Tag Archives: Philip Jones Griffiths

Researching and Completing Assignment 5

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

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

Introduction

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

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

Working in a Series

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

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

Quality of Research and Understanding

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

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

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

See – Philip Jones Griffiths – An Engaged Observer

Contextualisation

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

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

Respecting the Subject Through the Quality of the Image

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

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

The Concept

Choice of Subject

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

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

Parallel Timelines

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

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

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

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

Text and Captions

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

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

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

Appropriation

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

Other Influences

Different photographers and writers influenced different parts of the assignment.

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

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

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

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

The Process

Developing the Concept

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

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

Research

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

Each strand opened up new avenues of research including:

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

Photography

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

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

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

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

Sources

 Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

 

Ray’s a Laugh – Richard Billingham

_FJ10318Rays a Laugh was published in 1996 and some critics including Charlotte Cotton believe that it redefined contemporary narrative. For reasons of price it was impractical to review the 1996 original or the 2000 paperback reprint but I was able to acquire the 2014 Errata Books on Books edition *(1) which is, in effect a high quality photocopy, but is bound as a book and includes an informative essay by Charlotte Cotton. *(2)

Rays a Laugh is fundamentally different from any other photo book that I have reviewed. It is an extended six year narrative about the artists’ chronically alcoholic father and the small dysfunctional family that surrounds him. It has a level of intimacy that could only be achieved by a family member, Julian Germain’s For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness *(3) that I reviewed recently, is also an inmate study of one man but the photographer is a step back from the subject. in Ray’s a Laugh the father and son’s relationship is being intimately visualised. Interestingly the artist himself compares his approach to that of a wildlife photographer so he clearly believes that there is a level of objectivity and whist, after reading a number of interviews with the artist I better understand why he says that, my initial and emotional reaction is that he, the photographer, is in the picture with his family. This series might be a biography of his family but it is also an autobiography of six highly developmental years in his own life.

This work could be interpreted as being intentionally provocative but Richard Billington says that he didn’t set out to shock or offend anyone *(4), he is just endeavouring to make his work “spiritually meaningful”. I accept that this is his aim but to achieve it he had to produce emotionally charged images and it is inevitable that this level of emotional energy will generate strong reactions in its audience. Given the emotional reaction that this book is always going to generate it seems a valid approach to record my first reactions before I look more deeply. The words I first wrote down were family, personal, private, voyeuristic, revealing, ugly, sad, hopeless, violent, amateur.

The photographs are a vivid and detailed exposé of the inner workings of a poor family living in a tiny, high-rise flat in a depressed area. Ray is a tragic figure, Richard thinks that he was “some sort of mechanic” but he is long term unemployed, alcoholic and unwilling to leave the flat. He drinks, slumps lost in his thoughts, falls over, is sick, sleeps and starts the cycle again. He looks detached, absent, empty and broken. He clearly provokes strong responses from his obese wife Liz who is, more than once, shown with a balled fist threatening him. Liz likes cats, dogs, jigsaw puzzles and cigarettes. Apart from Richard there is another son who is lazy, and potentially addicted to drug taking in general (as opposed to an addiction to a specific drug) and playing video games. In hindsight Billingham says that the themes of addiction and boredom are those that interest him the most but they were not in his mind when taking the photographs.

The photographs, which were taken as studies to help Richard draw gestures for his paintings, are snapshots, often erratically framed, sometimes out of focus and mostly over saturated. This approach is part of the tension created by the series, the viewer expects snapshots to present a universally positive view of family life, with snapshots we record happy events, holidays, weddings, new babies, pets asleep on the sofa, children reaching milestones in their lives. Billingham has brought an amateur feel, a snapshot style, to the negative aspects of his family so the audience is offered documentary style subjects presented as a family album. It is an uncomfortable combination.

If we accept the premise that the buyers of art photography books, visitors to exhibitions, art critics, photography academics and students are rarely park-bench-alcoholics there is another element at play. The audience is taken into an alien world, ugly with poverty, over flowing with social tragedies such as alcoholism, unemployment, obesity and the abandonment of hope and, worse than that, it is inconveniently on our doorstep.  But, this was not created as an objective piece of social documentary, the photographer does not talk about how they set out to change public opinion by revealing democracy’s dark secret. This was created, published and promoted as art, not documentary, and this decision implies that we are being asked to judge its artistic values ahead of the social questions it raises. My point being that with Griffiths or Koudelka we look at their work in the context of social documentary so we know that we must use the photographer’s work as a way of accessing their subject, we know we are being asked to understand the argument that they are making, we also appreciate their skill and consider their work as art but it is presented as documentary first and art second.

In Rays a Laugh the artist sets out to “study the human figure in interior space” *(5), it so happened that his family, and all their baggage were the human figures and the interior space was their flat. He had no political motivation and did not approach or publish his work as social documentary, he offers us his work as art. In an interview with American Suburb X *(5) it is suggested that, if his work encourages us to consider our relationship to class and poverty, we are giving his work deeper meaning than Billingham intended. This insight to the artist’s mind makes the book harder to review, does he wish us to ignore the social implications of his work ? Does he want us to ignore the narrative of hopelessness, addiction and boredom and only see the shapes on the page?

In 1996 we were less exposed to reality TV than we are today but looking at this work in 2014 there is an obvious link to modern documentary-style reality TV that is primarily created as entertainment with documentary and art being someway down the producer’s list of objectives. In both cases art critics and politically motivated observers will ask us to see this type of work as a contribution to the debate on poverty or class or the failure of capitalism but can we see it in those terms if the artist was not politically or socially motivated? Society’s obsession with voyeurism has become a driving force behind social media where we intentionally open our lives to strangers and then complain if they look a little too closely and with our unhealthy interest in the lives of celebrity that has led to “celebrity” being a job as opposed to being the description of a select few. All these examples tend to suggest that we are voyeurs by nature, we like being peeping toms, we are dying to know what happens behind the closed doors of the poor, the unemployed, the benefit claimants, the royals, the rich and the famous.

Another reason that care has to be taken when we inject our own prejudices and agendas into this work is that, if we accept (and why wouldn’t we?) that Billingham started out looking at gesture and form and then became interested in addiction and boredom then, we are looking at themes that are not restricted within one social or economic class. We  should see the unemployed class backdrop as the stage that happened to be there and not an essential element of the themes. We are also warned by Cotton to take care in how we see the book as it is far from the dummy that was created by Julian Germain, Michael Collins (then Picture Editor of Telegraph magazine) and Richard Billingham. Collins believes that Scalo’s treatment was insensitive and, reading between the lines, exploitative. Cotton is effectively saying that many of the political and social agendas that mask Billingham’s true intent are there because the publisher reduced his work to “a prurient spectacle”.

This leads neatly to the question of exploitation. If the photographer had been from outside the family they might be perceived as being opportunistic, a voyeur, exploitive and merely creating drama from misery, and perhaps the publisher was guilty of these things. But, of all the challenging issues this work raises I find this the easiest to reconcile. There is a detached affection in these photos which are the work of a young man whose interest in nature and ambitions to be an artist appear at odds with his environment. I believe he uses his camera and sketch pad as his way of looking at and understanding a family that appear to be sliding down a slippery slope that he has stepped off or avoided ever being on. He may not be rejecting his family but his work has provided him with a screen through which to observe them, a way to translate them into something that he can understand and even use as part of the foundation of his work.

Billingham has said that very few people get beyond the subject matter and can identify the artist’s intention, which is not surprising, given, as we have seen, we are all voyeurs. We want to look at his dysfunctional, addicted and bored family. To understand this work we have to recognise that the most important piece of context is that Billingham was studying for his fine art degree throughout the time he was photographing his family. By placing a camera between himself and the family he could convert their antics into shapes, forms, colours, compositions and artistic structures so he is asking us to look beyond Ray, Liz and Jason to see the underlying patterns that he was photographing.

Sources

Books

(1) Billingham, Richard (1996) Ray’s a Laugh: Errata Edition Books on Books (2014) New York: Errata Editions

(2) Cotton, Charlotte (2014) RAL. Errata Edition Books on Books (2014) New York: Errata Editions

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

Internet

(4) Billingham, Richard. Rays a Laugh. American Suburb X – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/07/richard-billingham-rays-laugh.html

(5) Billingham, Richard. (2007)  “Reinterpreting Unconventional Family Photographs: Returning to Richard Billingham’s ‘Ray’s a Laugh’; Series” – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/04/theory-reinterpreting-unconventional.html

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

 

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

Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point Turks and Caicos 2013 - 1/250 at f/8, -1/3 stop, ISO 100

Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point Turks and Caicos 2013 – 1/250 at f/8, -1/3 stop, ISO 100

A Short Review of Abandoned Futures

Tong Lam *(1) is interested in using photography to examine industrial and post industrial ruins around the world. This is reflected in his published work which includes Abandoned Futures which looks at the abandoned places of current civilisations and asks whether, in time, these will outnumber functioning places and offers a vision of what he calls the post human world. It appears self apparent that governments and developers prefer to build on green rather than brown field sites so across the world we can see post industrial wastelands being created and abandoned whilst we build on prime agricultural land, clear virgin forest and put increasing pressure on the remaining areas of wilderness.

Abandoned Futures *(2) follows the traditions of social documentary photography by focussing attention on environmental and social issues that should concern us, at one level we have mountains of waste, cars and planes dumped on virgin landscapes to decay slowly as new rubbish is rapidly added to the pile, and at another level more monumental forms of waste in the shape of abandoned buildings, industrial complexes and housing. The photographs of these buildings are archeological in nature, recording such a recent past that, at first glance, deserted amusement parks look closed for the night and books line dusty shelves in abandoned offices. Many individual photographs are complete narratives where the audience can easily add the past and the future to the image imagining the inhabited space and its eventual collapse into a cloud of concrete dust.

Overall the book is a single narrative, a story of unrealised dreams, failed projects, bad ideas and the degenerative processes of climate and nature but it is structured into chapters that investigate specific places or types of decay and each of these can be seen as an independent narrative.

The subject matter holds great interest for me as, over many years, I have collected my own library of photographs of abandoned buildings and decaying man-made environments partly because they often offer graphic and abstract subjects and partly because I am intrigued by the ability of nature to take control of the most resilient of man-made or shaped materials and slowly transform them into something organic, returning cement to rock dust, brick to clay, wood to rot and iron to rust. Trees and walls become a single organism as roots weave their way through lime based cement or twist around rock to find moisture and even though we can only see a fraction of the lifecycle we know the beginning and the end.

This meant that I would inevitably enjoy Lam’s work and I was taken with his simple compositions and unpretentious approach that often elevates the subject over the photograph. When looking at concerned photographers such as Koudelka and Jones Griffiths there is an sense of artistry and consistency of style to their photographs that is perhaps less obvious here. Lam’s style moves from plain landscapes that only make sense within the contact of the overall set to bright dessert scenes that are reminiscent of Stephen Shore in both composition and colouring through to deeply saturated daylight colours and soft long exposures. The book also falls down in the sequencing of the images so that we are often presented pictures on facing pages that have no obvious relationship – an abandoned car in the snow and an empty swimming pool in bright winter sunlight. However, overall I found the photographs engaging and full of intriguing detail.

Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point Turks and Caicos 2013 - 1/125 at f/8, -1/3 stop, ISO 100

Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point Turks and Caicos 2013 – 1/125 at f/8, -1/3 stop, ISO 100

The Use of Text in Abandoned Futures

Essays

There are 11 very readable essays included within Abandoned Futures. Lam uses these essays to discuss a range of related subjects from why people paint or photograph ruins right through to contextualising sets of photographs in the same way that Jones Griffiths approached Vietnam Inc. The overall context of this book is quite different than Vietnam Inc. or Wall where there is a sense of the photographer feeling that they need to educate the audience to understand the photographs. Jones Griffiths, probably quite rightly, believes that we will miss the point of his photographs of Vietnamese villagers if we don’t understand the inhabitants’ underlying culture and beliefs. In Abandoned Futures there is a different feel to the text, the photographs of thousands of dumped cars in the Mojave Desert do not call for education, most of the audience will understand the subject, the issue and the problem without further education so the text has to play a different role. His writing is not journalistic, is not laden with facts, is not even evangelical in style, it is elegantly written prose with an artistic rhythm that describes the car culture of the USA and acts as a background, another perspective on the scene we see in the pictures. It would be fair to say that it addresses the “why?” that Jones Griffiths states is so important but it is a broad brush explanation rather than an analytic discourse.

Appropriation

There are also a few examples of appropriation. Unlike Fox and Burgin (see Victor Burgin and Appropriations) his use of quotes is not ironic, he uses them to illuminate his own message so a quote from Victor Hugo “For, to make desserts, God, who rules mankind, begins with Kings, and ends with the work of the wind.” with a photograph of a ruined castle.

Old House Grand Turk 2013 -  1/125 at f/8, -2/3 stops, ISO100

Old House Grand Turk 2013 – 1/125 at f/8, -2/3 stops, ISO100

Conclusion

Lam’s text is integral to this book, he wants to tell the audience as much as he can in the constraints of the book and the photos and the words, whilst complimentary, often provide different information so as well as contextualising the images he is adding to them with his essays.

Sources

Books

(2) Lam, Tong (2013) Abandoned Futures: A Journey to the Posthuman World. Great Britain: Carpet Bombing Culture.

Internet

(1) Lam, Tong – Official Website – http://photography.tonglam.com/#/about/description

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

Illegal Logging Luzon Philippines c.1989

Illegal Logging Luzon Philippines c.1989. When the Philippines Government began to carryout aerial surveys of, what they had previously thought were islands covered with virgin rain forest, they discovered than many had no trees left apart from a fringe near roads or the sea and they realised that the loggers had, over many years, denuded whole areas or islands in secret.

In an earlier post I looked at Philip Jones Griffiths as an Engaged Observer. In this post I want to focus on how he uses text to strengthen the message of his photographs and to understand better why he chose to use such extensive text.

Vietnam Inc. is a anti-war narrative recoding the relationship between the American military machine and the Vietnamese people as the war moved through a series of phases until it became a remotely controlled and conducted conflict where American servicemen neither saw their enemy nor the people they thought of as their allies. To understand why the book was published as a combination of essays, captions, cutlines and pictures it is essential to look at the context of its publication.

In an interview with Bob Dannin in 2002 Philip Jones Griffiths talks extensively about Vitenam Inc. *(2). He reveals that he went to Vietnam with the idea of creating a book, he had a publishing contract already secured, although, in the end, the publisher in question “went bust” and he had to find a new outlet. The answer to why he wanted to publish a book rather than work as a news photographer lay in his deep mistrust of the news system. He believed that to work for remote editors and organisations meant that he could not tell the story he wanted to tell, by definition his photos would be published out of context, or worse be used in the context of someone else’s story.

It is interesting that he made two visits to Vietnam as part of developing Vietnam Inc. During his first visit he travelled extensively capturing every aspect he could of the Vietnam people. He then left Vietnam and returned to base to select and edit his photographs and to start creating a layout for his book. He did this to identify the gaps in his story and he then returned to Vietnam for a year to complete the narrative.

There are three levels of text in Vietnam Inc..

Firstly there are captions. These captions are longer than the headlines we normally associate with news photos. They usually run to approximately 40 words. Jones Griffiths says that, when he first became a journalist, he was taught that captions needed to contain the 5 W’s. These are:

Who? What? Why? Where? When?

Of these the middle one, “why”, is the most important. He saw little value in capturing a photo of “yet another starving child”, other than the message that there are too many starving children this offers very little because it is de-contextualised. The important question is why is this child starving? Who is depriving him of food? What is the history of this event? Jones Griffiths argues that this vital information cannot be communicated by pictures alone. The caption is a vital component of the story, the pictures and the words must be blended together, with the words supplementing the photographs. He makes the point that the role of this text is not to explain or describe the photograph, that would be redundant, but to provide the audience with context.

The second level of text is an extension of the first, Jones Griffiths’ includes what the American’s call cutlines, extended captions, in several places in the book. These are used in exactly the same way as his captions, they provide essential context but as well as being longer the context is usually broader providing more in-depth background on larger issues.

The third level of text is his eleven essays that each cover two or more pages and act as chapter introductions to his narrative. They are his own accounts and act as explanations of the background, occurrences and consequences of specific events or groups of events. They are subjective, opinionated and forceful.

Taken as a whole Vietnam Inc. is much more than a photo book and it is the partly the text that makes it so different. Jones Griffiths was an eloquent man, strongly opinionated, a thinker and a communicator who could not work within the constraints of news driven photo journalism. He recognised that many photographers, film makers and journalists in Vitenam were frustrated by the system that edited, selected and used their output out of its original context to meet the objectives of the news organisations. The difference between him and most of the other journalists was that he found a way of controlling the context in which his work was used.

Philip Jones Griffiths uses extensive text in Vietnam Inc. because the pictures were insufficient. He knew that his audience could only understand his photographs when they were contextualised. Collectively his three types of text provide the 5 W’s but the emphasis is unquestionably upon the “why”. It doesn’t pretend to be objective or unemotional and couldn’t be anything else because he is ultimately focusing on how a whole way of life was systematically dismantled by a foreign power who didn’t and never could understand the place or its people.

Sources

Books

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

Internet

(2) Musarium – Interview with Philip Jones Griffiths by Bob Dannin in New York City, January 2002 – http://www.musarium.com/stories/vietnaminc/interview.html

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