Tag Archives: Richard Billingham

Jaochim Brohm – Typology 1979

Fig. 1 Typology for Assignment 5 – Double Page Spread

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

Typologies

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

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

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

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

Allotments

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

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

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

The Photographs

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

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

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

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

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

Inspiration and Assignment 5

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

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

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

Fig. 2 Typology 1 (left) for Assignment 5

Fig. 2 Typology 1 (left) for Assignment 5

Fig. 3 Typology 2 (right) for Assignment 5

Fig. 3 Typology 2 (right) for Assignment 5

Sources

Books

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

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

Internet

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

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

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

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

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

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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

 

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