Exercise 3-2: Surrealism and colour documentary

Visit Peter Dench’s website. Analyse Dench’s style, looking particularly at his use of surrealism. How effective is surrealism as a visual and conceptual strategy in Dench’s documentary photography?

Peter Dench is a documentary photographer attracted to recording the idiosyncratic nature of everyday life. A commission by the Sunday Times Magazine early in his career to travel England and document the drinking habits of the people encountered, ‘Drinking of England’, led to a World Press Photo Award for People in the News Stories category. This success led to a decade long extended project photographing the English and England which Dench describes as his “passion and…home.” Despite having the opportunity to work on assignments on over 50 countries across the world, it is to England where Dench consistently points his lens. For this exercise, I looked at Dench’s ‘England Uncensored’ series of photographs taken between 1998-2000. From the introduction, he describes the work as follows:

“[The photographs] explore all corners of England, documenting the ethnic diversity, the love, the food, the clothes, the weather and the many characters I met along the way. Alcohol inevitably features prominently because…the nation’s favourite legal high is never far away. England Uncensored is a laugh-out-loud romp through this often badly behaved nation. It’s not an idealised brochure of a green and pleasant land; it is the truth, warts and all.” (Dench, 2012: 2)

Dench relies heavily on brash humour in his work and also in the persona he has cultivated as a laddish bon viveur who seems more a participant than observer of the situations he documents. Comparisons with the work of Martin Parr, who Dench cites as an influence, are obvious but Dench’s style is much less urbane and more obvious than Parr, to the point that a lot of his work borders on the heavy handed. I do not know how much of Dench’s persona is true and how much is affectation – like some of his images there is an element of trying too hard and I find the inverse snobbery he sometimes presents off putting. That said, there are many images that are either genuinely affecting, funny and interesting – I do think there is a need to edit the work better however. The assertion that his work shows an unvarnished truth is pure fiction and appeals to simplified notions of realism – this is more of a tabloid view of England, which is echoed in the language Dench uses in his introduction: “a laugh-out-loud romp.” Many of the images rely on a garish use of colour and seemingly undisciplined composition – angles are often quirky, heads cut off. While this gives an immediacy it is also in my view a stylistic choice employed by Dench that try’s to imbued the images with an authenticity and immediacy that is a construct.

Juxtaposition

The familiar trope of juxtaposition is employed frequently by Dench, often in a heavy handed way.

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To my eye, this image is trying too hard to suggest a humorous element of chance – the result is a picture that seems posed rather than candid.

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This image is more problematic, although it is more likely to be of a candid nature, the message about racism and terrorism is made in such a heavy handed way that I find it a complete turn off. Like the tabloid in the photograph, Dench is making very simplistic and sweeping statements about the complex nature of English race relations – there is also an element of opportunism about the picture.

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There is a cruelty in this image that is a commentary on alcohol consumption that I find uncomfortable, but not unreasonable. I wonder how clearly defined the divisions between the group enjoying a day out drinking and the lone man who seems to have a problem with alcohol are?

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This image can be read similarly, and yet is less of an issue because the subjects seem to be from the same sort of backgrounds – the line between alcohol providing a good time and the perils of overindulgence are clearly shown.

Humour

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This image is a classic example of the pointless and banal nature of the English as tourists – I can only speculate about what could be so entrancing about the scene shown that the people in the picture would stand listening to the audio commentator.

The bizarre

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Dench talks of an affinity for the seaside having grown up in Weymouth, “sea salt filled my nostrils, the sound of seagulls burst my eardrums and saturated colours startled the retina; deck chairs, Punch and Judy, arcades, bumper boats.” It is an interest that is shared by other photographers whose influence can be seen in his work – notably Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr. This picture is seemingly captured from a sitting position as the man walks past, his ensemble of trainers and socks pulled up high is finished casually with a pair of animal print, tight trunks – it is the kind of view experienced in real life that would make us stop and do a double take.

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Likewise, this picture of a woman and her dogs that she seems to need to carry around in holdalls has the mark of English eccentricity.

The underwhelming

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This is a common trope of Martin Parr – emphasising the underwhelming nature of English leisure activity. Here, a man sunbathes at the side of a nondescript road and we are left to wonder what attracted him to choose this place to relax.

Serendipity

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These images show how having a keen observational eye and being in the right place at the right time can lead to humorously strange images.

The unexpected

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Unlike other images by Dench in this series, I find this photograph unexpected and joyous. To see an older couple engaged in a passionate embrace goes against our expectations as this is something that is hardly ever shown – there is a nostalgia to the picture emphasised by the flaking paint on the shelter in which the couple sit. In the background, Blackpool tower is clearly visible – Dench seems to be saying that although we know the resort is run down and a bit naff, there is still a great deal of love and affection present. It is a warm view that I find appealing.

Produce a small portfolio of five colour images in a surrealist style

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Although I was aware of this project coming up for some time I confess to only having half a mind on taking photographs in a surrealist style. Like most of my approaches it is in the edit that I categorise my images, so, the photographs chosen here have the tag surrealist attached to them after the event rather than from the time they were taken. With that in mind if they are successful as examples of surrealism at all it is because they have a subtle quirkiness rather than being overtly so.

Bibliography:

Dench, P. (2012) England Uncensored. Dublin: Emphas.is Journalism Experiences Ltd.

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