Category Archives: Part 1 Introducing documentary

Jon Levy on “Intent”

Exercise: Jon Levy was talking about the photojournalistic magazine Foto8 (an online magazine) and the type of work that is submitted. I gather (from recent discussions) that documentary photographers/photojournalists are now seeking an outlet for their work in galleries and while Levy didn’t mention that specifically, the importance that he placed on the photographer’s intentions being clear from the start of the project was clear. I got the impression that some authors assemble a body of work and then look for an intent to pad out the artist’s statement.

I took a look at the magazine on line and there does seem to be a lot of photojournalistic topics – “big” stories but from what he said, I gathered that the smaller “vernacular” pieces also had a place although in the brief time I looked, I didn’t identify any.


A decisive moment?

Exercise: The work of Robbie Cooper

From the Hereford Festival article, I chose to look at the work of Robbie Cooper. Immersion attracted me because of his use of video to record the facial expressions of teenagers immersed in virtual reality games on screen. The work is presented in a single frame from which you can select still images or a video compilation and in most cases the name of the individual and the game they are playing. I played the slideshow of still images first and while the expressions in these stills showed a range of emotions, concentration, surprise, elation, concern, laughter, the video sequence was for more revealing. Some of the players were almost expressionless and hardly moved while other were really animated, talking to the characters on screen. One child remained almost motionless as a tear rolled down their cheek and another unselfconsciously performed a little victory dance when he won the battle.

I found this work strangely compelling and somewhat disturbing. It introduced me to something of which I was aware but have not experienced. It raised many questions about the possible effects on the development of the social skills and attitudes of young adults. In particular to conflict and reality. I also looked at this series, Alter Ego in which he displays photographs of game players and their avatars and interviews them about their on-line personas.

The myth of objectivity

Exercise: Write a 250 word reflective summary of these two quotes by Andre Bazin and Alan Sekula. Compare their respective positions and record your own view on the issue of photographic objectivity.

“For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only  the instrumentality of a non living agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man…in spite of any  objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually, re-presented…”   (Andre Bazin, ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ in What is Cinema? 1945, p7)

“If we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning  to the photographic image.”  Alan Sekula, ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’, 1997, p.454.

I’ve read Bazin’s piece a couple of times and he seems to be asserting that because photography is a mechanical process, the result is objective. He does concede that the photographer plays his part in the selection of the object and the purpose for which the  object is photographed may “reflect something of his personality but his does not play the same role as is played by the painter.” A lot of his piece discusses how photography has freed painters from the drive towards realism.

I read Sekula’s piece three times. I understood it no more on the third reading than I did on the first but I’m going to take a stab at suggesting that what he means is photographic objectivity is elusive at best and absent when the photographer, publisher and viewer conspire to ascribe their own meaning to an image which suits their particular purpose, all or none of which coincide.

I don’t see photographic objectivity in these terms, although I can understand the importance of reading an image, in particular as a document where you may be wishing to  inform or persuade by the power of your images. I’m not sure exactly where Bazin was coming from. To describe an image as being formed “automatically, without the creative intervention of man” is not a view that I take. The apparatus, media and processing are all man made and like the brushes and canvas of the painter are merely tools that the artist has available as a means of expression. Neither do I accept that we are “forced to accept as real the object reproduced….. set before us”,  when what we see is a two dimensional representation of an interpretation of an instant in time.

Project: What makes a document? – Discontinuities


Thanks to everyone who has helped me with this exercise. I hope this summary and explanation are useful.

The brief for the exercise was to post five photographs which have personal significance onto the forum and invite fellow students to provide captions or explanations. The idea of the exercise is to illustrate ‘Discontinuities’. I quote from the course notes;

All photographs are ambiguous. All photographs have been taken out of a continuity. If the event is a public event, this continuity is history, if it is personal; the continuity which has been broken is a life story. Even a pure landscape breaks continuity: that of the light and the weather. Discontinuity always produces ambiguity.” Berger and Mohr, 1995. P91.

My images are here on Flickr

I have posted my detailed explanation of each photograph in the album as the final comment and this will add some context. I hope my narrative will go some way to explain how, once outside the family album, most of the images (in my eyes anyway) become a document or a least one moment in my life story. To quote Berger and Mohr again, once words are used with photographs “they produce together an effect of certainty, even dogmatic assertion.”

Having read all of the comments, it is clear that I should have challenged my fellow students with some less obvious examples. Those that depicted me were easy to understand by those who know me and what I tend to do in my life. Although there was no deliberate selection from my family album, Eileen made a connection between travel and working abroad. The “race for life” picture also prompted some interesting comments, most of which reflected the actual personal circumstances of the event.


It is clear from this exercise how important context is when we read an image. How much information we are provided with, either from the photographer, or knowledge from our own experiences can reduce and in some cases, increase the ambiguity. How we define a document, either as a personal record (as in these examples) or as a public record, it still depends on the context in which it is presented, the context in which it is viewed and the knowledge and experience that the viewer has (if any) of the subject and/or the photographer.

In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography) Martha Rosler

I have re-posted below, notes I made on this essay in 2013 when it was discussed at the Thames Valley Group meeting on 19th October. I tried to re-read the essay but rapidly lost interest and decided to continue my research with a review of the work of Walker Evans.

I concluded that this must have been written in the late seventies or early eighties. I found the language very difficult and the ideas in this essay almost impossible to follow. (I think perhaps instead of trotting out this essay, the course author should have found something more relevant to contemporary photography, written in an understandable style) the References within it were varied, to photographers I had heard of but was not yet sufficiently familiar with their work. I ran out of time before the meeting so I couldn’t do any research. Hopefully in the coming months, I can at least look up these photographers (Rijs, Hine, Evans et al) and find out why they are mentioned. Also, the copy of the essay available from the internet has no clear pictures.
Rather than attempt to re-read the essay and again fail to follow its thread, I will use what I remember of the group discussion to put down my thoughts on what I think of as documentary photography and photographs as documents.
When I think ‘documentary’, films come to mind first. i.e. non fictional accounts of things that are happening or have happened in the past. So, a documentary film maker would be recording an actual event, e.g. how something is made, the community of those involved in its manufacture and /or the possible social benefits or problems associated with that process. A documentary photographer would do the same thing using still images and possibly team up with a writer (or add text themselves) This becomes photojournalism – is this something else, another genre? Does this make all documentary photographers photojournalists and all photojournalists documentary photographers? Perhaps photojournalism is just a job title.
Where and when does the photograph as a document become art? (and what is art anyway?) Rosler was writing about Migrant Mother the FSA photograph by Dorothea Lange taken in the 1930’s. I suspect this photograph (despite the controversy surrounding Florence Thompson and Lange’s apparent misunderstanding over the purpose of the photograph) has become famous because it is a good example of its type – reproduced in photographic textbooks. Whether the image became famous in its own right or because it was taken my Lange is a chicken and egg question.

The wider question of labelling genres will never go away. I’ve read Geoff Dyer’s “The Ongoing Moment”, The point is illustrated on page one showing the futility of trying to catalogue something so diverse, with the example of a Chinese encyclopaedia’s attempt at classifying the animal kingdom.

Project: What makes a document

Exercise: What makes a document? WeAreOCA blog response 16/06/2041

In his post in August  2011, Jose expanded this question “.. is it time or context that makes a document? Or is it something else?”

Having read through all 44 responses to this post and accepted the definitions put forward of  a document (a record) and to document (the process of making a record) I have concluded that even without context, a photograph is a document because it has recorded a thing, event or place that exists or has existed. So Jose’s image of Gadhafi’s hot air balloon is a document and in 2008 its context, as Jose explained, was a curiosity, an unexpected sight he felt was worthy of recording. The passing of 6 years and the subsequent events in Libya, culminating in the assassination of Gadhafi have enriched the context. It still retains its original context but we can add other events to our reading and understanding of the image. In this case context and time have made this document. Jose has provided us with the picture and history has expanded the context.

Other contributors to this forum have mentioned the purpose of an image and how that may or may not inform the context. For this image we have Jose’s explanation of why he made the image of Gadhafi’s balloon but for the image of his grandfather and the priest, the only context we have is the place where the image is found, in the family album and the record of two men, a soldier and a priest, posed in front of  a wall in full sunlight. The personal history, provided by Jose via his family and the national history that we can introduce once we have a clue of the period and the place, provide the full context of the document. As I have no personal connection with Spain or this period of history, I can bring nothing extra to Jose’s explanation and I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of his explanation or the document. Once again, passing time has help to contextualise the photograph. Time allows us to evaluate the document in relation to subsequent events.

The jumping wolf and its authenticity raises other arguments. If we discount digital manipulation, the image of the wolf jumping is indeed a document. Recording as it does that wolves are capable of jumping. The fact that it was disqualified from the competition because it failed to meet the criteria of that competition only raises questions about the motivations of the photographer, not about the truth of what the camera recorded.

The Notting Hill stabbing picture illustrates discontinuity as pointed out by anned. (Unfortunately Peter’s link to the chapter by Berger is no longer live so I wasn’t able to read it.) The context of the picture has to be carefully explained for it to make sense and  the differing interpretations of what occurred from the people present show how difficult it is for police get to the truth of a situation when witness statements differ wildly. Again, this is a document as a record of what occurred in front of a camera for a fraction of a second and is ambiguous. Isolated and without explanation, it is next to useless. Time in this instance could possibly help to put the events into context but it would need more than one brief image.

So, I have concluded that a photographic record of an person, event or place is a document, even if it gives us nothing  more than itself. Adding context, either from our own knowledge or experience, the words of an accompanying text or verifiable history from the passage of time, all contribute to the making of a document.

Project: What makes a document?

Exercise: Transparent pictures: On the nature of Photographic Realism, by Kendall L Walton

I’ve read through this several times now and I’m still not clear what Walton is saying. I think it is that we see the reality of the world through photographs. To me that is an acceptable notion but it does come down to the words you use and the interpretations you put on them. (Walton has used the academic’s trick of  making a simple notion over complex.) Also, this piece was written three decades ago. Since then, the number of photographs that we are presented with, the methods by which we view them and the sometimes necessary caution with which we view them, has had to change. Even during the most cursory study of the genre, the notion that the photograph is always objective truth is patent nonsense. Its realism results from the mechanical/electronic nature of its creation. How we interpret the photographer’s/editor’s intent and motivation in presenting us with each image, the context of that presentation, our  knowledge and prejudices, all combine to give us our own personal view of the world. The transparent photograph enables me to interpret the world and create a reality which is true to me.