Exercise: A Decisive Moment – Jon Levy

This video is rather similar in vein that of Miranda Gavin explaining what documentary photography is. Jon Levy, founder of Foto8 magazine explains to Jose Navarro some of the criteria he looks at when selecting photo essays for his magazine. He stresses that there has to be the premise of storytelling, not fictional, but in the form of a report when work is selected.  He has one important criteria that he employs when evaluating work because of the ambiguity that exists between journalism and art and that is what is the intention of the photographer.

He stresses that the photographer’s intention with the work must be present at the outset when he/she begins to shoot and not come along as an afterthought after the work has been explained. It is this intention which separates photojournalism and art. This is a much better explanation, in my mind, than the one given by Miranda Gavin. Levy is of the same opinion as Bainbridge (2011) it should be the viewer’s job to try and understand what the photographer’s intentions/motives/ideas and instincts are when we view their work.

Photojournalism doesn’t have to be documents about far off countries, or wars. They can be about local, personal, intimate stories. The quieter and emotional stories can connect to people just as well. Neither does the work need to necessarily be made from a Western viewpoint. All viewpoints are valid.

 

Bibliography

Bainbridge, S. (2011) Time & Motion Studies: New documentary photography beyond the decisive moment. At: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/herefordbainbridge (Accessed on 24 May 2019)

Jon Levy on the Intentions of the Photographer. (2011) Directed by Open College of the Arts. At: https://vimeo.com/18504946 (Accessed on 29 May 2019)

Exercise: A Decisive Moment?

For this exercise we are to read Simon Bainbridge’s article on the 2011 Hereford Photography Festival and select one of the bodies of work in the article and write a 200-word reflective commentary. The photographers mentioned are Donald Weber, Robbie Cooper, Manuel Vasquez, George Georgiou and Vanessa  Winship.

The only photographer whose work I was familiar with was Robbie Cooper who I wrote about here. I found Donald Weber’s Interrogations quite disturbing and haunting in a way., but decided to look at George Georgiou’s work in more detail as I was intrigued by his presentation method. As Bainbridge states Georgiou’s work is with sequential imagery, but he doesn’t present the images in sequence. He interrupts the flow of one sequence with another, sometimes mixing up the order of the sequences and this creates a rather uncanny feel to his project. There is an aura of surveillance about his work as one discerns through his workflow images of the same people taken at varying distances from the photographer. I have to wonder if he was hidden when he made this images. Georgiou presents his work as contact sheets, but with an irregular grid format as can be seen below. This irregularity seems to emphasis the “geopolitical battle [that] is being fought out in Ukraine and Georgia, in their nascent stages of nation-building and as they try to free themselves from Russian influence” (Georgiou, s.d.).

The Shadow of the Bear: Georgia/Ukraine by George Georgiou

Bainbridge’s objective was to get the viewers to think about the photographers as these images are viewed, specifically how they position themselves in order to capture their images, think about what their motives and ideas could be. Most importantly he emphasises that ‘the decisive moment’ is not necessarily the instantaneous surreal event that the photographer is incredibly lucky to capture that we have come to know from Cartier-Bresson’s work. It can also be derived from editing, deciding where to pull a still from a video, or waiting for a particular moment and this is clearly evident in Georgiou’s project.

 

Bibliography

Bainbridge, S. (2011) Time & Motion Studies: New documentary photography beyond the decisive moment. At: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/herefordbainbridge (Accessed on 24 May 2019)

Georgiou, G. (s.d.) The Shadow of the Bear: Georgia/Ukraine. At: https://www.georgegeorgiou.net/gallery.php?ProjectID=183 (Accessed on 29 May 2019)

Weber, D. (s.d.) Interrogations. At: http://donaldweber.com/interrogations/ (Accessed on 29 May 2019)

Exercise: The Myth of Objectivity

For this exercise we are asked to compare two quotes by André Bazin and Allan Sekula, noting their positions and then record our own view on the topic of photography objectivity.

For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving 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.

(André Bazin, ‘the Ontology of the Photographic Image’ In Film Quarterly 1960 p. 7-8)

Bazin lays the foundation of his essay by comparing the plastic arts to the practice of embalming the dead, the purpose of this process being to cheat death by ensuring that the physical body remained in existence. This process evolved in other art forms into the representation of life, such as painting, sculptures and drawings. Like Kendall Walton (Walton, K.L. (1984) ‘Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism’ In: Critical Inquiry 11 (2) pp.246–277), Bazin is of the opinion that a painting is subjective because the painter brings forth his/her imagination and interpretation to the canvas and this can throw doubt on the veracity of the scene being painted.

However, Bazin opines that, photography is, by its very nature, objective. Hugh Gray, translator of Bazin’s essay makes an interesting point that the French word for a lens is ‘objectif’. This point is frequently lost in translation. Bazin claims that in photography there is only ‘the instrumentality of a nonliving agent’ that intervenes between the subject and ‘its reproduction’ and that this process is automatic, without any creative intervention on the photographer’s part (Bazin, 1960: 7). As far as Bazin is concerned the photographer just chooses where to stand and when to press the shutter. Perhaps this “objectivity” might be possible if the camera was mounted to a wall and programmed to take a series of photographs at specified times (as surveillance videos do), but even this would still involve human intervention in my mind. Someone would still have to direct the focus of the camera, decide on the angles, composition, depth of field and so on and even program the computer (or camera) to take the images at the specified times.

The quote above is quite redacted. There are a number of paragraphs missing (represented by the ellipsis) that convey Bazin’s passing nod to the participation of the photographer. Granted he doesn’t seem to regard the photographer as having any great role at all, except that of a glorified tripod, as he states that ‘all the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence’ (Bazin, 1960: 7). He then goes on to claim that ‘the photographic image is the object itself’ (Bazin, 1960:8). As Walton (1984: 249) rightly observed such an illusion is next to impossible. No one in their right mind would equate a photograph of Buckingham Palace to being the actual palace.

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.

(Allan Sekula, ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning, 1975, p. 454)

Sekula’s essay is heavily influenced by the work of Roland Barthes. Like Barthes, Sekula is of the opinion that photographic meaning is influenced by the viewer’s cultural background. Although all photographs have a point of view and “message”, this message is incomplete and needs an external set of conditions in order for it to be read correctly. The context in which we read a photograph can alter its meaning. The same photograph seen in a magazine will take on a different meaning when seen as a 6 foot print in an art gallery. Photography is a language or sign system that to be learned. Sekula offers an example of a Bushman woman (correct name is actually Khoisan) who was shown a photograph of her child. Having never been exposed to technology like photography, she was unable to equate the representation on the piece of paper with her child until the likeness was pointed out and explained to her. Photography is a system of signs and Sekula goes on to provide two very in-depth case study examples of this using the photograhs, The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz and Immigrants Going Down Gangplank by Lewis Hine.

By this very nature, in my mind, photography can not be truly objective. As viewers, we bring our own interpretations to the image, based on the available facts (or lack of them), our culture and any background we might know, just as the photographer brings his own knowledge, culture and background into play when he makes the image. As Sekula concludes in his essay, all photographic reading is based on two poles of meaning, i.e. ‘symbolist‘ and ‘realist‘. This can be further developed as follows: ‘photographer as seer vs. photographer as witness, photography as expression vs. photography as reportage, theories of imagination (and inner truth) vs. theories of empirical truth, affective value vs. informative value, and finally, metaphoric signification vs. metonymic signification’ (Sekula, 1975: 472)

As an aside, I was able to watch an extremely interesting video on press freedom and objectivity last night which was a total eye-opener for me. Objectivity and fake news was discussed in great depth.  I found certain comments that Rosler made in her essay In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography) resonated with me while I was watching this video. I’m just putting the link to the short clip here in case someone is interested in watching it: https://video.foxnews.com/v/6038711418001/#sp=show-clips. However, the transcript of the interview is available at: https://www.foxnews.com/transcript/pete-hegseth-discusses-bias-in-the-mainstream-media.

 

Bibliography

Bazin, A. (1960) ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ Translated by Gray, H. In: Film Quarterly 13 (4) pp.4–9.

Levin, M. (2019a) Pete Hegseth discusses bias in the mainstream media | Fox News Transcript. At: https://www.foxnews.com/transcript/pete-hegseth-discusses-bias-in-the-mainstream-media (Accessed on 19 May 2019)

Levin, M. (2019) Pete Hegseth discusses bias in the mainstream media | Fox News Video. At: https://video.foxnews.com/v/6038711418001/#sp=show-clips (Accessed on 19 May 2019)

Sekula, A. (1975) “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’, Artforum 13:5 (Jan 1975), pp 36-45; repr. in Goldberg, V. (ed.) Photography in Print, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1981, pp 452-473.

Exercise: In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)

It’s little wonder that this essay, written in a murky, negative style, is so difficult to understand. Rosler’s writing style which employs multiple uses of double negatives in her sentences is confusing to say the least. I first read this essay when I was doing Context and Narrative and it isn’t any easier the second time around. The essay starts off by posing the question “how can we deal with documentary photography itself as a photographic practice?” (Rosler, 1992: 302) and concludes with “the gutting of feminism in society makes the continuation of feminist art essential” (Rosler, 1992: 333). Such a wide gamut to cover!

At the heart of Rosler’s essay is the gaze, subject, object and the way of looking. The essay then goes on to cover truth, neutrality, and the positions of power between the sitter and the photographer. Rosler argues that documentary photography is representative of the liberal social conscience. It is a public genre which she negatively describes as having “muckraking associations”. Historically it had sensationalist tendencies, where photographers such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine would photograph life in the slums and advocate for the rectification of society’s wrongs. They would appeal to the more affluent class who would be guilt-tripped into providing charity for these people, thereby easing their social consciences, yet still maintaining their self-interest preservation of their superior class. This moralism was an important component of reformist documentary photography.  Rosler actually wrote this essay in 1981, so what has changed between the time when Riis and Hine made their images and the present day? I still think that we see elements of this reformist documentary photography in the media today. Just think of some of the UNICEF ads and certain fund raising campaigns such as this one: https://www.launchgood.com/campaign/save_yemen_children#!/. Surely this social discourse still relies on the shock element to appeal to the privileged sensibilities in order to raise money?

Rosler considers the type of photographs that historically were taken at the Bowery as victim photography. Would those inebriated persons be equally willing to be photographed in a similar fashion if they were sober? Is the photographer abusing his/her position of power by exposing this homelessness to the public? These are questions that documentary photographers wrestle with even today, but how else would the public be exposed to this world with its conditions and problems, which they don’t normally occupy if not via these types of photographs?

Mainstream documentary photography now has its beginnings in books, magazines and newspapers. As it becomes more expensive it moves into museums and art galleries, still serving as to ameliorate those viewers’ consciences who have a superior financial and social position. “Liberal documentary tends to equate poverty and oppression with natural disasters so avoiding causal links and the assigning of the blame to oppressors unless the oppressors are enemies of the United States” (La Grange, 2008: 114). Of course when this essay was written that enemy was “World Communism” according to Rosler. I think the world has become more complicated since then. Rosler draws our attention to the work of W. Eugene Smith and his wife, Aileen who spent time in the early 1970s working on an exposé on the devastation caused by the mercury pollution of the Chisso chemical firm into the waters of Minamata, Japan. The victims attempted to gain redress for their families, but when the court battle was successful, the magazine Camera 35 ran the story with their own headline and photograph (one of Eugene Smith entitled “Our Man of the Year”) and not the photograph and text that Smith had submitted. In this way the focus of the story was turned about face and became about the photographer instead of his subjects in Minamata. How often does the discourse of a documentary narrative get changed by the newspaper/magazine editor these days? I think that it is extremely prevalent today in this age of fake news.

W. Eugene Smith, Tomoko in Her Bath, Minamata, Japan, 1972, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts, 1983.63.1276

Documentary photography has two paradigms. The first is the “immediate” one, where an image is created in the moment and is represented as a trace. The second is the “aesthetic-historical” moment where the viewer gives in to the visual pleasures of the image, but is less concerned with the historical meaning, but simply aware that it occurred in the past. This “covert appreciation”, says Rosler, is dangerous because as time passes the social aspect of the photograph (the collective memory), the initial purpose it was made for dims and all that is left is the aesthetics of the image. John Berger refers to the time between when a photograph was taken and when it is viewed as the abyss, or discontinuity. Look at Dorothea Lange’s photographs of Florence Thompson (Migrant Mother) as an example. How many young photographers today know anything about the dire conditions of the migrant farmers during the 1930’s depression years? If we consider the mutability of ‘aesthetic rightness’ that Rosler mentions we can see that of the three images displayed below it is the last image, the one which became famous, that has the most impact, even though it is cropped in tight and shows little context in which these migrants families found themselves. I believe it is the lack of eye contact from the subjects and the fact that the children have turned their heads away from the photographer/viewer that carry a more a powerful visual punch than the other two images. The worry lines on Florence Thompson’s face are more evident in the final image as well. There is a haunting quality to this image that is not present in the others.

 

Would that photograph be as powerful now if it was taken in 2019? I don’t believe so. Eighty three years have passed since that photograph was taken and the world has changed greatly. We have been exposed to more gore and bloodshed through the medium of film and television since the 1980s than is healthy for anyone’s consumption and have become quite inured to plights of hunger and poverty. We are all suffering from compassion fatigue – we have seen it all before. At the same time Rosler argues that the notion of ‘aesthetic rightness’ is flawed and notions of classical beauty lead one away from the real world into an ‘aesthetic eternality’ (La Grange, 2008: 123). What does Rosler mean by ‘aesthetic eternality’? Is it the effect that the photograph will have sometime in the future, perhaps decades later, across the discontinuities? I’m not sure. This essay raises more questions whenever I try to understand what point Rosler is trying to make.

Although Rosler advocates that her images “do not argue for political statements, however they stand next to the struggles and highlight them” (Galeria àngels barcelona, 2017), her essay is quite peppered with such statements. She states that the left believes that documentary is a social institution, mainly there to serve and reinforce the wealthy class. We need only look at the media of today to see that it has become a monolithic self-serving entity where objectivity is a foreign notion. The right, according to Rosler, wants to “secure the primacy of authorship and isolate it within the gallery-museum-art-market nexus” thereby making a distinction between “elite understanding” and “common understanding” (Rosler, 1992: 320) and this has caused photographic discourse to lean more towards aesthetics, while ignoring or downplaying content or politics.

Liberal documentary as it existed by appealing to the higher classes to take pity on the lower classes is a thing of the past, says Rosler (1992: 325). The documentary that is prevalent today is one which exposes workplace issues, racism, sexism and class oppression, etc., but its impact still hasn’t reached the full effect of generating social change.

 

Bibliography

Galeria àngels barcelona (2017) Martha Rosler – 1981 (the year the future began) – YouTube. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPOrpSqaDAo (Accessed on 17 May 2019)

la Grange, A. (2008) ‘Martha Rosler, In, Around and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography)’ In: Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Oxford: Focal Press.  pp.113–124.

Rosler, M. (1992) ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’ In: Bolton, R. (ed.) The Contest of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.  pp. 303–340.

Save Yemen Children | LaunchGood (s.d.) At: https://www.launchgood.com/campaign/save_yemen_children#!/ (Accessed on 16 May 2019)

 

Images

Lange, D. (1936a) Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California. At: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017762891/ (Accessed on 17 May 2019)

Lange, D. (1936b) Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Seven hungry children. Mother aged thirty-two. Father is a native Californian. Destitute in pea picker’s camp, Nipomo, California, because of the failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tent in order to buy food. Of the twenty-five hundred people in this camp most of them were destitute. At: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017762903/ (Accessed on 17 May 2019)

Lange, D. (1936c) Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Seven hungry children. Mother aged thirty-two. Father is native Californian. Nipomo, California. At: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017762908/ (Accessed on 17 May 2019)

Smith, W.E. (1972) Tomoko in Her Bath, Minamata, Japan | Smithsonian American Art Museum. At: https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/tomoko-her-bath-minamata-japan-22604 (Accessed on 7 May 2019)

Postmodernism

I have created a mind map around the concepts of Postmodernism according to the article written by Mary Klages “Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed |Postmodernism” located on the course module’s resources tab.