Tag Archives: Stephen Shore

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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Photography as Archeology

Fig. 01 The Old Dairy Weydon - 1/100 at F/18, ISO 1,000

Fig. 01 The Old Dairy Weydon – 1/100 at F/18, ISO 1,000

For 6,000 years we have built structures, places to live, to keep us safe, to work, to store the product of our labours, to preserve our ideas or to give structure to our beliefs, to remember our ancestors and commemorate our successes. For much of that time we have made durable things, weapons for hunting, attack or defence, tools to ease our labours, vehicles to transport goods and people, and for a myriad of other purposes. Since the first farmers stopped following the game herds and selected a place to settle in the landscape humans have changed that landscape by collecting raw materials, by farming, by building and by scattering the things we made.

The things we build start with clear structures and purposes but as civilisations evolve our creations lose their purpose and their structure. Nature is always waiting to reclaim every element of every thing we make. We might stave her off for a few years, a few generations or a millennium but eventually she degrades and degenerates everything. Some objects settle into the landscape over time and we come to terms with their demise to such an extent that, as ruins, they define or are thought to beautify the greater place in which they stand but others sit defiantly ugly, never able to gracefully decay, remaining as eyesores, a blot on the landscape. Some temporarily find new life but time will tell and the greatest of our achievements eventually become dust.

Archeologists seek out these abandoned structures and objects to document their existence and to study their context before nature removes their trace. We mostly associated this science with the distant past, the discovery of something that is lost, the process of putting flesh onto the bones of history but all around us there are structures and things in the early stages of their demise, the abandoned buildings and discarded objects of the recent past that might become the archeology of the future but more often are cleared to make way for the next great idea. The documentation of these recent relics can be as compelling as an episode of Time Team, in each building or discarded object there is the history of people, of failed dreams and social change, of seismic shifts in our politics, habits and desires.

Assignment 5 has taken me back to the houses, villages, heaths and woodlands of my childhood and in searching for the past I have found shadows of my generation and the generations that preceded me. I have captured some of these with my camera.

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Photographically these objects offer interesting subjects but I find myself torn between using the saturated colours that I love, black and white graphic representations that remove the distraction of colour or desaturated and muted colours that might offer the best of both worlds. I was mildly critical of Tong Lam’s Abandoned Futures because I felt there were too many inconsistencies in his style and that this made his narratives slightly disjointed and I envy the certainty of style that can been seen in the work of Stephen Shore or Josef Koudelka who, I assume, never question whether to change their colour palette or, in Koudelka’s case, lack of colour.

There are examples of colour and monochrome being used together in a single presentation, David Bailey worked in both mediums and his Stardust exhibition showed his colour and black and white work, if not side by side, at least in close proximity. Irving Penn’s Still life includes examples of both and there is the sense that he moved freely between them. Most recently I visited Russell Squires’ Landings Exhibition where panoramic landscape photos in colour alternate with square format, black and white, intimate landscapes. These examples don’t necessarily set any precedents and the reasons that each artist mixed media in this way might need to be more carefully considered at some later date. At this stage and for these photos from around Farnham, I am switching between desaturated colour and black and white based on the approach that best suited each specific subject. A few months ago I conducted a similar study in Turks and Caicos and selected saturated colour as the approach that best suited the subjects and the warm Caribbean light. I may subsequently review this work and criticise myself for the lack of a consistent style.

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

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

 

 

Josef Koudelka – Wall

Bethlehem From the Shepard's Field 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

Bethlehem From the Shepard’s Field 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

I recently reviewed Stephen Shore’s book, From Galilee to the Nagev, and became aware of the This Place *(1) project that took twelve photographers to Israel to capture their own personal perspective of that country. Having thoroughly enjoyed Galilee to Negev and having become interested in the wider project of which it was part I wanted to look at how a different photographer had approached the some assignment and chose to order Josef Koudelka’s Wall *(2) partly because I had looked at his work much earlier in this course (here) and partly because I instinctively felt that he would offer a stark contrast to Shore’s quirky perspective on life.

(Note: the two photographs included here are part of a small collection of my Father’s wartime photos which are discussed in the context of Koudelka’s Wall in a later post here.)

Josek Koudelka was born in 1938 in, what is now, the Czech Republic, he is part of the Magnum cooperative and a prolific photographer having published eleven books. A search of the Magnum site returns 7,536 of his pictures so it is unwise to attempt to summarise his career in a paragraph or two. He rose to prominence by documenting the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 and became a refugee from his homeland just two years later. This experience. when he was still in his thirties, has clearly been a major influence on his later work and he has become famous for documenting displaced people in Gypsies 1976 and Exiles in 1988. He is the epitome of a gritty, black and white documentary photographer with his own sense of exile and displacement projecting through his photographs communicating an empathy with his subjects and anger at their condition. Koudelka has an exceptional eye for composition and Wall is another master class in how to compose and frame a subject, a lot of his recent work is panoramic and Wall continues that trend.

When Koudelka looked at Israel it was, perhaps, unsurprising that he selected the so-called “separation barrier” as his subject. As someone from behind the “iron curtain” he understands walls and how they impact the psychology of the people they exclude, contain or separate and how the grand stroke of a planner’s pen has dire effects on the lives of ordinary people. Shore was conscious that he was working in a place that was politically charged and his work in Galilee to Negrev is somewhat open to interpretation, it is not overtly critical and our own prejudices allow some scope to decide whether he is being directly critical of the Israeli state or just documenting what is there.

Koudelka’s Wall is not ambivalent. From the very first page he sets the tone by describing the history of the barrier highlighting the UN’s condemnation of the project and its negative impact on the Palestinians. Before considering a single picture we are informed that 85% of, what will eventually be a, 708 kilometre structure will be built inside, what many people, see as Palestinian territory. David Shulman, in his powerful article for The New York Review of Books *(3), asks whether it was built for protection or as part of “the on-going land grab that is the real, indeed perhaps the sole raison d’être of the Occupation”.

With this context established we can start to look at Koudelka’s beautiful panoramas. I recently read an article asking whether aesthetically pleasing documentary images detract from the message and Koudelka’s work continues to show that the opposite is true. His images are wonderfully composed exploring the depth and subtle monochrome tones of the landscape, frequently contrasting natural beauty with the aggressive concrete block of the wall. Out of context they are art exhibition beautiful. in context they are powerful statements about the inability of politicians of all persuasions to find a solution to one of the longest running confrontations of modern times and how this failure has led to the construction of a divisive barrier that separates farmers from their land and people from their place of work, schools and hospitals. The powerful elegance of his work demands our attention and strengthens the message.

To return to a theme that has run through a lot of my recent research we can again see the part that captions play in photography. These are powerful and unambiguous images so they could have been presented with nothing more that a place and date but Koudelka and his publishers have used captions to expand the narrative, to take our thoughts beyond the image, to ensure that we don’t miss the point. This is communication as a blunt instrument.

Shore wanted us to see the stark beauty of the land, to know that there were grass hills as well as stoney plains and harsh deserts, he says conflict is not the only thing in this place. Koudelka says there is only conflict here, it dominates every image, its ugliness throws a shadow across any beauty, there is no escaping its overwhelming presence. He explores how the landscape has been negatively altered by this structure:

“This country is divided, each side reacts to that division in a different way, but the landscape can’t react.” *(1)

The photographs are, in every sense, dark. He prints for high contrast but skies are nearly universally dark grey not Ansel Adams black, the wall is harsh concrete grey, the razor wire dark greys with sharp white blades glinting in the sun. Most of the pictures are oppressive, reminiscent of the atmosphere and architecture of the old Eastern Block and each landscape is dominated by the barrier. We see that the wall divides modern high-rise housing, office blocks and large institutions from low rise townships and villages. He looks through reinforced fences into empty spaces and often tilts the camera to capture as much wall as possible into the frame. In many of the photos there is a significant difference between the landscape on either side of the barrier but it is perhaps where there is little difference that his point is most strongly made. Palestinian olive groves or residential areas divided by the wall or boarded up shops separated from their customers.

River Jordan & Red Sea from the Wilderness of Judea. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst 1944

River Jordan & Red Sea from the Wilderness of Judea 1944 . Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

Land that once boasted olive groves or vineyards now supports nothing more than monolithic concrete blocks, fertility and beauty replaced by sterility and ugliness. In recent years Koudelka has photographed a lot of walls with studies of archeological sites in Turkey, Greece, Albania, Morocco, Tunisia and Italy *(4) and it is interesting to see how differently he treats the architecture in Wall to the walls of Troy or Hadrian’s Villa in Lazio. Whilst all his images explore texture, tone and how architecture sits in a landscape Wall is darker, there is nothing uplifting here, no celebration of the art of the builders or the comfortable relationship that can exist between the natural and the manmade. The Temple of Poseidon in Attica or the runis of Delphi have settled into the landscape, the natural stone of their construction has weathered and as the decades pass man’s efforts to form the stones into shapes and to construct them into monuments is slowly being reversed, they are as much part of the landscape as a farmer’s field, we know it is a modified landscape but it feels natural, unobtrusive, complimentary to the beauty of nature.

There is no sense from Koudelka’s photos of the separation barrier that he sees this process being repeated in Palestine, he presents the wall as unnatural and invasive, something that can never be one with the land. It is not just the subject that gives us this impression it is the way in which he approaches the subject. In his archeological studies he offers us softer images, they are still very much Koudelka, a black dog laying in the foreground in front of the Acropolis providing strong contrast but the marble of the structure is low key. Eleusina is photographed in the context of the modern city but the tones of ancient and modern are shared, there is a sense of each being part of the same jigsaw, both are in place, comfortable with each other. The aqueducts in Rome share the landscape with tall weeds and young trees, they might be a natural occurrence, a sense that they rose from the earth as bricks and blocks but are now returning as the dust of clay and stone.

In Wall there is no such comfortable relationship. The blocks on route 443 are imposed on the landscape, the partially built parts of the wall carve great wounds into the earth often in otherwise pristine landscapes. The tonal contrasts are strong for both the landscape and the wall, it is as if nature itself has been hardened by the presence of the barrier. When people appear they are dwarfed by the construction, they are there, the wall is there but they are both out of place, not related to each other in the way that travellers in large railway station are in place despite the difference in scale. His compositions and exposures consistently emphasise the malignant presence of structure and even when he shows feeble attempts to beautify the Israeli side with architectural features or the Palestinian side with graffiti and wall art the pictures are depressing and full of foreboding.

He tells us that one day this wall will fall, it might never be finished, but it will never be as one with the landscape upon which it has been imposed. Koudelka has photographed it as an alien presence, an imposition, a blot on the landscape. It will never quietly decline into being a tourist destination, it can only depart, as it came by the will of man and the forces of man’s machines.

Sources

Books

(1) Koudelka, Josef. (2014) Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Lanscape 2008 – 2012. New York: Aperture.

Internet

(1) This Place – http://this-place.org/

(3) Shulman, David. (2013) Bitter Faces in the Holy Land. The New York Review of Books.  – http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/oct/30/bitter-faces-koudelka-wall/

(4) Magnum Photography. Josef Koudelka Archeology Photos – http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=2K1HZOQP1BCRJW&SMLS=1&RW=1459&RH=810

Stephen Shore – From Galilee to the Negev

Israel 1/80 at f/9, ISO 100

Israel 1/80 at f/9, ISO 100

This Place

In 2006 Frédéric Brenner *(1) launched This Place, a photographic project involving 12, internationally renowned photographers to document a single small place – Isreal. It has been compared with the Mission Heliographique which set out to record France in 1851 and it is undoubtably one of the most ambitious documentaries ever undertaken by still photographers. For four years between 2009 and 2012 this group of photographers, mostly operated independently of each other, compiled very personal accounts of this troubled land. Brenner’s own book, An Archeology of Fear and Desire *(2) has been published by MACK and extracts can be found in several places including his own website at FredericBrenner.com *(1)

In an interview with the NY Times *(7) Brenner explains that he was partly motivated by the binary way in which Israel is portrayed, “for and against, victim and perpetrator” and that this had led to a lack of complexity when describing the place. The tone for This Place is best summarised by another Frédéric Brenner quotation from the New York Times article *(7):

“I did not bring people here to see the land of milk and honey. I brought them here to see the land that devours its inhabitants.”

As well as Brenner the photographers include Josef Koudelka, Jungjin Lee, Stephen Shore, Rosalind Solomon, Thomas Struth, Fazal Sheikh, Wendy Ewald, Nick Waplington, Martin Kollar, Gilles Peress, and Jeff Wall.

Charlotte Cotton is the curator of the This Place Exhibition opening in Prague and touring to Israel and the USA  but unfortunately not to the UK. Speaking of the exhibition she says  “Each artist has created a profound and personal narration of Israel and the West Bank, that, collectively, act as a series of guides, leading the viewer into a deeper identification with the complexities and conflicts of the Holy Land.” *(3) and this summarises my reaction to From Galilee to Negev *(9), I do feel I have been led towards a deeper understanding.

From Galilee to the Negev

I am from a generation of Englishmen that was taught Bible stories alongside history and geography as entirely factual subjects. Looking back it is obvious that we were taught history by people born during the days of Empire, we used atlases that still showed great swaths of the world coloured pink and Bible stories were so intertwined with the rest of our early education that, for many years, I though a “green hill outside a city wall” was where they were, then, building Guildford Cathedral.

Many of us have therefore grown up with a seemingly intimate knowledge of a tiny and confusing country clinging to the edge of the African continent to such an extent that many children would more readily  recognise the tribal names of the Philistines or the Samaritans than the Caledones or the Atrebates. My father finished the last war in Palestine and told stories of a frightening but beautiful place and I have spent a lot of time in Tel Aviv working alongside and negotiating with Israelis, yet I have no real sense of the place because when we look at Israel and the West Bank it is through a screen of attention-grabbing pictures of conflict and confrontation, of argument and stubbornness, of failed negotiations and broken promises since the 1940s until the six day war and right up to, literally, the present day, today. Occasionally something reveals itself behind the screen but, even then, it is often too distorted and out of focus for us to grasp its meaning.

Stephen Shore sets out, and to an extent manages, to push a corner of that screen aside and reveal a glimpse, nothing more, of this ancient land and its modern people. In an interview with ASX:TV *(4) he says that he is trying to “come to terms with what is essential about a place that’s visually accessible” but that he recognised that this was a more charged subject matter than he was used to. The challenge that Shore had was to avoid making a political statement but, in practice, this is one of the most politicised  places on the planet and Shore’s idiosyncratic style of recording the banal was always going to result in photographs that are charged with politics. Steve Sabella *(5), one of the essayists, speaks to this point when he says that his reading of the photographs may not necessarily originate from the image itself but what it might trigger him to think about. The political message we choose to take from his pictures will vary depending, as ever, on our background, education, faith (or lack of it), age, politics and all the other contextual baggage the viewer always brings to a photograph but, regardless of how they interpret the images many people will feel changed by this book.

Shore’s photographs are punctuated by essays from various writers and artists who have each selected a single image to discuss and these essays are often the key to understanding parts of the series. Shore tells us that a lot of the photographs, if not all of them, have a sub-text but without the essays few viewers would find more than a handful of the sub-texts and even then many of the hidden meanings remain hidden. There is more clarity in the overall structural theme which 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.

Archeology plays such a leading role in this book that I intend to base much much of this essay on how Shore deals with and uses that subject. The first set of plates, which set the scene for the whole collection, reminded me of the Walter Benjamin question  “Will not the caption become the most important part of the photograph?”. Shore has included part of a set of his photographs from 1994 of a dig at Ashqelon, a site close to the coast,  just north of Gaza and south of Tel Aviv. They are simple photos, recordings of pottery, walls, trenches and a well but, for each, he has included a caption taken from the notes written on the back of each photograph by the professor supervising the dig. These captions lead us from the Canaanite Kings to Nebuchadnezzar, from the remains of monumental buildings to water supplies, from simple household utensils to the destruction of ancient city walls. We are pulled back to 1994 to be reminded that this single place, a spot on the map, has been settled and fought over for at least four thousand years. It is representative of a land that has seen occupation by the Canaanites, Philistines, Babylonians, Amorites, Assyrians, Persians, Israelites, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Mamlukes, Ottomans, Palestinians, British and Israelis and probably many others. The photographs are a metaphor for the substance of the book, monumental places and monumental events have ordinary people living ordinary lives inside.

Archeology is re-introduced to the plot with a photograph of an unusual poster found in an Ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem. The poster shows archeologists at work but labels them as “grave robbers” and orthodox jews protesting and the reaction of the police who are labeled as “butchers”. The sub-text, and the use of archaeology as a subject of both text and images, is that this science that,by excavating ancient Israelite settlements, was used as part of the justification for the creation of the state has become an example of the deep divides that exist within the Jewish population. The Ultra-Orthodox community believe in physical reincarnation, hence the protests captured on the poster, and as their political power is in the ascendency archeology is being increasingly marginalised and important sites vandalised. A metaphor within a metaphor perhaps but the one science that can offer an unambiguous picture of history, uncoloured by religious myth or the histories written by the victors is being suppressed.

One of the more powerful photographs in the book is of a small, ugly and complex house in an Arab village. As a house it is only remarkable for its muddled architecture and apparantly unplanned development but as a piece of living archaeology it is a history book describing two hundred years of modifications that have been made to an old, stone, Arab house by successive generations of inhabitants. We cannot know whether it is the same family that have added and generally not quite finished each phase of development or whether people have come and gone on this site but which ever is the case, this humble home for ordinary people, was probably first built during the days of the Ottoman Empire and as the great events of history have swirled  around it successive occupants have added a bit here and adapted a bit there, sometimes following the latest fashions and sometimes just being practical. Analog television came, better aerials arrived, satellite took over and better, bigger dishes became available but all these generations of equipment for watching the news and soaps and sport have been left up there on the roof, a museum exhibit of broadcasting. Shore says that “life there includes the conflict but it is far more than the conflict” and this little house shows how wave after wave of ordinary people have just got on with their lives by adding another bedroom or putting in a new window or getting a better signal to watch the football.

Everywhere is shaped by its history, the British Isles has a few communities that feel driven to fight yesterday’s wars but Galilee to Negrev describes a place that is not just shaped but shackled by the multiple histories of different groups. One group’s big history is another group’s minor event  and each group is so self absorbed in the distress of their own history that they forget the recent history of their feuding neighbour. There is a set of four aerial photographs of ruins, archaeological sites would be the obvious thought, taken to the South West of Tel Aviv. It seems unlikely that Shore knew what he was photographing from the low flying helicopter he was travelling in and it appears that the Isreali Government, who were hosting the trip, had forgotten what a select group of foreign dignitaries and journalists were being flown over. Eyal Weizman, another of Shore’s essayists choses one of these photos not just to write about but to investigate. He explains his path of research and concludes that these ruins are not Greek or Roman but the remains of a Palestinian village forcibly cleared by the Israelis when they took possession of this land in the late 1940s.

Perhaps Shore has focussed on archeology as emblematic of a region steeped in ancient history as a way of reminding the viewer that nothing lasts for ever but that the successive occupants of this land have left their mark and are even now leaving their mark. In the valley of Zin he presents eleven small images of found objects, pieces of modern debris that might last long enough in the dessert to be excavated in another age and this style of presentation sets the tone for the last sections of the book with a close-up investigation of Shivta, the ruined Nabatean city in the Negev. also presented as a series of small prints. Many are of ordinary everyday things, a mill stone, perhaps used to make olive oil, a rain gutter, storage pits and door frames but this develops into pieces of more monumental architecture and the book feels as if it has turned full circle to show that ordinary people lived here as part of great civilisations but now they are lost and scattered like the stones of their buildings.

The Photography

This book is vast, over 200 plates, and is a slow book. It has taken me several evenings to work my way thought it, going back and forth as new pieces of information become available allowing a better understanding of an earlier image.

The essays make compelling reading and I was steadily drawn into the narrative. However, this level of engagement with Shore’s subject was a pleasant surprise. I had ordered Galilee to Negev because it was Shore’s latest major publication and because it was about 40 years on from Uncommon Places which I reviewed some months ago. I was intrigued to find out how much his style has changed and whether he saw the world differently after all this time. This is undoubtably an old man’s topic, young people are (quite rightly) interested in now, not then and certainly nothing bores the young more quickly that a comparison between now and then.

The continuity in Shore’s style is quite remarkable, most of the landscapes are still taken with an 8 x10 camera although he says he fell in love with the digital camera he used for the shots of daily life.  The overall presentation of the books are very similar and it would be possible to swap a few of the plates between the publications without them appearing too out of place. There is still the occasional meal with humous replacing pancakes but note the regional flavour of these meals, the landscapes are mostly quite clearly Israel or middle America but he still offers pale skies and angles that exaggerate the scale of open spaces. He still introduces the viewer to the people he meets along the way and the street scenes in Galilee to Negev are composed in the same style as Uncommon Places.

We know that, between Uncommon Places and Galilee Stephen Shore has experimented with digital books, new technologies and different ways of presenting his images so it is interesting that he has returned to his best known and most iconic style when asked to join this project. I interpret this as an indication of the level of respect that he had for the concept and the importance he placed on obtaining the most compelling result possible. This was not a place for experimentation so he dusted off his 8 x 10 and brought that peculiar Stephen Shore eye to a tormented but very special place.

Sources

Books

(9) Shore, Stephen. (2014) From Galilee to Negev. New York: Phaidon.

(2) Brenner, Frédéric. (2014) An Archeology of Fear and Desire. Mack Books – http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/1024-An-Archeology-of-Fear-and-Desire.html

Internet

BJB On-Line – Stephen Shore’s New Book – http://www.bjp-online.com/2014/05/stephen-shores-new-book/

(1) Brenner, Frédéric. Frédéric Brenner Official Web-Site – http://www.fredericbrenner.com/archeology-of-fear-and-desire/2xv80i99p9auggl3mchke43r82w3le

Brenner, Frédéric. Frédéric Brenner Facebook Page – https://www.facebook.com/fredericbrennerphotographer/timeline

New York Times – Lens Blog – Josef Koudelka: Formed by the World – http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/19/josef-koudelka-formed-by-the-world/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

The Times of Israel – Portraits of a Many Layered Country – http://www.timesofisrael.com/portraits-of-a-many-layered-country/

(3) Time Lightbox. Picturing the Holy Land: 12 Photographers Chart a Region’s Complexities. – http://lightbox.time.com/2014/04/16/west-bank-israel-photos/#1

(4) ASX:TV. Stephen Shore in Conversation (2014) – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2014/05/asx-tv-stephen-shore-in-conversation-2014.html

(5) Sabella, Steve. Steve Sabella Official Website – http://stevesabella.com

(6) Goldsmiths University of London – Eyal Weizman – http://www.gold.ac.uk/visual-cultures/w-eizman/

(7) New York Times – Top Photographers Try Looking at Israel From New Angles – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/15/world/middleeast/photography-project-seeks-new-angles-on-israel.html?_r=2&

(8) Photo-Eye Blog – Interview: Stephen Shore on a New York Minute and From Galilee to the Negev – http://blog.photoeye.com/2014/03/interview-stephen-shore-on-new-york.html