Do your own research into the work of the socially committed B&W photographers discussed so far, both British (Exit Group, Chris Killip, Nick Danziger, Bill Brandt) and American (Jabob Riis, Lewis Hine). Was this social documentary work their prime focus? How does it fit with other work done by these photographers?
Make notes in your learning log.
Exit Group – (Nicholas Battye/Chris Steele-Perkins/Paul Trevor)
Survival Programmes comprises photographs (all black and white), interview transcripts, drafts and other materials relating to the book Survival Programmes by the Exit Photography Group (Nicholas Battye/Chris Steele-Perkins/Paul Trevor). The photographs and interviews were made between 1974 and 1979, and record life in Britain’s inner urban areas in the 1970s.
Nicolas Battye had degrees in Religious and Psychoanalytic studies. After working as a documentary photography he worked as psychotherapist in private practice, also he art and designed lecturer, later religious studies lecturer and from 1990 psychoanalyst lecturer. As we see Nicholas Battye had other prime focus work, also documentary is only one are where photographer did not have a degree. We clearly can see religious themes in his photographic work.
Chris Steele-Perkins has a psychologist degree, but has never worked as psychologist. He spent all his time taking images, has been awarded for his photojournalist work. I found this fascinating when people spend 4 years getting a degree and then turn they life into something they do not know about and finally become very successful. I can not see any link between his psychologist studies and photographic work.
Paul Trevor attended National Film and Television School. There is no information on the Internet about other kind of work, so I assumed he dedicated all his time to documentary photography.
Chris Killip left school at age sixteen and started to work as a trainee hotel manager at Isle of Men. Then he decide that photography is what he wanted, so be became beach photographer. After many years and brilliant photographs Killip received Cartier Bresson award and been invited to work as professor at Harvard University. This is another example of teenager who left a school and after many years become a professor in on of the best universities in the World.
Nick Danziger devotes his life to photojournalism; he even produced some documentary films. Photographer started travel form very early age, he took of his first trip at age 13. Without a passport and a ticket, he was selling sketches to earn some money. Danziger gained MA in Fine Art.
Bill Brandt – born in Hamburg, Germany. He had quite a big family, three brothers. He suffered from tuberculosis at age of sixteen to age of twenty-two. Jewish educator in Vienna helped him to follow his passion – photography. He found him a job at portrait studio. Brandt been introduced to a great surrealism photographer and poet Man Ray. Photographer worked for him and learned many new things. Then he start working on his book ‘English at Home’ which wasn’t successful and been remaindered. In 1940 Brandt been asked to photograph Blitz (heavy and frequent bombing raids carried out over Britain in 1940 and 1941). Later on photographed worked on endangered buildings, Nighwalk project, portrait work, and essays on photography. Then suddenly he found new passion – landscape. In 1961 his photographs of nudes was published.
As we see Brandt worked on many different genres and styles of photography, which worked perfectly for him as he received Royal Designer for Industry and Silver Progress Medal awards.
Jabob Riis – born in1849 in Denmark, he was third of fifteen children. He worked as a carpenter before he emigrated in United States (1870). He was unable to find a job, so spend most of the days at police station as he was squatting. Photographer done many menial jobs before he start working for ‘New Your Evening Sun’ as photojournalist. In 1889 his project ‘How the other half lives’ published.
Harold Evans, the author of The American Century: People, Power and Politics (1998) has pointed out: “Jacob Riis estimated that Dickensian London had 175,816 people living on every square mile of its worst slums but New York’s Lower East Side by the nineties in contrast, had about 290,000 per square mile, making it perhaps the worst slum in the history of the Western world…. He records a tenement block with 1,324 Italian immigrants living in a total of 132 rooms. In one 12-by-12-foot room he found five families, 20 people, with two beds between them. One third of the entire city population – about 1.2 million – lived in 43,000 tenement houses like these, without running water or indoor flush toilets… Some 40 percent of them had tuberculosis. One third of all their babies died before their first birthday.”
Riis continued writing and lecturing on poor theme. He wrote some books such as ‘Children of the Poor’, Out of Mulberry Street’, ‘The Making of An American’, ‘The Battle With The Slum’, ‘Children of The Tenement’. All this information reveals that Riis stayed with documentary photography throughout his life.
Lewis Hine – born 1874 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He studied sociology at Chicago and New York. We worked at Ethical Culture School and employed his photography in his teaching; this is how documentary photography was established. Hine was interested in Ellis Island immigrants, safety laws forworkers and child labour. Both his books ‘Child Labour in the Carolinas’ and ‘Day Laborers Before Their Time’ based on travelling the country and taking photographs of children working in factories. After his successful campaign against child labour, he started working after First World War situation in France and Belgium. After that he went to Balkans to photograph his new project ‘The Children’s Burden in the Balkans’. Nest his project was safety laws for workers on Empire State Building construction.
I would say Hine was very talented and successful, however it was a big surprise that such a famous photographer could not earn enough from his work and died in poverty. He dedicated all his life to documentary photography and photojournalism, however he struggled to get something back for it.
Do your own research into semiotics and how it can be applied of photographic images. Start by reading Chapters 4 (Narrative) and 5 (Signs and Symbols) in Short. M. (2011)
Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne AVA Publishing.
Maria Short gives us many aspects to focus on during and prior shooting, however today we will look at Narrative & Signs and Symbols.
Narrative techniques are used to depict or create these frames of reference and context. Narrative technique can be used single and multiple images.
Single images –narrative consists of beginning, middle and the end. However sometimes this structure is broken and we are left with past or suggest future.
As Chris Killip writes in the preface to his photographs published in In Flagrante (1988): ‘The photographs can tell you more about me than about what they describe. The book is a fiction about a metaphor.’
We can see that all these images have an idea behind the scene. There are the reasons to these situations and we clearly can see those. Narrative makes photograph to reveal real purpose of shooting.
The best example of liner storytelling is Susan Derges project ‘Full Circle’. She shows tadpoles hatching from frogspawn and developing into frogs. This can be used as a metaphor for how far you situation gone to. The thing is if you have no clue about frogs’ physical development and never heard about Susan Derges, it’s no chance for understanding the idea or image.
Signs and Symbols is another very interesting chapter in Short’s book.
The study of signs is called semiotics and can be applied to many fields of endeavor, including linguistics, the sciences and visual arts.
The best example is Emma Blaney’s project based on small, everyday objects. ‘The desire is to remember and to be remembered. This project focuses on small, everyday objects that often go unnoticed. But it is objects like these which are often, for individuals, triggers for deeply embedded memories of people/moments from their past.’
Don McCullin, Sleeping With Ghosts
A Life’s Work in Photography
Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.’
In my opinion Mckvb Cullin is very right about photography and there is a reason to use signs and symbols to create that felling what every viewer can fell.
Philosopher Pierce, is particular pertinent to photography simply because a photograph is literal ‘trace’ of it’s original subject. Also I would like to say that photograph has more power to reveal information about subject than subject itself. There are so many photographic techniques can be used to prove complex objectives.
I was stunted by Maria Short’s photography project included her stepfather who has been diagnosed with kidney failure and his market grower harvest. Extremely we can see many links between decay harvest and dialysis. I like the idea she used her family private health issues to create documentary piece.
The perfect example of use signs and symbols is Robert Frank’s ‘Americans’, each part of his book starts with photograph of flag. Also he uses other symbols and signs to feature different aspect of American culture.
Next very feminine Short’s project was to use horse as a symbol to reveal young women identity and social placing in the world. This is the clear example how two opposite things can work together towards final results.
The symbol was really hard for me to understand was Risaku Suzuki’s Sakura –Cherry Blossom photograph, which symbolizes hope and strength, falling petals symbolize the fragility of beauty. These symbols are not so clear as original ones: blue – cold, red – hot, smoke – fire or heat.
Photographer Jane Stroggles proves that lighting conditions can change composition completely. Her images taken in 5th Avenue, New York at day and night looks like two different places, also the American flag is seen in a day picture. Night images hide all the details but give another aspects to play with.
Use of practical techniques is magnificent tool for photographic signs and symbols. Aperture, shutter speed and lighting conditions or use of ISO everything you need. Perfect example is Robert Kenedy’s Funeral Train 1968.
Examples of semiotics in photography:
I have researched some examples of semiotics in photography. There are perfect examples how simple things can have so deep meanings. My favorite one is image of the road, one is a big slow down sign and another side two cars where one is marked red colour same as cone. This image is powerful as there are many signs that work perfectly together. Also there is meaning of traffic behind the science, also there may be meaning of well-regulated roads.
Explore the website Humphrey Spender’s Worktown
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.
The article ’90 and Counting’, published in BJP magazine five years before Spender’s death, will give you some background information on the photographer and the project.
Core resources: BJP_Spender.pdf
After exploring Spender’s website I have to say his project was based more on anthropology than taking portraits, we can call his style scientific with objective views. The aim was to record life style in working class in England.
His work was never intent to be an art, as other documentary photographers work we analyzed. He had no interest in economical or political or social issues around England. We also had chosen only one social class – working people.
Spender had very easy task to make a record, as editor he worked for did not want images like other newspapers have. We research many documentary styles, all of them are called documentary, but has different approach and goal. Documentary will be good if we will know what to achieve by employing certain styles and techniques. Wider understandings of documentary photography make huge difference in quality of photographs.
Do your own research into FSA project and the work of the photographers listed here and others.
Many of the images taken by FSA photographers reached the public via magazines and newspapers such as Life and New York Times, although it was in the shape of the documentary photography book that most images acquired their near-cult status. The photographs in books such as You Have Seen Their Faces, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Land of the Free and An American Exodus stimulated the readers’ emotions, through the emotion was guided by the text (Scott, 1986, p.215). However, these books arguably showed a tendency to reduce their subjects to pure symbols of hardship and deprivation.
So, an ethical question arises: were the FSA photographers exploiting their subjects?
FSA was government agency and had a publicity department to explain what problems are and solve them. The aim was to create land and resources for farm workers and government experts who helped them implement modern farming methods on arable land. President’s agricultural policy had been to decrease production and increase prices of farm products. This program was criticized for manipulation for political reasons. Farm Security Administration helped farmers to buy farms with help from the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act. The most famous photographs are:
During 1935-1942 photographers as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, John Vachon, Marion Post Wolcott, Russell Lee, Jack Delano, John Collier, Jr., Carl Mydans and Gordon Parks traveled around the world documenting farm communities. In total there is 175,000 black-and-white negatives, some colour photographs has been made too. This project can be called anthropology, as documenting involved studies about people lives, how they changed, and so many people could not survive without it.
I found this website extremely helpul to understand project, as there are interviews with some farmers from FSA:
The question is: were the FSA photographers exploiting their subjects?
My answer would be yes. This photographic project had a significant importance on photographer’s carriers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, also for the emergence of documentary photography.
Read the article ‘Cannon Folder: Eugene Atget’ by Abigail Solomon-Godeau (in Photography at the Dock, 2009, pp. 28-51). This article is provided as an Appendix at the back of this course. NOTE: If you are viewing this course digitally, and you do not have a copy of this recommended book, please email email@example.com to ask for a copy to be sent in the post.
(Copyright restrictions allow single photocopies only)
Research the work of the surrealist photographers mentioned above. In your learning log write a bullet list of key visual and conceptual characteristics that you think their work has in common.
From a perspective of documentary photography, surrealism should not be regarded as a genre with solid boundaries. For surrealism to be of any practical benefit in documentary it needs to be seen as a distinctive visual and conceptual strategy which can e deployed in a variety of circumstances and contexts.
In documentary, surreal B&W images are not only the domain of street photography but also belong to classic reportage tradition. In this short but prolific career as a photographer, Tony Ray-Jones often opted for a surrealist approach in his explorations of British idiosyncrasies, e.g. Glynderbourne, 1967. Hardcore themes such as those tackled by photojournalist Paolo Pellegrin sometimes benefit from a surreal photographic style that enhances connotations of irrationality and inhumanity. Pellegrin’s photographs of Bosnian children have a dreamy, spooky quality.
This essay looks into Eugene Atget’s photography also what influence it had on Berenice Abbott. Atget was an inventor of surrealism, so his work was an example for other surrealism photographers; they followed his path to modernism. Below I research Eugene Atget’s and Berenice Abbott works and find some points that are in common for both photographers.
- New portrait format, something between formal portrait and photojournalism.
- Images did not reveal information they raise questions.
- Popular juxtaposition
- Contrast in light
- Popular reflections
- Geometric lines used to take viewer through all image, not focus on one certain point.
- Blured images
For me surrealism is the lien where documentary photography meets art. Atget done an amazing job by presenting this genre to audience and other photographers. All the exercises before were based on documenting, but no word about art. I am glad I discovered this genre, as this is definitely something that I would like to work on in the future. Maybe in assignment 2?
Vivian Maier, whose work was only recently discovered, built a vast collection of images of life in Chicago and New York. Her main body of work, taken in the 1950s, shows surrealist elements.
Explore the Vivian Maier website (www.vivianmaier.com) and identify five street photographs that show the influence of surrealism. Write a short reflective commentary in your learning log.
Do some independent research into contemporary street photography.
Vivian Meyer born in 1926, most of her time she spent working as a nanny in Chicago and New York. Her work was recognized after her death in 2009. She used to take her camera everywhere she went, however she never showed her pictures or even developed photographic rolls. Her pictures have a surrealism signs, those images raises many questions.
Diane Arbus said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” Mayer perfectly reflects this idea in her photography.
Mayer’s talent surprises the world and no one can understand how someone working as a nanny can create such powerful imaginary. This is shame her images was found after her death, she would never know how good her photography really is. There is an article about this:
Contemporary street photographers:
- Zack Arias
- Tomek Werblański
- Jesse Wright
- Martin Roemers
- Matt Stuart
- Brian Sparks
- Richard Sandler
- Bruce Gilden
- Daido Moriyama
Some of those photographers are very talented, however when I was doing my research I found lots of very primitive street photographs, it seems like everyone can be street photographer if you have a camera and time. Seems like street photography is something completely different to other genres, no creativity, no reasons for documenting. This exercise give an idea how difficult is to be successful street photographer, especially someone like Eugene Atget. He not only provided very good photographs, but also found a new photographic genre.