dimensional compositions with the shop lights, subject, backgrounds and reflections, both light and dark, creating layer after layer of light but he allows fairly minimal overlay of these zones so the images are quite clean and not especially complex. Interestingly I didn’t find any headless torsos, all his mannequins are complete and quite lifelike.

The key lesson I take from his work is that to be effective in using reflections it is critical to compose both the subject and the reflection in tandem.

Fig.4 Various Practitioner's Whiteboard

Fig.4 Various Practitioner’s Whiteboard

Having looked fairly closely at two particular photographers I widened my search using Magnum as a source.  Initially I searched for window reflections to gain a sense how a selection of established practitioners used them in their work.  Using the whiteboard I looked at screen prints of an initial set of about 35 photographs to gain an overall sense of whether there was any compositional pattern or commonality.

My impression is that the pictures can be roughly divided into four groups depending upon he photographer’s intent.

1. Interiors: Some are about interiors, reflections may play a part in the composition but the photographer is telling a story about or documenting activity within, a room space and does not let the reflections obscure the view. It would appear this this is generally true of Dwyer’s work as discussed above.

2. Exteriors: The other extreme are images that are about the exterior, the outside world and windows or other reflective surfaces are being used as a screen upon which to show an scene or an object. The reflection is fundamental to the composition but is a medium rather than an end result.

3. Context: In some cases reflections are used to put the interior into the context of the exterior so we are show both quite clearly.

4. Complex: The final group are the most complex images where the interior and the exterior blend together to such an extent that they become one but the viewer is invited to dissect the composition to identify the different planes and layers. In effect this is a progression of the third group but where, I sense, the photographer wants us to see the inner and outer world as one.

Whilst there appear to be these, and other, ways of directing the composition it is also important to recognise that the reflection is not the subject but a device for presenting the subject.

Bruno Barbey

Bruno Barbey is  French, Magnum, photographer born in Morocco in 1941 (4). His beautiful and highly colourful photographs of Morocco are reason enough to visit his website (here). But at this time I am most interested in his images which use reflections to great effect. A number of these can be found by using the search engine on the Magnum Photos website (5).

China Kunming 2013 is a good example of an image that fits into my 4th category (complex). The split, plate glass window is reflecting three different viewpoints of the street from three vertical zones with the central zone overlaid by the a large photograph of a women which appears to be inside the shop. As I have discovered when taking shots of this nature the picture is mostly made up of dark tones but the gate pillars of the park (?) entrance opposite provides a bright contrast.

China City of Dali 2013 is an example of my 2nd category (exteriors) and another picture where Barbey presents 3 distinct vertical zones, a rail of clothes, a mirror and the open street. The rail of clothes provide pattern and colour, the mirror contributes the reflection of a woman and child and the street contains a street vendor. Whilst this image uses a mirror rather than a shop window for the reflection it fits into my research because of the way the photographer uses the vertical zones. The image is bright and colourful and gives a compact insight into the street life of this city.

China Kumming Airport 2013 is an exampole of my 1st category (interiors) where reflections from a glass panel near to the photographer act as a visual device to bring additional layers of form and light to a photograph of a large and empty airport terminal. There are a series of images of this same airport on the Magnum site (5) and each uses light and reflection in slightly different ways to bring something extra to the picture.

There are many other examples in Barbey’s portfolio at Magnum Photos (5) and judging on the number of times reflections appear in his 2013 portfolio he obviously uses this device on a regular basis and in different ways. The common factor is that he is using reflections to bring additional sources and intensities of light to his images and by using the layers that reflections provide he captures more detail that would otherwise be possible in a non reflective composition.

Michael Christopher Brown

Michael Christopher Brown is a New York based Magnun photographer whose portfolios (6) are filled with striking images from many different locations. His bird’s eye view of Broadway is one of the most powerful reflection images that I have come across and certainly quite difficult to imitate in Hampshire. It is a perfect example of my 1st category (exteriors) as, looking down from high in a building, he uses the face of the building to reflect the traffic on Broadway. A predominance of yellow cabs provides strong yellow horizontal lines that are complimented by the yellow “V” of a reflected billboard (?).

Another image that uses strong colours and reflections to create a powerful example of my 3rd category (complex) is taken on street level on Broadway. This picture has multiple layers of bright blues, reds and yellow but is made by the single person who stands just right of centre and provides a sense of scale and human interest.

Underpass on Broadway is also given scale by the inclusion of people and is a comparatively simple street or architectural photo except for the large dark head and bright rings of light that are reflected across the frame.

The Broadway collection include many reflections and, like Barbey, Brown uses them in many different ways. Some are very graphic such as Hotel Empire, some very complex like Yellow Taxi and Pedestrians, but what stands out for me is his use of strong saturated colours. He uses bright sunlight or neon signs to add these colours to what would otherwise often be quite low key scenes.

Although the Broadway collection are exciting images and very helpful in seeing how effectively colour can be used in street photography I was originally drawn to Brown by a much more muted photograph New York February 2013 – Street Life (5) which is a complex composition built around a women arranging, what looks like, pussy willow in a shop window. One eye peeps round the window display and she is framed by a flyover, the sky and traffic on the street. This type of image perfectly places the internal activity into the context of the external activity in a way that would be hard to do without using reflections.

 Chris Steele-Perkins

Chris Steele-Perkins is a London based Magnum photographer who is well known for his 1979 book “The Teds”. His website is at www.chrissteeleperkins.com. (7)

Steele-Perkins is another photographer who makes frequent use of different types of reflections. Myanmar Yangon Chaukhtatgyl Paya and reclining Buddha (5) is an excellent example of a highly complex reflection. It is quite an extreme example of my 4th category as the mixture of a grey steel building, the golden buddha and the multi faceted reflective surface are intertwined to the point that the viewer has to study the image for some time to interpret the various components. However, it would be misleading to suggest that it is a muddled composition as key elements such as the two reflections of Buddha’s face are carefully positioned inside the facets. Other Buddha shots such as  Buddha in Yangon (5) and Sewgagon Pagoda (5) show how a similar subject can be treated in quite different ways even when reflections are a common technique. In the first image selected parts of the Buddha are repeated in the frame so there are many hands, and many eyes and in the second there are multiple faces.

In Yangon, Street from inside a Taxi he uses the inside mirror to look back at a street scene which underlines the fact that there are many reflective surfaces available to use.

One of my favourites and the image that originally led me to looking more closely at Chris Steele-Perkins was taken in South Korea in 2013. Soonchin Bay is a complex image but one that also puts the interior into the context of the exterior but whilst this is a carefully composed image that could stand alone it is clearly part of a series about a national wetland area and shows a display of fresh fish being laid out by a fishmonger as a passerby looks on. This is a good example of how the reflections and composition can be used to highlight the underlying subject of a photograph.

Lessons

These practitioners have helped crystallise my thoughts. The photos I have looked at most closely are not about reflections but are where the photographers have used reflections as a compositional tool to present their chosen subject. This is not to say that there are no photos about reflections, there are, but my assignment is about using reflections not about reflections.

Michael Christopher-Brown in particular shows how strong saturated colours can be found either at night or in strong sunlight and how these, often dramatic, swatches of colour can lift a street scene.

Many of the most interesting examples use reflections to lead the viewer to the subject or to frame the subject.

Looking across all the examples also highlights that there are many different ways to use reflections and that I have to be careful to avoid putting together a series of over similar pictures within the theme.

It has also helped to look at how the lighting varies and how these photographers use the light to their best advantage. Most window reflections have significant dark areas, if they didn’t there would be no reflection so it is important to find a balance so that the light tones compensate and contrast the darker tones.

Sources

Books

(1) Clarke, Graham. 1997) The Photograph. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Internet

(2) Atget Photography. Eugene Atget. www.atgetphotography.com/The-Photographers/Eugene-Atget.html

(3) OpenISBN, Gary Dwyer. www.openisbn.com/preview/0981884431/

(4) Barbey, Bruno. Bruno Barbey Official Website brunobarbey.com

(5) Magnum Photos – www.magnumphotos.com

(6) Brown, Michael Christopher. Michale Christopher Brown Official Website www.mcbphotos.com

(7) Steel-Perkins, Chris. Chris Steele-Perkins Official Website www.chrissteeleperkins.com