Tag Archives: Don McCullin

Brighton Photo Biennial 2014

Fig. 01 Birds - 1/500 at F/10, ISO 200

Fig. 01 Birds – 1/500 at F/10, ISO 200

I spent a day at the Brighton Photo Biennial looking at the various exhibitions that were scattered around the town. There was quite of variety of exhibits and picking ones that would help me move forward in my studies was challenging. My favourite art quote is included in Austin Kloen’s wonderful little book, Steal Like an Artist *(1) and is from André Gide, a French writer:

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” *(1)

But, the problem with this truism is that sometimes trying to say the same thing in a different way results in uninspiring  work. Perhaps I’m a little too old and too conservative to understand where some contemporary photography is trying to get to. As a consequence the highlights of my day, apart from a walk on the pier, were generally rather old school.

Fig Elvis on The Pier - 1/180 at f/11, ISO 200

Fig Elvis on The Pier – 1/180 at f/11, ISO 200

Real Britain 1974 looks at the work of the Co-Optic group who were pushing out the boundaries of documentary photography in the 70s. Many of this group went on to become highly recognised practitioners but at the time were mostly still classified as “emerging”. The group included Gerry Badger, Martin Parr, Fay Godwin and Paul Hill and some of the photos on show are instantly recognisable. The idea was to create a set of 25 postcards from around Britain that represented the real Britain of the day. Not exactly contemporary to most of the population but within my lifetime so it is to me. Great little and rather nostalgic exhibition. As a aside I find it interesting that Parr continues to be interested in postcards.

The Photo Book Show in the Jubilee Library was excellent. Two tables were laid out with hand-crafted and unique photo books. I especially liked Degeneration which lead me to the Human Endeavour *(2) website once I got home. Human Endeavour is a collaborative project or, what they call, a photographic collective, that is documenting the degeneration of urban buildings. I found their dummy photo book inspiring as this is a subject I have explored on a regular basis. It is a shame that the book appears to be limited to the single copy on display here.

My overall impression of the books on show was to be astounded by the quality and creativity on display. Some are artworks in their own right, although some are not particularly  functional as books and a small number were reminiscent of an art student’s final degree work rather than a publication.

Fig 2 Aldo Moro - Amore E Piombo - 1/10 at f/7.1, ISO 800

Fig 2 Aldo Moro – Amore E Piombo – 1/10 at f/7.1, ISO 800

Amore E Piombo (Love and Lead) was of particular interest as we used to live in Italy and have watched a number of Italian television dramas and read a few histories about the 60s and 70s when Italy was nearly torn apart by violent criminal and political factions. This exhibition includes a selection of the work of the Rome based agency Team Editorial Services and it showcases a very specific genre of photo journalism. It presents violent death in an unrestrained way, hard hitting photographs that must have shocked the Italian public when they were first published. This is war photography undertaken on the streets of Italy’s largest cities and is reminiscent of photographers such as McCullin or Griffiths but is also photo journalism at its best, determined photographers getting close to the terrible events that were unfolding and bringing back beautifully composed photographs to the news desk. The exhibition documents a dark period in Italian history and reminds us that many parts of Europe have tottered on the brink of anarchy in comparatively recent times.

Fig 1/300 at f/11, ISO 200

Fig 1/300 at f/11, ISO 200

A Return to Elsewhere *(3) shows the work of two photographers (Kalpesh Lathigra and Thabiso Sekgala), one based in the UK and one in South Africa, who have photographed the influence of Indian communities on the towns in which they now live. Given my recent pondering on whether contemporary photographs need to desaturated and flat it was something of a relief to see an exhibition of high contrast and saturated pictures. There is great variety in the work of these two photographers, street photography, urban landscape in the style of Camilo José Vergara, contextulised portraits, appropriation of old photographs and text and intimate landscape.

This is an exciting study of belonging and not quite belonging, of heritage and new horizons, transported and modified culture, identity and shared histories. The juxtaposition of two very different landscapes housing people originating from the same place is very powerful and effective. The photos also confront and question stereotypes and challenge us to consider the subjects quite carefully.

A highlight of the day. Their website is also well worth visiting and quite unusual http://elsewhere.thespace.org

Fig. 03 1/60 at F/13, ISO 500

Fig. 03 Looking into The Family Album – 1/60 at F/13, ISO 500

Looking Into The Family Album is an important exhibit showcasing the work of year 10 and year 11 students from two local Academies. Three artists collaborated with the students to create giant backdrops, costumes and staged photographs and the results are quite remarkable. I feel strongly that more photographers, especially professional practitioners should be investing time in helping young photographers. This most accessible art form is already a dominant feature of young people’s lives and the more young people that take this subject up at GCSE and A’ Level the more exciting the future of British photography becomes. We need to help students go beyond repeating the same old boring projects and to start pushing their creative boundaries but to do this within an academic framework so they start to see their work in the context of a wider photographic world and to make sure that they acquire the basic technical skills that will need if they are to get the best from the discipline. This work is a great example of this being done so I congratulate James Casey, Alex Buckley and Marysa Dowling who mentored these students.

Fig 5 Solitude - 1/300 at F/10, ISO 200

Fig 4 Solitude – 1/300 at F/10, ISO 200

Overall Impressions

Brighton is a great place and the perfect location for a festival of this kind. I was disappointed with the guide / catalogue which needed a better map that named the exhibitions so I didn’t have to pick a gallery off the map and keep turning the pages back and forth till I found what was on there. It would also have been nice to have better information available at some of the exhibits to learn more about the artists. Some of the signage once you found a location was very poor and I spent ages wandering around the Brighton Museum looking for Amore E Piombo.

Lunch and a walk on the pier was excellent. I have started to find my DSLR camera bag far too cumbersome and heavy and best used when I am in a “studio” environment or working near to the car. I recently treated myself to a Fuji XT 1 mirror-less camera and am carrying it everywhere I go. It is perfect for street photography because it is as discreet as Leica (just much cheaper!) , brilliant at handling poor light (such as inside the Amore E Piombo exhibition), and ridiculously portable. All the photos here were captured with this little gem.

Fig. 05 Sunday Stroll -  1/120 at f/13, ISO 200

Fig. 05 Sunday Stroll – 1/120 at f/13, ISO 200

Sources

Books

(1) Kleon, Austin. (2012) Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative.New York: Workman Publishing.

Internet

(2) Human Endeavour – http://www.humanendeavour.co.uk

(3) A Return to Elsewhere – http://elsewhere.thespace.org

 

Philip Jones Griffiths – An Engaged Observer

Bringing Home the Spoils from a Manila Rubbish Dump 1990

Bringing Home the Spoils from a Manila Rubbish Dump 1990

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.

This post, to use Stuart Freedman’s *(1) phrase, is about “photo journalism as a mechanism for story telling” and about a photographer, Philip Jones Griffiths, who the Getty Museum included in a group of what they called Engaged Observers *(2) and who Magnum would call Concerned Photographers. The Getty grouping is a little arbitrary but the work of these practitioners is part of a common thread that runs through contemporary narrative photography that is initially captured or subsequently published in the context of photo journalism. These photographers have identified so closely with their subjects, become so totally absorbed in their projects and become so involved with the narrative that they have become part of the story they set out to tell. The Getty Museum also included W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M Smith in the same grouping but I have already discussed their work in WW2 to Minamato.

Harold Evans *(3) argues that a picture or photo essay is not confined to a single event or even by time, it addresses a broad subject and argues and analyses more than it narrates. It sets out to make a point. I have selected Jones Griffiths and the Smiths because each have produced at least one major work that sets out to fundamentally change the view about an important subject. Maria Short, in Context and Narrative *(4), quotes Karin Becker Ohrn as defining documentary photography in Dorothea Lange and the Documentary Tradition as:

“The Photographer’s goal was to bring the attention of the audience to the subject of his or her work and, in many cases, to pave the way for social change.”

This definition would have found favour with Philip Jones Griffiths who believed that his role as a concerned photographer and photo journalist was to “draw attention” *(5). Whilst holding the Presidency of Magnum in the 1980s he promoted the philosophy that, because of the institutional status the agency enjoyed, it had a responsibility not to give people what they wanted to see, but what the Magnum photographers wanted them to see. He believed that Magnum had survived because its photo journalists had something to say and who said it with independence and integrity *(5). But nearing the end of his life in 2008 he was deeply concerned that Magnum and the world of photo journalism in general was “dumbing down” partly because the audience was swamped with so many images from every imaginable source that the powerful and important images were losing their effect and partly because professional photographers had become “addicted to triviality”. This later quote might have been specifically directed at Martin Parr whose membership of Magnum he bitterly opposed.

This question of whether photo journalism and documentary photography has been dumbed down is a theme picked up by Stuart Freedman *(1). His concern is that too many photo journalists are “shooting visual clichés of suffering because it sells and advances their careers.” He finds common ground with the Jones Griffiths’ philosophy when he argues that the true photo journalist must look at the stories that they want to make not the stories that editors ask for otherwise they are merely providing pictures for someone else’s stories. So, we can establish one clear attribute of photo journalism, at least in the eyes of these two recognised practitioners, the photo journalist is telling the story not illustrating it.

Freedman discusses a second attribute that David Campbell quotes Tod Pappageorge summarising as:

“if your photographs aren’t good enough you aren”t reading enough” *(6).

This speaks of the photographer’s depth of understanding. The argument that superficial research leads to superficial photographs and that to tell a story the photographer must have acquired or developed an intimate understanding of their subject. Many established photo journalists express their concern that too many young photographers are chasing blockbuster, award winning, single images before quickly moving on to their next subject. Freedman calls for story telling to be “as rigourous in thought and research as it is beautiful in construction and execution” *(1) and, whilst he said this in the context of photo journalism, it is equally relevant to documentary photography and any other form of serious narrative.

As discussed elsewhere the power of Julian Germain’s For Every Minute you are Angry you lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness lies in his total engagement with the subject. In that instance his deep knowledge came from investing time over many years because he enjoyed his subject’s company and not because he saw him as a project. Josef Koudelka’s Wall is moving because, having been born in a place that ended up behind the Iron Curtain, he instinctively understands the emotional impact of arbitrarily imposing a divisive structure on a landscape. As I will come onto discussing, Jones Griffiths’ Vietnam Inc. is considered to be one of the most important books about that war or war in general because he went native and left many other war photographers in the bars of Saigon waiting for the next US Army briefing. He became engaged with the Vietnamese people whom he saw had much in common with the Welsh and through this engagement over an extended period of time he grew to understand them and felt empowered to tell their story. Robert Capa said “Like the people you shoot and let them know it”.

This can all be summarised by saying great documentary or journalistic narrative has three key attributes:

  • The photo journalist is telling a story that they believe is worth telling;
  • The story will be based on an in-depth understanding of the subject;
  • It will be beautiful in construction and execution.

These principles set a high standard to aspire to but Philip Jones Griffiths, whose work is discussed below, has been part of the history of the concerned photography movement that set the bar at this olympic height. However, by focussing on the greats of the industry there is a risk that we measure the importance of a story on a national or global scale and this would be a mistake. Julian Germain in Sixty Seconds and more recently in Classroom Portraits, Richard Billingham in Ray’s a Laugh, Martin Parr in The Last Resort and Think of England all show that powerful and important narrative can be created close to, or even in the, home.

Philip Jones Griffiths – Vietnam Inc.

In 1966 Philip Jones Griffiths decided to focus all his energy on a single grand project; in an interview for Photo Histories * (5) he said that he more or less decided that he needed to “get passionate” about something. The something was the Vietnam war and the end result was Vietnam Inc. The project took three years of in-country journalism in which time Jones Griffiths moved further and further away from reporting the war as the Americans with white hats defending democracy from the evil of communism. This meant that Magnum could not sell his photographs to the American media but, once published in Vietnam Inc., they became an important factor in changing opinions both at home in the USA and abroad. In its obituary for Jones Griffiths The Independent newspaper *(7) is one of many reviews to describe Vietnam Inc. as the single most important book about the Vietnam War, the most important photo book of the 1970s and goes on to argue that its publication changed photo journalism for ever.

The significant change was that it placed the photographer’s own experiences at the centre of the story, the photographs are highly subjective because of his choice of subject, he is expressing his own anguish by concentrating on the impact of the war on, not just on the Vietnamese but also on the young American soldiers who seem to be blundering around in an alien land fighting people and a political system they don’t understand and defending an American backed regime that is equally complex and baffling.

This book is a broad, sweeping narrative with many sub-themes within its overriding anti-war message. Jones Griffiths sent pithy and acerbic captions back to Magnum along with his photos and together they create a complex and detailed narrative of the war. Even now, nearly 40 years after the war ended, it is easy to understand why this book changed attitudes in America because it humanises the conflict. We are introduced to rural Vietnam, to pretty women farmers, children with the family buffalo (South East Asia’s tractor), families in their homes, fishermen on their boats, but these images of a rural idyll are punctuated with photos of shell holes and dead Vietcong. The American military is shown imposed on the landscape, heavily laden soldiers wading past farmers in their paddy fields, strangers in a strange land. We see  homesick, American soldiers holding Vietnamese children and talking to villagers but we are made aware that the context was not wholly philanthropical and often part of an attempt to Americanise the locals by introducing them to Disney films, toilet seats and filter tipped cigarettes.

I expected to see dark photos, similar perhaps to Josef Koudelka or Don McCullin, but Jones Griffiths has given us beautifully composed, bright prints to the extent that some could be taken out of context and used in a black and white Lonely Planet travel guide. He presumably didn’t feel that he had to hammer home the message with dark gritty images, he used all his artistic flair to present us with the beauty of the land and its people, the handsome young marines and the ugly scars and terrible effects of war. Jones Griffiths was a political being and this is a political book, he wants us to be shocked and to question what are we seeing and why is it happening ? How can an American marine point his automatic rifle at a mother holding her beautiful baby who is staring at the camera with solemn eyes like a miniature Chinese Emperor? What chain of events led the marine to this village and how had he reached the point where he could casually allow his gun to point at these people in front of a British journalist. Even though his stance is non aggressive I found this casual disregard for basic firearms safety as deeply concerning as the more horrific pictures because it talks of the man’s state of mind where things he could not image doing in Missouri or California or on the firing range are acceptable behaviour in Vietnam.

Phillip Jones Griffiths made no secret of his views and his captions are often highly loaded and critical. After its publication he talked extensively about his motives and the misguided policies of the American Government. He wanted the Americans to ask why their politicians thought it made sense to fight alongside people whose motives, culture and language they didn’t understand against an enemy who was equally enigmatic in an alien landscape on the other side of the world. This message is the overriding theme of the photographs, in simple terms, what are we doing here?

I chose Philip Jones Griffiths as an example of the engaged observer or concerned photographer for a number of reasons. Firstly because, as I said in my introduction, he became part of the story he was telling, secondly because Vietnam Inc. is the very definition of making photographs with the intent of achieving social or political change and lastly because although he is best remembered for his grand project he showed in his work on the Philippines *(9) and many other places that his empathy with distressed people came from his deeply held personal convictions and not because he could spot a global headline.

Sources

Books

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

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

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

Internet

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

(2) Getty Museum – Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties, Photographic Essays – http://www.getty.edu/news/press/engaged_observers/photographic_essays.pdf

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

(6) 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) The Independent (March 2008 ) Philip Jones Griffiths: Photographer whose Vietnam images changed photojournalism – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/philip-jones-griffiths-photographer-whose-vietnam-images-changed-photojournalism-799333.html

(9) Jones Griffiths, Philip – Garbage dump in the Philippines.1996 – http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2S5RYDYUP9O7

(8) Jones. Griffiths, Philip – Magnum – https://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2K7O3RP3N9U

 

W. Eugene Smith – WW2 to Minamata

Protest in Tokyo 1988

Protest in Tokyo 1988

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.

W. Eugene Smith’s approach to photography was, to a great extent,  a product of the Second World War. Staring out on a local newspaper in 1936 he had photographed the environmental devastation of the “Dust Bowl”, the series of droughts that severely impacted the American Midwest during The Great Depression *(1) but he rose to prominence as a war photographer covering the Pacific War including the invasions of Saipan, Guam and Okinawa. His photos of US Marines in the Pacific are reminiscent of Don McCullin’s *(3) and Philip Jones Griffiths’ *(4) much later Vietnam War photos having the same sense of the photographer being connected to the subject, not just being an impartial observer. Having read Don McCullin’s autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour *(5) it is easy to understand how close proximity to modern, close combat warfare in a harsh, unforgiving terrain would change a person’s whole outlook on life. McCullin says ” I don’t know if it taught me anything beyond a new appreciation of how terrible war can be. It certainly made me ashamed of what human begins are capable of doing to each other.”

Smith was severely injured at Okinawa and took two years to recover from his wounds. The first photograph he is said to have developed after recovering is of his two children walking hand in hand from a dark wood into sunshine The Walk to Paradise Gardens *(9). In other circumstances one might view this as a tired cliché but in the context of his wartime experiences and his recovery from wounds it is a powerful metaphor for his own state of mind, putting the darkness behind him and heading into a brighter future.

In The Genius of Photography *(6) Gerry Badger puts Smith’s post war work into the context of two opposing ideologies that prevailed in post war Europe, on one hand the reaction to the horror of a six year war was to withdraw into one’s self and soley take responsibility for one’s own actions; Badger labels this as the negative response. On the other hand the positive response was the humanist approach of heightened social concern, a response that Cartier-Bresson, Capa, W. Eugene Smith and their fellow Magnum photographers exemplify. This became known as the “concerned photographer” approach.

Smith epitomised this approach, an obsessive artist who was notoriously difficult to work with, who progressed from sentimental narratives with political undertones about “good people” such as Country Doctor (1948) *(7)  and Nurse Midwife (1951) to an in-depth study of Pittsburg (1955 to 1957) and eventually to Minamata (1975). This was a move from sentimental observer to involved crusader and the changes in his narrative style are informative.

Country Doctor is one of the best known examples of the classic Life Magazine photo story. It is considered in depth in several sources including by Michael Freeman in The Photographer’s Story *(8). Freeman says that Country Doctor is widely regraded as the first of what Life Magazine would call a “Photo Essay”, a presentation style made possible, perhaps desirable and essential by the large page, illustrated magazines that had evolved in the 1930s.

Smith and his, long suffering, photo editor, created an approach and a final layout that would become something of a template for the photo essay.

  • The opening page is a strong, scene setting shot of the doctor on his rural rounds – (1 x Photo)
  • The next four double page spreads are stories within the story, sub-plots, describing four different aspects of the doctor’s working life
    • “He must specialise in a dozen different fields” (9 x photos),
    • “An accident interrupts his leisure” (5 x photos),
    • “An old man dies at night” (3 x photos),
    • “He sets a badly dislocated elbow and amputates a gangrenous leg” (7 x photos)
  • The closing double page spread is spilt between,
    • left, a closing statement and three images, “Community absorbs most of his time” (3 x photos)
    • and, right, a strong closing shot of a tired doctor drinking a coffee and smoking a cigarette. (1 x photo)
  • 29 photos in total

Each double page spread is different and the photo sizes and aspects are varied within the pages and the overall story. Life Magazine found a photogenic subject and setting and Smith had no qualms about setting up individual shots. Smith said that “The majority of photographic stories require a certain amount of setting up, re-arranging and stage direction to bring pictorial and editorial coherency to pictures ….. it is done for the purpose of a better translation of the spirit of the actuality, it is completely ethical.”* (8). This statement and the fact that we know that there was a significant amount of stage direction in capturing Country Doctor seems to set the photo essay or photo story aside from what we consider to be photo journalism. Smith very much saw himself as an artist and admitted to being “constantly torn between the attitude of the conscientious journalist who is a recorder and interpreter of the facts and of the creative artist who often is necessarily at poetic odds with the literal facts.” *(6). These two statements help to reveal something about the photo story as a medium:

  • The images might be set-up and stage directed to communicate what the photograph sees as the essence of the narrative.
  • The photo story, presented in the style of Country Doctor, implies a linear continuum but, in reality the sequence of the overall story and what is included or excluded in the sub-plots may have occurred in an entirely different sequence.
  • It seems important to recognise that the photo essay or story in this form is an editorial not a news story. The stage direction, sequencing and editing are all interventions on the part of either the photographer or the picture editor.

To take this point a little further, Freeman tells us that the Denver bureau chief for Life magazine story boarded the narrative in the form of 45 images in a shooting script and many of the final shots did come from this storyboard

Following his departure from Life Magazine in 1955 Smith joined Magnum who found him an assignment to photograph Pittsburg for a book by Stefan Lorant. This was intended to be a three week job but Smith spent 2 years photographing the city, missing the deadline for Lorant’s book and turning down Magnum’s last ditch attempt to sell his series because the potential publisher would only use half the pictures Smith believed they needed to tell the story. Some of the Pittsburg photos can see on the Magnum site and they are in stark contrast to his work for Life. In Country Doctor the magazine wanted to entertain their readers with an interesting human interest story and to report on the modernisation of medicine at the local level  *(8). It was not social documentary photography in the sense that Life or Smith were campaigning for any change, nor were they drawing attention to the plight of the doctor or his patients but they did want to remind Americans that they had no need for state funded health care.

In the Pittsburg project we see Smith as the obsessive artist. According to the International Centre of Photography in New York *(11), who mounted an exhibition of 193 of the 1,200 prints Smith created from the 17,000 negatives he made in Pittsburg, Smith saw this project as the most important work of his life. It is now seen as a work of great importance documenting a large industrial American city in the middle of the twentieth century but for Smith it was an opportunity to expose the conflicts of 1950’s America. Sam Stephenson *(12), who curated the exhibition, says that Smith wanted to create a photo essay that presented images of hope and despair, poverty and affluence, and solitude and togetherness.

Given the scale of the Pittsburg project it is not surprising that only a small number of the photographs can be seen on line and there is no way, that I could find, of seeing the collection presented in a curated series. As a result, whilst it would possible to comment on the individual photographs, it is difficult to learn much from the work as a narrative. But, it might be a lesson in keeping the scope of a project contained, in my days as a project manager we used to talk of “project creep”, the way in which a project organically grows even whilst it is in progress and Pittsburg is probably the photographic equivalent. Smith had a story to tell but he included so many sub-plots that it became impossible to find a medium for the narrative to be made public. The complexity of the story and his insistence on completeness meant that the narrative ultimately fails because it resides in boxes in a storeroom. If the role of narrative within social documentary photography or the concerned photographer approach is to pave the way for social change, as it is defined by Maria Short in Context and Narrative *(10), then the photographer has failed if they cannot bring the narrative into the public’s view.

Protest in Tokyo 1988

Protest in Tokyo 1988

Near the end of Smith’s life he embarked on another major project and one that met the Maria Short definition in that it not only paved the way for change but was instrumental in achieving that change. Minamata vs. the Chisso Corporation is the story of a small fishing village and it’s population who live adjacent to a huge chemical plant on the coast of Japan. Chisso Corporation, who own the plant, had been pumping toxic waste into the seas for many years and the villagers, whose diet is based on the fish they catch, are suffering from severe mercury poisoning causing foetal brain damage and premature death in adults. The village eventually take Chisso corporation to court and win.

Smith and his wife Aileen M. Smith became aware of the controversy surrounding this case in 1971 and travelled to Japan to document the progress of the claims. Their photographs made the story international news and after winning their case the villagers and wider protest groups were quick to recognise the Smiths’ contribution.

Using the Magnum site *(13) as a reference point this is a a much more easily digested story than Pittsburg. It meets the classic criteria of a narrative having a beginning, middle and end and the way the photographs are taken and presented is informative.

  • There are a sequence of opening shots that set the scene. We see fishermen at work and the Mayor of Minamata dressed in traditional clothing with other images from their harbour festival. This establishes the village’s close relationship with the sea and puts the relationship into a context of being historical and ancient.
  • We are then introduced to Chisso who are shown as a huge, modern, industrial complex close to the shore and without pause are taken to the root of the problem with pictures of the toxic chemicals being pumped into the sea.
  • With this context established we are introduced to the victims, people deformed and dying from mercury poisoning.
  • The narrative switches to the protest movement for the first time.
  • The Central Pollution Board who heard the case is introduced to us and we are shown powerful images of victims being shown to the court and told in the captions that the victims insisted that the Board members touched them and thereby saw them as human. This theme is extended to include protesters forcing a Chisso representative to look at a victim.
  • The series concludes with a variety of pictures from the trial, protesters outside, Chisso representatives within and closes with a portrait of the the presiding judge who ruled i the village’s favour.

Magnum have displayed 35 images, a tiny number compared to the Pittsburg story, and only 6 more than Country Doctor. Each image is, in itself strong, but their power is multiplied by their relationship with the images that precede and follow them. The true power of the story lies in the series and the sequence. Smith believed the photo story depended on images that could be read as excerpts from a continuum and, if we believe the proof of the pudding is in the eating, this narrative did help to bring about social change.

Protest in Tokyo 1988

Protest in Tokyo 1988

Sources

Books

(5) McCullin, Don (1990) Unreasonable Behaviour: An Autobiography. Vintage Edition 1997 reprint. London: Vintage

(6) Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: how Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille.

(8) Freeman, Michael (2012) The Photographer’s Story: The Art of Visual Narrative. Lewes: The Ilex Press.

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

Internet

(1) Amadeo, Kimberley. The Dust Bowl. US Economy Site – http://useconomy.about.com/od/criticalssues/p/The_Dust_Bowl.htm

(2) Smith, W. Eugene. W.Eugene Smith His Photographs and Notes – Magnum Photography – http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL5347YF

(3) McCullin, Don. Don McCullin Biography – Mark George Site – http://markgeorge.com/mark-george/don-mccullin/don-mccullin/

(4) Jones Griffiths, Philip. Philip Jones Griffiths Profile – Magnum Photography – http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL535HON

(7) Smith, W. Eugene. W.Eugene Smith’s Landmark Photo Essay, ‘Country Doctor’ – Time Life – http://life.time.com/history/life-classic-eugene-smiths-country-doctor/#1

(9) Smith, W. Eugene. The Walk to Paradise Gardens – Masters of Photography site – http://masters-of-photography.com/S/smith/smith_children_walking_full.html

(11) Smith, W. Eugene. Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburg Photographs. International Centre of Photography – http://museum.icp.org/museum/exhibitions/dream_street/

(12) Stephenson, Sam (2011) Dream Street: Pittsburg Photographs by W. Eugene Smith – Absolute Arts site – http://www.absolutearts.com/artsnews/2001/11/03/29317.html

(13) 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

Roland Barthes Camera Lucida

It was suggested that I should read Camera Lucida (1), the last work of French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes. I had previously heard of “studium and punctum” but had not read the original book.

I think of myself as an avid reader, fiction, history, photography, sport, even literature but I found this short book difficult to break into, in fact, often quite impenetrable. Taking the man’s cleverness as a given I can only assume that this book was written for himself or for people skilled at translating the philosopher’s thoughts. I find his style rambling and confusing and his key ideas appear hidden behind a fog of words that, in fairness, might have lost sometime in translation.

At the outset Barthes tells us that he wants to learn, at all costs, what photography was in itself and he goes in search of the fundamental feature that is the basis of all photography. He questions whether photography has a “genius” of its own, something that would set it apart from, what he calls, the community of images. His tone might be interpreted as generally one of disappointment with photography, a medium that he feels  “crushes all other images by its tyranny” and that fails to capture the essence of his dead mother.

Perhaps the genius of photography lies hidden amid his criticisms. If in 1980 he sensed that photography was overwhelming other art what might he think in 2014 when photography has become so overwhelming that we have invented on-line galleries that probably have more images uploaded per day than there are paintings on display in all of galleries in Britain or maybe even Europe yet has it really crushed the other communities of images? The genius of the medium might lie in this accessibility . According to Digitrends (2) every fifteen minutes users of Facebook upload the same number of photographs as are stored in the New York public photo archives. One might argue that the ordinary is swamping the extra-ordinary but this is true of any art form, just travel any distance in a taxi playing Euro pop, or listen to piped music in a shopping centre car park. Barthes appears to argue that quantity, in itself, diminishes an art form and that the quantity in one art form threatens to crush other forms. I do not accept this argument. Graham Clarke (3) in describing the development of the modern camera describes photography as “the most mobile and the most available of visual forms” and the “most democratic art form” and I subscribe to this view. By making photography possible from a telephone, an instrument designed for verbal communication people with no particular technical skills can communicate through images, even moving images. A biscuit tin of dog-eared, black and white family photographs has been replaced by an ever expanding library of photos of family, friends, places and events. The many can now document their lives to a level of detail that was once the preserve of the very few. Some of these pictures will match someone’s expectation of art – Ai Weiwei’s iPhone photo of the Forbidden City springs to mind – and many will not but this should neither diminish their role as a diary of memories, nor as an expression of current emotions, nor as a form of communication. “Look,” “See,” “Here it is,” as Barthes puts it, has value in its own right and who is to say that a cave painting of a bison ever meant more or that Holbein’s portraits say more than “Look,” “See,” “Here he is.”

Henri Cartier Bresson is famous for his “decisive moment” (4) and this is an idea that feels right to many photographers. It is the answer to Barthes’ question as to why we photograph an object at this moment rather than some other because this is the other genius of photography. The art of photography lies in, selection versus exclusion both in terms of subject and time. Stephen Shore, in The Nature of Photographs (5) discusses how we create order out of disorder by selecting a tiny moment in time and freezing it in a photograph. What we select as our subject and what we exclude from our frame is a hard, learnt skill for many of us.

There are clearly many insightful ideas in Camera Lucida , none more so than his much discussed concept of the studium and punctum of a photograph, but there are other truths here that are worth considering. He points out that all photographic portraits are posed because we adjust ourselves in some way when a camera is pointed in our direction and that, to manage this, the photographer becomes involved with manipulating the subject, using props, choosing meaningful backgrounds and that these actions move the portrait even further from the truth. It is of course an equally valid argument to say that the subject manipulates the photographer and the image by posing. He therefore believes that, if the subject is a person, no photograph is a true image capturing inner emotions and feelings. His argument contains some truth but not enough truth to make it a absolute. At one extreme we could look at a selection of Don McCullin’s (6) war photos where the subject is so deeply submerged in their private horror as to be oblivious to the camera, in “A Grunt Suffering Severe Shell Shock” I believe we see in his face a fleeting sense, of what he is feeling. McCullin offers many similar examples that could be categorised as people being so overwhelmed by their circumstances that the photographer is all but invisible to them. On the other extreme we could look at the work of David Bailey whose minimalistic portraits are repeatedly described as capturing the essence of his subjects. If Barthes was to visit the Stardust exhibition (7) would he agree with this view or would he say that the photographer was only capturing what Lennon or Caine or Beuys wanted him to see and that their pose hides the inner man? With Bailey’s portraits I believe there are nearly always two inputs, the visual document as put before us by the collaborative efforts of the subject and the photographer and all the other knowledge or perceived knowledge we have of the subject outside of the photograph, we put these together and might say that he has captured the true image but perhaps only the subject can say whether we are right.

His analysis of why we like or dislike a photograph is at the heart of this book and he takes this thought forward to look at why some photographs have no impact on us at all, leave us so unmoved that we neither like nor dislike them, we are simply unmoved. This was obviously true for Barthes forty odd years ago and is true for us today. We are exposed to countless photographs every day, the internet is so image heavy we are shocked to see a page with more text than pictures, no television news item can just be described, a photograph must be displayed over the newsreader’s shoulder, they arrive unsolicited on our phones, in our email, on every page of the newspaper both in paper and on-line, they adorn every billboard and many shop windows; our world is wallpapered with photographs, so many that it is far too exhausting to take a position on even a small percentage and certainly not all of them so we subconsciously categorise photographs into “like” (a few), “dislike” (a few) and                                                                                                                                                completely ignore all the rest (the many) – the wallpaper? Bizarrely, in a world of too many, I go seeking more, buying photo books, hunting down websites, scouring the bookshelves of every charity shop I pass and in my work for assignment 3 I am even seeking out and photographing photographs; it’s bird spotting in an aviary, or looking for a square inch of art on the wallpaper. Barthes is looking for “adventure”, to be “animated”, to decide whether a photograph “exists” for him and this is his far more elegant way of expressing my “like”, “dislike”, “ignore”.

Barthes is searching for logical rules that explain why we make these choices. He recognises that many photographs are generally interesting and have, what he calls “an average effect” when we look at them in the context of what else we already know. He calls this the studium of a photograph, the photograph is of value, the viewer will have some enthusiasm for it because it documents a subject in way that seems “all right” and communicates, or provides an insight into the intent of the photographer. Beyond that it passes information, we learn something we didn’t know and in that we see that studium is related to study. He points out, that in journalism, the photograph can be interesting without any specific detail interrupting our reading. In effect the studium of a photograph provides a background, in many cases there is only this background but in some cases there is the punctum.

The punctum is the sharp point that pricks our attention and lifts a photograph to another level above just interesting. Barthes describes many examples of photographs that include a punctum and from this analysis we can readily see that, for him, it is a very personal response. In Barthes’ view the photographer cannot insert a punctum, if he or she does he rejects it. “I refuse to inherit something from another eye than my own”. This idea challenges the photographer to capture a subject with enough studium to hold the viewer’s initial interest and to unintentionally include a punctum, not an easy rule to follow. If we believe that the punctum is only ever a highly personal point of detail we, the photographer, will probably search for it in vain. If we believe that it is a point of detail that lifts the photograph to another level and that will be identified and recognised by most viewers we will fail his test but might have succeeded in creating a better or more exciting photograph that stands out from the crowd.

On finishing the book and after writing up my notes I remain a little frustrated by Barthes. I still think that he is very selective in the evidence he submits to prove his arguments and that he looks for rules when perhaps the whole point is that there are non. However, he offers a number of valuable insights that have a practical bearing on the study of photography and beyond that his writing is provocative and demands argument and this alone makes Camera Lucida a worthwhile read.

Sources

Books

(1) Barthes, Roland. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books

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

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

(5) Shore, Stephen, (2007) The Nature of Photographs: Second Edition. New York: Phaidon Press.

(6) McCullin, Don, (1990) Unreasonable Behaviour: 1992 Edition. London: Vintage.

(7) Bailey, David. (2014) Bailey’s Stardust: Published to accompany the exhibition Bailey’s Stardust at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 6th February to 1st June 2014, London, National Portrait Gallery

Internet

(2) Digital Trends www.digitaltrends.com/social-media/nearly-300000-status-updates-are-posted-to-facebook-every-minute/#!Eo6mQ