Exercise: Marcus Bleasdale Interview

Read the interview with Marcus Bleasdale in Eight magazine (V4N3, Dec 2005).

Marcus Bleasdale is a banker turned photojournalist. Realising that events in outlying parts of the world had major repercussions on the financial market, he started travelling to document these events and in his own words ‘uses his work to influence policy makers around the world’ (Bleasdale, s.d.).

The most interesting section of this interview, I found, was Bleasdale’s comparison or juxtapositioning of his work One Hundred Years of Darkness with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I remember reading this book as a prescribed text for English Literature at university (many years ago). I found much of Bleasdale’s reasoning around the ‘scramble for loot’, the colonists (in this case the Belgian government) being replaced by international mining companies, the UN replacing the international community and the never ending line of corrupt politicians still relevant today. We saw the same type of atrocities committed in Rwanda with the genocide between the Hutus and Tutsis in 1994, as Bleasdale documents in the Congo, the only difference being that the international population didn’t really care what was happening in Rwanda as there was no economic benefit to them in the form of oil, or precious minerals to be had to justify more international troops to be sent to put an end to that genocide.

Bleasdale believes ‘the media has a moral responsibility to focus, and to continue to focus, on these issues forcing the international community to react’ (Houghton, 2005), but sadly ongoing coverage usually dwindles in the face of financial resources, leaving the international companies free to put a (false?) positive spin on the conditions in order to boost their markets.

Bleasdale also makes mention of trying as far as possible to represent his subjects with honour and dignity. In this short video clip below, he stresses that its not the individual photograph that is important, but more so what you do with it and who you engage it with that makes it powerful.

I was not able to view the tear sheets of Bleasdale’s work as mentioned in the course manual, as the link no longer works, and could also find none of his work on Viiphoto’s website. I did, however, manage to locate the Guardian article of 16 January, 2010 (at least I hope it is the correct one). This article is written by author, John le Carré and is an edited extract to the foreword to Bleasdale’s book The Rape of a Nation. Le Carré’s foreword covers the same content as the Houghton interview, expanding a little to explain the effects of the Rwandan genocide had on the Congo, all the while exhorting the reader that one has a moral duty to look at the atrocities reminding us that ‘it is a continuing human tragedy’ (le Carré, 2010).

 

Bibliography

Bleasdale, M. (s.d.) About — Marcus Bleasdale – Photographer. At: http://www.marcusbleasdale.com/about (Accessed on 17 June 2019)

Houghton, M. (2005) ‘Inside | Interview with Marcus Bleasdale’ In: Eight Photojournalism 4 (3) 2005 pp.68–70.

le Carré, J. le (2010) ‘Hell on earth: John le Carré on Congo’ In: The Guardian 16 January 2010 [online] At: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/jan/16/congo-john-le-carre (Accessed on 17 June 2019)

Proof: Marcus Bleasdale on Shock and Change | National Geographic. (2013) [user-generated content online] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=154&v=8o0TQV450uk (Accessed on 17 June 2019)

Advertisements

Research: Socially Committed B&W Photographers

Brief

Do your own research into the work of the socially committed B&W photographers discussed so far, both British (Exit Photography Group, Chris Killip, Nick Danziger, Bill Brandt) and American (Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine). Was this social documentary work their prime focus? How does it fit with other work done by these photographers?

Make notes in your learning log or blog.

(Open College of the Arts, 2014: 34)

This exercise seems to repeat some of the work just previously done in this section, so I shall be just look at the photographers that I have not yet. I have commented on Chris Killip and Nick Danziger here, and the Exit Photography Group, and Bill Brandt on their appropriate links.

Jacob Riis (1849 – 1914)

Emigrating from Denmark to the United States of America in 1870, social documentary photographer Jacob Riis found work as a police reporter for the New York Tribune in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He began writing about the slums and illustrating his articles at first with found photographs, but later on with his own work. He was among a growing number of reformers who believed that environment was a determining factor in the increase in immorality, disease and crime. Seeing himself as a “tour guide” to the privileged class, he gave lectures and presented his photos in different formats (articles, lantern-slide shows, newspapers and magazines),  to highlight and bring attention to the poor living conditions in the slums.  His audience was mainly middle-class society who had no need to venture into the downtrodden areas of New York. His aim was to bring about reformation of the slum areas.

He would tour the slums at night and used magnesium flash powder to photograph the dark interior of the dwellings and also to surprise the inhabitants. ‘The harsh look of the sudden burst of intense white light and the shock registered on the faces of those photographed came to stand for candid and objective photography’ (Warner Marien, 2014: 204).

Fig. 1. Jacob Riis (1889) One of four peddlers who slept in the cellar of 11 Ludlow Street

Orvell states that “Riis used the camera as a perfect instrument for his own, and our curiosity about the cultural ‘other'” (Orvell, 2003: 72), thereby emphasising the difference between his subjects and us. Riis was not averse to staging his photographs either (children huddled together over a grate in the day time, pretending to be asleep).

Riis’s How the Other Half Lives was published in 1980 as a hybrid text, composed of eighteen plates which were line drawings and seventeen half-tone photographs. Early social documentary work was complex and inherently assumed moral and aesthetic superiority. Riis’s photographs offered the visual proof to authenticate the text. To us in this present time, Riis’s work may seem voyeuristic, but Riis was motivated by compassion and a real desire to effect social change.

Lewis Hine (1874 – 1940)

Born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin Hine’s first job was in a furniture upholstery factory earning $4.00 per week. He held down several menial jobs and could therefore empathize with his subjects that he later photographed as he had first hand experience of their lives. Determined to break away from labouring work, Hine attended university courses and eventually became a teacher at the New York’s Ethicul Culture School. It was here that he learned photography at the school’s request and became the school’s photographer. Hine soon realised what a powerful medium photography is and made frequent use of it as an instructional aid in his curricula, accompanying students on field trips where the focus could be anything from nature study to economic life in the ports of New York.  He made many photographs of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, New York.

Fig. 2. Lewis Hine (October, 1908) Carrying-in Boy at the Lehr, (15 years old) Glass Works, Grafton, W. Va. Has worked for several years. Works nine hours. Day shift one week, night shift next week. Gets $1.25 per day. Location: Grafton, West Virginia. National Child Labor Committee collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

He was commissioned by the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) to document child labour in various industries (mills, factories, mines, fields and canneries) with the view to bring about legislation to reform industrial hiring practices. Hine frequently had to disguise himself in order to gain access to these locations. His approach to his subjects was quite different to that of Jacob Riis. Hine ‘tried to get the viewer to see a humanity shared with the subjects’ (Orvell, 2003: 75). He was more respectful of his subjects and ‘granted his subjects a beauty that was not generally accorded’ to them (Orvell, 2003: 75). Eventually government was persuaded by these photographs to bring about laws prohibiting child labor.

Lewis Hine created what he called the “photo story” which were published in journals and magazines. He employed a non-linear thread to his work linking ideas rather than sequential time flow, combining text (often captions obtained directly from his subjects) and image. He published frequently in The Pittsburgh Survey (1909 – 14). Hine was interested in photographing the everyday life that happened in the street, at work, in the home. He often posed his subjects so that they looked directly at the camera so that the viewer would have not choice but to look the subject in the eye – a confrontational tact which proved to be quite effective.

Hine also photographed the construction of the Empire Building, the relief mission of the Red Cross during WWI in France and the Balkans, as well as working conditions of women between 1920 and 1930.

Bill Brandt (1904 – 1983)

Brandt was born into an Anglo-German family in Hamburg and began his career as a portrait photographer in Vienna in 1927. After studying with Man Ray in Paris, Brandt settled in London and took up an anthropological form of documentary work. Two of Brandt’s photobooks, The English at Home (1936) and A Night in London (1938) examine life in Britain and its class system. He also contributed to magazines such as Lilliput, Picture Post and Harper’s Bazaar. Brandt’s work is often compared to that of Brassaï, sharing a similar narrative style and reference to Surrealism.

Although Brandt was commissioned to photograph the underground bomb shelters during WWII, I wouldn’t go so far as to include him in a “socially committed B&W photographers” category. His two earlier photobooks mentioned above drew attention to class distinction, but was there any reform or resolution resulting from that work, apart from making people aware? Brandt very often staged his scenes, using friends, family and staff. Says Kozloff of Brandt’s earlier work: ‘what we are viewing is a lurid stylist who substantiates his quasi-activist purpose with a scrutiny as forensic as that of police in detective fiction’ (Kozloff, 2007:129)  After the war Brandt returned to portraiture work, landscape, surrealism and nudes, which make up the main body of his work.

For more in-depth discussion on Bill Brandt, please see this post.

 

Bibliography

Open College of the Arts (2014) Photography 2: Documentary-Fact and Fiction (Course Manual). Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Jacob Riis (s.d.) At: https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/jacob-riis (Accessed on 12 June 2019)

Kozloff, M. (2007) The Theatre of the Face | Portrait Photography Since 1900. London: Phaidon Press Limited.

Lewis Hine | International Photography Hall of Fame (s.d.) At: http://iphf.org/inductees/lewis-hine/ (Accessed on 13 June 2019)

Orvell, M. (2003) American Photography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History. (4th ed.) London: Laurence King Publishing.

Williams, V. and Bright, S. (2007) How We Are | Photographing Britain from the 1840s to the Present. London: Tate Publishing.

Exercise: ‘Mirror of visual culture’ Discussing documentary by Maartje van den Heuvel

Brief

We are to read the first section of the above-mentioned essay which appears in the text ‘Documentary Now!’ (pp 105 – 110) and write a short summary in the learning log.

Summary

Maartje van den Heuvel begins the introduction to her essay by posing the following questions:

  • Is documentary taking a new path and trying to reinvent itself in the space of the gallery or museum?
  • How valid and effective are documentary practices within the art circuit?
  • Can documentary sill be regarded as a ‘time-honoured eye-witness’ (van den Heuvel, 2005:105) in a museum or gallery?
  • Does documentary still obtain a degree of reality or has it blurred into fiction?

Van den Heuvel is of the opinion that the crossover of documentary in terms of art context is actually not something that occurs frequently. Rather it is the role of mass media that has shaped and changed our perceptions of documentary and continues to do so, as we no longer rely on our own experiences to formulate our view of reality but increasingly that which is fed to us via the media. That experience has been abrogated to the media. These developments in documentary are down to an increased ‘visual literacy’ (an ability to read and interpret, actions, symbols and objects in our surroundings) and to then use this knowledge in order to communicate, both on the part of the authors and viewers. Unlike ‘verbal literacy’ (the ability to critically analyse and understand written and spoken text) which is taught at schools and colleges, knowledge of visual literacy is only obtained by looking at a lot of mass media images.

Maartje van den Heuvel’s essay attempts to spotlight how documentary photography and film function in the media and the extent to which this type of work increases visual literacy. In the section, Documentary: the militant eye-witness, van den Heuvel proceeds to explain two historical visual notions of documentary photography and film.

The first is from a Western (Anglo-Saxon) perspective of ‘human interest photography and film’ (van den Heuvel, 2005: 107) . This tradition began around 1900 and she highlights photographers Jacob Riis (1849 – 1914) and Lewis Hine (1874 – 1940) who were concerned with documenting immigrants, farmers and the deplorable working conditions of workers in factories. Both photographers had ‘reformist aspirations’ (van den Heuvel, 2005: 108). Later the FSA project saw photographers such as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange documenting the predicament of the Dust Bowl farmers in rural America. This project was supposed to provide the visual argument to support President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs that were implemented between 1933 and 1936 to provide relief and combat poverty after the Great Depression. While in the 1950s and 1960s the illustrated magazines such as Life and Look (USA), Picture Post (England), Vu (France), Der Spiegel (Germany) and two others that I have not come across before, namely De Spiegel and Katholieke Illustratie (the Netherlands) were a source for documentary work.

The term ‘documentary’ was first used by British film producer, John Grierson in 1926 in order to distinguish work that was non-fiction from fiction. ‘A documentary was meant to describe things from actual life objectively and realistically’ (van den Heuvel, 2005: 108).

The other historical visual notion came from the East, more specifically from Russia and Germany between 1900 and 1939 (just prior to the start of WWII). This tradition was driven by Communist and Socialist ideals and positioned itself diametrically opposite the painting tradition. Images were used to further revolutionary struggles, and came to be known as ‘workers’ photography’ (van den Heuvel, 2005: 109). The focus of this type of photography and film was on the worker at work going about his daily tasks. This type of photography served the Leftists’ agenda and depicted either the marginalised sectors of society or heroic revolutionary struggles.

In the 1960s and 1970s documentary had evolved to being left wing activist, ‘the militant eye-witness’ of injustices and rectification thereof and alternative lifestyles. Images were grainy, and very constrasty, shot on 35mm film and photo essays followed the reportage format with accompanying text to direct the viewer’s interpretation. Documentary photography was the total opposite of advertising photography, authentic and real vs artificiality and staging. This viewer’s belief in transparency and objectivity was needed in order for documentary to function properly.

Once TV became a common item in homes in the 1970s this authoritative position was usurped by the film media. But instead of putting an end to documentary photography, this only served to open up new avenues for the medium. Documentary photography was used in advertising and fiction (docudramas and reality TV) and it began to be in vogue in the art galleries and museums and this, in turn, influenced the authors to make more work specifically for the galleries.

 

Bibliography

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon Press Limited.

History.com editors (2019) New Deal – Programs, Social Security & FDR – HISTORY. At: https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/new-deal (Accessed on 11 June 2019)

van den Heuvel, M. (2005) ‘‘Mirror of visual culture’ Discussing documentary’ In: Gierstberg, F., van den Heuvel, M., Scholten, H. and Verhoeven, M. (eds.) Documentary Now! Contemporary Strategies in Photography, Film and the Visual Arts. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.

Exercise: Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document by David Campany

For this brief we are to read David Campany’s essay Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document’, make a brief summary while also discussing how B&W became a respected and trust medium in documentary.

It is said that Brandt employed an anthropological form of documentary when he settled in London in 1932 and Campany begins his essay by discussing Brandt’s iconic photography Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid Read to Serve Dinner which was made in 1933. The photograph, today serves a number of functions:

  • it is a representation of all of Brandt’s work
  • it was a milestone in documentary photography
  • it was also a milestone in art photography
  • it served as an illustration of life in the 1930s.

The photograph appears in Brant’s photobook The English At Home which was published in 1936. The book is one of tensions and disparities. The front of the book’s dust jacket features a photograph of a “posh” crowd at the Ascot race course, while the rear of the dust jacket features a miner’s wife with her children in very cramped living conditions. Throughout the book privilege is juxtaposed with working class or poverty, bringing different classes together, allowing the viewer to make connections and view disparities.  The Workmen’s Restaurant (a venue that is not dissimilar to a modern day diner) is alongside the Clubmen’s Sanctuary (an elite luxurious venue for the establishment). The Ready to Serve Dinner image is juxtaposed alongside a photograph of a Mayfair Regency home, which is purported to belong to Bill Brandt’s uncle, Henry who was a banker and owned a house in Mayfair as well as one in Surrey. Brandt often used friends and family to make his photographs, planning his shots carefully by staging them.

Workmen’s Restaurant (left) and Clubmen’s Sanctuary (right) by Bill Brandt in The English At Home (1936)

There is so much to read from this image. The tension on the faces of the two parlourmaids is evident from their expressions and averted gazes. Campany opens up an interesting discourse around the soft focus on the two maids, the sharp focus being on the wine glasses and napkins. Are they avoiding eye contact with the camera/photographer because ‘they know their place’? Or is their averted gaze simply the protocol that was followed by the downstairs staff when in presence of their employers? This behaviour has been a theme in many books that I have read and is also confirmed in this New York Times article. Campany raises the probability that the soft focus on the maids in actual fact makes them the focus of the picture, thereby bringing them out of the obscurity in which they are trying to remain.

Brandt was drawn to Surrealism and his photographic style changed towards the end of WWII. This was partly attributable to the fact that the country had changed during the war and the distinctions between the classes were less evident. One could no longer discern social position and profession by looking at a person’s clothing and observing their gestures. In the 1950s Brandt turned to portraiture and landscapes. In the 1960s he began to print his negatives very harshly, almost eliminating the mid-tonal ranges. He also began photographing nudes in this time.

Although various attempts at colour photography were made dating back as far as the 1840s, and later when Kodak introduced its Kodachrome film in 1935, B&W dominated the photography scene until the 1960s and 1970s. Prior to this time colour film was too temperamental and fussy to work with as well as being very pricey. When colour film started to gain popularity, it was mainly used for travel and family photography so was not taken seriously by the pundits. It is said that colour can be distracting so the use of B&W serves to focus the viewer’s attention on the scene in front of him/her without the noise of colour. I believe certain subjects translate well into B&W – scenes that are gritty, have lots of contrast and certain themes translate well into B&W – those of hardship, ruin, decay and so on. But then I believe equally that those very same subjects and themes can be successful in colour as well. After all our eyes don’t see monochromatically, and the world around us is not black and white.

 

Bibliography

Campany, D. (2006) Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document. At: https://davidcampany.com/bill-brandts-art-of-the-document/ (Accessed on 6 June 2019)

Price, L. (2018) ‘The Help and the Helped’ In: The New York Times 19 October 2018 [online] At: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/01/books/review/servants-by-lucy-lethbridge.html (Accessed on 7 June 2019)

Wikipedia (2019) ‘Color photography’ definition. [online] In: Wikipedia. At: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Color_photography&oldid=895649021 (Accessed on 7 June 2019)

Chris Killip: In Flagrante and Nick Danziger: The British

I have ordered a copy of Chris Killip’s In Flagrante as I feel that I can’t comment on his work without having seen it properly. I will come back to this post and add a commentary once I have received my book later this month.

 

Nick Danziger

Nick Danziger’s book The British is a book about the class divide: the working class and the establishment. The book itself is divided into two parts and one needs to flip it upside down and around in order to view each section. By presenting the photographs in this self-contained method Danziger is actually emphasising the divisions between the rich and powerful and the ordinary working class people. There is an element of censorship in the section about the establishment as if only certain conditions/type of photographs are allowed to be taken. The subjects in those photos are all very formal and stiff and unengaging, while the total opposite is true of the working class section. The photos in this section are dynamic, and one feels that Danziger is more a participant-observer here. The book is presented in a vertical format, but all the photographs are horizontal. The presentation alternates with double page spreads as establishing shots and two to a page spreads.

Bibliography

Chris Killip, Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2013. (2013) Directed by The Photographers Gallery. At: https://vimeo.com/64393164 (Accessed on 4 June 2019)

The British: A Photographic Journey by Nick Danziger. (2019) Directed by Camera At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESdHJ8LroQA (Accessed on 4 June 2019)

Exercise: Survival Programmes

The body of work, Survival Programmes, created by Nicholas Battye, Chris Steele-Perkins (now with Magnum) and Paul Trevor, who formed the collective the Exit Photography Group, was made in the classical tradition of documentary photography. The video below shows the book in its entirety. The three photographers themselves were either camping out in friends’ apartments or squatting so they were in a good position to understand the political/economical situation of the working class in the project they were involved in.

According to Steele-Perkins, in New Writing (s.d.) they divided the UK up between them. All of them shot in London as this was their base and all did work in Glasgow. Paul Trevor also worked in Liverpool, Nick Battye in Birmingham and Steele-Perkins in Newcastle, Middlesborough and Belfast where he squatted.

Their work reflects a shared ‘political/theoretical position’ that reveals inner-city poverty that was unacceptable for a first world country. The general theme that runs through their work is poverty and discrimination.

In the output of their work, the book, Survival Programmes, the three photographers decided not to credit their photographs as they wanted to stress that it was a collective effort, but one can hazard a guess as to who made the work from the accompanying interview texts which indicate the places. The layout of the book is simple. Photographs on the recto side and the accompany transcribed interview on the verso side.

The work was all done in black and white, the photographers loaded film on cassettes and did their own developing in order to save money. The project began in 1975 and was only published in 1982. The work is incredibly powerful, gritty and visually well composed. The book is one of social activism and is divided into four chapters sequencing from frustration through to anger: “Growth”, “Promise”, “Welfare” and “Reaction”.

Bibliography

Steele-Perkins, C. (s.d.) New Writing: Exit Photography Group | Photoworks. At: https://photoworks.org.uk/exit-photography-group/ (Accessed on 3 June 2019)

Survival Programmes (2006) In: Foto8 5 (1) June 2006 pp.10–19.

Survival Programmes by Exit Photography Group – YouTube. (2018) [user-generated content online] Produced by Camera. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYhgoy9pdkE (Accessed on 3 June 2019)

Exercise: Documentary Photography – Elizabeth McCausland

For this exercise we have read McCausland’s 1939 article on documentary photography, then make a bullet list of the main points and explain why this is relevant to the course.

  • The rise of documentary photography was the result of the need to find an outlet to expose serious issues happening at that time.
  • McCausland dismisses the work of surrealists and pictorialists as these methods are not capable of chronicling the world.
  • Documentary photography was capable of recording life as it was untouched = realism.
  • The world was changing and a more scientific, objective method was needed to truly document the world with all its changes in social conditions, injustices, decay and tragedy.
  • Facts are more important than the photographer’s personality or him/herself. It is the photographer’s job to find the truth and to give it form and value.
  • Channels for distribution of the truth were no more numerous for photography than for other forms of art. I have to think that this doesn’t really apply today in 2019 in the age of social media when everyone with a phone is a journalist, albeit maybe of rather questionable form in some cases. Cyberspace is littered with millions of images.
  • The strongest precedent for documentary photography was the FSA and the work of Berenice Abbot (“Changing New York”, a Federal Art Project). The best sponsor of knowledge was the government.
  • Photography used to be considered as documents until the turn of the 20th century where the question of whether photography was art was raised.
  • McCausland claimed photography is not art in the romantic sense as it is too bound up in realism.
  • As societies change so does art’s values, expressions and subject matter. People no longer want emotion from art, but the truth and documentary photography can provide this visual truth if it reflects on the current conditions of the world.
  • Photography is an unequaled tool of communication as it records reality within a fraction of a second and the result (print or negative) will last for generations.
  • Every subject is significant. The way the photographer approaches the subject will determine its value. The photographer must be objective and caring in approach, respecting the subject(s). He /she must attempt not to infuse his/her personality into the work. The photographer’s job is to make the viewer more aware (by shock and awe if necessary) of the situations in the world around us.

Even though the article was written back in 1939, I feel that it is still relatively current. There is some excellent advice regarding the basic principles of documentary photography, namely: objectivity, respect for the subjects, subject realism and the need to focus on social issues. A certain amount of creativity is allowed in teasing out the truth and meaning of the issues at hand, so long as the photographer doesn’t allow his/her personality or ego to swamp the project.

Bibliography

McCausland, E. (1939) Documentary Photography. At: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/PhotoNotes.pdf (Accessed 3 June, 2019)