Exercise: John Mraz – Sebastião Salgado: Ways of Seeing Latin America

John Mraz’s essay touches on various works by Sebastião Salgado highlighting the continuing discourse about the aesthetics of documentary photography. He describes Salgado’s first photobook, Other Americas (1977) as one of sadness, misery, doom and having a ‘dominant tone of mystery’ (p.16). He compares Salgado’s work to other Mexican photographers, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Naco López, Héctor García and the Mexican New Photojournalists.

The abovementioned Mexican photographers use ironic humour and other techniques like low camera angles to present serious or gloomy subjects such as death in a more light hearted way or present it as part of the Mexican cultural experience. Salgado’s images in Other Americas, however, are difficult to understand. The only text accompanying the images is a date and the country in which the photo was taken.  Mraz is of the opinion that Salgado was heavily influenced by Robert Frank’s The Americans and the same sense of alienation and estrangement runs through his Other Americas body of work. Salgado focused solely on rural landscapes, ignoring any religious or political discourses that could have informed his work. Instead as Shawcross and Hodgson state ‘Salgado forces us, by offering great beauty as well, to pay more attention, to be truly awestruck’ (Aperture 108: 3). Looking at Salgado’s images invoke a sense of the sublime in the viewer. One can not help but be awestruck by the beauty and the horror depicted in his images. His later work especially, has a lasting quality, unlike a news picture which loses its significance or impact as soon as the next big news story, war or disaster comes around.

Other Americas was aimed at the Western world, Salgado perhaps compromising in his presentation, in that he presented the work as he thought the Western world would want to see it. According to Mraz, the work is too ambiguous and lacks context, it lies in an ‘historical vacuum’ as far as a Western might be concerned. Perhaps for a Latin American viewer the ambiguity disappears and the context is there, because he/she will understand the culture. Personally I can make this connection coming from Africa, I will understand and perceive an African-type photograph of this nature better than my fellow students in North America or the UK will, because I will have a familiarity with the conditions, customs and rituals, even if I haven’t experienced them myself, but would have been exposed to them through local media or learned about them in school. I believe this is the disconnect that is occurring with Salgado’s Other Americas.

Mraz states that traditional photojournalism is more concerned with information, particularly in presenting certain situations. On the opposite end of the scale are images that are rich with symbols, but lack the information giving more in to expression‘… Fine art photojournalists make photos that tell us more about the photographers than the photographed … the images of traditional photojournalists tell us more about what they are photographing than about those who have taken them’ (Mraz, 2002: 22).

Stuart Franklin argues that this criticism against the aesthetic quality of Salgado’s work is misplaced and I tend to agree with him. Why penalise or condemn work that is aesthetically pleasing as well as being of a documentary nature? Why should only blurry, poorly composed photos be acceptable in the documentary genre? Franklin gives the analogy that one would not criticise a writer for using certain verbs or complex sentence structures in his writing, so why do we subject photographers to this criticism? Can it be because no one wants to challenge the rhetoric or discourse? Both Franklin and David Levi Strauss touch on this in their commentaries about Salgado’s work. The problem lies with essentialism – the ‘dwelling on the notion of a fixed or unchanging world … it privileges a fixed and ideal way of life or tradition and is blinkered to anything else, to change or development’ (Franklin, 2016: 46).  Levi Strauss (2005:7) states that according to Eduardo Galeano Salgado’s ‘transgression‘ is that his images ‘question the hypocritical frontiers that safeguard the bourgeois order and protect its right to power and inheritance’. It is this disturbing quality in Salgado’s work that causes so much dissension among viewers.

Salgado rectified his presentation method in his later work Terra. In this book there is no pandering to the developed world. He made extensive use of captions to highlight the socioeconomic conditions. The work is presented in two parts: the first depicting the people, their work and land and hardships emphasising ‘how dignity and poverty are inseparable companions of the rural population’ (Mraz 2002: 24). The second part of the book concentrates on the urban migration and land takeovers in the rural area. By structuring the book in this manner Salgado has provided a historical background to Latin America’s plight. Several images that appeared in Other Americas have been brought into the Terra book. This time the contextualisation is present and some of the previous confusion and mystery is resolved.

Bibliography

Mraz, J. (2002) ‘Sebastião Salgado: Ways of Seeing Latin America’ In: Third Text 16 (1) pp.15–30.

Book review:  Other Americas by Sebastião Salgado. (2014) [user-generated content online] Creat. Doe, J.  14 August 2014 At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUrNx47y-kE (Accessed on 26 June 2019)

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

Levi Strauss, D. (2005) Between the Eyes. New York: Aperture Foundation.

Shawcross, W. and Hodgson, F. (1987) ‘Sebastião Salgado: Man in Distress’ In: Aperture 108 (Fall) 1987 pp.2–31.

Exercise: The Americans

Part 1 – Find 5 images in The Americans. Identify the symbols, explain what they are and how they function.

Fig. 1. Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955 by Robert Frank

Symbol – American flag – American-ness

Two women in apartment building watching a parade (perhaps a 4th of July parade) in New Jersey out of two separate windows. The American flag, which is a national symbol of America, flies over the window on the right obscuring  the face of a woman in an outdoor coat which suggests that she has just entered the room. The woman on the left is less fashionably dressed and wears a short sleeve dress, her face partially obscured by a window blind. The rigidity of the brick wall separates the two women.  The flag is hung from the window on the left, suggesting perhaps that this woman or her family is a little more patriotic than her neighbour next door. The prominence of the flag and the obscurity of the women’s faces further suggests that a sense of individuality is lost in the face of nationalism.

 

Fig. 2. New Orleans Trolley, 1965 by Robert Frank

Symbol – Windows – segregation

Trolley bus delineating segregation. The Caucasians are seated in the front of the trolley bus, while the African-Americans are seated in the rear of the bus. The windows of the trolley show the divisions of the segregation breakdown in race, gender and age. Interestingly white children are at the middle point of segregation, perhaps because they are cared for by Caucasian mothers and African-American nannies, suggesting a common bond between the two races.

 

Fig. 3. Indianapolis, 1956 by Robert Frank

Symbol – motor bike – freedom

A black couple on a motorbike which was rather uncommon for that time. A motor bike is a symbol of freedom, the ability to fly like the wind and go where ever one wants. The couple is looking down and this infers a power stance. They show they are in control and not reliant on government forms of transport as might be the norm in the African-American communities in 1956. This symbolizes a change in culture and politics.

 

Charleston, South Carolina, 1955 by Robert Frank

Symbol – woman holding baby – motherhood

The African-American woman holding the baby is obviously not the child’s mother. As this photo was taken in 1955 in Charleston, we can safely assume that she is the hired help. The photo is an example of servitude in the US in 1955. There is a lack of facial expressions on the part of both the nanny and baby. Neither are looking at the camera, nor at each other, suggesting a separateness or distance from both viewer and each other. The woman’s dark skin forms the major focal point in this otherwise white toned photograph.

 

Fig. 5. Rodeo, New York City | Robert Frank | 1992.5162.3 | Work of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1955

Symbol – cowboy – American-ness

The cowboy is a symbol of American-ness. He represents freedom, self-reliance and the spirit of America. We normally expect to see a cowboy on a ranch, astride a horse roaming the plains, or leaning against a pole fence, yet we see him here on the streets of a city leaning against a wire trash bin. This shows us the cowboy is at home and accepted in all parts of America, a symbol of democracy in a post-war era.

Part 2 – Read Jack Kerouac’s introduction and find symbolic references that you can identify in Frank’s photographs.

  • jukeboxes – mentioned in the first sentence of Kerouac’s introduction and compared with coffins: ‘you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin’ (Kerouac p. 1).
  • cowboys ‘Tall thin cowboy rolling butt outside Madison Square Garden
    New York for rodeo season’ (Kerouac p. 1).
  • roads – ‘the mad road, ahead lonely, leading around the bend into the openings of space towards the horizon … promised us in the vision of the west’ (Kerouac p. 2).
  • American flag‘Madman resting under American flag canopy in old busted car seat in fantastic Venice California backyard’ (Kerouac p. 1)
  • crosses‘In Idaho three crosses where the cars crashed’ (Kerouac p. 3)
Images

Fig. 1. Indrisek, S. (2018) How Robert Frank’s “The Americans” Broke the Rules of Photography – Artsy. At: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-robert-franks-the-americans-matters-today (Accessed on 24 June 2019)

Fig. 2. Indrisek, S. (2018) How Robert Frank’s “The Americans” Broke the Rules of Photography – Artsy. At: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-robert-franks-the-americans-matters-today (Accessed on 24 June 2019)

Fig.3. Phillips (2013) Robert Frank: This American Life. At: https://www.artsy.net/article/phillips-robert-frank-this-american-life (Accessed on 24 June 2019)

Fig 4. The New Yorker (2017) ‘Eight Photographers on Their Favorite Image from Robert Frank’s “The Americans”’ 25 April 2017 [online] At: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/eight-photographers-on-their-favorite-image-from-robert-franks-the-americans (Accessed on 24 June 2019)

Fig 5. Frank, R. (s.d.) Rodeo, New York City | Robert Frank | 1992.5162.3 | Work of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art. At: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1992.5162.3/ (Accessed on 24 June 2019)

 

Research point: Semiotics

We are asked to do our own research into semiotics and how it can be applied to the reading of photographic images. We are to start by reading Ch 4 (Narrative) and 5 (signs and Symbols) in Short, M. (2011) Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA Publishing.

Short’s Narrative chapter deals with the various methods of delivering a narrative. Traditionally a narrative has a beginning, middle and conclusion, as we are all taught when learning how to write a composition in school. But a photographic narrative does not necessarily have to follow this format. It does not have to be linear, but can be cyclical, or contained within a single image or it can create cross references when brought into the context of other images. The linear narrative allows the photographer to use the images as a visual metaphor and allows for a broad interpretation. Examples of these are seen in Picture Post and Life’s photo essays.

When considering how to structure a photographic narrative one must consider if one wants to maintain control over how the images are viewed, i.e. the order, prominence, is there an identified sequence. Size and shape of the image also play an important role in creating a visual punctuation. This is something that I tried in Assignment 1 with the placement of my vertical images among the horizontal images. I found that a fairly equidistant placement provided a certain rhyme and flow to that narrative. Producing work in triptych or diptych sets or juxtapositioning images, and the position of the camera can also help to create tension or provide an argument to the work.

When we look at the narrative within a single image, we look at all the parts of that image from the framing, composition, negative space, subject placement and then deconstruct the image in order to find the what, how and why of the narrative within the frame. It is important to be aware of narrative devices and to be clear about one’s intentions. Short states: ‘the aim of narrative technique is to provide or anchor meaning and coherence for the image and its audience’ (Short, 2011: 109). Single images, especially in photojournalism, are often extracted from a larger body of work, as seen below the aftermath of a Japanese attack at South Station in Shanghai in 1937. Wong’s photograph was instrumental in persuading the USA, Britain and France to protest against Japan’s actions and helped to change Western sentiments in favour of taking part in WWII.

Bloody Sunday, 1937 by H.S. Wong

Such images can also ‘convey the absolute essence of the intention behind the picture by capturing the vital aspects of the moment, person, event or idea’ (Short, 2011: 110). In this way single photojournalism images have entered the art world.

A quick summary of the semiotics that Short mentions in chapter 5 of her book are:

  • (Saussurean concepts – a dyadic model)
    • a signifier – the form which the sign takes
    • the signified – the concept it represents
  • (Peirce’s triadic model)
    • the representamen – the form that the sign takes
    • an interpretant – the sense made of the sign
    • an object – to which the sign refers
  • (Barthesan concepts)
    • studium – a general understanding of the photographer’s intentions and general interest the viewer takes of the photograph
    • punctum – something in the photograph that arrests one’s attention, something that causes one to do a double take

The signifier can take on different forms, according to Peirce:

  • symbol – the signifier is something quite arbitrary and does not resemble the signified. The relationship between signifier and signified must be learned, e.g. languages, national flags, morse code, alphabet.
  • icon – the signifier is perceived as resembling the signified, e.g. a portrait, cartoon, metaphors.
  • index – the signifier is directly linked to the signified in some way (physically or causally) and can be discerned either by observation or inference, e.g. foot impressions in the sand indicates footsteps, smoke is indicative of heat or fire, a rash on someone’s face is indicative of illness.

It is important to be aware of potential symbols or icons when taking an image or curating one’s work as we should be cognizant of the function of the semiotics within our work and whether the audience need to have special knowledge to interpret our work.

During the Context and Narrative, Identity and Place and Landscape modules I did quite a bit of research into semiotics:

 

Bibliography

Chandler, D. (s.d.) Semiotics for Beginners. At: http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/S4B/ (Accessed on 24 June 2019)

Short, M. (2011) ‘Narrative’ In: Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA Publishing.  pp.96–119.

Short, M. (2011b) ‘Signs and Symbols’ In: Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA Publishing.  pp.120–141.

Image

Wong, H.S. (1937) Bloody Saturday | 100 Photographs | The Most Influential Images of All Time. At: http://100photos.time.com/photos/hs-wong-bloody-saturday (Accessed on 24 June 2019)

Exercise: Martin Shields’ – Two Young Footballers (Part 2)

The Brief

Download from the OCA student site the tear sheet of the newspaper in which the Shields photograph was originally published. Read the accompanying text and answer the following:

  • Does the text relate to your initial deconstruction of the image? If so, how?
  • Does the text change your perception of the image? If so, how?

(OCA PH5DFF course manual p. 37)

Response

The text has almost nothing to do with my deconstruction of the image, apart from my mention that the apartment buildings were possibly on a housing estate and that the area looked run down. The photograph on the PDF download with the text article is actually a better version than what is in the manual and from that photo I can clearly see that the apartment blocks are in desperate need of repair.

The focus of the article is on the regentrification of the the city of Glasgow’s council housing and the plan to transfer these dwellings to a housing association. It further mentions the plan of an eight year guarantee to keep rents in line with inflation plus 1 percent. Unfortunately the article is cut off midway so one can just glean the essence from the columns. The caption under the photograph reads ‘Two boys play in one of the dilapidated council estates in Glasgow that the city’s housing association plans to regenerate’. I think the image of the boys was used as a ‘soft hook’ in order to make what could be a rather boring news item attract the attention of the reader.

Bibliography

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

Exercise: Martin Shields – Two Young Footballers (Part 1)

The Brief

Analyse Martin Shields’ photograph of two young footballers. What are the denotations and connotations of this image? You can write your answer in descriptive prose or make a bullet list if you find this easier.

Compare your findings with those of other students via the OCA student forums.

(OCA PH5DFF course manual p. 37)

Response

© Martin Shields

Denotations

  • Two boys with walking next to each other arms around each other’s neck, each holding a football under the tucked under the other arm
  • The boys are wearing different soccer jerseys and socks
  • In the background are a few apartment blocks
  • A road stretches off into the distance to the left of the boys
  • The boys are walking on a verge/pavement
  • It is an overcast day

Connotations

  • Arms around each other’s necks signify friendship
  • Different soccer jerseys and socks signify that the boys are on different teams or possibly attend different schools
  • Their shorts are clean which means that they are on the way to their game
  • The area is rather run down judging from the lack of vegetation and condition of the grass on the verge and the gravel roadway surrounding the flats
  • The uniformity of the apartment blocks leads me to think that this is a housing estate somewhere in Great Britain
  • Although the day is overcast the temperature is not too cold because the boys aren’t wearing/carrying any sweaters/tracksuit tops.

Other students’ findings

I found that the denotations were similar to my findings. The connotations included:

  • That there are prospects for peace in a place divided by sectarian tension [my guess was Glasgow from the striped kit]
  • That the journey to peace starts with this generation
  • That the path ahead might be long and difficult
  • the town is probably Glasgow, maybe Gorbals area
  • the striped shirt tells me that the boy on the left supports Celtic, the implication being that his friend supports Rangers, two opposing football teams but also Catholic and Protestant where there were huge divisions in Glasgow at this time

Obviously living where I do in Canada, I have no special knowledge of the area or football rivalry, or politics for that matter.

 

Bibliography

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