This exercise calls for a portfolio of five images in a surrealist style on a topic that interests you. Because I have difficulty in understanding exactly what surrealism in photography is, I couldn’t chose a topic to which I could devote five images. Most of the so called surreal images I have seen from my research seem to be at the best bizarre, at the least quirky and in some cases humorous. I’m hoping that you will comment and provoke a discussion to help me clarify this. We were asked to look at Peter Dench’s work before starting this exercise. I chose to respond to the unusual as I visited the island of Tenerife recently. Here are my images:
This is my response to the WeAreOCA blog post of May 2011, as part of the Documentary course. http://weareoca.com/photography/seeing-is-believing/
First of all, thanks to Cedric for his witty riposte. You are not alone. I lost my thread of Zizec after four minutes. Many of the other links provided are now out of date. (Breathes barely audible sigh of relief)
Jose asked whether seeing is believing, using the example of the confirmation (or otherwise) of the death of Osama Bin Laden and whether a photograph of his body would enable us to believe (not the same as knowing) that he was actually dead. He concluded by stating that he didn’t care in the slightest if he saw proof of Bin Laden’s death. I suspect that is the response of the majority of the population.
From what I’ve seen and read in this section of the course, the objectivity of the photograph as a document is always open to question. The arguments are well rehearsed with regard to a number of factors. The background, gender, age and intent of the photographer, the medium in which it is shown, the context of the publication, etc. Even if the photograph is presented in the most objective way possible, the act of looking and seeing the image involves the individual’s subjective processing. Seeing incorporates understanding. Understanding involves using our ‘crap detector’ (sorry, learning from cognitive dissonance) to judge (for ourselves) the veracity of what is presented to us. Like Jose, I couldn’t care less about seeing a photo of Bin Laden’s body.
I can use an over simplified example. This week has seen the publication of a photograph of what is explained as a weasel on the back of woodpecker in flight. It was presented on the BBC with an explanation that the weasel was carried aloft when it attacked the woodpecker. The photographer reported that the bird managed to shake the weasel free. On the balance of probabilities, this sounds a reasonable explanation. My crap detector says this was probably a genuine record of the event but because I didn’t witness the event at first hand, I only believe it to be true. I do not know it to be true. However, I do not discount the possibility that the image could be a fake. It is not important enough to lose sleep over.
I’ll leave you with this image which has surfaced on Facebook, you’ll only need your crap detector set on low………
Charley Murrell’s “Constructed Childhoods” http://charleymurrell.com/?page_id=5
I first came across this work in Maria Short’s Context and Narrative. It is very imaginative, using digital construction to show a child’s dreams or perceptions within the same frame. Again, I had come across the work of Hannah Starkey before at a Study Day when we discussed the work of women photographers. http://www.saatchigallery.com/artists/hannah_starkey.htm
Although her images do not appear to be constructed in the way of Murrell’s, they are carefully staged and composed to be interpreted and a narrative discovered. They have the intensity of a movie set, a frame in which a story is being played out but at the same time, the choice of location hints at a particular cultural, class or gender identity.
The end result is “real” in the sense that the artist has interpreted and presented a narrative to illustrate real life situations. In my own practice I am considering using a constructed narrative and staging a story for Assignment 3.
Documentary Dilemmas: http://collection.britishcouncil.org/exhibitions/exhibition/documentary-dilemmas-1993 this is a new link, the old one didn’t work. It is a shame that many of the images by some of the photographers were not visible. I was able to find the relevant projects from other sources. The links are below:
- John Davies http://www.johndavies.uk.com/ The British Isles 1979 – 2000
- Tony Ray Jones; a link from a study visit last year http://rjdown-dpp-log.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/only-in-england-tony-ray-jones-with.html
- Paul Graham http://www.paulgrahamarchive.com/beyondcaring.html
- Paul Reas http://www.jameshymangallery.com/artists/17200/7832/paul-reas/flogging-a-dead-horse-a-dickension-christmas-dickens-country-kent?r=artists/17200/paul-reas and http://www.impressions-gallery.com/exhibitions/exhibition.php?id=62
- Anna Fox. This link is to my previous blog entries earlier in the course https://richard506896documentary.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/study-visituca-farnham-an-audience-with-anna-fox-7th-may-2014/
- Chris Steel-Perkins http://chrissteeleperkins.com/books/england-my-england.html
- Martin Parr; here is the link to the 2003 BBC Imagine programme “The World According to Martin Parr” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNX6rxK95Eg
Martin Parr – Hypocrisy and Prejudice?
If Parr is practising the new subjectivity in his photography then he is in danger of being thought a hypocrite. When we stop thinking of the photographer as a neutral observer, recording objectively, we consider his motivations, background and the context in which he is photographing his subject. Some of these considerations may neutralise or override others which enable him to defend this hypocrisy. He acknowledges that photography is an exploitative medium. As such there is often a balance to be struck.
England Uncensored – Phil Coombes on Peter Dench http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/17190001
“Humorous approach with an underlying social commentary”. I think this works in Dench’s case. It is something that requires acute observation and a readiness to shoot first and ask permission afterwards. With regard to the ethics of this kind of portrayal, I would hope that a self imposed code of conduct would be applied by the photographer. Any “social commentary” should reflect the actions or attitudes of society as a whole and not be seen to be a comment on the behaviour on the individual where he or she is identifiable.
With regard to the “British tradition” in the title of this section it seems that Parr has been at the vanguard of this movement. In my opinion, the influence of the American photographers on Tony Ray Jones and subsequently on Parr and his acolytes has done a great deal to mould British documentary photography over the past 30 years.
Reading: We English (Foto8 issue 25 2009) and The English Outdoors by Stephen Daniels (2010)
I read the introductory article to Simon Roberts’ “We English” project from Foto8 magazine with interest. It outlines the project and describes the successful manner in which Roberts publicised and generated an audience for his book through an on-line presence via the BBC. It also describes the funding that he secured to finance the project from the National Media Museum and the Arts Council.
Stephen Daniels essay put Roberts’ work in its historical context, describing the artistic heritage of depicting the English landscape, with or without the people who owned it, worked in it and latterly use it for their leisure pursuits. I think the success of the project owes a lot to Roberts’ audience building. It is a collection of locations familiar to hundreds of thousands of the population, engaged in activities with which we are all familiar. It is about “us” and as such is a valuable social document. Of course, Daniels alluded to the problems that the increasing numbers of visitors cause to the environment. These cannot be ignored as anyone who has ventured into the West Country on a Bank Holiday Weekend can confirm. I am sure is no shortage of documentary photographers willing and able to record the environmental impact on the landscape.
Reflexivity and authorship
This is an important quote to remember:
Documentary is thought to be art when it transcends its reference to the world, when the work can be regarded , first and foremost, as an act of self expression on the part of the artist. (Alan Sekula, in Liebling, 1978, p.236)
I spent some time looking at Alex Webb’s series on Istanbul and could recognise that self expression had played a large part in Webb’s selection of what to photograph. He has reacted to what is happening in front of him and produced images that are full of the life of the city. I also looked at “Suffering of Light” which included images from Istanbul, those mentioned from Haiti as well as some from places a far apart as Georgia, Cuba, Mexico, Panama and the USA. As I looked through these images I had feeling that they were very abstract, mostly colourful but always contained a human element, something which told you about the subject’s relation to the place. This image from Haiti for example, Webb has seen the three colours of the French flag, indicating Haiti’s colonial past. The almost surreal element of the man carrying a bunch of bulrushes and the silhouette of the man
in the foreground reinforce the everyday aspect in harsh tropical sunlight.
A sense of place. I looked into the award winning work of Jens Olof Lasthein “Waiting for the Future – Pictures from Abkhazia”.
Of the images in the series, nine had people in them three showed derelict or abandoned sites with either dogs or ponies in them. Most were taken outdoors in clear bright weather with strong saturated colour. The subjects in the pictures seem aware of the photographer although not posed. I am given the impression that they are waiting for something, patiently and with resignation. Lasthein says he was attracted to the country because of its situation, having been internationally isolated as a result of war. He was trying to find out what goes on in such a country.
Talking about his practice he says he uses photography as a means of “subjective expression” using the “real world as a starting point… to try to understand what goes on among other people and inside myself.”
Next I examined the work of Marco van Duyvendijk – Mongolia series:
Looking at the website, van Duyvendijk has displayed thirty six images which show the diverse and changing lives of the people of Mongolia. He poses his subjects to make a connection with them. As they look into his lens they establish themselves in the place and seem to say “this is me and this is where I belong”. As a set, they contain all of the diversity expected, the harsh landscape, the traditional dress and culture amongst modern influences of dress and culture. Elsewhere he talks about his experiences in travelling and asking strangers to pose for him:
It is also notable that his work bears a resemblance to that of Lasthein in that he has visited similar places around Abkhazia and they have a very similar style.
I got side-tracked while researching Goldblatt’s work. This short interview gives an insight to the man and his work: http://www.icp.org/support-icp/infinity-awards/david-goldblatt
Here is the web page for his MOMA exhibition:
Mikhael Subotzky’s work can be seen here.
I found comparing the strategies of these two photographers very difficult because of their different backgrounds and ages and the complex political and social conditions they worked under and the lack of any detailed information about the way in which they worked. I don’t think it is possible to say whether this type of work is harder or easier if you come from the area you are documenting. So much depends on your personal qualities in your interactions with the people, and your objectivity. It is interesting that Goldblatt’s asserted that he was a self appointed critic of the society in which he was born and lived. I would have thought this made his task doubly difficult. As for the question about a geographical space becoming different places at the same time, I think question this is a tautology. Of course it can. An individuals perception of a place is coloured by his own prejudices, pre-conceptions and experience (or ignorance) of that space. Thus, it becomes a different place for each person.
I read Jonas Larson’s article. It is more sociology than photography and while an understanding of what motivates is necessary for a broader understanding of photography, I found this too cold and clinical to provide an insight into why people take photographs and what the activity means to them on a personal level. This would have made a more interesting topic for discussion. I didn’t like the patronising tone of the article.
Reading: The Tourist Gaze – Chapter 1 by John Urry; There were a lot of statistics and some new “isms” in this chapter. Having read it, I couldn’t see how it would help me write about the relevance of the “Tourist Gaze” to documentary photography, when what is thought of as documentary now seems to encompass everything. I laid the articles to one side and used my own experience of tourism to reflect on its relevance to documentary photography.
Exercise: The relevance of the “tourist gaze” to documentary photography
Probably the most interesting aspect of the “tourist gaze” is that it will show one or more truths. If the tableaux, landscape, or building exists to be photographed then the resulting image becomes a document; a record of existence. Once again it is the context in which the image is used which gives it other truths.
This is an example of the tourist gaze, a tableaux of a Maori village before which we were entertained with tribal customs of greeting, games and dance. A glimpse of Maori culture, packaged and sold as a two hour experience. That is the truth that I see when I look at it. Entertainment with some educational value. However this may cross the language barrier and perhaps other groups may go home with the impression that Maoris still live like this.
But, the tourist gaze can also provide a different document where the gazers themselves become the subjects. The “choreography and performance” that Larson writes of is often as interesting as the landscape, as this picture taken on Milford Sound, shows. This young woman posed like a model and had her picture taken on her iPad at least half a dozen times, relegating the landscape firmly into second place.
It has occurred to me that in a world awash with images and an instantaneous demand for editorial content, there is a danger that the temptation to use images resulting from the tourist gaze in a “library” context could mislead the viewer as to the real nature of the image.
Exercise: Paul Close – The Snakebox Odyssey
“Is there one thing that could make your life better?” … is the question Paul Close asked of his subjects on his journey south and east across Saharan Africa. His photographic style includes a unique element that I have not seen before. He has cleverly used the studio convention of isolating his subjects against a plain white backdrop but he has included the backdrop outdoors in the subject’s everyday environment which gives the formality to identify his subject while including the informality of the environment and the distractions that occur spontaneously.
He makes good use of colour, well saturated images with all the colour you would expect in Africa. There is no doubt that this is a documentary project. It tells the story of Paul’s journey by motorcycle across Africa and of the aspirations of the people he met along the way. The proceeds from the exhibition also raised funds to support the completion of a school in Ghana. The interactive web presentation also included a locator map, comments and captions.
Exercise Eskildsen’s The Roma Journeys and Koudelka’s Gypsies
The photographs are here:
Josef Koudelka: Extracts and articles about the work are here:
There are a lot of images and a review of the book here:
Intention: The course notes asked for research and a comparison of these two bodies of work. Reading what I could about Koudelka (he seems to be a somewhat eccentric and enigmatic character) It seems that his motivation for spending 9 years living and travelling with the Roma of Eastern Europe, France and Spain in the sixties and early seventies (the period covered by the later, extended edition of the book) is summed up in this quote “From 1961 to 1966 I took pictures of Gypsies because I loved the music and the culture. They were like me in so many ways. Now there are less and less of these people so I can’t really say anything else about them.” This is a pretty direct intention and perhaps his way of working is total immersion into the culture. He also said the gypsies thought he was poorer that they were, given his habit of keeping few material possessions with him. Eskildsen on the other hand, had clear objectives at the start of the project, which was to learn about the different Roma settlements in Europe and how their history impacted on the prejudices against them (and the ignorance of the rest of the world of their situation). He and Cia Rinne spent six years visiting and living amongst Roma in seven countries; Hungary, Romania, Greece, France, India, Finland and Russia. It seemed the more they discovered, the more fascinated they became.
Distinctive Aesthetics: The marked difference, visually, between the the two bodies of work is that Koudelka’s work is in black and white but in the presentation of Roma Journeys, the majority of Eskildsen’s is presented in colour. (the first three of each series are in black and white) Gypsies has a traditional gritty, photojournalistic style to it, high contrast uncompromising images that leap out of the page at the viewer. In what I’ve read, much is made of Koudelka’s skill at composition. His groupings appear spontaneous but may have been carefully staged in some cases. Eskildsen’s colour work is summed up by Chris Dickie’s quote given in the course notes. The use of colour is not exaggerated as is some of the other work I’ve looked at in this section. Its rendition is gentle, a little more than lifelike. More like a memory than a dream (or nightmare) Both photographers engage directly with their subjects which must be a result of their total, mutual trust of each other.
Approach to the project: Both photographers appear to have had the same approach to the project. They immersed themselves in the culture, became trusted friends of the people and reaped the rewards of this special relationship. Both included not only the people they met but their homes and environment, showing a contemporary overview of Roma culture in the areas they visited. Eskildsen and Rinne probably had a more structured approach, presenting the work in distinct series according to location.
I have reserved a copy of “Gypsies” at my local library. When it arrives, I will add a review to this post.
Koudelka’s Gypsies 9 March 2015
The copy of the book from the library was the 1975 edition and not the updated edition. However, to see the pictures on the page enhanced their impact and I was able to read Robert Delpire’s introduction “The Rage to See” and introductions by John Szarkowski and Anna Farova which helped to put the collection into context. At the back of the book I read Willy Guy’s history of the Gypsies in Europe which also helped in my understanding of the photographs. This collection is an important historical archive that can only have come from the vision of someone totally absorbed within the culture. Although completely different in style to Eskildsen’s work, the dignity of the people and their trust comes through.
It’s strange but I’ve looked at what I can find of Eggleston’s work and with the perspective of time, it doesn’t seem that strange next to other later work by photographers influenced by him. I tried casting my mind back to what colour photography was like in the seventies. Most of what I was familiar with was editorial, art was definitely black and white. So with the MoMA exhibition, John Szarkowski propelled William Eggleston and colour art photography into the big galleries.
I though this quote from Eggleston was worth recording;
“I only ever take one picture of one thing. Literally. Never two. So then that picture is taken and the next one is waiting somewhere else…. I don’t really worry if it works out or not.”
I can’t say that I understand Eggleston’s work. It is bold, colourful and generally inexplicable. Then I watched this YouTube video and an insight into the character of the man made things a little clearer: http://www.photographyworkshopslondon.com/william-eggleston-tube/
A subtle colour documentary
Seeing and Believing – Max Houghton – I read this with interest and broadly agree (within limits of my experience) with the points made. It occurs to me that the skills of photojournalism/reportage require far a more refined set of communication skills that most other types of documentary photography.
Eight Ways to Change the World
I found identifying individual bodies of work a bit of a trial as they appeared to be mixed up and scrolling back and forth trying to identify each photographer was tedious. I tried to avoid having to print it out but in the end I printed out the work of Dieter Telemans and Adam Hinton just so that I could look closely at their conceptual and visual style.
Dieter Telemans presented seven photographs which showed women in Africa performing the most basic of all tasks; collecting water. The series has a loose, informal style, it is optimistic in nature and shows how despite the drudgery and hard physicality of the task, the water is clean and is being managed properly. The information provided in the captions is about the water as a resource with only a couple of women named.
Adam Hinton’s piece was about the failure of Guatemala to reach the Millennium Development Goal of gender parity in education (one of 70 countries). He has chosen to do this with small family groups of generations of women. The individuals are named (in all but one case) and the information given in the captions details of a range of experiences across the generations, from prejudice against educating women to positive experiences of second and third generations being encouraged into the classroom. The groups are posed and look directly into the camera, connecting with the viewer, telling their stories. The poor living standards are obvious from the settings of the images.
Surrealism and colour documentary
Here is a page about Hara’s Vanitas: http://www.dalpine.com/en/book/vanitas
Carl de Keyser has produced some other work with surreal elements. As well as the Zona series, Moments Before the Flood and Congo (Belge) colour work were worth looking at.
I looked at a lot of Peter Dench’s work www.peterdench.com . Having done that I had to redefine what I think of as surreal and whether his images are surreal, bizarre or just plain quirky. Surreal: a situation or experience that is surreal is very strange, like something from a dream… Longman dictionary of contemporary English.
Having looked at Alcohol & England, The British Abroad and England Uncensored , by the end I found it difficult to find anything surreal about the images, humorous, yes, bizarre definitely. Could it be that this genre has reached saturation point? To qualify as surreal an element in a image should be unexpected, take me totally by surprise and make me think; even be totally inexplicable. I like Dench’s work, he is an acute observer and uses colour well. He has summed up the nation, not in the most flattering way perhaps, but we can after all laugh at ourselves.
I think it is a sad reflection that we are bombarded with images of ourselves at our worst, simply as a result of social media and the “anything goes” culture. Consequently, what was once surreal has become the commonplace, bizarre and quirky.
I found that de Keyser’s Moments Before the Flood contained a lot more surreal elements than Dench’s work. These are links to images that I felt use colour or unusual juxtapositions to reinforce a dream-like or strange notion.
Further searches of the internet for surreal colour images in documentary photography weren’t very fruitful. My perception of what is surreal seems to be at odds with what is described. I shall continue to search and will add my portfolio of “surreal” images to this blog when the portfolio is completed.