Category Archives: Research points part 1

Research point: Paul Seawright (Sectarian Murders)

Ani internet search for Paul Seawright leads to his web site where we learn that he is ‘professor of photography and Head of Belfast School of Art at the University of Ulster’ and that ‘in 2002 he was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum London to undertake a war art commission in Afghanistan’. (Paul Seawright, 2017). I have already looked at an image from this series ‘Hidden’ where we see his aftermath approach; images taken after the action has ceased .

Seawright’s Valley, 2002

Sectarian Murder

We live in an age where far too many people harbour a hate toward others because they are different to them. Different religions, different cultures, different politics, different football teams. Violent conflicts can result and many ordinary people can (and do) lose their lives as a result. Seawright in his series ‘Sectarian Murder’, revisited the sites of some of the 1970s attacks near Belfast where innocent people were murdered all because of religious differences.

Seawright uses narrative from newspaper articles of the time to provide context for his images. The result is that the viewer’s interpretation is limited and he/she is forced to read the image in light of the atrocities that the words describe. The viewer cannot interpret the images purely from inside the frame.

I am reminded here of my studies at the end of EYV last year where an image by William Seaman contained all the information a viewer needed in order to interpret the scene. Here we see a damaged  child’s cart  in the middle of the road and a child covered with a sheet. The police officer is taking notes and the doctor is walking away. We have sufficient information here to piece together that a child has been run over and has died at the scene.

Photograph by William Seaman
http://bytesdaily.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/pulitzer-and-world-press-photos-of-year.html

With Seawright’s images however, we are given some written context and it is the narrative that directly influences how we read the image. Viewing the images without the narrative could give an unclear message and perhaps a confusing one for the viewer while s/he tried to work out what the series ‘means’.

The image below for example could be read in the context of a private detective hired to follow this man, it could be a comment on the untidy state of common land, it could be to show the successful regeneration of disused land etc. BUT with the narrative (a 31 year old man was found under some bushes … he had been shot dead) we immediately ‘see’ a body in the undergrowth.

Image by Paul Seawright Sectarian Murder

How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art?

Seawright considers that his images give up their meaning slowly and that the ‘construction of meaning is not done by (the photographer) but by the person looking at the artwork’. Regarding the images of Sectarian Murder, I find that without the narrative they would be slow to release any meaning but with the narrative the meaning is made clear. A documentary image would be more explicit and if a man was found dead ‘under some bushes’ we may expect to see images of cordoned off police investigation areas, perhaps even the body covered in a sheet. So, in contrast to that sort of image, Seawright’s image does take longer to reveal its meaning and is less documentary because of it. However, the narrative reveals the context so we can read the meaning whilst not actually ‘seeing’ the event itself.

What is the core of his argument?

Seawright considers the difference between journalism and art and explains that an editorial image ‘has to give up its meaning quickly’ whereas artwork has to give up its meaning more slowly. He says however that if an image is ‘too ambiguous it becomes meaningless’. Vimeo. (2017).

If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning?

A documentary image is one that documents a real life event as a way of either recording it for posterity or informing people. The photographers who take these images become, in effect, ‘our eyes on the World’ as they see events that ‘we wouldn’t be allowed to see’. (Golden, 2011, p.8). When we see a documentary image we expect it to inform us (with the truth) and do it quickly. With photographic art, like a picture on a wall or in a gallery, we expect to take longer to look at it. Maybe to sit down and scrutinise it for a while.

A typical documentary image of the Sectarian murders may elicit responses of shock and disgust with the world; no one wants to see crime scenes and body bags. However, when the image is made less obvious, like Seawright’s image above, we can combine that shock with a slower reflection and really consider the wider picture of intolerance and its affect on ordinary people.

When we see something that is considered as ‘art’ we often look for deeper meanings so in this respect, defining Seawright’s images (or anyone’s’ images) as ‘art’ can open a wider discussion, raise wider issues and increase its meaning and scope.

 

Bibiography

Golden, R. (2011). Photojournalism. London: Carlton Books.

Paul Seawright. (2017). About. [online] Available at: http://www.paulseawright.com/paul-seawright/ [Accessed 13 Aug. 2017].

Vimeo. (2017). Catalyst: Paul Seawright. [online] Available at: https://vimeo.com/76940827%5BAccessed 13 Aug. 2017].

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Research point: street photography (Joel Meyerowitz)

Joel Meyerowitz is an American street photographer who pioneered the use of colour in the 1960s at a time when black and white was the only format considered suitable for art. Like Helen Levitt he used the streets of New York City as his subject.

I was interested to know that ‘Meyerowitz photographed the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, and was the only photographer allowed unrestricted access to its Ground Zero immediately following the attack’ (wikipedia.org, 2017).

On his website, Meyerowitz is described as  ‘a “street photographer” in the tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, although he now works exclusively in color. (Joel Meyerowitz Photography, 2017). I was not born when Meyerowitz started using colour and started challenging the attitude that black and white was preferable. He was instrumental in bringing about a change in attitude towards the acceptance of colour as a photography format. It is hard to imaging the resistance to colour fifty years on.

I have just watched a video on You Tube called ‘Joel Meyerowitz talks about street photography’ where he shared an insight into what makes an interesting photograph. He said that people tend to gather on corners so to look out for gestures and unpredictable actions and for situations that don’t normally occur together. An example being the street cleaner juxtaposed with a billboard of a supermodel on the wall above him.

I was amazed at how close Meyerowitz got to people, almost at their side and in the middle of groups but he was never ‘in the way’. As Meyerowitz says ‘you have to be invisible to take street photos’.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRTf_-ezAes

 

Bibliography

Joel Meyerowitz Photography. (2017). Joel Meyerowitz | Contemporary Color Photography | Author of Cape Light. [online] Available at: http://www.joelmeyerowitz.com/ [Accessed 12 Aug. 2017].

Wikipedia.org. (2017). Joel Meyerowitz. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joel_Meyerowitz [Accessed 12 Aug. 2017].

Research point: street photography (Paul Graham)

Paul Graham is a British documentary photographer, born in 1956. For the purpose of this exercise I am interested in his series ‘Troubled Land’ and in particular this image from the series.

 Paul Graham, Roundabout, Andersonstown, Belfast, 1984

http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/graham-roundabout-andersonstown-belfast-p79342

Graham was innovative in that he not only challenged the notion that all serious photography had to be in black and white but created images that needed a viewer to ‘read’ them before they could be fully understood.

In the image above which at first glance is an empty and ordinary urban landscape with little to distinguish it from any other road scene we are forced to look deeper to fully understand its impact.

On the centre right edge of the frame an ordinary person is walking down the road, seemingly not affected by the soldiers running in the same direction as he is. A closer look shows a soldier running accross the centre of the roundabout, and another running down the road opposite the two blue cars.

Graham’s images are not close up images of individual suffering but his wider angle shots insist that we see the results of the troubles in Northern Ireland as being integral to the landscape. The infrastructure is damaged (the broken kerbs of the roundabout) the main lamppost has no lamp, graffiti can be seen on the railings and soldiers run across the scene – but life goes on as normal. It is as though the troubles have become the new normal.

Grahams use of colour in this image moves away from the previous expectation that documentary images were taken in black and white. The colour adds a real life edge to the image, suggesting that this is not just a ‘report’ on what is happening in NI but an actual scene of everyday life.

Bibliography

Tate. (2017). ‘Roundabout, Andersonstown, Belfast’, Paul Graham, 1984, printed 1993-4 | Tate. [online] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/graham-roundabout-andersonstown-belfast-p79342 [Accessed 12 Aug. 2017].

Research point: street photography (Helen Levitt)

Helen Levitt’s work centred around the streets of New York City and she devoted most of her life to photography in her home town. Levitt’s contemporaries included Cartier Bresson and Walker Evans and she worked with them both. Levitt is considered to be ‘one of the most important street photographers of the 20th century’ (LensCulture, 2017).

Interestingly, Levitt did not ‘subscribe to the perfection of the decisive moment approach. Her pictures could be a little awkward in composition, slightly off -kilter’ (Badger, 2009). Her intention however, was not to take images with perfect composition but to take images that captured ‘the energies of the street’ (ibid).

Levitt’s ‘true passion was photographing people in their natural environments’ (HERE and HERE, 2017) and ‘in 1936 and started to take her early street photographs’ (ibid) and said that ‘you have to go where something’s going on. (ibid)

Black and white

During the 1930s and 1940s Levitt’s street scene images were taken in black and white, a format that she is said to have preferred. Here, this busy scene of children playing with a broken mirror with the range of tone from white to black and all the greys in-between gives a clarity that would be lost in colour. It is a though, the colour being stripped away, we can really concentrate on the small details of the scene. 

Helen Levitt, New York, ca. 1940 (Children with frame)

Colour

In the following decades, from the late 1950’s onwards Levitt moved away from black and white in favour of colour; she received a grant in order to continue her street scene photography using colour format.

The photograph below taken in 1988 below, is amusing. Those of us that are old enough to remember using public phone boxes regularly, will remember this scenario. The whole family squashing in. This is real life street photography and epitomises Levitt’s desire to capture the ordinary drama of street life. The colour and pattern of the family’s clothing,  adds to the clutter and detail of the image though this is perfectly contained by the ‘frame’ created by the sides of the kiosk.

 

Helen Levitt / NYC (Phone Booth) 1988

 

Bibliography

Badger, G. (2009). The Genius of Photography. Quadrille Publishing, Limited.

HERE, S. and HERE, S. (2017). 7 Lessons Helen Levitt Has Taught Me About Street Photography. [online] ERIC KIM. Available at: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2014/06/06/7-lessons-helen-levitt-has-taught-me-about-street-photography/ [Accessed 11 Aug. 2017].

LensCulture, H. (2017). Helen Levitt: New York Streets 1938 to 1990s – Photographs by Helen Levitt | LensCulture. [online] LensCulture. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/helen-levitt-helen-levitt-new-york-streets-1938-to-1990s [Accessed 7 Aug. 2017].

Wikipedia.org. (2017). Helen Levitt. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Levitt [Accessed 7 Aug. 2017].

Research point: Photojournalism (Martha Rosler)

Do you think Martha Rosler is unfair on socially driven photographers like Lewis Hine?

Rosler thought that by bringing the plight of people to the attention of the privileged only served to maintain the status quo of social hierarchy by making dependent people rely on the charity of the advantaged.

Lewis Hine took photographs that showed how children were being exploited in the cotton mills and when speaking of his work he said that ‘wanted to show things that had to be corrected’.(wikipedia.org, 2017). Lewis, a sociologist and educationalist,  wanted social reform and he dedicated his life to this end. He was successful, via his photography, in changing laws on child labour in America.

It is therefore hard to see why Rosler would criticise such an approach but I can see that there is room for both viewpoints and that for every ‘successful’ social documentary project that affects change there may be many more that reinforce the social status quo.

Is there sense in which work like this is exploitative or patronizing?

A photographer would be exploitative if s/he was taking advantage of a person or a situation for his or her own ends. S/he would be patronising if s/he was treating someone in a condescending way.

The news today describes how Earl Spencer is tying to stop Channel 4 from broadcasting images and video of Diana speaking about her personal life. Channel 4 justifies its intention to broadcast by saying that the information is important as historical information. The recordings were made in a private setting and were probably never meant for public use. Chanel 4 will benefit financially from this documentary being shown but some could argue that it is exploiting the still widespread interest in Diana for their own monetary ends.

I am aware that I am speaking above in relation to video but the same applies to photography. A few years ago, the media published topless images of a senior royal. What possible reason could justify that these images were displayed around the World. The only thing I can think of is the exploitation of a situation for financial gain.

So, in answer to the question above, yes there could be situations where social documentary images could be exploitative. Much depends on the situation itself and the motivation for showing the images. I believe Lewis Hine’s images not to be exploitative; the intention was morally admirable and the result was good.

Does this matter if someone benefits in the long run?

As soon as I wrote the last sentence I wondered whether the outcome could influence an opinion. However, I believe that in the majority of cases, for an image to initiate social reform the intention must have been there in the first place. So, all ‘good results’ would most likely stem from a good intention. I believe that exploitation is exploitation, regardless of a ‘good’ outcome.

Can photography change situations?

Yes. Lewis Hine changed child labour laws. Martha Rosler’s image Migrant Mother resulted in food aid being delivered into California for starving pea pickers in the 1930s. Photography can and does highlight situations and events that are happening World wide and brings them to the notice of the general public and to those in positions that make it easier for them to effect change. Ministers, philanthropic organisations, etc. There is no doubt that images have great influence.

It is not always good though. Think of the millions of images of super models and perfect lives that we are subject to day in and day out and the resulting dissatisfaction with bodies and lives that even young children are victims of. When photographers take these images and when editors and advertisers insist they are digitally manipulated, do they think of potential cases of depression, eating disorders and suicide?

Bibliography

En.wikipedia.org. (2017). National Child Labor Committee. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Child_Labor_Committee [Accessed 30 Jul. 2017].