Exercise: The Japanese Connection

Brief:

Read Miranda GAvin’s reviews of Anders Petersen’s French Kiss and Jacob Aue Sobol’s I, Tokyo for Hotshoe Magazine. Read Bye, Bye Photography and researc the work of Daido Moriyama. Then write a reflective commenatary about the connections between thestyles of Moriyama, Petersen and Sobol.

(Open College of the Arts, 2014:52)

Are-bure-bokeh

Are, bure, bokeh (Japanese terminology) translates to rough, blurred out, and out of focus and dominated the Provoke magazine era in the 1960s. Provoke magazine was first published in 1968 as a dojin-shi, or self-published magazine. The are-bure-bokeh style images created a great deal of controversy at the time, but the style seems to have perpetuated through the decades as can be seen in the work of Anders Petersen and Jacob Aue Sobol who were inspired by the work of Daido Moriyama.

Anders Petersen – French Kiss

Petersen’s work was heavily influenced by Daido Moriyama, Nan Goldin and Boris Mikhailov and he describes it as ‘personal documentary’ . According to Michael Grieve of 1000 Words, Petersen ‘captures the blur in between [that which is real and that which is not], the slight distortion of sight, and uncanny associations in that non-defined zone by which the surrealists were so fascinated’ (Grieve, s.d.). As one can see in the video above, the work in his book, French Kiss, is punctuated by sexual overtones , innuendos and symbols. The images are full bleed, with no room for captions at all, which allows the viewer to put his/her own spin on the images. Petersen shows the viewer the darker, seedier side of life. Like Moriyama, Petersen also shoots with a small point and shoot compact camera with a 35mm lens.

Jacob Aue Sobol – I, Tokyo

Like Petersen, Sobol also uses full bleed images in his book with no captions. He crops in tightly on his subjects allowing them to fill the page entirely, leaving hardly any room for the viewer to find context. His book also contains images of a sexual nature, some quite bizarre to say the least. One really has to wonder how, as an outsider, he managed to gain access to those intimate moments (or managed to stage them – which ever is the case). Or did those subjects receive payment? I’m not entirely sure that I agree with Gavin’s remark that Sobol’s ‘sensitivity … allow(s) eroticism and danger to seep through his images without becoming sordid or clichd’.

Daido Moriyama – Shashin yo sayonara (Bye bye photography)

Moriyama’s book Bye Bye Photography was made when he was very young. He was one of the founding photographers of Provoke magazine (a very short lived magazine in that it only produced three issues, but was extremely influential in establishing ‘are-bure-bokeh’ style work). The photographs were made during a time when Japan was slowly recovering from the aftermath of the atomic bomb and dealing with the invasion of American culture and its effects on collective Japanese identity. The images are an act of social rebellion on Moriyama’s part. Constantly questioning what photography was and why he was taking photos, he decided to push the boundaries of photography by including photos that had their negatives basically trashed in the bin, or walked over on the floor. The results are images that are gritty, grainy and raw, featuring blown highlights and dense shadows. His work is highly subjective, yet accurately reflects the chaotic everyday life in Japan’s megacities. He has always, and still does, used a compact camera for his photography.

It is obvious that Moriyama has been a forerunner with this type of work. He is a true street photographer, roaming the streets for hours on end (see Tate video listed below). There is a clear link in the way the three photographers approach their work and its visual output. Sobol’s work is less blurry or out of focus that Moriyama’s and Petersen’s work. Personally I find this work quite hard to read and very depressing.

 

Bibliography

Anders Petersen – Frenchkiss (Kehrer Books). (2016) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_e2wpYyHTNY (Accessed on 26 September 2019)

Anders Petersen on Vimeo (2011) At: https://vimeo.com/34125446 (Accessed on 26 September 2019)

Are Bure Bokeh (s.d.) At: https://www.lomography.com/competitions/3214-are-bure-bokeh (Accessed on 26 September 2019)

Borrelli, V. (s.d.) Daido Moriyama: Shashin yo sayonara Bye, bye photography, dear / Farewell photography First Edition SIGNED | Daido MORIYAMA, Takuma, NAKAHIRA | 1st Edition. At: https://www.vincentborrelli.com/pages/books/110799/daido-moriyama-takuma-nakahira/daido-moriyama-shashin-yo-sayonara-bye-bye-photography-dear-farewell-photography-first-edition (Accessed on 26 September 2019)

Daido Moriyama on social rebellion in 1960s Japan. (2019) Directed by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQEDzei15UU (Accessed on 26 September 2019)

Grieve, M. (s.d.) Anders Petersen | 1000 Words. At: http://www.1000wordsmag.com/anders-petersen/ (Accessed on 26 September 2019)

Presenting I,Tokyo by Jacob Aue Sobol. (2012) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKdHk6ekRKk (Accessed on 26 September 2019)

Smyth, D. (2019) Daido Moriyama wins the 2019 Hasselblad Foundation International Award. At: https://www.bjp-online.com/2019/03/daido-moriyama-wins-2019-hasselblad-award/ (Accessed on 26 September 2019)

Tate (2012) Artist Daido Moriyama – In Pictures | Tate – YouTube. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=foWAs3V_lkg (Accessed on 27 September 2019)

 

Contemporary Street Photography

So what is street photography? Its a long tradition that goes back to the invention of photography. It is an inquisitive and spontaneous response to everyday life, a reaction to the idiosyncrasies of public life.

It is just at the moment when a photograph verges on complete incoherence that its ability to provoke thought and convey beauty is much more profound in its implications. Street photographs are simultaneously random and precise, existing both as social documents and aesthetic treasures.

(Patrick, 2002)

It is a form of witness in which perceptions are implied or evidenced in that one moment which Henri Cartier-Bresson defined as peripateia (a drastic or unexpected turning point that indicates a reversal of circumstances). It is more commonly understood as ‘the decisive moment’. It is that moment when the photographer presses the shutter button on his camera to capture ‘the dramatic instant that will come to signify [reality]’ (Bate, 2009). Street photographers roam the streets looking for the unusual or unexpected, lingering, staring and eavesdropping ‘and in doing so they hold up a mirror to the kind of societies we are making for ourselves’ (Howarth and McLaren, 2011:9).

I decided to take a look at some of the photographers mentioned in Street Photography Now, focusing on some of the photographers who are less well known (to me at any rate).

Maciej Dakowicz

Maciej Daknowicz is a Polish born photojournalist who documents the aftermath of nightlife in the streets of his hometwon of Cardiff.

02:29. Late Meal, Cardiff, 2007 by Maciej Dakowicz

This image by Dakowicz reminds me of one of Martin Parr’s images from his The Last Resort project. Dakowicz’s project captures the aftermath of nightlife in the streets of Cardiff. He photographs revellers on their way home, documenting a world without glamour. The image above, taken in the early hours of the morning shows two couples sitting at a bus stop probably waiting for their bus home and emphasizes society’s obsession with fast food, and disregard for the environment. I’m lucky to live in a country where littering is severely frowned upon and people for the most part will dump their garbage in the trash can usually located close to a bus stop, so I find it very strange that people will willingly sit and eat a meal surrounded by junk.

Martin Kollar

Martin Kollar was born in Slovakia in 1971 and now lives in Paris. His Nothing Special project shows how the people of countries previously behind the iron curtain are experiencing their new economic opportunities and liberties that have since opened up to them.

Nădlac, Romania, 2001 by Martin Kollar

The image above is bizarre, and humorous and begs the viewer to author his/her own narrative. Did the man take a tumble off his bike and land with his head and shoulders in the manhole? Or is he looking for something in there – the red rectangular item to his side might be a book – or is he actually working? In the middle ground the comical scene is compounded by the rooster strutting across the road and the silly question “why did the chicken cross the road” keeps popping up in my mind. As Kollar states: ‘Irony is provocative, since it often uncovers the hidden meanings’ (Howarth and McLaren, 2011:98)

Frederic Lezmi

Lezmi was born in Germany to a German mother and Lebanese father. His work centres around identity and he is interested in the interplay and tensions between Western values and Eastern traditions.

Bucharest, Romania, 2008 by Frederic Lezmi

The above image is very surreal. Lezmi has managed to achieve so many layers in this photograph that it requires a long in-depth examination. What appears to be inside in some cases, is outside and that fact makes this photo quite challenging to read. The warm tones of the woman’s jacket, hair, sign going through her head are echoed in the hue of the tree and are anchored by the red restaurant sign above her and her red desk caddies.

‘The viewer’s eye is being multiplied, inverted and divided in order to put on trial and call into question the perception of cultural differences and their importance for the present and the past of our society’.

(Lezmi in Howarth and McLaren, 2011:109)

Paul Russell

Paul Russell is the only British photographer that I have included in my research. Russell specializes in photographing scenes at coastal resorts in the UK. His photos are imbued with humour, as well as a touch of nostalgia.

Bristol, England, 2007 by Paul Russell

The above photograph is beautifully balanced with the two ladies against a white backdrop. It is a photo of similarities (similar floral dresses, overcoats, sensible shoes,  orange handbags, photographs and walking sticks). It is also an image of opposites (tall lady, small picture with dark frame, grey hair, dark coat, light coloured shoes, raised walking stick – indeed she looks as if she wants to knock the other lady over the head! – vs short lady, dark hair, dark shoes, light coat, large picture with light frame, walking stick on the ground). I wish I could hear the conversation that is happening, my head is spinning with various captions I would attach to this image if it was mine.

‘Birdwatchers will often spend hours waiting for a small, nondescript brown bird to leave its nest [observes Russell] ‘but we rarely stop to examine our everyday behaviour in such detail’.

(Howarth and McLaren, 2011:169)

Bibliography

Bate, D. (2009) Photography The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury

Howarth, S. and McLaren, S. (2011) Street Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson.

Patrick, M. (2002) MAX KOZLOFF: “Vaguely Stealthy Creatures: Max Kozloff on the Poetics of Street Photography” (2002) – AMERICAN SUBURB X. At: https://americansuburbx.com/2009/07/theory-vaguely-stealthy-creatures-max.html (Accessed on 25 September 2019

Research Point: Vivian Maier

We are asked to look at the Vivian Maier website (www.vivianmaier.com) and identify five street photographs that show the influence of surrealism, and write a short commentary in our learning log.

In looking at Maier’s images, I have tried to pick out some examples of the psychoanalytic distinctions of the primary thinking process that I researched in a previous post. In the image below we have a group of sailors getting ready to depart as they are surrounded by suitcases and duffel bags. They are bathed in a light streaming in from three windows above. The light is so strong that it overwhelms the clarity of the picture, rendering all figures in very soft focus and this creates an association of life or death. Are these sailors bathed in a light of protection or blessing or is it an ominous foreshadowing of what is to come? Given the date the photograph was taken (post WW2) we can probably safely conclude that the connotation was not meant to be ominous.

Maier certainly had a wicked sense of humour as we can see from Figures 2 and 5. Figure 5 would certain fall into the “primitive content” as it has a bit of a sexual overtone, while Figure 2 would conform to “unusual and bizarre imagery“. Both photos make us do a double take to figure out what we are looking at exactly.

Fig. 1 June 25, 1961 VM1961W00839-08-MC

Fig. 2. January 1956 VM1956W03408-10-MC

Fig. 3. 1960s. Chicago, IL VM1968-9W01816-07-MC

Fig. 4. Undated VM19XXW03075-08-MC

Fig. 5. 1977 VM1977K05746-05-MC

Figure 3 emphasizes how strange juxtapositions can set our minds racing to make connections. Apart from the dog’s chain echoing the telephone cable (rather suggestive of a noose), there are also some disturbing signs across the road about Genuine Spring Lamb (the poodle looks remarkably like a sheep). Freud’s screen-memories are evidenced in Figure 4 with the layering of the reflections of the street scene and the interior of the coffee shop. Although the woman is bathed in light, she is accompanied by two dark, ghostlike characters who seem to be watching her.

Bibliography

Kuit, L. (2019) Research Point: ‘Canon Fodder: Authoring Eugène Atget’. At: https://lyndakuitphotographydocumentary.wordpress.com/2019/09/22/research-point-cannon-fodder-authoring-eugene-atget/ (Accessed on 24 September 2019)

Maier, V. (s.d.) Vivian Maier Photographer | Official website of Vivian Maier | Vivian Maier Portfolios, Prints, Exhibitions, Books and documentary film. At: http://www.vivianmaier.com/ (Accessed on 24 September 2019)

Exercise: Street Photography

Brief
Choose one of the weekly instructions given to contributors to the Street Photography Now Project in 2011 and build a small portfolio of B&W images on your chosen brief.

Publish a selection of five images from your portfolio on your blog.

(Open College of the Arts, 2014:50)

I chose the following instruction:

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

Bibliography

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

Street Photography Now Project (s.d.) At: https://streetphotographynowproject.wordpress.com (Accessed on 23 September 2019)

Research Point: ‘Cannon Fodder: Authoring Eugène Atget’

Brief:

Read the essay ‘Canon Fodder: Authoring Eugène Atget’ by Abigail Solomon-Godeau … Research the work of the surrealist photographers (Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, George Brassaï, Man Ray, Eugène Atget, Paolo Pellegrin, Tony Ray-Jones) and  write a bullet list of key visual and conceptual characteristics that you think their work has in common.

(Open College of the Arts, 2014:48)

Solomon-Godeau’s essay is rather heavy reading so I’m jotting some brief notes and comments as I work my way through the work.

  • Essay is about how an author is constructed; how canons are constructed; what interests are served. How Atget’s work is presented both historically and in the present and how cultural production is organized and perceived.
  • Heterodox = not conforming to accepted or orthodox standards or beliefs.
  • Solomon-Godeau refers to concept of authorship as developed by Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes.
  • Some side research into Foucault’s concept of “author-function”:
    1. Discourses are objects of appropriation. The forms of ownership have been codified and historically this stems from the judicial systems. Originally a discourse was an action that was situated in the binary field of sacred/profane, lawful/unlawful, religious/blasphemous. Once a system of ownership was formulated (rules regarding copyright, author’s rights, publisher relations, reproduction rights), the possibility of transgression became attached to the text. (This seems a rather back-to-front way of establishing who the author is).
    2. The author-function is not universal in that it doesn’t affect all discourses in the same way or in all civilizations.
    3. The author-function doesn’t develop spontaneously. The reader (or viewer) tries to discern the author’s intentions by projecting their own comparisons, connections, perceived traits or exclusions to the work.
    4. The text always contains a number of signs that refer to the author. In written text this would be the author’s particular way of using personal pronouns, adverbs of time and place and verb conjugations. (I would put this forward as “style” in photography). Just as the author of a novel may write in the first person, the reader realises that this is not actually referring to the actual writer, but an alter-ego. The author-function “does not refer purely and simply to a real individual, since it can give rise simultaneously to several selves, to several subjects-positions that can be occupied by different classes of individuals” (Foucault, 1998: 216).
  • Solomon-Godeau structures her essay around the perspectives of five other curators/critics. She (Solomon-Godeau, 1991:231) states that because “Atget, … [is] currently positioned as the exemplar, progenitor and patriarch of modern photography and celebrated unanimously by the photographic community” his work carries with it the notion of “investment” – both psychically and economically.
  • Walter Benjamin described Atget’s work at the “forerunner of surrealist photography” (Solomon-Godeau, 1991:28), praising him for his ability to strip away any artifice (both of the photographer and of the reality before him).
  • Berenice Abbott considered Atget’s work as “realism unadorned” (Solomon-Godeau, 1991: 31), while using his work to validate the kind of work she wanted to do. Abbott though, seems to contradict herself by stating that Atget never worked on assignment and then listing his clients and this causes some confusion as to whether his work was commercial based or initiated on from a personal basis.
  • Stuart Franklin provides one of the most descriptive and clearest descriptions I have come across in describing surrealism. He states: “Surrealism became something of a wild animal befriended by the art world. It grazed on the dialectical tension between dream and reality, between what is actually there and what we imagine” (Franklin, 2016:151).
  • Solomon-Godeau also refers to Rosalind Krauss’s essay ‘Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View‘ which goes into some depth on the cataloguing of Atget’s work and the vast number size of his archive (over 10,000 photographs). I wrote quite a lengthy review on this during the Landscape Module which can be found here.
  • Much attention is given to John Szarkowski, curator at MOMA, who mounted four exhibitions of Atget’s work. Solomon-Godeau (Solomon-Godeau, 1991: 39),criticizes Szarkowski for taking credit for canonising Atget’s work, using the power of his position at MOMA to “justify, promote and pedigree his preferences” at the cost of the feminine scholarship which had gone before.
Henri Cartier-Bresson

Cartier-Bresson’s work was influenced by André Breton and the Cubist painter André Lhote who made him aware of geometric lines and shapes. According to Clément Chéroux in Franklin (2016: 155), “surrealism … made a deep impact” on Cartier-Bresson, “the subversive spirit, the taste for games, the scope given to the subconscious, the pleasure of strolling through the city, and the openness to the pleasures of chance”. His photographs depict not only a perceptive grasp on the human condition but also have a sense of ambiguity. Franklin goes on to say that it is essential to understand the documentary value of Cartier-Bresson’s work. Although his style may have conformed to Surrealism and formalism he photographed his subjects with sensitivity and respect. Another extremely interesting comment made by Franklin gives me a lot of food for thought: “It is important to understand that the style that a photographer adopts (type of camera, film, aesthetic) is not always the same as his or her approach as a human being towards life going on around him or her” (Franklin 2016: 157). Does this mean that we become our alter-egos when behind the camera? I know that I have photographed and approached people that I most probably would not normally have approached if I did not have a camera in my hand. Does the camera make us bolder? Please see https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=29YL53KGUTK&CT=Album for examples of Cartier-Bresson’s photographic development.

André Kertész

Interestingly the International Center of Photography does not regard Kertész’s work as belonging to the surrealism genre, nor does it classify him as a photojournalist, yet acknowledges that his work was a fusion of both genres. This was confirmed in  Kertész’s own words as documented in an online exhibition overview of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO): “I am absolutely a realist” ­ even though his brand of realism was often characterized by the abstraction of common objects through dramatic illumination and innovative framing devices” (Art Gallery of Ontario, 2000). He made use of geometric lines, patterns, deep space and juxtapositions in his photography, with the intention of complementing or altering the picture content. Just like Steve McCurry, Kertész also developed a passion for photographing people reading, especially in outdoor spaces.

Examples of  Kertész’s work can be seen at: https://huxleyparlour.com/artists/andre-kertesz/ .

Man Ray

Man Ray was a central proponent to Surrealism. His contribution to Surrealism involved photograms (which he preferred to call rayographs by placing objects, various materials and parts of a model’s body or even his own hands on photo-sensitive paper, exposing them to light to create negative images), solarization (deliberately switching on the light while processing in the dark room). He liked to make use of negative space and shadows; the partial surrender of compositional decisions to accident; and, in its precise, hard-edged application of unmodulated color, the removal of traces of the artist’s hand. His images were often considered as the origin of Surrealism in photography.

“I deliberately dodged all the rules, … I mixed the most insane products together, I used film way past its use – by date, I committed heinous crimes against chemistry and photography, and you can’t see any of it”.

(Sanchez, 2014)

Man Ray, in collaboration with Marcel Duchamp. Dust Breeding, 1920.

George Brassaï

I have always admired Brassaï’s work, but would never have considered them to be surrealist, although now looking at a few images on various websites, I can see some images that would fall into that category. Brassaï is well known for his night scenes in Paris. He often photographed the seedier side of the city, although he did photograph scenes from high society as well. His first book entitled Paris de nuit (Paris by night) was a stunning collection of black and white images that juxtaposed luminous, dreamlike nightscapes with contemporary documentary images of the Paris’s nighttime occupants.  He made extensive use of light (reflected on the wet streets or diffused by the frequent fog) and as an extension of that, darkness and shadows featured prominently in his work. He used a fixed lens camera, mounted on a wooden tripod so unlike Cartier-Bresson, his subjects were always aware of him and collaborated with him.

Couple d’Amoureux dans un Petit Café, Quartier Italie, c.1932 by Brassai

Bullet List of Key Visual and Conceptual Characteristics

John Suler, photographer and Professor of Psychology at Rider University states that in order to understand surrealism we need to understand the psychoanalytic distinctions between primary and secondary process thinking. Our secondary process thinking is where our reason, rationality, practicality, and logic lies and is the mechanism of the conscious mind. We learn it as we grow up through means of education and adaption to the social world. Surreal photography, however, originates in our primary process thinking which is “our inborn, idiosyncratic, and more fundamental mode of experiencing the world, mostly relegated to the unconscious as we grow into civilized adult beings” (Suler, s.d.). The primary thinking process usually surfaces in our dreams and some of its characteristics are:

  • it is primitive and primal
  • involves intense emotions, instincts, and experiences
  • defies reality, dwelling more on illogical, unusual, and bizarre imagery
  • features distortions and even transcendence of time and space
  • it is highly symbolic, richly imagistic, and sensation-oriented
  • there are unusual associations between ideas and images
  • it allows the experience of the physical and psychological self to be stretched, distorted, and merged with other things and other people
  • it focuses on the experience of the self and one’s internal world

(Suler, s.d.)

In some cases the surreal aspect is fairly subtle, at other times quite bizarre. Suler goes on to explain that in some cases it is the content that pushes the photograph into the surrealistic realm, while in others it is the visual style (like Man Ray’s work for example)

 

  • Blur – associated with falling, disorientation, fainting, movement or even death (created by intentional camera movement (ICM), slowing down shutter speed; and bokeh)
  • Intense sharpness, detail, and contrast (HDR)
  • Intensified and unusual texture
  • Intensified and unusual color (by changing the colour of something in post processing we can change or alter the emotions felt by the viewer)
  • Composites and blendings (multiple exposures, layering, reflections. This in turn has the effect of merging time, places and objects — Freud’s ‘screen-memories is referred to here).
  • Frozen movement (high speed photography, e.g. water droplet frozen in space)
  • Perceptual distortions and illusions (lens distortion. I think of the many images of people holding up the leaning tower at Pisa, or people holding the moon in their hands)
  • Strange juxtapositions (the placement of two unrelated things together – the more dissimilar they are, the more powerful and symbolic the connection between them will be – Graciela Iturbide’s photograph of the woman with the iguanas on her head come to mind).
  • Primitive content (images showing various behaviours, instincts, sexual or aggressive scenes. Images that engender emotions of anger, fear, surprise, sadness, love, contempt etc., the blatancy of which might in turn shock, disgust, surprise or provoke anxiety or other emotions in the viewer).

 

Bibliography

All About Photo.com (s.d.) George Brassaï Photographer | All About Photo. At: https://www.all-about-photo.com/photographers/photographer/6/george-brassai (Accessed on 22 September 2019)

André Kertész | International Center of Photography (s.d.) At: https://www.icp.org/exhibitions/andr%C3%A9-kert%C3%A9sz (Accessed on 22 September 2019)

André Kertész | Photographer’s Biography & Art Works | Huxley-Parlour Gallery (s.d.) At: https://huxleyparlour.com/artists/andre-kertesz/ (Accessed on 22 September 2019)

Art Gallery of Ontario (2000) To Look Again: André Kertész. At: https://ago.ca/exhibitions/look-again-andre-kertesz (Accessed on 22 September 2019)

Cartier-Bresson, H. (s.d.) Magnum Photos. At: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=29YL53KGUTK&CT=Album (Accessed on 22 September 2019)

Foucault, M. (1998) ‘What is an Author?’ Translated by Hurley, R. et al In: Faubion, J.D. (ed.) Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology. New York: The New Press.  pp.205–222.

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

Iturbide, G. (s.d.) Graciela Iturbide » Juchitán. At: http://www.gracielaiturbide.org/en/category/juchitan/ (Accessed on 18 September 2019)

Kim, E. (s.d.) Henri Cartier-Bresson Was a Master Surrealist Street Photographer. At: https://erickimphotography.com/blog/2017/12/25/henri-cartier-bresson-was-a-master-surrealist-street-photographer/ (Accessed on 22 September 2019)

Kordic, A. (2015) The Emergence of Surrealism in Photography – How Creators of Surreal Photos Shaped the Past Century | Widewalls. At: https://www.widewalls.ch/surrealism-photography/ (Accessed on 22 September 2019)

Kuit, L. (2017) Exercise 1.2 Photography in the museum or in the gallery?. At: https://lyndakuitphotographylandscape.wordpress.com/2017/09/20/exercise-1-2-photography-in-the-museum-or-in-the-gallery/ (Accessed on 21 September 2019)

Meltzer, S. (2014) The piercing eye of Brassaï: the stunning work of a master French photographer. At: https://www.imaging-resource.com/news/2014/01/07/the-piercing-eye-of-brassai-a-brief-history-of-a-master-photographer (Accessed on 22 September 2019)

MOMA (s.d.) Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky). At: https://www.moma.org/artists/3716 (Accessed on 22 September 2019)

O’Hagan, S. (2014) ‘Comrade Cartier-Bresson: the great photographer revealed as a communist’ In: The Guardian 20 February 2014 [online] At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/feb/20/henri-cartier-bresson-exhibition-pompidou-centre-communist (Accessed on 22 September 2019)

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

Sanchez, G. (2014) Man Ray: Rayographs & Solarizations ⋆ In the In-Between. At: https://www.inthein-between.com/man-ray-before-digital/ (Accessed on 22 September 2019)

Solomon-Godeau, A. (1991) ‘Canon Fodder: Authoring Eugène Atget’ In: Photography at the Dock | Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.  pp.28–51.

Suler, J. (s.d.) Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche. At: http://users.rider.edu/~suler/photopsy/surreal.htm (Accessed on 22 September 2019)

Psychogeographies, B&W and surrealism

I had some exposure to psychogeography, Charles Baudelaire‘s concept of the flâneur  and Guy Debord’s writings during the Landscape module (here and here). Siobhan Lyons describes psychogeography as “the intersection of psychology and geography” and this description, I think highlights the emotional aspect of psychogeography. It is not only the act of wandering aimlessly through a city, but experiencing the “vibe” or history of the place.

The transition of a space from one use to another undergirds much of psychogeography’s preoccupation; the notion of a palimpsest – an object or piece of writing with new material superimposed over earlier writings – is particularly important.

(Lyons, 2017)

Lyons’ article makes mention of “traumascapes” (places where suffering of some sort occurred, e.g. Berlin, 911 sites) and also mentioned Iain Sinclair’s concept of “Obscenery” (places of negative connotation which have been transformed into recreational or other spaces, e.g. a landfill converted to a community park) and this has got me wondering if any such places exist in my rural neck of the woods. This might possibly be worth investigating as an assignment.

We are asked to look at Graciela Iturbide’s project called Juchitan. Her work is a conglomeration of documentary, constructed or staged work and surrealism. I found it strangely disturbing. Iturbide seems to have an obsession with chickens. One of the strangest images is possibly a photo of the woman wearing a hat made up of large iguanas! On the Amber Collection site there is a photograph of a child lying in a bed covered by a sheet surrounded by flowers. At first impression one is led to believe that this is a dead child, but after looking at the images on her personal website there is another image of the same child taken from another viewpoint which clearly shows the child’s eyes and different arm positions. As James Curtis mentioned in his essay, its important to dig around to see if one can uncover other photographs in order to delve into the “truth”.

 

Bibliography

Iturbide, G. (s.d.) Graciela Iturbide » Juchitán. At: http://www.gracielaiturbide.org/en/category/juchitan/ (Accessed on 18 September 2019a)

Iturbide, G. (s.d.) Juchitan – Amber Collection. At: https://www.amber-online.com/collection/juchitan/ (Accessed on 18 September 2019b)

Lyons, S. (2017) Psychogeography: a way to delve into the soul of a city. At: http://theconversation.com/psychogeography-a-way-to-delve-into-the-soul-of-a-city-78032 (Accessed on 18 September 2019)

Exercise: Making Sense of Documentary Photography

The Brief

Read the article ‘Making Sense of Documentary Photography’ by James Curtis.

Curtis contextualises the work of the FSA photographers within a tradition of early twentieth-century social documentary photography and touches on the issue of the FSA photographers’ methods and intentions. What is your view on this? Is there any sense in which the FSA photographers exploited their subjects?

(Open College of the Arts, 2014:45)

I found this 26 page essay a very easy (for a change!) and extremely interesting read.  The purpose of Curtis’s essay was to lay some foundations so that viewers could apply the same strategies in evaluating photographic evidence as is applied to written documents that are used for historical purposes. He briefly gives a short history of photographic technology – the evolution from the daguerrotype where subjects were required to remain motionless for minutes, to the ambrotype and tintype where reproductions onto paper were made possible.

Because of the long exposure times, all early documentary photography was staged. Mathew Brady had to content himself in making images of the aftermath of battles during the Civil War instead of photographing actual battles. Even Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine staged their photographs.

Curtis’s in-depth discussion into examining documentary photographs follows the following sequence.

  • Who took the photograph? It is always important to consider the historical context of the image as well as the photographer. What was the photographer’s intended message?
  • When and for whom was the photograph taken? The context of the photograph can be skewed according to various reform or political agendas. Very often photographs are used to illustrate biases.
  • How as the photograph taken? Where the subjects directed? A lot would depend on the type of cameras the photographers were using. If using a view camera, one could assume that the photograph was staged as a long exposure time would be required. This is something that I had not considered when viewing the FSA collection.
  • What can companion images tell us? Documentary photographers usually take more than one photograph of a scene and these “extra” photos very often give clues as to the photographer’s intention as well as providing other valuable visual clues that contribute to the background story which might not be evident in the final chosen image. The FSA photographers were required by government to hand in all photographs taken on their assignments so their thought processes and various “takes” are on public record.
  • How was the photograph presented? Photographers frequently add titles or captions to their photographs to direct the viewer’s attention to a particular aspect of the image or to drive home their intended message. Sometimes these titles or captions are deliberately ambiguous in order to convey an alternative ore prearranged message.

Now with a retrospective understanding of the limitations of using view cameras, I don’t think that the FSA photographers exploited their subjects. They all had a specific job to do and had to record the hardships that were happening across the country as a result of the Depression. If items had to be removed from a table to emphasize the message of scarcity, or a mother left out of a photograph (deliberately or by her choice?) in order to depict the hardships of a single parent (I am sure there were many single parent families during that time) to better put the overall narrative across to middle class America then their objectives were reached.

Where a problem might arise, is with the ambiguous captioning of some of the work. Arthur Rothstein’s captioning of the Gees Bend African-American community (who were already receiving government aid) comes to mind. Rothstein captions a few of the images stating that this community is living very primitively, yet surrounding photos show the women cooking on a stove, using sewing machines, attending church and children at school. Hardly primitive – struggling economically – most definitely.  Sometimes captioning deliberately implied meaning by omission of a fuller text but one cannot say that the scenes were falsified. I don’t feel that the subjects were exploited as they were probably all informed as to the reason why they were being photographed and probably all participated willingly in order to assist so that the financial aid promised could be forthcoming.

Bibliography

Curtis, J. (2003) Making Sense of Documentary Photography. At: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/photos/ (Accessed on 16 September 2019)

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

Research point: The FSA

The Brief:

We are to do research into the FSA project and the work of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White and Arthur Rothstein and others.

(Open College of the Arts, 2014:44)

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was established by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, under the direction of Roy Stryker in 1935 to provide photos that would support Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. The project was funded by the Federal government and became one of the world’s most important documentary projects. Participating photographers were: Esther Bubley, John Collier Jr., Marjory Collins, Jack Delano, Sheldon Dick, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Howard Lieberman, Edwin Locke, Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks, Edwin Rosskam, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, John Vachon, and Marion Post Wolcott. Stryker provided the photographers with shooting directives and sent them across the country to record America at work. The FSA archive amounted to about 165,000 prints, 265,000 negatives and 1,600 colour slides and is probably one of the largest photographic collections.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange, possibly one of the more famous FSA photographers, is best known for her Migrant Mother image which became one of the most reproduced photographs in photography’s history. I decided to use one of her lesser known images for my posting. Lange began her photographic career as a portrait photographer, but became  more interested in using her camera to document conditions in order to effect social change. Upon the recommendation of Paul Taylor, who would become her husband, she began to work for the California State Emergency Relief Administration in 1935. This agency was transferred to the Resettlement Administration (RA), which was a government agency that had been formed to raise public awareness of the struggling farmers as a result of the Depression and to provide financial aid to them. The RA later became the FSA. Lange travelled through California, the Southwest, and the South documenting the plight of the farmers. She would often include quotes from her subjects or her own observations in her reports that accompanied her photographs.

(Fig. 1. ‘Cleanliness.’ Southern California. Oklahoma refugees camping in Imperial Valley, California 1935)

 

Walker Evans

Walker Evans was born in 1903 in St. Louis, Missouri and was intent on becoming a writer after a stint of living in Paris and writing short stories, but upon returning to New York, he turned to photography “to bring the strategies of literature—lyricism, irony, incisive description, and narrative structure into the medium of photography” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004).

Walker Evans is probably the best known FSA photographer and was the progenitor of the documentary tradition in the USA. The Met describes Evans’ work as follows: “Evans had the extraordinary ability to see the present as if it were already the past, and to translate that knowledge and historically inflected vision into an enduring art” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004). He not only photographed the people, but was fascinated by advertisements, objects, bedrooms and architecture and edges of industrial landscape.

Unlike the other FSA photographers, Evans didn’t really stick to his shooting directives or adhere to the political agenda of the FSA. He refused to allow politics to influence his work. He wanted to show American life as it was and his photographs reveal the respect with which he treated his subjects, while at the same time remaining impersonal.  In 1936 Evans took a leave of absence from the FSA and toured the South with James Agee, their collaborative work emerging in the form of the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The photographs in this book highlight the difficulties of the Depression, and are quite intimate. His photographs were not from the 1930s were not only of historical interest, but also of cultural importance as well.

He was adamant that he was making documents and not art and “sought to avoid any obvious presence as author in his photographs” (Liesbrock, 2015).

(Fig. 2. Bud Fields in his cotton patch. Hale County, Alabama 1936)

Arthur Rothstein

Arthur Rothstein was the son of Jewish immigrants and grew up in New York. He was the first photographer who was hired by Roy Stryker at the RA. He had to learn to drive in order to take up the job. He is most famous for the iconic Dust Bowl image below, taken in Boise City, Oklahoma. He had stopped to take a few photographs of farmer Art Coble and his two little sons who were erecting fencing posts, and was about to get back into his car, he turned and noticed that a wind had picked up and the farmer and his sons were walking towards the homestead braced into the wind. He made only one photograph and it became one of the most iconic photos of the 20th century. After leaving the FSA, Rothstein took up a position with Look magazine remaining there until 1971 and ultimately serving as director of photography.

(Fig. 3. Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma 1936)

Jack Delano

I have been a fan of Jack Delano’s photography since I began my studies at the OCA. He often uses scale to emphasis his subjects’ strength of character as can be seen in the image below and also in this post where I blogged about his work. By shooting Mr Lyman from below, Delano has elevated his subject’s emotional status. Although the viewer can see that times are hard for Mr Lyman (torn and patched shirt), he has a proud, resolute bearing as he looks out towards the future. His horse, on the other hand, is the epitome of weariness and dejection. Its eyes are lack lustre and its head hangs low under the weight of his master’s arm. One probably tends to forget that it was not only the farmers and sharecroppers who suffered during the Depression, but the animals as well. Delano was born in 1914 as Jacob Ovcharov in the Ukraine and took the name of Jack (after the boxer Jack Dempsey) and Delano from a school friend. He studied music and photography/graphic arts at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia and was assigned to photograph the eastern seaboard and Puerto Rico for the FSA. He later settled permanently in Puerto Rico.

(Fig. 4. Mr. Andrew Lyman, Polish FSA (Farm Security Administration) client and tobacco farmer near Windsor Locks, Connecticut 1940)

Bibliography

International Center of Photography (s.d.) Arthur Rothstein. At: https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/arthur-rothstein?all/all/all/all/0 (Accessed on 16 September 2019)

Jack Delano Photographer | All About Photo (s.d.) At: https://www.all-about-photo.com/photographers/photographer/642/jack-delano (Accessed on 15 September 2019)

Library of Congress (s.d.) Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives – FSA and OWI Photographers – A Portrait Sampler – Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (Library of Congress). At: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/sampler.html (Accessed on 15 September 2019)

Liesbrock, H. (2015) ‘‘A Surgeon operating on the fluid body of time’: The Historiography and Poetry of Walker Evans’ In: Walker Evans: Depth of Field. London: Prestal Publishing Ltd.  pp.19–29

MOMA (s.d.) Dorothea Lange, American, 1895 – 1965. At: https://www.moma.org/artists/3373 (Accessed on 16 September 2019)

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

PBS (s.d.) Arthur Rothstein | THE DUST BOWL. At: https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/bios/arthur-rothstein/ (Accessed on 16 September 2019a)

PBS (s.d.) Dorothea Lange | THE DUST BOWL. At: https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/bios/dorothea-lange/ (Accessed on 16 September 2019b)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2004) ‘Department of Photographs. “Walker Evans (1903–1975)”‘ At: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/evan/hd_evan.htm (Accessed on 16 September 2019

 

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Lange, D. (1935) ‘Cleanliness.’ Southern California. Oklahoma refugees camping in Imperial Valley, California. [1 negative : nitrate ; 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches or smaller.] At: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017759584/ (Accessed on 15 September 2019)

Figure 2. Evans, W. (1936) Bud Fields in his cotton patch. Hale County, Alabama. [1 negative : nitrate ; 8 x 10 inches or smaller.] At: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017762310/ (Accessed on 15 September 2019)

Figure 3. Rothstein, A. (1936) Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma. [1 negative ; 8 x 10 inches or smaller. 1 photographic print ; 8 x 10 in.] At: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017760335/ (Accessed on 16 September 2019)

Figure 4. Delano, J. (1940) Mr. Andrew Lyman, Polish FSA (Farm Security Administration) client and tobacco farmer near Windsor Locks, Connecticut. [1 negative : nitrate ; 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches or smaller.] At: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017791885/ (Accessed on 15 September 2019)

Research Point: Humphrey Spender’s Worktown

The Brief:

Briefly reflect in your learning log on Humphrey Spender’s documentary style and the themes of Worktown, with particular emphasis on the ethics and purpose of the project.

(Open College of the Arts, 2014:43)

The Mass Observation project was initially begun by Tom Harrisson, Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge (all products of public school) in 1937 as a long term anthropological study into the lives of the “ordinary” people. It “sought to bridge the gap between how the media represented public opinion and what ordinary people actually felt and thought” (Jones, 2012). Observers, or citizen journalists were recruited from the general populace and issued directives on what to observe and record.

It initially focused on Bolton (named ‘Worktown’ by Tom Harrisson), but during WWII was enlisted or co-opted by the Ministry of Information in order to better gauge public morale and the effectiveness of various public campaigns. It was also a platform for artists from various disciplines to come together collaboratively. The general population of Bolton was monitored closely, the observers paying particular attention to daily activities, habits, gestures and even clothing and conversations. Some of the subjects covered were shouts and gestures from motorists, facial hair, bathroom behaviour, life during the Blitz. Needless to say that once the general population became aware of the project, it didn’t go down too well as Humphrey Spender, photographer stated: “We were called spies, pryers, mass-eavesdroppers, nosey parkers, peeping-toms, lopers, snoopers, envelop-steamers, keyhole artists, sex maniacs, sissies, society playboys” (Bolton Library and Museum Services, s.d.).

Spender’s work involved recording people’s activities and lifestyles, according to the Mass Observation’s mandate, rather than appearances as in August Sander’s and Richard Avedon’s projects. It rather reminds me more of the Survival Programmes by Exit Photography Group. Spender came from a privileged background and often felt like a foreigner in Bolton, so he developed means of taking photographs “unseen”, just as Walker Evans did on the subway, by using a hidden camera or shooting from the waist. His personal objective was to try and take truthful photos.

Spender’s work for the Mass Observation project was categorised (most probably by the Bolton Museum) according to the list below and be seen at: https://boltonworktown.co.uk/photo-collection:

  • Blackpool
  • Ceremonies
  • Graffiti
  • Industry
  • Leisure
  • Observers
  • Politics
  • Pub
  • Religion
  • Shopping
  • Sport
  • Street
  • Work
  • Ashington

Sean O’Hagan (2013) reports that Spender’s photographs were mainly used for statistical purposes – as a visual record from which various kinds of information could be extracted. Spender’s photos do fit the documentary genre. We the viewers are informed and witness life as it was prior and during the WWII years.

Ethically I don’t find too much of a problem with the way the project started out. The recruited observers were unpaid volunteers, but as soon as the government got involved in the project, the focus and purpose changed. Granted it was in a time of war, so one could argue that national security was the main concern. Drawing, painting and taking photographs of people in the public is definitely less intrusive than eavesdropping on people’s conversations.  Once government gets involved in projects such as these, it becomes an issue of “Big Brother is Watching You”, to my mind.

Now in 2019 we have a similar world-wide project happening in social media. Everyone is a citizen journalist and everyone with a cell phone is recording every aspect of their lives and sharing each moment almost instantaneously with the rest of the world, not to mention surveillance cameras on street corners, traffic lights to monitor the public. Now we don’t even bother with the ethics of this type of continual surveillance. It is just accepted.

 

Bibliography

Bolton Library and Museum Services (s.d.) Mass Observation | Bolton Worktown. At: https://boltonworktown.co.uk/about/mass-observation (Accessed on 15 September 2019)

Cook, W. (2017) BBC Arts – BBC Arts – Mass Observation: The amazing 80-year experiment to record our daily lives. At: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/153xTC0n1H0JssCqdTx8w1M/mass-observation-the-amazing-80-year-experiment-to-record-our-daily-lives (Accessed on 15 September 2019)

Jones, B. (2012) Mass Observation 75 years on: the extraordinary in the everyday. At: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/apr/19/mass-observation-75-years (Accessed on 15 September 2019)

O’Hagan, S. (2013) The way we were: Mass Observation at the Photographers’ Gallery | Art and design | The Guardian. At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/jul/21/mass-observation-photographers-gallery (Accessed on 15 September 2019)

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

Spender, H. (s.d.) Photo collection | Bolton Worktown. At: https://boltonworktown.co.uk/photo-collection (Accessed on 13 September 2019)

Exercise: ‘In the American East: Richard Avedon Incorporated’

Brief:

Read ‘In the American East’ by Richard Bolton (in Bolton, 1992, pp. 262-283) and write a 200-word reflective commentary on its relevance to documentary practice.

Then look at the work of Charlotte Oestervang in Appalachia (Foto8, V6N1, June 2006, pp. 58-9).

(Open College of the Arts, 2014:42)

Bolton begins his lengthy essay with a short economics lesson focusing on unemployment in the USA due to jobs going offshore, the labour classes struggling with unemployment and government’s lack of commitment to creating employment at that time (1992, or earlier). The postindustrial age led to the information age as we experience it today, although at the time of writing, I’m sure Bolton had no idea to what extent his words would turn out to be quite prophetic. Speaking of communication and the control that big corporations have over the media, he states: “Communication has become infused with the powerful and fascinating effects of advertising. These effects not only sell products; they also threaten to overwhelm substantive discourse entirely, affecting the content of everything from news broadcasts to presidential elections” (Bolton, 1992:262). Just think who owns the TV stations in the US and see how the news is controlled, or manipulated these days!

Bolton then introduces the reader to Avedon’s five-year project “In the American West” which involved photographing ‘the marginal and dispossessed citizens of the West … who work at uncelebrated jobs … often ignored and overlooked’ (Bolton, 1992:263) and proceeds to discuss how Avedon refashioned the marginalized class and causes us to re-evaluate our concept of labour. Avedon photographed his subjects for this project “studio-style” against a white seamless backdrop, in the shadows with a narrow depth of field using an 8 x 10 camera. The white backdrop served to remove the subjects from any context and the 8 x 10 camera served to exaggerate any abnormalities or idiosyncrasies that the subject may have had.

It is argued that Avedon’s photographs boiled down to solipsism (the view or theory that the self is all that can be know to exist) and that Avedon was creating stereotypes of the American West, as Gilman states “… we construct stereotypes to control our fears of the unknown–the Other” (Bolton, 1992:266).

I do have to admit that when I was first exposed to Avedon’s “In the American West” project a number of years ago when I was doing a documentary course at one of Vancouver’s local photography schools, I was quite appalled and taken aback at the ugliness of the photos and was quite concerned that such odd looking people were being taken advantage of. Given that the role of documentary is to make the viewer an eyewitness and to educate/inform, what exactly is Avedon trying to convey to the viewer? Is he implying that the American West consists of a sampling of his subjects, that this is who you will find in the American West? He has removed his subjects from any contextual background so apart from the captions we know nothing or can glean nothing about these people except what Avedon is letting us see, for he is waiting for the right moment, for that certain expression to cross the subject’s face before he presses the shutter button. Could it be that these types of subjects or photos were a cathartic release from the high fashion photography that Avedon was famous for, as they do negate the world of fashion. Whatever his reasons, this project does not educate or inform the viewer, nor is the viewer an eyewitness to an event so it is art photography, pure and simple.

On the other hand, Charlotte Oestervang’s Appalachian project does provide context. We see her subjects in their everyday surroundings and can envision their lives and hardships. Her work is less pretentious than Avedon’s and the subjects maintain a level of dignity and her work depicts a specific community in the Appalachia. So it ticks all the documentary boxes.

 

Bibliography

Bolton, R. (1992) ‘In the America East: Richard Avedon Incorporated’ In: Bolton, R. (ed.) The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.  pp.261–283.

Oestervang, C. (s.d.) The Appalachian Trail / Eastern Kentucky | Charlotte Oestervang Photography. At: http://www.oestervang.dk/photos/The%20Appalachian%20Trail%20–slash–%20Eastern%20Kentucky/ (Accessed on 13 September 2019)

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

Solipsism | Definition of Solipsism at Dictionary.com (s.d.) At: https://www.dictionary.com/browse/solipsism?s=t (Accessed on 13 September 2019)