Category Archives: The photograph as a document (part 1)

Learning outcomes (end of part one)

My tutor will be keen to see that I am progressing towards the course outcomes. I have therefore provided this self reflection to show my development so far.

Create images that demonstrate a practical and conceptual understanding of the appropriate use of techniques

Practically with my camera I am beginning to be less clumsy. Things that I used to struggle with are becoming easier so I can imagine photographs that I want and then try to produce them. An example of this was where I wanted to freeze the movement of the River Aire in a dark environment. I knew what I wanted and tried to capture it. It wasn’t successful in that it was too grainy (and I am not yet fully sure how to improve it next time) but there is a thinking round my technique that was not present before. My assignment shows that I am now thinking of a choice of formats; whether to chose monochrome or colour for instance in order to convey my message. I learned a great deal from the exercise on black & white and colour and now find that I try to visualise scenes in monochrome, even on days  without my camera, and look for contrasts and tonal range and think about appropriateness and creativity. Conceptually I am aware that the photographer can influence how a subject is understood by the viewer and that an image is merely one viewpoint. This influence is widely used to manipulate an audience to a particular view and the relationship of an image to ‘the truth’ is surrounded in debate.

Demonstrate an emerging critical awareness and ability to translate ideas into imagery

I am beginning to think in pictures and am increasingly aware of  photography being a language to communicate by. Whenever an idea comes to me I make a note of it. I see this as a way to remember those fleeting moments of inspiration (even in the middle of the night) and to provide a record of my thinking around assignments and exercises. It is also a way of ‘keeping’ a thought current in my mind as it develops into a potential project. For this purpose I have created a menu category named ‘ideas and thinking’.  I think this is showing how I am thinking more in terms of ideas and interests and how they can be articulated via the visual language of photography. 

With the assignment I knew that I wanted to portray a menacing view of the Dark Arches and my choice of lens to give a sense of space, my choice of black and white to add to the gloomy feel and my viewpoint behind walls and through railings were deliberate choices to convey the mood I wanted.

Conduct research, development and production in response to the themes raised in this course

Regarding the ‘photograph as a document’ I have learned form researching different practitioners and their work in documentary photography (e.g. Rosler and Hines), reportage photography (e.g. Goldin and Levitt) art photography (e.g. Pickering) and manipulation and have responded to the learning by being aware of how images can be used to direct a viewer to a meaning and, by purposely setting out to portray two very different scenarios of the same place. On both occasions it was just me and the same camera, just a different approach and a different intention.

Show a critical understanding of contemporary imagery in relation to historical practice and theory

I have learned a great deal from looking at imagery produced by different practitioners.  I was particularly interested in the contemporary photographer, Paul Seawright, and his series depicting the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan which shows a contemporary shift away from historical action based war photography. This aftermath photography has arisen from the rise of immediate video imagery that is better suited to capturing action scenes while leaving the still images of the photographer to show the scenes after the action, the stillness.

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Reflection on what I have learned about documentary photography

At the end of part one …

A reflection on what I have learned The first part of this module context and narrative has considered ‘the photograph as a document’. I have felt that compared to Expressing your vision this module has been significantly more academic, and quite rightly so at this stage. Not only has there been more research, it has been of a higher level too. So, I am gaining confidence in approaching higher level learning again after a ten year break. I  admit that, at first, the names of the different genres that we have been introduced to did seem a little interchangeable. However, this is my understanding now:

What are the differences between documentary, reportage, photojournalism and art photography?

Documentary photography A series of images taken of a single subject over a period of time. Documentary photography is epitomised by Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother and by Lewis Hine and is used to comment on real life and is often a catalyst for social reform; and indeed, Lange was successful in securing aid to the needy and Hine was successful in changing child labour laws.

Reportage is described by Boothroyd as being ‘a subjective way of storytelling’ rather than ‘the more objective intentions of photojournalism’ (Boothroyd, 2014, p31). It is the telling of a story through images that reveal the wider picture. Nan Goldin’s images illustrated the ‘insider’ approach that gave us access to the lives of a close circle of friends. I am reminded here of the popular reportage trend in wedding photography where the photographer is allowed full access to the events as they unfold during the day. So, in contrast to the posed photographs of the family that we are all familiar with, the bride’s family on one side and the groom’s on the other, a reportage style would  be something like this, where the photographer is involved in the action of the day.

Image courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

The single image here tells of a much wider story as Boothroyd says ‘it is the ability of one picture to tell a bigger story about an event’ (Boothroyd, 2014, p31)

Photojournalism informs the public of news and events. Photojournalism is ethically bound to be honest and impartial and we are more likely to associate it with being factual and objective, though I don’t doubt that there is some bias and manipulation to further a particular agenda. Obviously there are different opinions on the pros and cons of photojournalism from Rosler who considers that it merely strengthens social hierarchy to Sontag who suggests that we become immune to images of disaster over time.

Art photography All photography until the 1900s was considered to be ‘documentary’, summed up  by the old adage ‘the camera never lies’. An exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2003 was the first time that an exhibition in the UK had been devoted to photography and the ‘accepted notions of photography as a factual recording device were challenged, allowing photography to enter into the currency of art’ (Boothroyd, 2014, p34). Art photographs are interpretations or expressions of reality and as such provide a challenge to realism in the way that the works of the  impressionist or surrealist painters did. It is this ‘making’ of a photograph rather than the ‘taking’ of a photograph that allowed photography to enter the currency of art’ (Boothroyd, 2014, p34)

A few more definitions

Citizen journalism The general public (rather than professional journalists) taking images and ‘spreading the news’. With citizen journalism, an ‘other, alternative media of the people’ has been born. Ordinary people are involved in sharing news stories by capturing images on say, their mobile phones, and uploading to Facebook, blogs, Twitter, YouTube, etc. This alternative source of news acts as a parallel to the mainstream media bearing in mind that citizens may have a different agenda to journalists. I am not 100% sure, but my memories of the reporting of the Tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004  were first made available (or at least, formed a significant part of the news) via citizen journalism. Such reporting is often more immediate, and more than likely unposed and is successful in giving a voice to the proletariat. The extent to which citizens will go to take a photograph often astounds me. Waves can be crashing over sea barrier walls and yet, someone will be holding their phone up.

Aftermath Increasingly, photography is being used to capture images of scenes of devastation. Meyerowitz photographed Ground Zero after the 9/11 terror attacks; Seawright captured the aftermath of war in Afghanistan. Again, there are different opinions: Meyerowitz considers that the images provide a  ‘history that will happen inside there’ and it was necessary to ‘make this historical record’ (Melia, 2017). Campany however,  considered Meyerowitz’ images to be too pensive and beautiful (and hence inappropriate) in connection with disaster and suggests that rather than becoming a scene for political activity it becomes a ‘monument to national grief’ (Boothroyd, 2014, p29)

What was your idea of documentary photography before I worked on part one? It was factual news, albeit with the potential for bias. The images in newspapers basically.

How would I sum it up now? My learning is in line with the summaries above and I now understand that documentary photography (using the phrase as  wider umbrella term) is a huge area for discussion and thought. From Migrant Mother and the critical viewpoints surrounding photography’s place in ‘social reform’ to the place of truth in photography, and whether we can trust what we see.

Bibliography

Melia, M. (2017). Joel Meyerowitz Documented Ground Zero ‘Aftermath’. [online] PBS NewsHour. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/joel-meyerowitz-documented-ground-zero-aftermath/ [Accessed 17 Aug. 2017].

Alessandra Sanguinetti

A New York photographer who ‘has stated that she began taking photographs to create a sense of permanence in her life after realizing that “everything is transitory.”‘(wikipedia.org, 2017)

Her documentary photography project, The Adventures of Guille and Belinda follows her cousins as they dream about becoming young women and mothers. The project ‘makes commentaries about feminine conventions of beauty and behavior, as well as gender roles and gender identity and she ‘occasionally ridicules social expectations through her images’ (ibid)

Sanguinetti’s images show two sisters playing like pre-teenage sisters do together and include them pretending to act out their future and different scenarios that Sanguinetti might suggests (like pretending to be married, or being old). The series is all about them growing up and learning about the World and their place in it. Below is a link to an interview with the photographer and the work that she did with her young cousins.

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/off-the-shelf-the-adventures-of-guille-and-belinda

The images capture the lives of the two girls at various time during the years but they capture something else too – it’s quite difficult to grasp in my mind but I think it is the innocence and the hope and the future, all intangible but nontheless, there.

 

Bibliography

En.wikipedia.org. (2017). Alessandra Sanguinetti. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alessandra_Sanguinetti [Accessed 15 Aug. 2017].

Monochrome and colour – self study

Portraits in black & white

 

Part one of Context and Narrative includes an exercise that requires thirty colour and thirty monochrome images taken in a street photography style. The exercise asks for comments on the differences between the two formats.  However, while taking ‘street’ images for the exercise I began to consider monochrome portraits as well.

Lange’s black and white photograph Migrant Mother shows a woman whose face and upper body fill most of the frame. Her children, though they are present, are not showing their faces so they detract little from the mother’s expression. The black and white emphasises the mood conveyed by the woman’s reflective gaze and is appropriate in ‘complimenting’ the hardship that she is enduring. Lange would have had no choice but to use black and white but I doubt that it would have been improved with colour.

Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother

My initial inclination would have been to take portraits in colour but after seeing Lange’s image above and how much meaning it evoked I considered my own black and white portraiture.

Image one

I wanted to use the black and white format to capture a mood. I underexposed this image, below, and drew attention to my subject’s features using just one light source, a computer monitor. I positioned my subject against the ‘rules’ of looking ‘into’ the image. I wanted him to look as though he was at the computer screen, the left hand edge of the frame becoming the ‘monitor’. I wanted my subject to look pensive and engrossed.

The man’s face takes up a fraction of the image space and we see only one side of his face. However, the contrast and the shadows bring his face to life and we are encouraged to focus on his features with nothing at all to distract – no background, no colour and no objects. Taken in colour, we would see his blue shirt which would draw the eye away from his face.

Image two

I went on to take a further portrait in black and white, below.

This image has a higher tonal range than my first image, the lightest tone being my subject’s face. We are therefore drawn to her features.  The shadows highlight the contours of her face and the monochrome is flattering to her skin. In colour we would be distracted by the roses in the background and the green of the grass leading the eye out of the image. Monochrome ensures the eye is drawn to the face and kept there.

There is something ‘calm’ about these images. Colour is not fighting for our attention and we can focus on just the person and the emotion.

Nan Goldin (reportage photography)

Reportage

Before I started my learning on this subject I did an internet search on ‘reportage photography’ and came across this site which I thought gave me a starting point for understanding about its relation to ‘storytelling’ from ‘inside’ the action rather than from a cold, distanced view.

https://www.murrayclarke.co.uk/blog/so-what-is-reportage-photography-anyway/

Nan Goldin

Goldin is an American photographer, about the same age as my sister (I like to remember such details as it helps me to ‘place’ people in some context). Her work is often as an insider with people from often marginalised sections of society, gay people, transgender people, prostitutes and drug users; her involvement as a result of her desire to rebel against the life her mother had and that would possibly have been mapped out for her. Goldin insists that she is not exploiting her subjects and not just ‘observing’ them; her images reflect her life experiences and involvement as an ‘insider’ in their lives.

Goldin has been compared to Diane Arbus because of the subjects she photographed; those on the ‘outside’ of society. I have been looking at Goldin’s self portrait here. Before reading the narrative  below the image I have written a few comments of my own.

This is a large photograph, about a metre across. and after the overall shocking impression, I am drawn  to Nan’s left eye right in the centre of the image. It seems as though it is bleeding and almost spilling down her cheek. The way that her face is exposed against the dark of her hair and the black of her clothes adds to the shocking image. Her lipstick, the same colour as her eye is another point to which the eye is drawn but it adds an unrealistic touch for me. Why would she make up her lips and not try to conceal her bruises as well? The earrings are another point, she is getting ‘dressed up’ despite looking shocking. The background is of an ordinary house suggesting ‘is this what goes on within four walls?’ What could Goldin’s intention have been in taking this image? It was maybe a way to show her stoicism perhaps or to bring to light the ‘other realities’ of domestic relationships.

 

Aftermath and aesthetics: Campany, Seawright and Martins

David Campany: Safety in numbness

David Campany, in his essay, Safety in numbness, considers ‘late’ photography. In other words, the photographs that are taken AFTER an event rather than DURING one. Campany considers Joel Meyerowitz, the official photographer who captured images relating to the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Centre, New York, in 2001.

I first came across Meyerowitz when my tutor last year, Chris Coekin, asked me to look at some of his work in relation to crowds, see here

Campany describes how Meyerowitz photographed the scene of the terror attack when the clean up operation was underway and worked among the rubble to produce a series of colour images that was exhibited in New York and across the World.

Campany considers how in the past, good photographers were those who could capture the action, the decisive moment and be in the right place at the right time. With the introduction of video cameras, the still photograph was replaced by the moving image so it was becoming a case of ‘the cameras came out when the videos had finished’.  As Campany says ‘we have learned to expect more from a reported situation than a frozen image’ (David Campany, 2017).

Campany says that the stillness of a photograph only became apparent when it could be compared to a moving image and goes on to say that cinema ‘was not just the invention of the moving image, it was also the invention of the stillness of photography’ (ibid).

Interestingly, and I never really thought of this, most of the still images that we  see on television are not photographs but frame grabs from a moving image. Because of videos ability to capture the whole unfolding of an event and to produce stills at any point of it, photography is increasingly suited to aftermath photography.

See Campany’s essay here

 

Paul Seawright: Valley (2002)

Seawright took aftermath images during the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Seawright’s Valley, 2002

His aftermath approach of his Hidden series shows an empty and lifeless landscape after the action of the conflict. Seawright is juxtaposing the innocuous landscape with the remnants of used or unexploded ordnance. There are no people, no action, no ruins, just a deserted landscape affected by war.

 

Edgar Martins: Ruins of the Second Gilded Age (2009)

Edgar Martins’ photo essay considered the house price crash in America. Martin’s image ‘A room at 14 Baldwin Farms South, Greenwich can be seen here

At first the house looks like it is being presented for sale, for someone to make a home there. But, you quickly realise that the floor hasn’t been swept and there is the implication that no one has visited in a long while; it has just been left. The emptiness represents the houses that have had to be abandoned, the half-finished housing constructions. The lack of people and action symbolises the inactivity of the economic markets.

I was interested in the digital image manipulation controversy surrounding Martins after the production of these images. The series was intended to fulfil the brief of ‘documentary’ photography and clearly, he created outrage by altering some of his images.

 

Bibliography

David Campany. (2017). Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’ – David Campany. [online] Available at: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ [Accessed 30 Jul. 2017].

Dunlap, D. (2017). Behind the Scenes: Edgar Martins Speaks. [online] Lens Blog. Available at: https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/31/behind-10/ [Accessed 5 Aug. 2017].

Images

Seawright, Valley, from: https://www.bing.com/images/search?sp=-1&ghc=1&pq=paul+seawright&sc=8-14&sk=&cvid=C00D9BA2C9E1455A9A608932E7AE15A9&q=paul+seawright&qft=+filterui:license-L2_L3_L4_L5_L6_L7&FORM=R5IR41 (free to share and use)

Martin, A room at 14 Baldwin Farms South, Greenwich, from Greenwich https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/31/behind-10/

Project 2 Photojournalism and three critical viewpoints

Photojournalism

What is it? Basically, the photos that we see in the newspapers, which are supposed to be an unbiased way of informing the public of newsworthy events.

Photojournalism is distinguished from other close branches of photography (e.g., documentary photography, social documentary photography, street photography or celebrity photography) by complying with a rigid ethical framework which demands that the work be both honest and impartial.( En.wikipedia.org, 2017).

Out of interest I searched online for ‘news imagery manipulation’ and the search resulted in this site from The Guardian.

 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/sep/04/picture-manipulation-news-imagery-photoshop 

The article examines how much trust we should place in news imagery. It seems  that The Guardian has strict rules but obviously with the numbers of images they receive, there is likely to be some that slip through the net. The article refers to the outrage that resulted after Grazia magazine showed a front page image of The Duchess of Cambridge with an impossibly thin waist, perpetuating the feminine ‘ideal’. All is not always at it seems. Why would a magazine feel the need to do that to anyone’s image never mind to an image of someone with an already very slim waist? It seems that no matter how slim a woman is she can never be slim enough.

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2011/aug/11/grazia-admits-digital-slimming-royal-duchess

Critical viewpoints

After briefly considering photojournalism above, I now intend to look at three different viewpoints in relation to uses, problems and benefits of photojournalism and will summarise my understanding of the writings of the following three practitioners. 

  1. Martha Rosler
  2. Susan Sontag
  3. Abigail Solomon-Godeau

Martha Rosler

Viewpoint – maintaining social inequality

I have already considered Rosler’s essay in response to the course notes on page 25 to look at her the essay In, Around and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography). My post is  here 

However, I have also read  Ashley la Grange’s summary of Martha Rosler’s essay  and have gained a further understanding of her viewpoint that I will summarise below.

  • Rosler thought that much of the journalism images relating to ‘socially disadvantaged’ people were ‘sensationalist’ but that the work of Hine, for example, was trying to make a difference. (La Grange, 2017)
  • However, Rosler believes that by bringing the plight of people to the attention of the privileged only served to maintain the status quo by appealing to the charity of the elite whilst actually doing nothing significant to change the fortunes of the suffering.
  • In effect, the images served no real benefit to the disadvantaged and only reinforced the class structure by ensuring that the elite eased their conscience by ‘donating’ to the poor, whilst also being assured that their privileged position was safe and secure , thank you.
  • There is a suggestion that ‘the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor’ and that images that draw public attention to such poverty is more voyeurism than a desire to help and is perhaps driven by self interest such as furthering a career.
  • Rosler suggests that well meaning photographers could actually be allowing those that are ok, to face their fears and then walk away, satisfied that they are associated with the ‘powerful’ rather than the victimised.
  • Rosler considers that poverty can be portrayed as being the fault of natural disasters so eliminating any feeling of guilt or empathy.
  • Rosler acknowledges Szarkowski’s comments that photography has moved away from trying to right the wrongs of the World to being a medium that satisfies personal ambition and merely acknowledges the worlds inequalities and flaws.

Susan Sontag

Viewpoint – becoming immune to horror

La Grange’s essay is a summary of Sontag’s essay On Photography. Another difficult essay.

  • Sontag gives an example, the image below, of a photograph that caused outrage, and how this still photograph had more of an impact than a televised image.

The Terror of War” by Nick Ut

Image courtesy of Pixabay

  • Sontag says that the impact of disturbing images lessons as people are exposed to them more and more. I suppose she means that the ‘novelty’ wears off. To continue to ‘shock’ the image has to show something ‘new’.
  • Sontag considers that old images ‘get viewed with the general sadness, pathos with which we view the past, and are looked at in terms of art’.
  • She concludes, ‘In these last decades, ‘‘concerned’’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it’
  • In her essay Sontag says that ‘… in the situations in which most people use photographs, their value as information is of the same order as fiction’.
  • I liked this comment: Photography was seen as a way of conveying the news to the less educated. Yet ‘… one never understands anything from a photograph.’
  • Sontag says that ‘people in industrialised societies have become ‘image-junkies’ needing reality and experience confirmed by photographs. Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it’.

I can identify with this last comment as people seem more eager to take an image of say, the bride and groom, as they walk down the aisle rather than actually savouring the experience and enjoying watching the moment. In actual fact they may miss the moment completely as they focus on their camera phones, adjust the composition and press the buttons. But, they will have an image to remember the occasion by even if they didn’t fully appreciate the moment itself!

  • Sontag says that despite people’s desire to avoid suffering there is a curiosity about it ‘which is partly satisfied by photography’.

 

Abigail Solomon-Godeau

Sharon Boothroyd, in the OCA course notes (p.27) states that Solomon’s essay Inside/out ‘argues against a binary insider/outsider approach to documentary photography.’

An insider/outsider approach considers that documentary photography is either objective (voyeuristic) or subjective (confessional). Solomon however, thinks that these categorisations are unhelpful and that documentary photography can provide a ‘distanced look at the subject as well as offering some sort of truth’ (ibid).

La Grange discusses Solomon’s essay in chapter 6 of Basic Critical Theory for Photographers and the main points are shown below.

  • Godeau considers that images that objectified people prevented the viewer from having any empathy. She thought that Diane Arbus typified this approach and as such she thought of her as a ‘morbid voyeur’ (La Grange, A, 2005). (Arbus photographed people who she considered to be marginalised, whether it was because of their above or below average height, or the way they identified their gender, or  if they didn’t comply with society’s general view of attractiveness, etc.).
  • Godeau rejects the idea that an image is either objective (from the outside and only concerned with the impersonal exterior of the subject) or subjective (on the inside and with a personal involvement) and refers to Ed Ruscha and Nan Goldin, respectively, as practitioners of these two approaches. I needed to understand this inside/out debate first, so I have taken a look at these two practitioners.
  • link to Ruscha’s ‘Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1996)
  • link to Goldin’s image ‘Jimmy Paulette after the parade, NYC, 1991′

Goldin is quoted here as saying:

I was eighteen and felt like I was a queen too … they became my whole world.
Part of my worship of them involved photographing them. I wanted to pay
homage, to show them how beautiful they were. I never saw them as men dressing
up as women, but as something entirely different – a third gender that made more
sense than either of the other two. I accepted them as they saw themselves; I had
no desire to unmask them with my camera. (Tate, 2017).

I see now the difference, Ruscha’s ‘outside’ and Goldin’s ‘inside’. However, the subject matter of buildings v people may make the identification simpler than it would be if the subject matter was similar.

  • Godeau sees Goldin as producing work that typifies the insider approach; she is not a voyeur as the subjects are her ‘family’ and she has a personal involvement with them.
  • However, in rejecting the idea that photographer is either one or the other, Godeau offers an alternative view that, regardless of the photographer’s intention, or of the subjects’ willingness to be photographed, the resulting image can be still seen to be voyeuristic. A viewer is unlikely to know the subjects as intimately as Goldin does and ‘there is a risk that irrespective of the photographer’s intentions the subject becomes an object and spectacle’. (La Grange, A. 2005).

Summary

These are three very difficult essays and I won’t pretend that I have understood them all thoroughly. However, I have grasped some main points and appreciate their different viewpoints. I found Rosler’s view about documentary photography merely encouraging charity, rather than fundamental change, a concept that I identified with.  I remember as a child seeing images on television of starving children during the famines in Ethiopia and being shocked. There were skeletal children surrounded by flies, no food and just waiting to die. But at the same time, I knew it didn’t happen to people like us.

Regarding Sontag, I can also identify with ‘compassion fatigue’. It has become the norm to see distressing images in the papers and on television. A well known moto of ‘if it doesn’t bleed , it doesn’t lead’ sums up an approach of the media in deciding what headlines to put on the front page. We are so used to seeing images of disasters, starvation, epidemics, murders, rapes and other atrocities that it is possible that we have become immune to their impact. I would be more surprised today with a feel good news headline than any horror story.

Godeau questions an objective v subjective approach and suggests that the actual issue is ‘how we know reality and whether photography can represent the truth’ (La Grange, A. 2015).

Bibliography.

En.wikipedia.org. (2017). Photojournalism. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photojournalism [Accessed 24 Jul. 2017].

La Grange, A, (2005). Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Oxford: Focal Press.

OCA (2014) Context and Narrative, Learning Materials, Open College of the Arts, Barnsley

Tate. (2017). ‘Jimmy Paulette after the parade, NYC, 1991’, Nan Goldin, 1991 | Tate. [online] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/goldin-jimmy-paulette-after-the-parade-nyc-1991-p13311 [Accessed 30 Jul. 2017].

 

Martha Rosler – essay ‘In, around and afterthoughts’

When reading about Martha Rosler I was immediately drawn to the fact that her ‘work focuses on the public sphere exploring issues from everyday life … especially as they affect women’ (Martharosler.net. 2017). Her video parody ‘semiotics of the kitchen’ particularly interested me. Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the kitchen. 

The video on YouTube is worth a look. Rosler’s female subject in this video picks up kitchen utensils in alphabetical order by their name (apron, bowl, chopper) and mimics their typical use by acting out stirring, chopping, beating, grating and so on but in an exaggerated, noisy and clumsy manner that shows no emotion as she remains deadpan throughout. Rosler is showing her subject as bored, resentful and potentially revengeful of her position in a patriarchal society. However, I am getting sidetracked here and for the purpose of this post wish to concentrate on Rosler’s essay:

‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’.

Now this is a difficult essay. I approached it by saving the pdf as a word document and then highlighting the main points (or at least the points that I understood!) to try to get at the crux of Rosler’s discussion. Below is a typical difficult sentence from the essay:

Its seems clear that those who, like Lange and the labor photographer, identify a powerfully conveyed meaning with a primary sensuousness are pushing against the gigantic ideological weight of classical beauty, which presses on us the understanding that in the search for transcendental form, the world is merely the stepping-off point into aesthetic eternality

Rosler’s writing is difficult and I don’t see why it has to be. But, I soldiered on and have taken away from it the following understanding. Rosler is discussing two main opposing interpretations and consequences of documentary photography.

Firstly, Rosler considers documentary photography as sort of social work which has the noble intention of highlighting the situations and circumstances of less privileged people and to show what is wrong with a society that tolerates such inequality and deprivation. The aim of such practitioners is to show the world its ‘problems’, prick its conscience,  and hopefully initiate change as a result.  Rosler considers that photographers like Riis and Hine share this objective. Jacob Riis was a social reformer with a genuine concern for people’s suffering but he has been criticised for interfering with the lives of his subjects.  Lewis Hine took images of children working in factories and was successful in initiating a change in the child labour laws in America.

Secondly, Rosler sees the possibility that documentary photographer has a less altruistic motivation and has an increasingly sensationalist purpose. Images of disadvantaged people and their difficult circumstances can ultimately reinforce the status quo by appealing to the wealthier strata of the population to provide charity to help those less fortunate without negatively affecting their high social position.   The poor have to rely on the rich and the rich are reassured that ‘it’ (unemployment, homelessness, starvation, etc)does not happen to people like them. Their place in the social structure is still ‘safe’ and their place in the social hierarchy is not threatened. Rosler suggests that by appealing for help from the higher classes, nothing is going to change to benefit the poor.

When Dorothea Lange made the images of Migrant Mother it was an opportunity for change and aid, in the form of food and supplies, was distributed to some of the needy shortly afterwards. Lange most likely hoped that her images would be the catalyst for change but Florence Owens Thompson didn’t benefit and neither did her family. Florence was quoted as saying that she wished the photo had never been taken and that she never received a penny from it. Lange, on the other hand, gained photographer celebrity status and respect, and no doubt sufficient money to maintain her middle class lifestyle.

Corbyn and May

In a similar vein to the arguments above we have recently seen two opposing documentary articles in relation to the Grenfell Tower fire. Corbyn visited those affected by the tragedy and was seen to hug people and talk to them at the site and demand that ‘the truth has got to come out’. This type of documentary echoes the social work argument of Rosler. How effective it can be is to be seen but the intention is noble. On the other hand, Teresa May was criticised for her absence and her effective disassociation from the people. She was accused of just wanting to ‘look good’ and observe protocol. See link below.

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/theresa-may-grenfell-tower-survivors-jeremy-corbyn_uk_59426df4e4b09ad4fbe58141

Bibliography

Anon, (2017). [online] Available at: http://everydayarchive.org/awt/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/rosler-martha_in-around-afterthoughts.pdf [Accessed 21 Jul. 2017].

Martharosler.net. (2017). martha rosler: about the artist. [online] Available at: http://martharosler.net/about/index.html [Accessed 18 Jul. 2017].

Wikipedia.org. (2017). Jacob Riis. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob_Riis [Accessed 21 Jul. 2017].

Dorothea Lange (Migrant Mother)

Lange was an American documentary photographer who died the year after I was born. I like to remember things like this as it helps me to get things in perspective.

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936

Migrant Mother is Lange’s most famous image. It was taken during the Great Depression in 1930’s America and came to symbolise the suffering of ordinary people and the poverty and hunger that they endured. People were desperate for work and were destitute and had  children that were suffering. Lange’s images helped their cause and resulted in aid being provided due to the increased profile of their plight.

This image is a close up of the mother and there is no external context for the image. Other images taken at the same time show the lady sitting in a makeshift shelter surrounded by more children, breastfeeding the baby, a box or two of possessions. This image though, with the close framing of mother and children, captures her worried but stoical expression. It shows her, literally, acting as a support for her children.  It may look a little ‘posed’ with the children being told to turn their faces away, but I guess we will never know. The lady is not engaging in ‘eye contact’ with the camera/viewer and as a result she appears to be ‘thinking’, her image has been captured to suggest that she is actively worried and hopeless. Their clothes are torn the baby is wrapped in a dirty covering but the mother appears unemotional and resigned.

The effects of the economic depression are humanised in this image. Unemployment may just have been a figure of say 25% but it was also millions of people, and each of those millions was someone like Migrant Mother. This image brought it to people’s attention that each individual mattered and something had to be done to improve their situation.

 

Bibliography

En.wikipedia.org. (2017). Great Depression. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Depression [Accessed 14 Jul. 2017].

Press.uchicago.edu. (2017). Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports from the Field by Anne Whiston Spirn, an excerpt. [online] Available at: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/769844.html [Accessed 14 Jul. 2017].

Mise-en-scene

Visual codes

Just like in literature where every single word is (generally) there for a reason, in a photograph, every detail is there for a reason too. Every detail contributes to the final interpretation and reading of the image.

See here for source of above image

Below is an example of how the setting is used to convey a message. The extract can be seen here. The insignificance of the Queen when compared to the majestic surroundings ensures that she is viewed as insignificant in relation to the Royal Dynasty.

I decided to  look again at one of my own images and examine how the setting affects the reading of it.

This image (above) was taken on Christmas Day as part of the Decisive Moment assignment in Expressing your Vision, the module I studied last year.  I am returning to it now to analyse it in terms of the arrangement of its visual codes.

  • The lone figure contrasts with the ‘normal’ image of a family Christmas.
  • The closed public buildings contrast with the ‘normal’ image of a bustling private celebration.
  • The figure is in the centre of the image but, like Marie Antoinette in the image above, he is shown as a small part of the whole scene, suggesting his insignificance to the national celebrations.
  • The wet ground adds a dismal feel at odds with Christmas day.
  • The trees are not ‘Christmas trees’ signifying a distance from tradition.
  • It could have benefited from at least some hint of Christmas to guide the viewer but at the time of taking this photograph, that was not its purpose. If I were staging it again I would include some small indication of Christmas time, maybe decorations in one of the windows.

Overall, I think I succeeded with capturing the antithesis of Christmas in this image and am coming to understand how the setting and the ‘props’ guide a viewers response.

 

Bibliography

Bing.com. (2017). mis en scene – Bing. [online] Available at: https://www.bing.com/search?q=mis+en+scene&form=EDNTHN&mkt=en-gb&httpsmsn=1&refig=a431377f9d9b4cb0fc9bf87c60799211&pq=mis+en+scene&sc=6-12&sp=-1&qs=n&sk= [Accessed 27 Jun. 2017].

College Film & Media Studies. (2017). MISE-EN-SCENE. [online] Available at: https://collegefilmandmediastudies.com/mise-en-scene-2/ [Accessed 27 Jun. 2017].