Complete research to gain an immediate sense of the variety of work within documentary practice.
The following points about documentary photography are made in the course notes:
“Contemporary documentary practice makes use of strategies borrowed from a variety of photographic genres whose boundaries are no longer impermeable – if they ever were. …documentary has developed and matured in the century and a half since its inception and is now a boundless genre, continually in flux, whose possibilities are far from exhausted.”
Four photographers are cited as examples of this changing approach: Robert Howlett, Robert Frank, Richard Billingham and Robbie Cooper. Before researching these further I researched definitions of documentary and some of its sub genres such as photojournalism, reportage and street photography.
Difficulties in defining documentary:
My intention here was to research and then write about definitions of documentary photography as well as some of documentary’s sub-genres. Through my research however, I found most authors spent a great deal of time discussing how documentary is difficult if not impossible to define. This issue is partly historical: documentary as a term did not come into wide usage until the 1930s although much photography before this could be classed as documentary. Even then the meaning of documentary was much more limited than what we would understand today with the blending of modernist style, realistic subject matter and the need to educate about the experience of hardship and injustice. This work also contained connotations of objectivity and truth that have subsequently become more problematic. In ‘Photography: a cultural history’, Mary Warner Marien offers a modern definition for documentary photography, describing it as large, visually and thematically related archives or extensive photographic projects:
“Contemporary documentary photography now frequently navigates between visualising the personal experience of the photographer and a setting of profuse sociological text.” (Warner Marien, 2014: 277-8)
Derrick Price argues that documentary’s close association with other genres such as war, travel and photojournalism can go part way to explain difficulties in arriving at a definition. Documentary can be a form, genre, tradition, style, movement and practice – it may not even be useful to offer a single definition of the term. A lack of unique style, method or body of techniques associated with documentary photography means that the nature of the image itself is not enough to classify a photograph as documentary. Instead, clues must be taken from contexts, practices and institutional forms within which work is set. (Wells, 2009: 67-9)
David Bate offers this explanation:
“Documentary can refer to a category so wide to e meaningless (“all photographs are documents”), or so narrow that it cannot deal with its eclectic history on social documentary.” (Bate, 2016: 60)
Graham Clarke asserts that documentary photography has dominated the photographic history of the twentieth century, however, the term is limiting both in range of reference and approach to the subject. The term itself (and the use of the word document) carries authority and significance, is invested with connotations of truthfulness and objectivity but can be contentious and problematic as subject matters often focus on emotional and harrowing experience. There is an assumed bond between reader and subject with documentary along with a mandate not just to record but to expose – the ‘camera with a conscience.’:
“In terms of the twentieth century, documentary photography has visualised history as a series of events and discrete images which speak of the complexities of human experience and disaster.” (Clarke, 1997: 145)
Maria Short addresses the notion of objectivity that is connoted by the term documentary:
“While a photograph may not be an objective depiction of reality, it can be a considered means of conveying what the photographer feels to be the spirit or essence of the idea, person, place or event.” (Short, 2011: 14)
Gerry Badger expands on this idea, discussing photography’s tricky balancing act has been to reconcile objectivity and subjectivity:
“If the tendency in the past was to stress objectivity, today it is to stress a photographers subjectivity.” (Badger, 2001: 226)
Although it is healthy that the pretence of photographic truth has been punctured he cautions about assuming that photographs no longer have any value as a record of history:
“The camera as witness still has a valuable role to play…If cameras were not there to witness history, much in this world would go unrecorded.” (Badger, 2001: 226)
After my initial readings the only thing I feel clearer about is how difficult it is to define documentary! I note from the rest of part one that various aspects I came across will be further considered so will study these further when I come to them. In truth however the entire course is a study in the multiple meanings and definitions of documentary photography and I suspect my views on this will continue to change even after I have finished the course.
Robert Howlett: Portrait of Brunel (1857)
Robert Howletts’s picture of Isambard Kingdom Brunel at the launching of the steamship The Great Eastern is an instantly recognisable image, and, according to Gernsheim represents the first example of a reportage portrait which is “completely modern in inception.” (Gernsheim, 1965: 128) Clark (2011) regards the image as the first great environmental portrait as it was shot on location at a time when most portraits were taken in the studio. Brunel certainly strikes an imposing figure, looking to one side, hands in pockets and cigar in mouth – he appears as the epitome of Victorian confidence and technological progress. The formidable chains of the ship that provide the background illustrate the huge scale of the engineering involved without showing the vessel itself. Their inclusion can also be read as symbolic of Brunel’s power and “rampant Victorian manhood.” (Jones, 2010) For me it is the detail of the photograph that make it, particularly the dirty boots and trousers which suggest much about Brunel’s character and ways of working. They allow us to imagine him as a hands on man of action, his expression is enigmatic and full of confidence – his focus is on something outside of the frame and he is unconcerned with returning our gaze by looking into the camera lens. Ironically, although this photograph can be described as iconic and demonstrated Brunel’s greatness The Great Eastern project was a financial disaster, the launch was delayed by a number of months and the ship plagued by problems when it eventually did set sail. Despite this, the image has come to be known as the definitive portrait of Brunel symbolising the great achievements of the industrial revolution and the Victorian age.
My initial reaction to being pointed towards this image was a little non plussed – clearly it is an iconic photograph but what is it’s significance? Especially when taking into account the next work we are asked to look at was shot 100 years later. After some reflection however I can see how the photograph both demonstrates a shift in approach in attempting to capture a realistic situation in photography’s early days and manages to capture some of the paradoxes and problems associated with documentary photography even to this day. The photographer has clearly attempted to present a realistic portrayal of Brunel but this is merely artifice as he is as carefully posed here as he would have been in the studio. The ‘truths’ of progress, success and dynamism that are connoted are also fraught with problems since the project photographed here was not successful and Brunel himself would be dead by 1959. The picture has become loaded with meaning over time when the facts of the situation are no longer relevant – the success of the image lies in what it stands for and symbolises rather than the intention of the time as a record of Brunel and what he thought would be a great achievement.
Robert Frank: The Americans
It would be difficult to overstate the influence that ‘The Americans’ has had on photography since its publication in 1958. It is important to recognise that the term publication is significant because of Frank’s intended presentation of the work as a photobook, for me, it is difficult to imagine the work succeeding in any other way than in book form. The sequencing of the images is crucial and the very act of holding the book in your hand and being able to thumb backwards and forwards is an important way of appreciating the work. Also, the fact that the images work together as a sequence rather than as stand alone pictures is an important development. Bate (2016:73) notes that although Cartier-Bresson produced photobooks, in his work each photograph read like a part fragment from a larger picture whereas ‘The Americans’ is almost filmic in the way in the way it appears to represent America as if seen through the window of a passing automobile.
‘The Americans’ represents a paradigm shift in photography away from notions of objectivity to an unashamed personal viewpoint. The power and longevity of the work is assured both by the way the images tap into the way the US was changing in the late 50s (also anticipating the further societal shifts of the 1960s) and because so many photographers who have subsequently become highly influential were inspired by the work and developed Frank’s approach in their own practice. (For example: Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, Bruce Davidson) Indeed it could be argued that Frank’s loose and vernacular style, informed by snapshot aesthetics, represents the birth of what we now understand as street photography. (Bate, 2016: 179)
Frank shows an outsiders view of America (he is originally from Switzerland) which challenges the sort of pictorial clichés that appear in tourist brochures: “He envisaged an alienated anti-America of mean streets” (Jeffrey, 1981:206) For Clarke (1997:155) “The dominant mood of these images is one of a bleak and gloomy sadness, as if the psyche of the culture has been laid bare through its own terms of reference and structures of meaning.” Franklin (2016:159) believes that Frank’s energy came from a singular rebel heart and that ‘The Americans’ is twentieth century photography’s purest form of existentialism: “The book reads like an autobiographical novel, midway between fact and fiction.” (Franklin, 2016: 160) That Frank eschews the usual weighty events that a photography would typically chronicle is significant for Derrick Price:
“He seems to be saying that none of the many scenes that happen in the world are invested with any special meaning, although some may be made distinctive by the very act of being photographed.” (Wells, 2009: 108)
Warner Marien (2014: 342) sees ‘The Americans’ as the antithesis of the FSA era photographs that witnessed a troubled yet resilient America: rather than Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ Frank saw a “soul damaged population fluctuating through violence, ignorance and despair.” Frank photographed subjects that had become tokens of post-war material prosperity, such as TVs and cars, in a way that they came to represent an insidious commercialism that was profoundly alienating. ‘The Americans’ can also be seen as part of a wider avant-garde movement of beat poets and novelists, indeed, the introduction was by Jack Kerouac author of ‘On the road’ who wrote: “After seeing these pictures you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin.” (Bate, 2016:179)
There are recurrent themes of motion an communication throughout ‘The Americans’, and yet, the characters portrayed seem stick in one place “the loneliness of their own psyches.” (Warner Marien, 2014:342) The photographs are filled with traditional American icons such as the flag, the road, portraits of familiar presidents, fast food, televisions, TV dinners, 4th July, political parades, ranches, cowboys, highways, the South which Clarke (1997:155) sees as “the symbolic paraphernalia of American identity.” However, “The dominant mood of these images is one of a bleak and gloomy sadness, as if the psyche of the culture had been laid bare through its own terms of reference and structures of meaning.” The documentary value of ‘The Americans’ lies in its ambiguity, confident subjectivity, lack of demands on the reader, poetic encapsulation of the US at a particular moment in time – the height of the capitalist endeavour. The poetic nature of the series is frequently commented upon and arguably this is what drives the narrative, Frank himself acknowledges this when describing his intent in wanting people who looked at his pictures “to feel the way they do when they read a line of a poem twice.” (Franklin, 2016:160)
Richard Billingham: Ray’s a Laugh
In ‘Ray’s a laugh’, Richard Billingham presents a literal snapshot of his unconventional family life. The photographs were taken with the intention of being used by Billingham as source material for paintings for his degree course. They show his father Ray – a chronic alcoholic, fuelled by the home brew supplied by a neighbour, drinking then sleeping and unable to tell if it is day or night. His mother Liz – a large woman with arms covered in tattoos, obsessed with animals – her flat full of pets and assorted brightly coloured kitsch items, her own ‘psychological space’ that was ‘carnivalesque’ and decorative. (BBC, N.D.)
In Billingham’s own words:
“I was living in this tower block; there was just me and him. He was an alcoholic, he would lie in the bed, drink, get to sleep, wake up, get to sleep, didn’t know if it was day or night. But it was difficult to get him to stay still for more than say 20 minutes at a time so I thought that if I could take photographs of him that would act as source material for these paintings and then I could make more detailed paintings later on. So that’s how I first started taking photographs.” (BBC, N.D.)
And from the back of the book jacket of ‘Ray’s a Laugh’:
“This book is about my family. My father Raymond is a chronic alcoholic. He doesn’t like going outside and mostly drinks homebrew.
My mother Elizabeth hardly drinks but she does smoke a lot. She likes pets and things that are decorative. They married in 1970 and I was born soon after.
My younger brother Jason was taken into care when he was 11 but is now back with Ray and Liz again. Recently he became a father. Ray says Jason is unruly. Jason says Ray’s a laugh but doesn’t want to be like him.”
In the late 20th century the family became a focus for many photographers (for example, Larry Sultan, Nobuyoshi Araki, Tina Barney, Miyako Ishiuchi, Nan Goldin and Sally Mann) and while Billingham did not intend his photographs to be part of this concern ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ was certainly connected with these artists due to his choice of subject matter. Badger (2001: 188) sees this as a tendency among contemporary photographers to take a close-up look at one’s own family. It could also be seen as an example of a shift by photographers from looking outward to looking inward and documenting things that previously would have been deemed too personal and not appropriate subjects. Badger also distinguishes the strength of Ray’s a Laugh that the images are “true snapshots” which remain true to themselves and true to their subjects – praise which cannot be extended to so many other self-conscious exercise in this vein. (Badger, 2001: 189) Price calls this “domestic hyperrealism” (Wells, 2009: 164) which seeks out the squalor of everyday life by peeling off the conventions of the family snapshot. Bull (2010: 112) sees work like ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ as indicating a shift in the context of documentary photography: “documentary left the pages of newspapers and magazines to find a place, not just in photobooks, but on the gallery wall.”
After publication of ‘Ray’s a Laugh’, Billingham was accused of exploitation, and while the pictures undoubtedly present his parents lives in an “unsentimental and breathtakingly candid” way, there is also much warmth, affection and humour in the pictures:
“Ray and Liz laugh, cry, shout, swear, argue, smoke, drink and watch TV. Billingham conveys all this … with vivid immediacy, candour and not a hint of self-pity, either on his part or that of his parents.” (Badger, 2001: 189)
Cotton sees Billingham’s process as an attempt to give visual substance to Ray’s drunken state and an attempt to make sense of his chaotic family life. He has commented that he photographed like a wildlife photographer and there is definitely a sense of observation in the pictures with the family not knowingly performing for the camera:
“The photographs were Billingham’s artistic mediation of his autobiography but, significantly, did not save as illustrations or an explanation of his situation … ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ impacts on the reader because Billingham found a way to show something that really happened and that he discovered for and about himself through his photographs.” (Cotton, 2014)
Robbie Cooper: Immersion
In his project ‘Alter Ego’ Robbie Cooper photographed video game players alongside the digital avatars that represent them in the online game world. While working on this he became fascinated by the expression of the gamers as they played, what he refers to as their “absorption in the unreal”:
“You look them in the eye and they’re really transported. That’s what I like about having them looking directly into the camera. We’re not used to seeing that look directed at us – as if someone’s looking right through you.” (Leith, 2008)
This led Cooper to ‘Immersion’ – a project in which gamers are filmed using a technique in which the game the subjects are playing is projected onto the lens of the camera, high resolution stills are then taken capturing the gamers expression. The process captures a disconcerting intensity as the gamers stare directly into the camera lens (with the appearance that they are staring directly at us, the viewer.)
The technique employed by Cooper is inspired by documentary film maker Errol Morris and a process he uses which he calls the ‘Interrotron’. Interviews are completed with Morris in a separate room using a system that projects his face onto the front of the lens used for the interview which results in the interviewee locking eyes with the lens.
‘Immersion’ has branched out from a study of young people playing video games to documenting other forms of visual stimuli such as films, cartoons, executions and pornography. Cooper refers to the images and videos that are the output of ‘Immersion’ as ‘data’ and believes they can be seen as both sociological research and art project. One of the concerns of the project is reality both in representation and how our relationship to the media we consume alters this. He states:
“Unreality is interesting, as a photojournalist, you’re meant to look at moments of extreme emotion. It seemed to me, after a while of doing that… that is unreal as well. As Baudrillard said, the proliferation of images means we live in an increasingly unreal, mediated world. It’s a challenge to try and capture that because you have to start dealing with the medium itself.” (Leith, 2008)
This has been a fascinating but distracting research project: the subject of genre and media and their fluidity could be illustrated using any photographers and photographic projects, however, the prompts in the course notes pick either practitioners or works that can be seen as game changing. The added caveat however is that each of the works have a multiplicity of meanings and that ambiguity of meaning is one of photography’s inherent strengths as well as frustrations.
Robert Howlett produced what could be argued to be the first environmental portrait with his photograph of Brunel. It is imbued with a sense of realism and has gone on to become a symbol of the progress of industry in the Victorian age – all despite being set up and the ship Brunel is pictured on being an unmitigated flop.
‘The Americans’ appears to be revolutionary in the way Frank is unashamed in his subjective, personal approach. His real innovation however was not the way he photographed but the fact he acknowledged that photographs can never be purely objective.
Richard Billingham became an overnight sensation in the art world with his deeply personal family photographs. He never intended the photographs to be shown however and was a painter not a photographer, the lack of technical finesse in the pictures was down to a real lack of skill rather than a deliberate artistic strategy. In fact he was not even aware of the power of his photographs and it took one of his university tutors to recognise this and edit the images into a photobook. This in turn was radically reinterpreted by the publishers Scalo with Billingham not approving of the results, not to mention his inclusion in the infamous ‘Sensations’ exhibition on 1997 alongside others that became known as the young British artists.
Robbie Cooper began as a traditional photojournalist before arriving at a process of capturing subjects in a way that although they know they are being photographed are also completely unaware as they are absorbed in the activity they are engaged in. This project encapsulates everything that is suggested in the other works about photography as a process and art form by directly commenting on it while also being the project that appears initially to be the closest to an art project in intent.
It seems that photography, and specifically documentary photography, can cross multiple genres and media and that today anything is fair game – which makes now a fascinating and exciting moment in the development of photography as a practice/art from. Perhaps the course notes sum it up best: “documentary has developed and matured in the century and a half since its inception and is now a boundless genre, continually in flux, whose possibilities are far from exhausted.”
BBC (N.D.) Photography – genius of photography – gallery – Richard Billingham available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/photography/genius/gallery/billingham.shtml [Accessed on 1st March 2017]
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Bull, S. (2010) Photography. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
Clark, D. (2011) Isambard kingdom Brunel by Robert Howlett – Iconic photograph. Amateur Photographer, July 18th 2011. Available at: http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/iconic-images/isambard-kingdom-brunel-by-robert-howlett-iconic-photograph-15974 [Accessed 19th February 2017]
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Jones, J. (2010) Isambard kingdom Brunel, Robert Howlett (1857) The Guardian, 17th June 2000. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2000/jun/17/art [Accessed 19th February 2017]
Leith, S. (2008) The Immersion Project. The Telegraph, 22nd November 2008, available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3563534/The-Immersion-project.html [accessed 2nd April 2017]
Short, M. (2011) Basics creative photography 02: Context and narrative. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA.
Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th ed) London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.
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