Part 2 – The Black and White Document

Project Legacy documentary for social change

Exercise: Read the 1939 article on documentary photography by Elizabeth McCausland.

I found it difficult to identify the main points in this article, it rambles a bit, contains obscure references, is very wordy and it seems to be written in the style of a voice over for a 1940’s documentary film.

Its relevance to this part of the course is that, historically photography has always adapted and been at the vanguard of social change. We can learn from documentary movements of the past but we must also consider photography’s role as a tool for expression, not only of the photographer’s perception of the world but to communicate clearly those situations that would be otherwise overlooked or ignored. In this way photography can be an agent for change.

Exercise: Read the article “Survival Programmes” in Eight Magazine (June 2006).

I could see that this was an important work showing the harsh realities of life in 1970’s inner cities. I was cushioned from these times, living the south, I always had a job, a car and a house. I was fully occupied building a career, home and family and these gritty images were only peripheral to my life. The power of the images comes partly from the uncompromising texts and from the humanity and drama of the photography.

Exercise: Read “Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document” by David Campany.

PARLOURMAID-AND-UNDER-PARLOURMAID-READY-TO-SERVE-DINNER-1936-1-C28133A

Parlour maid and Under Parlour maid Ready to Serve Dinner 1933

In this article, Campany uses this photograph of Brandt’s to illustrate the longevity  and artistic properties of his work. He claims that the image has several roles in helping us to appreciate Brandt’s work:

  • It stands for all of Brandt’s work
  • It is regarded as a milestone in both art and documentary photography
  • It is an Illustration of life in the 1930’s.

He then goes on to describe its appearance in various forms during 5 decades

  • 1936 in Brandt’s book “The English at Home”, a pictorial survey across social classes
  • 1938 in the magazine Verve alongside a reproduction of a Matisse painting  of a dinner table
  • 1966 Brandt included it in his anthology “The Shadow of Light”
  • 1969 Walker Evans selected it to illustrate the artistic quality of the photographic medium. Also in this year it featured in a Brandt show at MoMA in New York
  • 1970 it was reproduced in the catalogue for the same exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London.

Campany quotes critic Raymond Mortimer writing about “The English at Home”. He describes Brandt as an “artist and anthropologist” which reflects the poetic realism prevalent between the wars. Campany goes on to explain, “Poetic realism often adopted well-established visual devices, clichés even, that flattered the viewer with pictorial artfulness as a means to convince them of the social authority of the image” . Brandt was more at ease with the surrealist view of photography which leaves the viewer to make up their own mind about the meaning of the photograph. Neither was he convinced of the role of social description and the use of photographs in social reform.

How did black and white photography become such a respected and trusted medium?

This happened mainly because in the heyday of documentary, reportage and photojournalism were only ever in black and white as it was the cheapest and most efficient method of graphic reproduction, not only in mass circulation newspapers in the cinema and later, television. These were the only media available to keep the population informed of what was happening in the world. Both were taken seriously. When colour printing was introduced to mass circulation in the 1960’s, initially as the “colour supplement”  it tended to be used for advertising and lightweight editorial copy, leaving the serious reporting  to the faster and more reliable medium of the half tone black and white print. It seems today that the nostalgic presentation of factual documentaries in black and white, print still carries that gravitas.

6th August I have today reserved “The British” by Nick Danziger and “Bill Brandt” with an introduction by Ian Jeffrey, from Hampshire Library to supplement my reading for this section of the course.

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