What makes a document – Discontinuities

This next section of the coursework continues the discussion of context and meaning, stating how it is produced, distributed and consumed determines the information that it conveys. Having read all about the ‘transparent image’ and finally reviewing Alec Soth’s Gathered Leaves, especially Songbook, I have to agree. With Songbook Soth removed the images from their original context, took away any narrative and captions and replaced the text with song lyrics leaving the readers to their own imaginations.

John Berger coined the phrase ‘discontinuity’ and argued that this leads to ambiguity:

All photographs are ambiguous. All photographs have been taken out of a continuity, If the event is a public event, this continuity is history; if it is personal, the continuity, which has been broken, is a life story…Discontinuity always produces ambiguity. (Berger& Mohr, 1995 p.91)

I found a really good PDF of his essay on Appearances from Another Way of Telling  here. I also liked this bit:

In the relation between photographs and words, the photograph begs for an interpretation, and the words usually supply it. The photograph, irrefutable as evidence, but weak in meaning, is given a meaning by the words. (Berger& Mohr, 1995 p.91)

Alec Soth isn’t the only photographer who plays with photographs and captions. Whilst helping my son with his AS photography we researched the fantasy and surrealism of Duane Michals  “his handwritten text adds another dimension to the images’ meaning and gives voice to Michals’ singular musings, which are poetic, tragic, and humorous, often all at once.” A short interview with him can be found here. I found his work fascinating, albeit it not documentary.

So to help us understand the truth behind the theory we have another exercise.


Make a selection of up to five photographs from your personal or family collection. They can be as recent or as old as you wish. The only requirement is that they depict events that are relevant to you on a personal level and couldn’t belong to anyone else (i.e. no photographs of the Eiffel Tower).

Using OCA forums such as OCA/student and OCA Flickr group, ask the learning communities to provide short captions or explanations for your photographs.

Summarise your findings and make them public in the same forums that you used for your research. 

So these are the 5 images I have uploaded and as soon as I get responses I shall update my blog post.


Firstly thank you so much for the many, and prompt, responses which means I can complete this exercise.

Image one.


1.Music competition trophy
2.First prize Children’s Talent Show
3.Band competition trophy
4.Woollen rocker
5.Knitted heavy metal?
6.I made this as a prize for a competition.
7.Look what you can make with a dime bag of wool!
8.The aware for the hippest crochet chick goes to …
9.Very Metal. Quick question do Pantera really do knitted dolls? please tell
me they don’t lol.
10.Rag doll rock
11.Pantera fan of the year award
12.Dolls Rock!
13.Heavy wool

Most of you gathered it was something to do with music, heavy metal/rock, realised it was handcrafted crochet, some correctly guessed by me. Others knew exactly who it was supposed to be and the band he was in. For those of you who don’t…


Darrell Lance Abbott (August 20, 1966 – December 8, 2004), also known as Diamond Darrell and Dimebag Darrell, was an American guitarist and songwriter best known as a founding member of two bands, Pantera and Damageplan, alongside his brother, Vinnie Paul. He was considered to be one of the driving forces behind groove metal.
Abbott was shot and killed by a gunman while on stage during a performance with Damageplan on December 8, 2004, at the Alrosa Villa in Columbus, Ohio. He ranked No. 92 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Greatest Guitarists and No. 1 in the UK magazine, Metal Hammer.

Personal story behind the image:

My son has a very good friend, Zeak, who is a huge fan of Pantera. (point to the commentator who said Pantera Fan of the Year lol) One day we saw online an amigurumi Dimebag Darrell…


…and Zeak’s response was “OMG if someone made that for me I’d cry.” Challenge accepted, I found a pattern for a dolls body and made up the rest as I went along. My son was still in 6th form so using scrap acrylic and his DT skills made the guitar and stand, complete with etched lightening bolts and band name. It was wrapped and saved for Zeak’s birthday and although he didn’t cry he was very, very pleased with it. To take the photo ‘Dimebag’ is stood on a cake decorating turntable which used to belong to my Mum’s best friend. When she died it was given to me, as I also dabble with cake decorating so this image documents a few good memories. This reveals that personal life stories cannot be gleaned from a single image, even those with some cultural knowledge couldn’t accurately guess the intention behind the making of the doll. My words have now given the back story. Does it influence your feelings towards it now?

Image Two

1.Renovation of the new home
2.Helping with the renovation
3.Every little bit helps
4.Home tuition
5.Home improvements
6.I’m going to be an artist when I grow up
7.Helping mom (or dad) paint
Just the lone word sprung to mind, reminds me so much of our house when the kids were little.
9.Child Labor
10.I want to help too!
11.Child labour laws relaxed/The work wear collection for Baby Gap 😉
12.I can help too
13.I know what I can do

Personal story behind the image:

This one was more obvious, yes it was my daughter (now 24) who always “wanted to help too.” I have pictures of her from a very young age laying bricks, tiling the fireplace, painting walls peeling off wallpaper etc etc etc. I never stopped her by telling her she was too young, or a girl or she’d get too messy and hopefully that’s why now there isn’t much she feels she cannot tackle. When at Uni she earned extra cash by helping her landlord decorate his other properties when handing over the keys to new tenants so this is one of the reasons I chose to include it; not only does it sum up her personality then it also resonates with how she is now. The responses all recognised that it was a child helping to decorate the home. They ranged from amusing captions, to factual captions and a comment about how it made one of the audience feel. To me this illustrated the value of shared experiences when we look at an image.Others may have also felt that warm inner glow, but not chosen to express it. However, it is nice to know when an image you have take resonates with another and they understand its meaning.

This also emphasises how a quick snap taken as the action caught my eye can change in value as a document and the depth of mean alter over time. It documents what she was like then, how I perceive her personality and skills now through things we did during her childhood, kids fashions at the time (though they don’t appear to have changed that much) what our house was like then – we now have proper balustrades- and when I was still married…Although a lot can be gleaned from this image it still does not pin point exactly where the house is, the style or the size so there is a limitation as to the amount of information we can infer without text or further explanation. As this is a fairly ‘recent’ family snap shot it may not appear that important now, but skip ahead a few generations and others may be puzzling over who it is in the photograph and where it was taken, just as I do when tracing my ancestry and looking at older images and in that context it could become a very important document.

Image three


1.Acorn versus oak
2.Final days of summer
3.Sign of the times
4.Will it kill me?
5.Nature walk
6.This is going to be an enormous tree one day
7.From small acorns….
8.The humble beginning…
9.Hit me on the head
10.From little things do great things grow
11.The acorn that fell far from the tree
12.From the likes of these
13.Nature’s treasure

In some ways this is also very obvious, but not the reason for me taking the image or where it was taken. Yes, it is an acorn and with oak trees behind…’hit me on the head’ is the closest response. Once again even though an ‘obvious’ shot and a good guess at why it was taken there isn’t enough transparency within the image for the audience to know the exact history behind why or where it was taken which is why I selected it.

Personal story behind the image:

Way back in September 1989 I was on honeymoon in South-West France. A camp site right opposite Lac de Lacanau, as my then spouse loved to windsurf. We spent 3 weeks in a small 2 man tent which leaked when it rained! Anyway I digress, as it was late season the rest of the campsite was empty bar a few bikers passing through, so a lot of people were by then hibernating their caravans in the park which was full of oak trees. During the night loads of acorns would fall from the trees and all we could hear was “rustle, rustle THUNK!” as they rebounded off the caravan roofs… the first night there we ‘wondered what on earth?’ only to discover it was pesky acorns that continued to thunk for the duration… so of course we had to have a snap of the bloody things…it makes me sad to think that unless I write that down (and why would it be interesting to anyone else really) this small, amusing anecdote will be lost forever.

Again I wonder does this explanation alter how you the audience view it?

Image Four


1.Restaurant scene
3.Making avant-garde music in a cafe
4.The analyst
5.Making cocktails in the 70s with an American nuclear scientist.
6.I’m not really sure about this but I’ll give it a try
8.Stir ’em, then drink ’em
9.Terror cell discover new explosive
10.I never understood the purpose of fondue!
11.Happy hour
12.Great times
13.Do you remember the day after?

I love this photograph, it brings back so many memories, and some of the others that go with it that I couldn’t put up…again a fairly obvious image of people in a restaurant, beyond that nothing else has been said apart from some very amusing captions, so thanks for making me giggle. No-one spotted what was actually happening or can image the aftermath of his actions.

Personal story behind the image:

Again a looooong time ago , when I was a proper grown-up I used to work for a certain large bank in the Money Market up in town. Every so often we would let off steam, pub it and grab a curry down Brick Lane, especially if it was a birthday or leaving do. Now this is where it is important that you write things down people, as even I can’t remember the exact location or occasion, although I am positive it was a leaving do and I think I know who was leaving….anyway he was given a tie as part of his leaving present and whilst he went to get rid of several of the pints imbibed earlier in the evening, Mike, on the right, decided it would be REALLY funny to stuff said tie into the glass of water on the table, poking it in with a knife…as you do…the explosive reaction when the owner returned was quite spectacular, I think my vocabulary got extended by several new words that night… just think we used to be in charge of all your hard earned cash mwahahahahaaaaa

So this is why this image was included in this set, as again, even if it had been spotted that there was tie mutilation going on, the story behind it was not easy to work out. Meaning can be lost even when it is from your own album if you don’t caption or annotate it. Looking through a set of old work images some of the faces are so familiar yet the names have vanished. I know this was a celebration of some kind but what? So even I am trying to interpret the full meaning… if I can’t how can I expect an audience to? My mother threw away a lot of photographs when my dad died, they were of people she didn’t know and places that meant nothing to her. Some of them were so faded and small, but some were of his time in Korea. I regret not knowing that she was throwing them out at the time.

Image Five


1.The backyard
2.My grandfather’s back yard
3.Summer is a long way away
4.Telescopic holiday
5.My garden.
6.The empty chairs, abandoned mug, etc make me feel like the inhabitants have gone as do the bare plants, etc. B&W and white vignette make me feel like I’m looking into a memory.
7.Times Past
8.Dreamy summer
9.A little bit of paradise
10.Summer house back yard
11.This was the place
12.Once upon a time
13.An early creative step

Once again on the surface an obvious image, yes it is a backyard, it was slightly unloved and I did mess about with different effects, and quite ‘naffly’ too I think.

Personal story behind the image:
Back in 2012 my daughter was a language student at Uni and had to do her year abroad, spending 6 mths in Hamburg followed by several months in Paris. In 2013 I took sometime to go visit and crashed in her student digs, which in all honesty were fairly squalid, no fault of the students, blame the landlord, although I’m sure you could blame the abandoned mug onto one of them! Tho’ possibly someone who had been there about 5 years ago! The week I stayed the weather was fairly dull and overcast for a lot of the time and the image I snapped, of a neglected, dingy, unkempt yard with stained walls, and a broken blind, that looked fairly dull and boring, so thought I would throw a lot of tweaks at it…try an evoke that air of a memory, the romance attached to Paris, hide the awful dull view it was…a step too far with the overdone vignette but hey-ho live n learn.

Despite being a tad overdone, the cliche of the vignette seems to have worked insofar as the audience has read into it that is is a memory, or belongs to a time gone by, suggesting a Grandfather’s backyard etc. It also hides how grungy it was in reality too. Without a caption or accompanying text the relevance, memory and realities of the image aren’t immediately apparent.


I enjoyed completing this exercise and putting into practice some of the theory that I am gradually stuffing into my brain, I think some of it is sticking! I believe, as do most, that all photographs are a form of document, as expounded in (Wells,2004, p.9). Some of the images posted here have slightly altered in importance, or had the memories tinged with sadness or pride due to the lapse in time between them being taken and being revisited. Having been divorced for over 12 years now I no longer look at my honeymoon album! I look at the photo of my little girl and see a proud independent woman who gained her MFL degree and is now a qualified teacher.

Is context important to a photograph? To fully understand everything about it I believe so, however, without looking outside of immediate Western culture, it has become apparent that we have enough shared histories between us to infer quite a bit of meaning from the images we see but not necessarily all. Therefore I also find myself in agreement with John Berger (Berger & Mohr, 1995, p91) that photographs have an air of ambiguity unless we provide a caption or text. Once I provide the back stories have opinions altered, do you now see why something was photographed or edited as it was, does it change your emotions when you view it? Can you relate to it more? If anyone feels like responding to these questions I can update my blog further :o)

I also agree to a certain extent that once detail has been provided by the author of the images, it provides an air of ‘certainty’ – thanks again John for your insights – I still like to think we have the ability to gain other information from an image, just as films, books, poems touch us all on a different level, apart from what is handed to us on a plate. There maybe other signs and symbols that we never even spotted within the frame that triggers memories in others. Did any of mine do that for you? Did you feel that my explanations “produced an effect of certainty, even dogmatic assertion”? Or did I make any of it up lololol. No, they are all true, in case you were wondering.

*update* as with some other posts I am revisiting after reading some more theory books and posting excerpts that I feel are relevant to the topic and possibly support my arguments/ideas. In Context and Narrative it states that photographs or ‘documented moments’ have ‘direct relevance to the present and encourages us to think of the past’ (Short, M. 2011 p.9) which is exactly how I felt when looking at the image of my daughter.

*update 2* on going through Another Way of Telling (Berger &Mohr 1989) Mohr did the exact same exercise with 5 of his images getting  many different responses from a wider audience such as a school girl, a banker, an actress, a clergyman and a phychiatrist.

Thanks again to those who responded, without you I couldn’t have done this exercise, it is very much appreciated. xx


Berger, J. and Mohr, J. (1989) Another way of telling. Cambridge: Penguin Books / Granta.

exhibit- E. (2016) Duane Michals – artists. Available at: http://www.dcmooregallery.com/artists/duane-michals (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

The last Sentimentalist: A Q. & A. With Duane Michals (no date) Available at: http://projects.newyorker.com/portfolio/michals-empty-ny/ (Accessed: 30 October 2016).
Short, M. Basics Creative Photography. Worthing, UK: AVA Publishing, 2011. Print.

Own Research 5 – Alec Soth Gathered Leaves @ Science Museum 2015

Much earlier in the year, well December 2015, I went to this exhibition and also popped into the one next door of works by Julia Margaret Cameron. I won’t have time to write up about her now but if interested here is a quick link to a review.

Gathered Leaves Alec Soth

Alec Soth is a member of Magnum photo agency and focuses on project- based documentary, capturing both people and place…he produces books, has exhibited in many galleries and his work is often described as ‘fine art,’ reminding me of the article I just read from Witold Krassowski and his question: Is photography an art, or do artists use photography? I don’t want to get into that debate just now (there will be a lot of comments like this as I research various photographers as it is always so easy to go off on a tangent and I have to rein myself in…)

It would seem that the photo-book  Gathered Leaves is a more rounded vehicle to present this work with containing:

abstracts of emails and quotes that are more or less pertinent to the work presented. The text contributions bring together a diverse array of email snippets, interview transcriptions, recounts of meetings and quotes from various literary references to create a stimulating and provoking publication.

So a little while back I took myself off to his exhibition, Gathered Leaves, at the Science Museum.

The exhibition blurb read:

Through haunting, intimate portraits, desolate landscapes and wide open wildernesses, his work captures a profound sense of what it is to be human. Tenderness, joy, disappointment, fear or pride – his striking portraits capture the rawness of human emotion and the tension between our conflicting desires for individualism and community.

The first main room, with images from Sleeping on the Mississippi,  was brightly lit, large-ish images displayed on white walls, in uniform white frames and with vitrines containing artefacts for further interest and information. The print size: 40×50 or 50 x40 cms. The exhibition was set out chronologically with Sleeping on the Mississippi, first followed by Niagara etc.

Installation view, ‘Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth’ (© Kate Elliott, courtesy Science Museum)

Gathered Leaves was the title for this retrospective (though Soth doesn’t want to call it that as he feels it is pretentious and he isn’t that old) ) The Guardian speculated that this hinted at “his ability to chronicle the many – often conflicting – notions of American life that coexist in such a politically riven country, but also his prowess as a maker of photo-books.” The show itself is curated around his four major bodies of work/books: Sleeping By the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006), Broken Manual (2010) and Songbook (2015).

It left me wondering a tad -does Soth also fall under the same criticism that Krassowski levels at students – that he uses exhibitions as “mere tools for a personal career” and that he is aiming for a “social status,” using as he does the media and self-promotion whenever possible? He is described as “a photojournalist, blogger, self-publisher, (he publishes photo-art books through his Little Brown Mushroom press) Instagrammer and educator – someone who understands that today the sharing of the image often seems as crucial as the image itself ” or, because he is already established anything he produces ‘must be worthy?’ and is praised for “his experimentation across exhibition, book, magazine and digital forms.” The exhibition’s introductory text also encourages us to think about how “gathered leaves” refers to photography as a medium made up of sheets of paper – apt for a self-publisher… It is also a reference to a poem by Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 1855.

Alone far in the wilds and mountains I hunt,
Wandering amazed at my own lightness and glee,
In the late afternoon choosing a safe spot to pass the night,
Kindling a fire and broiling the fresh killed game,
Soundly falling asleep on the gathered leaves, my dog and gun by my side.

Although found online, it was far too long to read whilst writing this entry ,the gist of this epic poem sought to reflect upon the fractured state of the nation as it headed towards civil war, with each side struggling to maintain their set of ideals and identities. Soth attempts to do the same as he journeyed down the river, capturing both the residents and their environment.

When written about, he is often mentioned alongside names such as Joel Sternfeld – who taught him for a short while – and the likes of Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Stephen Shore. However, some of the odd characters he captures reminds me of Diane Arbus.

Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, 2002, from Sleeping By the Mississippi Alec Soth

In Niagara (2006), -these images were much larger than in the previous room with frames of natural wood – I found myself thinking about William Eggleston as he sought out the banal and mundane:”drab motels and soul-sapping pawn shops.” Does this bedspread remind you of a certain floral sofa? The difference being, whereas Eggleston likes vibrant punchy, eye popping colours, Soth prefers softer, paler hues with a subtler colour palette.

Two Towels, 2004, from Niagara, Alec Soth

As with many who have gone before, such as Danny Lyon, he not only captured portraits of the people, he also photographed extracts from love letters and other artefacts which assist the narrative. Niagara Falls is a popular destination for tourists and  honeymooners yet the underbelly he captures reveals a sadder, more vulnerable and depressing face of love. In contrast to the supposedly joyous events of weddings and gasping at the Falls themselves, it is also apparently a place of “spectacular suicides” and the atmosphere created by the surroundings and situations Soth captures picks up on this undertone.

An insight to his working can be found in this interview with Joerg Colberg from Conscientious.  Another interview can be read here.

Image result for alec soth niagara wedding dress

2004, from Niagara, Alec Soth

The photo-book Broken Manual seems to answer one of the above questions…apparently it was produced as a very small run before hitting the collectors market for obscene amounts of money! Previously capturing his portraits with a large-format camera mounted on a tripod, Soth’s style in Broken Manual shows a “marked and interesting conceptual shift,” he used long-lens photography and produced grainy imagery, to mimic surveillance and spy-camera footage, many of the curses of everyday life that these people are trying to avoid. This was a four-year collaborative project, photographing men on the run, monks, lone survivalists and other hermits. Soth teamed up a pseudonymous writer, Lester B Morrison, to create “an instruction manual for escapists….the idea is its a manual for men to run away from their lives…but the manual is broken.”

Entering the third room, you come into a darker space, grey-walled with subdued lighting, straight away the mood alters and you get the impression that this series isn’t at all like the others preceding it. This underscores the importance of how you curate an exhibition which can be problematic; photographers who work in series need a lot of space to present the narrative as the final images chosen need to still work together and resonate off each other.

Installation view, 'Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth' (© Kate Elliott, courtesy Science Museum) (click to enlarge)

Installation view, ‘Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth’ (© Kate Elliott, courtesy Science Museum)

The images themselves were an eclectic mix: there was a monochrome triptych of objects belonging to one of the subjects and is loaded with suggestion: a homemade knife, two mushrooms (magic ones, I laughed but The Guardian also stated “possibly hallucinogenic” so I wasn’t the only one thinking that) and an object that I pointed at exclaiming “ha that looks like a …..” but apparently…yes… it was a male sex toy.

Some of these images were definitely unsettling and creepy but definitely fascinating. The image of a lone sparkly disco ball abandoned in the middle of a wood made you wonder who had placed it there, was it one of the people hiding away, did it hold memories for them? A juxtaposition, discos you associate with parties, hoards of people, noise and laughter, none of that appeared evident in this body of work.

Image result for Alec soth broken manual disco ball

USA, 2006. From Broken Manual Alec Soth

On another wall hung a huge print of a naked man standing ankle-deep in a pool of water, whilst gazing intently towards the camera. I had to wonder at why nude? Why not shorts…I mean he still had boots on! Yes I was looking at his boots! Nudity suggests a certain vulnerability but I think his posture, gaze, haircut and the landscape reveals that. I’m no prude, nudity doesn’t faze me, I just think it isn’t always necessary and sometimes photographers use it for shock value, a talking point and to sell. It can’t be argued that the subject was photographed in this manner as he runs around naked all the time, as he has a damn fine tan line! If it was to show this is where he bathes, then get him to sit in it! Another commentator thought it spoke “volumes about Soth’s powers of persuasion” yeah…or capacity to manipulate the vulnerable…


USA, 2008. From Broken Manual

This area also  included  vitrines which were a full of his research materials and notebooks along with  maquettes – various editions of each book – and ephemera that further illustrated what his pictures were hinting at. For example a self-published periodical called Improvised Weapons in American Jails, or How to Build Flash/Stun Grenades.

The final series, Songbook, wasn’t created as an original series[it] “came together from a lot of different but related threads…it wasn’t called Songbook in the beginning, but I knew the themes and the feeling that I wanted and then it just took its course.” He also believes that this set of images does not have a definite narrative, thinking it is more:

You know, lyrical, whatever. I make this analogy a lot, between poetry and fiction, it’s more like poetry. There’s elements of narrative in it, and it’s suggestive of a story, but it’s not…there’s no plot.

This was my least favourite section of the exhibition, maybe sub-consciously I was picking up on the fact it was not an actual series unlike his other work, although not knowing that at the time, maybe that’s why I felt unable to really connect with it at first viewing. Soth re-edited  work made over the last few years on assignments, news magazines, and through his collaborations with the writer Brad Zellar, twenty-five black-and-white photographs made between 2012 and 2014 – about “80 percent of the work is from a mishmash of various things.” Partially, may be it was also due to the fact it looked old fashioned? I have no problem with b&w documentary images, old or contemporary, but for Soth it seemed a step backwards, doing something that has been done before and not adding anything new, attempting to mimic the reportage style of Weegee who he describes as having  “this quality where he’s kind of laughing at the world,” This he does particularly well, using digital and a strong flash, but I have to ask why, when you have developed a voice of your own and own way of laughing with and at the world?

I fully understand the need to continue to grow and explore but this did feel like a backwards step. I guess part of it linked in with the eventual title of Songbook tying the images to a certain era and maintaining the visual style from then. And the video interview he gave does answer those questions. Soth, wanted to act like a journalist and believed that using black and white gave him more flexibility and a way to reference the past. and a way to capture the insanity of life. Despite not including captions the book does contain snatches of text -lines and verses from a collection of musical works known as The Great American Songbook   Not sure now if the exhibition displayed these lyrics, or did I overlook them? Might have helped with the understanding of the whole section if I had noted them.

The “Great American Songbook” is the canon of the most important and influential American popular songs and jazz standards from the early 20th century. It includes the most popular and enduring songs from the 1920s to the 1950s that were created for Broadway theatre, musical theatre, and Hollywood musical film. The music of this genre is also often referred to as “American standards”.

Soth travelled around the country taking pictures of beauty pageants, proms, and prisons focusing on both what has been lost but what is also still there; on community and the loneliness within today’s society. For this part of the exhibition the images were large and had black frames which appeared to confine the prints, a bit like newspaper columns do, and yet more vitrines displayed the newspaper format zines produced by Soth and Brad Zellar. Most of the images stand alone, pull together as a series -just- but others I’m not sure as to why they were included. Soth wanted to do something different, not rely on the text or added information he is quoted as saying:

But even still, there’s something refreshing to me about letting them just exist purely, or almost purely, as images. The Songbook, it sort of liberated me of that, and the pictures can just exist on their own.

So my final observations – I thought the curation of this exhibition was excellent, with separate rooms given their own atmosphere and the different ways of presenting the work adding to the narrative. Despite originally being created for photo-books I think the series all translate well to an exhibition.

His intentions become clear as he progresses through his work, if something isn’t working he has no fear of changing tack. He can work individually or as part of a collaboration. His work does capture “a profound sense of what it is to be human.” Soth’s subjects obviously feel relaxed and comfortable enough to provide anecdotes, reveal intimate details about themselves and occasionally get naked. I’m still not convinced that sometimes this doesn’t feel a little like exploitation. Having waited so long to complete this write up and with a little more research completed I have a better understanding of why and how he did certain things and a greater appreciation for all of the work on display.

As ever there are things you come away with other than the images themselves, you think about the curation, how and why an artist/photographer publishes their work – Soth in particular being multi platformed. I don’t see this as an issue, rather these days a necessity – take note Mr Krassowski.

They also need to think about who their target audience is – How work is to be displayed within that format, what type of book, what size run, what size frames for an image, what size print? The list is endless. Alec Soth seems to have managed ok so far and hopefully will continue to do so.

Copyright (2016) On songbook: In conversation with Alec Soth. Available at: https://www.icp.org/interviews/on-songbook-in-conversation-with-alec-soth (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

Gathered leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth (no date) Available at: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/Plan_your_visit/exhibitions/alec-soth (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

Magazine, W. (2015) Alec Soth’s intoxicating photographic chronicles of middle America. Available at: http://www.wallpaper.com/art/alec-soths-intoxicating-photographic-chronicles-of-middle-america (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

O’Hagan, S. (2015) Alec Soth: America’s most immaculate, intriguing photographer. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/oct/06/alec-soth-gathered-leaves-photographer-uk-retrospective (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

Reznik, E. (no date) Interview: Alec Soth’s tragicomic American songbook. Available at: http://www.americanphotomag.com/interview-alec-soths-tragicomic-american-songbook (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

The center for the performing arts – home of the palladium – Carmel, Indiana (2016) Available at: https://www.thecenterfortheperformingarts.org/Great-American-Songbook-Inititative/About-the-Great-American-Songbook (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

ThePhotographicJournal (no date) The photographic journal. Available at: http://thephotographicjournal.com/interviews/alec-soth/ (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

top, P.B. to (2015) ‘Alec Soth’s gathered leaves, reviewed by Ollie Gapper’, 12 November. Available at: http://www.photobookstore.co.uk/blog/photobook-reviews/alec-soths-gathered-leaves-reviewed-by-ollie-gapper/ (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

Own Research 4 – Danny Lyon – Images

Above are some of the 37 photographs from the three bodies of work on display at Beetles and Huxley. As ever, the smaller, compressed, online images do not show the finer detail of the originals and if you are able to get into London it is an exhibition worth taking in.

From the sample I shall select a few, to comment upon the compositional elements, similar features within the images and discuss why I feel they are effective as photographs and contribute well to the body of work.

From Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement I selected four images due to their contrasting natures, the lone child has an air of vulnerability, the two group shots reveal a stark contrast in peaceful demonstration and violence, whilst the serene landscape shot hides the unrest of the civil rights movement happening at that time. Anyone viewing it, then and now – without reading the caption revealing the location- would not be aware of the turmoil occurring within the region at this point in history. In some ways this shot reminded me of the body of work Ceasefire, 6-8  April 1994 by Paul Graham. His abstract images of cloudy skies, taken above infamous flash points of sectarian violence such as Bogside, Newry, Omagh and Shankhill, were captured to depict a tentative halt in the Troubles.The images were shot specifically during the three-day ‘temporary cessation of hostilities’ by the IRA around the Easter weekend that started the peace process. I was lucky to see some of them at a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Photographers Gallery a good few years back. Without a caption they appeared meaningless, possibly a little pointless and I was quite honest back in 2011 about how I felt that Graham was jumping on the “I am famous, I can print anything” bandwagon. In some ways I still do, but I think I can better appreciate the sentiment behind them now, that occasionally you have to try a different approach to send a message or document a moment in time. But thank goodness for the captions is all I can say ;o)

Image result for Paul graham ceasefire
Paul Graham Ceasefire April 1994

Within the four images by Lyon, there is a varying degrees of eye contact; some people were aware others weren’t and there is some direct gaze at the camera. The various directions of the gaze help guide the viewer around the frame. Lyon has varied his depth of field, taken some portrait, others landscape, used natural light and flash, included people and captured landscapes. He uses diagonal leading lines and perspective to great advantage. The variety of techniques used make for a varied and more visually interesting body of work, which capture a range of feelings and behaviours within the civil rights movement and document this period in history really well.

Most reviews I read the next body of work, commented on how the images in The Bikeriders were taken a few years before the film Easy Rider was released, and I can see why they marry the two together; both encapsulate  the political landscape, social issues, and tensions in the United States during the 1960’s, such as the freedom of the open road, a biker lifestyle, drug use and a communal lifestyle. I really enjoyed this body of work, although some images held my interest longer than others. Yet again Lyon has captured contrasting shots of the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club; used different light, photographed them relaxing in a field, riding along city roads, scrambling through dust tracks, socialising in a clubhouse, and maintaining their bikes.

Once more he uses a variety of compositional techniques, which I think I will include in my physical learning log as it would be too much to annotate on a blog, but I particularly liked his use of framing for example frames within frames. The Outlaws clubhouse shot was, for me, reminiscent of Don McCullin’s The Guvnors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park, London (1958)

The Guvnors in their Sunday Suits, Finsbury Park, London, 1958
The Guvnors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park, London 1958 Don McCullin

Both shots are of groups of people with ‘attitude’ claiming a property as their own, wearing clothes that identify them as part of a certain social group. The images are shot from the ground with some of the subjects in the clubhouse framed within the framework of the architecture.

Cal, Elkhorn, Wisconsin 1967 reminded me of Lee Friedlander: America By Car 1995-2009,  I wonder if he was inspired by this much earlier shot by Lyon?


America by Car Las Vegas, 2002 Lee Friedlander

Another ‘familiar’ shot was Racer Shererville, Indiana 1966, which made me think of the series of portraits Spencer Murphy took of Channel 4 Jockeys. The series as a whole won the Campaign Award at Sony World Photography Awards 2014. The portraits were commissioned by 4Creative as part of ‘The Original Extreme Sport’ campaign for the Grand National 2013. The portraits include jockeys A P McCoy, Ruby Walsh, Katie Walsh and Barry Geraghty, shot trackside at Kempton Park Racecourse. His image of Kate Walsh won the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2013.

Ruby Walsh 2013 Spencer Murphy

All which goes to show what made a great image then still does today, with the intense gaze revealing the physical exertion both men have gone through.Having said that, I prefer Danny Lyon’s image as it feels more dynamic; it contains background detail providing more context to the subject and a sense of place, there are leading lines to take your eye around the frame and a suggestion of movement provided by the blurred bike in the background. The subjects wear very similar expressions but the amount of mud splattered on the biker speaks volumes and adds a slightly humorous touch. But you have to take into consideration context; why were these images were taken and the eventual intended use. The image used in the advert below is slightly different to the standalone portrait.


I think that the photographs I saw illustrate the sub-culture of the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club and successfully documents their  camaraderie, the freedoms they enjoyed, the communal life style they led and the risks they took.

Finally, we get to Conversations with the Dead, where Lyon embedded himself with the prison population. Compositionally,  I have so much to say about this set of images, but will annotate them in my physical learning log; I shall take some photographs of it and upload them when I get around to it…so many things to do , so little time.However, I will mention his mix of indoor and outdoor shots, the differing vantage points, angles, use of figure to ground art theory, capturing ephemera and interior shots void of people.

The starkness of the locks, prison bars and the glass separating loved ones at visiting time, constantly remind the audience of the men’s captivity. Even when ‘free’ to relax there is a constant guard presence, the prison uniforms remove identities, everything is controlled and regimented from working the line to queuing for meals.

Throughout these bodies of work Lyon pays attention to the smaller detail, as well as the larger picture, immersing himself fully into the lifestyle and environments of those he chooses to photograph. His insights and ways of capturing his subjects produce a cohesive body of work providing a strong narrative for his audience to follow and understand.

Although the assignments set have to be completed within a matter of weeks, rather than years, by choosing topics that are close to me I can, hopefully, by using a range of techniques, and choosing a ‘group’ in my local community that I feel I have some insider knowledge of, attempt to do the same.

Own Research 4 – Danny Lyon @ Beetles & Huxley 2016

Danny Lyon…it’s a name I have heard, but couldn’t put any images to the name or name to the images, so when I received an email from Beetles & Huxley saying that they had a late evening, private viewing last night, 25 October, I thought it an idea to trot along.I have several observations from this viewing…and some of them not polite…but that was only about the other people there!

Oh my goodness me, I’d say 99.9% of them were the type of people who give photography and the arts the reputation they have, of being for the upper-classes/wealthy/snob brigade. Possibly I am falling into the trap of stereotypes but there I was in jeans and a flying jacket, smart casual like, surrounded by people in their best bib n tucker – or come straight from work, so were suitable attired (no dissing them on that point) and every single one of them had cut-glass accents…oh except the man in a t-shirt and dreads…I didn’t feel quite so obviously out-of-place walking past him.

It all did feel slightly intimidating, until I noticed that not many of them seemed to be looking at or discussing the work itself? They took the time to stand there, with their free glass(es) of wine clutched in hand, stood IN FRONT of it…sorry love, didn’t you know this was an exhibition of Danny Lyons work, not “let’s count the ways I have to ask a polite version of ‘excuse me luv can you move your arse outta the way so I can see the images not you?’ ” It wasn’t as if it was an ‘oh let’s stand here and talk about the picture and move on’ type of standing there…no, it was a full-blown ‘let’s all stand here in a huddle, 2mm away from the wall, and discuss what we had for dinner/where we met last/how the kids are doing in school, fnah fnah’ type of blocking. By the time I wanted to deck a few I no longer felt intimidated ;o)

It’s a shame, as I like Beetles & Huxley, they hold really good exhibitions and book signings, offer reasonably priced exhibition catalogues, don’t mind you taking photos of the gallery set up and the staff are always so very helpful. However, if anything, I think I have learnt to wait until the first night is over and go up as and when I can at a weekend. Working and studying, weekends can get full so the late night seemed an ideal time to fit it in…

Having moaned about all of that I did enjoy the exhibition and doing some closer analysis of Lyon’s work. Another downer was that they did not have – and will not be producing – a catalogue of this exhibition. I guess I should have asked why, but at the time I was annoyed at the other patrons and irritated that they didn’t have one! I think I shall email and find out just from a learning point of view… jumps into email compose box…back in 5…ok sent, hopefully they will respond and I will do an update. With 37 prints on display, although there was no catalogue, they did have an A4 sheet with the numbered prints, titles and prices, which came in handy for me jotting down some notes…and realising that in the scheme of things he is quite affordable, with starting prices at £5000.oo and the highest £6750…affordable for some but not me ;o) The gallery itself is a largish space with plenty of white walls and spotlights to show the work off to its best advantage. The photographs themselves were mounted in plain black frames, of two types, with large white passepartouts, all mounted at the same height. I was surprised to see quite a few of the frames were chipped and damaged, I guess in transit. I’d hope for a replacement frame if paying £5000 per print!

*Update* email sent and response received:

potted versions –

Q…I was disappointed to learn that there was not a catalogue for this exhibition. I am currently undertaking a BA Photography course and in completing my write-up of the visit I commented that there was no catalogue and wondered why. I’d be grateful if, from a learning point of view, you could tell me who usually makes the decision to produce one? The artist? Their agent? The gallery itself?…

A…Exhibition catalogues are very expensive to produce and the gallery takes this entire cost. They are also very time-consuming to put together and all our catalogues are written and designed in-house. We are a small team and sometimes cannot justify the time and the money it takes to produce catalogues when the exhibition is not of significant commercial potential. Photojournalism is incredibly hard to sell, particularly in the rather underdeveloped UK photography market, and we could not guarantee its financial success at the planning stage…

See, I told you they were helpful and friendly!

Anyway to continue…Still working today, Danny Lyon has his own blog called Bleak Beauty and is said to be, “one of the most important American documentary photographers of the second half of the twentieth century.”  He probably is, but sometimes I wish publishers et al would coin a new phrase. From the gallery blurb:

Utilising a style that would become known as New Journalism, Danny Lyon immersed himself in the lives of his subjects. We will be exhibiting photographs from several of Lyon’s seminal projects, including his photographs taken during the Civil Rights Movement, and his groundbreaking explorations of American biker culture and the Texas prison system.

  • on looking up New Journalism the definition given was  ‘meaning that the photographer has become immersed in with, and is a participant of, the documented subject.’

And immerse himself he certainly did. Lyon was born in Brooklyn in 1942, gained a BA in history in 1963 from the University of Chicago, and since 1967 he has worked as an independent photographer and an associate at Magnum Photos. He has numerous credits and awards to his name including: Guggenheim Fellowships in photography and film-making, a Rockefeller Fellowship, Missouri Honour Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism and a Lucie Award. There is a lot of debate as to what baggage we bring with us, does our background influence why, what and how we photograph things. I think it always does and possibly this applies particularly well to Lyon, whose parents came to America, escaping both Hitler and the Soviet pogroms.

He has stated that ultimately:

all of his projects are “about the existential struggle to be free”

In Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement,  shot using a Nikon Reflex and an old Leica, he reveals ‘how a handful of dedicated young people, both black and white, forged one of the most successful grassroots organisations in American history.’  Lyon was employed as a staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Selma, Alabama. In an interview he said:

It was my good fortune to stumble into the story early…Being in SNCC politicised me. Having said that, I wasn’t black and I was free. My agenda was photography and books, and what is now called media

It is interesting to note that the book also contains certain ephemera, for example: press releases, telephone logs, letters, and minutes of meetings, pictures and eyewitness reports therefore ‘creating both a work of art and an authentic work of history.’ He strongly believes that “the young people who created the Civil Rights Movement are directly responsible for Barack Obama being our president today.”

I think this adds to the argument that an image “of history” does not need a long time to pass before being labelled a document.

Described as ‘a photographer interested in those on the outskirts of American society’ Lyon then went onto join the Chicago Outlaws motorcycle club, purchasing a Triumph TR6 motorbike along the way. I liked the quote:

Photographers show character through how people look and the bikers were a perfect subject because they were what they looked like…They had leather jackets, they were dirty, they had weapons and boots.

Finally published in 1968, the book was not an instant commercial success, I guess because it was so different from things that had gone before and a lot of the book, like Memories… is ‘filled with highly personal moments that reflect the violent and extreme lifestyle of the club.’  I shall comment more on the actual photographs later on, as this post grows ever longer I think I shall make a separate post just for them.

It has been written that his ‘only formal training…was studying Bruegel’s mastery of composition in an introductory humanities course at university’ and, in looking at the images in the exhibition, it is like looking through a masterclass on how to compose your photographs. Not that I mean that in a critical sense, he just used traditional compositional rules to the fullest and in the most effective of ways i.e. implied triangles, leading lines, perspective, different vantage points, figure to ground ratio and many more. I found this was particularly noticeable in his  images from Conversations with the Dead,: Photographs of Prison Life, with the letters and drawings of Billy McCune #122054. published in 1971. This was photographed with the full co-operation of the Texas Department of Corrections, with Lyon embedding himself in six Texan jails for just over a year.

Having reviewed this style of documentary work and that of other photographers I can see the benefit of photographing a subject that you are either embedded in, or feel passionately about. In the foreword of The Seventh Dog, Lyon underscores the fact that he has never made a photograph that he hasn’t been a part of he writes:

Everything depicted in this book happened usually to me or close enough for me to picture it.


Beetles and 2015, H. (2015) Beetles & Huxley. Available at: http://www.beetlesandhuxley.com/exhibitions/danny-lyon.html (Accessed: 26 October 2016).
Butcher, S. (2014) Looking back at Danny Lyon’s Iconic 1960s photos of bikers | VICE | United Kingdom. Available at: http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/danny-lyons-bikeriders-are-back (Accessed: 26 October 2016).
Helmore, E. (2012) Danny Lyon: ‘I put myself through an ordeal in order to create something’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/may/15/danny-lyon-interview-photography (Accessed: 26 October 2016).
Kim, E. (no date) Start here. Available at: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2013/10/07/street-photography-composition-lesson-2-figure-to-ground/ (Accessed: 26 October 2016).
Memories of the southern civil rights movement: Danny Lyon (no date) Available at: https://daylightbooks.org/blogs/news/17203601-memories-of-the-southern-civil-rights-movement-danny-lyon (Accessed: 26 October 2016).
Written and Seymour, T. (2016) Danny Lyon – soul of a radical. Available at: http://www.bjp-online.com/2016/06/danny-lyon-soul-of-a-radical/ (Accessed: 26 October 2016).

Own Research 3 – Edward Burtynsky @ Flowers Gallery 2016

Back in 2012 I went to see Burtynsky’s Oil Exhibition and wrote a review about his work on my blog, note the opening line said :

I was introduced to Burtynsky’s photographs (note photographs not the man)

I can now say that I have met the man :oD  as there was an opportunity to go to a private showing and book signing at Flowers Gallery  on 15 September 2016. The work on display was from his latest body of work Salt Pans, and a cross section of earlier work.

Edward Burtynsky - Salt Pans | Essential Elements

Edward Burtynsky - Salt Pans | Essential Elements

Images from the Flowers Gallery website: Installation views.

Realising the importance of taking into consideration how and where work is displayed I made sure I took note of the gallery setting and how it was curated: large white room, tall ceilings, directed lighting, uniform frames-black, uniform size prints, large space between each print.There are no explanations of any kind beside the photographs, allowing them audience to focus on the subject and wonder- that is if they aren’t aware of his work already. Main exhibition down stairs, earlier work  – Essential Elements-in the upper gallery photographs from: China, Manufactured Landscapes, Quarries, Oil and Water:

 Mapping the human transformation of the landscape, and documenting the residual destruction stemming from industrial processes and manufacturing, Burtynsky’s photographs present a contradiction of aesthetic seduction and ecological concerns, functioning, as he sees it, as “reflecting pools of our times”.

Edward Burtynsky - Salt Pans | Essential Elements

139 Shipyard 11 Qili Port Zhejiang Province China 20051

These images remind me slightly of the work by Bernd and Hilla Becher who also photographed the architecture of industrialisation against grey skies, concentrating on shape and form, structures placed centrally within the frame. He admits to having been influenced by  Abstract Expressionists.

To quote the website again, in Salt Pans:

Burtynsky conveys both the sublime aesthetic qualities of the industrialised landscape and the unsettling reality of depleting resources on the planet, through a series of geometric compositions photographed from the air above the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, India.

Every year for eight months over 100,000 salt workers live and work at the Little Rann of Kutch, extracting around one million tonnes of salt a year from the floodwaters of the nearby Arabian Sea. Burtynsky has documented this traditional way of life before it vanishes forever; under threat due to receding groundwater levels and declining market values, this is a way of life that has existed for four hundred years.

Surprisingly, Burtynsky came across the salt pans whilst looking through Google Earth!

A few months later I was in a Cessna flying over them, trying to capture this incredible terrain before it disappears.

Salt Pans #13

Artist: Edward Burtynsky

I particularly liked this image as the detail fills the frame, the vibrant green squares reminiscent of a tiled wall, and I found the vast scale of the project breath taking. Unlike some of his other aerial work I found it difficult to find details within the images that gave an indication of this.However, if you take the time and look close enough you can just about make out tiny figures, here and there, which “communicate the sense of enormous scale.” Burtynsky takes great pleasure in doing this, hiding the clues:

You should have to dig in with your eyes to work out what’s going on.

Salt Pans 18 Little Rann of Kutch Gujarat India 2016 c Edward Burtynsky Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London Nicholas Metivier Gallery Toronto

Artist: Edward Burtynsky

Others, like the one above, are slightly more subtle in tone – like a water colour painting, the pans themselves resembling watercolour palettes. The other leading lines, the ghostly outlines, have been produced by pans which have been allowed to go fallow or by the dust trails left by the trucks going endlessly to and fro.

During the evening I managed to meet the man himself, shake his hand, crack a joke or two and got him to sign my book, another ;oD – I treated myself to Essential Elements which also contains some previously unpublished images-  he was really approachable and friendly but as it wasn’t a “talk” it was difficult to commandeer his attention for a long period of time. Some people managed to ask some photography based questions and I tried to eavesdrop, but a lot of it was very technical and about how he avoided camera shake when hanging out of a circling plane… We did discover what he is currently working on though – a five year project on the anthropocene (I had to look it up – the pending name for the present geological age in which humans have had a discernible impact on the environment) A friend of mine, who also came along, took several photos of the evening – I will have to see if I can purloin a few.

Having only a quick flick through the book I find myself in agreement with Oliver Wainwright, who wrote the Guardian review, that it is “like touring the landscapes of late capitalism, tracing the supply chains of our consumer culture back to both ends – where the stuff came from and where it ends up”  with “…shiny motorbikes [is] paired with a heap of tyres, an iron-ore mine with a ship-breaking yard.”

Four years have passed since I last saw his prints up close and whilst Salt Pans doesn’t seem to have the immediate visual impact of some of his bodies of work, with the subtle colour palette and subject matter, after several viewings and more in-depth knowledge I find it is growing on me more and more. These days art critics seem to be less focused on his ability to turn such dystopian subjects into  things of beauty and acknowledge more and more his potential to raise public awareness to the dreadful impact we are having on the planet, although he would rather be seen as a mediator than an environmentalist campaigner.

As Burtynsky admits, his images would be equally at home on a Greenpeace poster or the cover of an oil company’s annual report. “The work asks more questions than it answers,” he says. “Which is what artists are there to do.”

So what have I learnt from this exhibition of new and old work and finally meeting him?

That I liked the person he presented to the public, he didn’t hide behind a table but wandered the room freely giving his time and attention to whomever approached him. He was more than willing to sign books, DVD’s postcards etc etc. He didn’t look 61!

On a more photographic note I learnt: you can still capture images within the same topic yet alter your creativity and sustain your photographic practice. Burtynsky has embraced new technologies such as Google Earth, selfie sticks and drones to assist with taking images.

Don’t let yourself be limited in your research, look at other disciplines for inspiration for example painters and writers.

Images are more successful if the message isn’t totally obvious and the viewer has to work slightly.

Captions and explanations aren’t always necessary but a little background information is helpful.

Use a team if you have one! I have found bouncing ideas off my colleagues within the art department really helpful this week. They are also nagging me to make sure I am still doing… note… art dept have just acquired a drone…hmmmmm

More will probably come to me after I hit ‘publish’ but then I shall just add it to the list.


Gallery, F. (2016) Edward Burtynsky – salt pans | essential elements – exhibitions. Available at: http://www.flowersgallery.com/exhibitions/view/edward-burtynsky-essential-elements (Accessed: 21 October 2016).

INFO (no date) EDWARD BURTYNSKY. Available at: http://www.edwardburtynsky.com/ (Accessed: 21 October 2016).

Wainwright, O. (2016) Edward Burtynsky on his ravaged earth shots: ’We‘ve reached peak everything’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/sep/15/edward-burtynsky-photography-interview (Accessed: 21 October 2016).

written and Harding, C. (2016) The negative sublime of Edward Burtynsky’s corrupted landscapes. Available at: http://www.bjp-online.com/2016/10/the-negative-sublime-of-edward-burtynskys-corrupted-landscapes/ (Accessed: 21 October 2016).

Own Research 2 -In conversation: William Eggleston @NPG 2016

On 21 July 2016, I was lucky enough to attend this talk with a small group of   like-minded ‘photography people’; tutors, an ex-tutor of mine and some other ex-students of his. It was just how I expected it to be and spent most of the evening giggling away and totally entertained, probably for all the wrong reasons. One of our company was most disgruntled and wanted his money back as he had come to hear William Eggleston “talk” which proved to me he had never researched the man nor understood how he operates.

If he had, he would have known from the outset that “In Conversation” was a misnomer. Eggleston knows just how to avoid talking about anything whilst “In Conversation” and gave the audience a masterful display in how to control an interview.You learn more from the YouTube video posted below about his ways of working, the background of some of his images etc than you did from the “talk.” That was just a masterclass on how to be William Eggleston.

I’ll give you the video version and then the talk version. I have to admit to not being a huge fan of his work. I appreciate his place in history, I admire how he has managed to stay in the frame (no pun intended) for so many years, I love the saturation and rich colours, how he makes a living from photographing the banal. Some of his images I really do like, but the majority don’t resonate or make me feel any emotion other than, ok it’s life. But in actuality, that is exactly what is really good about it, as that is what he photographs. When asked what his images are about his response is “life today.” So you have to hand it to him, his images do exactly what it says on the tin. He documents life today in all it’s bland and ugly glory. As a young man he complained “What shall I photograph? It’s all ugly!”  [in Memphis] To which a friend replied “then photograph the ugly!”

He decided very early on to only take one image, as he got confused with choice and having to opt for the best shot. He also doesn’t caption his shots believing they are what they are and need no explanation, which is quite relevant to the next exercise…

Some fascinating facts emerge as you watch; he was born to a very wealthy family who owned a large plantation, was adored and virtually “kidnapped” by his grandparents who seemed to bring him up surrounded by an equally adoring plethora of servants. What the video does not mention is that his father was killed during WWII so maybe not so much of the “kidnapped” then. An unconventional man, into drugs, guns, women and a taste for the wilder side in life he was given his first camera at 18. He shot first in black and white, with composition heavily influenced by Henri Cartier Bresson. He studied art at a variety of universities for 8 years, but never graduated, and shot his first roll of colour film in the mid 1960’s. At this point I smiled in my head because he omitted, and has done for years, to reveal that as a young man, in 1967, he went off clutching his box of black and white shots and presented them to the man I do feel is the master of colour, Joel Meyerowitz.

The documentary shows Eggleston  (Bill or Egg to his friends) wandering round, fag in hand, snapping away in a totally relaxed manner. In a style which, like his film making, has been described as ‘loose, organic, one take only.’ It was through his friendship with Andy Warhol that he was introduced to a Sony video camera, which resulted in the film Stranded in Canton. Shot in infra-red it depicts life in a night club setting revealing his friends, and the flip side to Eggleston’s family man persona, the drug taking, drunk rebel who associated with those who can only be described as ‘drunks, geeks and misfits’ who really ‘liked Quaaludes’ at the time…He ran two households, one for his family, one for his mistress. He used to have huge house parties where he would entertain the rich and famous; his photographs grace the front of many an album cover. One being the red ceiling, which becomes more poignant as you discover the history behind it. TC Boring was Eggleston’s best friend. One night there were three of them (Eggleston, Boring and Boring’s wife) lying on the bed, Eggleston looks up at the ceiling and snap…history is made. Sadly TC was later murdered, his body burnt, in the very house made famous by a red room with white cables running across the ceiling…

It was John Szarkowski who took a gamble in 1976 and chose to exhibit William Eggleston’s Guide, the first one-man show of colour photographs ever presented at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Interestingly all the images chosen were taken after 1968, postdating his visit to Joel. It was also the Museum’s first publication of colour photography. The reception was divided but on the whole derogatory, with Hilton Kramer calling the show “Perfectly banal … Perfectly boring.” The New York Times called it “the most hated show of the year.”

Eggleston rails at the critics;they didn’t understand it, and it was their job to, they didn’t get it, it was the Museum of MODERN Art, they were just pretty stupid. But, years later they ‘apologised’.The film ends more or less by telling us that journalists hang on his every word…I hope there aren’t many of them, or else that single word is going to be very crowded…

So back to July 2016 and the NPG exhibition of William Eggleston: Portraits. Taking to the stage is Sean O’Hagan and the curator Phillip Prodger. A rather frail William Eggleston is pushed out in a wheelchair.His familiar, slow Southern drawl is much slower than it was as he ponderously delivers his few words of wisdom. Have the the wild days of sex drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll caught up.? Possibly, yet possibly not, as this was taken from an interview conducted by Sean O’Hagan back in 2004:

Eggleston is the slowest and most softly spoken person I have ever met, and the silence while he considers a question is so deep and long that I find myself wondering if he has simply chosen to ignore my fumbling attempts at elucidation. His thoughts, when they emerge into speech, are expressed succinctly and in oddly illuminating phrases that, like his work, are both simple and complex.

O’Hagan and Prodger took it in turns to ask questions and received the best monosyllabic one liners I’ve heard in a long time, mixed in with a few pearls of wisdom.The embarrassed shuffles, and furtive glances between them, as they tried to extract more information out of him, or fill in the gaps, were truly magnificent. Eggleston seemed to be perfectly aware of the cat and mouse game he was playing, cue interview:

Were you surprised when we approached you to put together an exhibition of your portraits?

I take it you’re happy with the results?

Based on the exhibition; in your opinion what constitutes a portrait?
I couldn’t tell you. It’s the looking at the result that is important , not the writing or talking, infinitely more important. Later on I never had a studio I never asked people to pose.

On what is on display; are the wrong ones being shown, or are any missing?
I’ve not thought about it.

On his first colour image, a young man with a shopping trolley; I understand this is the first one you were happy with?
It was the first one I took – I had no choice.

Did you know it was good when you took it or did you have to see the print?
I don’t know, another difficult one to answer again, I don’t know the difference.

Do the prints ever surprise you?
No…maybe they should.

I found it amusing that in the video he is described as gently and fleeting capturing peoples portraits, as if they didn’t even know he was there but in the talk he is the one who does not ‘see’ them.

[He sees]  shape and form, some are people, [they are] just as aesthetic as that table over there – little elements – whatever results is positive.

On his back catalogue; What does it say about the archives, are they all good?
Pretty good.

On his image of Marcia Hare, did you see the symbolism? What is the significance of her holding the camera?
She was asleep, perfectly healthy, she’s not dead! No I don’t [think about the symbolism] She had a camera, she liked taking photographs.

On the reception of his first exhibition, was he surprised by the reaction?
When pressed a little more:
I thought they were infantile responses.

On Stranded in Canton; I shot 2-3 hours – no it was 30 – no it was 1
Sean O’Hagan interjects that it was 30.
How do you know?
You told me when I last interviewed you. I have it on tape!
Did I, Oh well. – shrugs.

Who are the painters that have influenced you?
It’s a long list.

On his commission to photograph Graceland in 1984;
Oh Priscilla rang…
Had Elvis Presley been important to him.
I was not an Elvis fan. Period.

On his opinion of Andy Warhol:
Oh, I don’t know what to say…

On his opinion of Andy Warhol’s work:
I wouldn’t be doing it myself.

On his relationships with many well known personalities: There is an elegiac element [to his portraits] as many have passed on:
That’s the way it is.

Tell us about your relationship with Stephen Shore?
We were friends.

Did he have any influence on Stephen Shore?

Then it was over to the audience, for the brave souls who dared to ask…

Do you ever crop? Or is it perfect in the viewfinder?’

What advice would you give to your younger self if you were starting out now?
I would say I am not the one to ask.

One of our party managed to ask a question – What was his impression of contemporary photography, particularly portrait photography by women. He didn’t hear and when the question was repeated the “women” part was omitted…
No comment.
When Philip Prodger pressed – is that being polite?
I am saying no comment.

And that was it. Hopeful fans beetled down to the front of the stage, clutching various books in the vain hope that they might get the man himself to sign a few…but he declined, with an enigmatic wave of his hand, and his son wheeled him off stage right…

my reflection will follow tomorrow..that took much longer to write than anticipated and am off to bed…..

Awake but needing to get ready for work I thought I would quickly add this link to Apollo magazine who were also there and saw what I saw and heard what I heard. Sean O’Hagan has responded in the comments.

Incredibly selective. He spoke at length in response to many questions. If you know anything about Eggleston, it was an expansive interview. This misrepresents it somewhat.
Sean O’Hagan

I took quite extensive notes, admittedly some were a little scribbled and deciphering them several months later is fun. I have the name Richard Laycock? MIT …not sure what it means now but the response underneath was:
experiments- didn’t add up to much.
But it did as an art historian?
No – it didn’t add up to much.

His thoughts on William Christenberry-
Walter Hopps –
In tune mentally.
Dennis Hopper –
Visited in Mexico…
Joe Strummer?
Oh I don’t know what we talked about – we just kicked back.
Alex Chilton?
I don’t remember taking that..

Yes, in places Eggleston was a little more expansive, for example talked more fully about dye transfer, but not terribly more so. If Sean would care to provide a video of the interview or a transcript of his notes I don’t think there would be that much of a difference between what I have recorded nor by the author of the other article. I don’t think it misrepresented. Compared to some interviews, where he has barked at reporters for asking stupid questions, or just got up and walked out, this could be considered an expansive interview, hence my initial comment that one of the people I attended with obviously had no idea what he was going to see. However, given the fuller responses, by other photographers, at other events, in this instance if words were food most of the audience would have left a little hungry. I found it really hard to find any other reviews about this talk. Maybe because the people attending also struggled to find anything to write about?


National Portrait Gallery (2016) Curator’s tour: William Eggleston portraits. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOvahQ7TSoY&feature=youtu.be (Accessed: 20 October 2016).

O’Hagan, S. (2004) Out of the ordinary. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/jul/25/photography1 (Accessed: 20 October 2016).

O’Hagan, S. (2012) Joel Meyerowitz: ‘Brilliant mistakes … Amazing accidents’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/nov/11/joel-meyerowitz-taking-my-time-interview (Accessed: 20 October 2016).

THE RAD PHO (2013) Imagine | the Colourful Mr Eggleston. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jZ_HkaTXh8&feature=youtu.be (Accessed: 20 October 2016).

Rakewell (2016) William Eggleston and the sound of silence – Apollo magazine. Available at: http://www.apollo-magazine.com/william-eggleston-and-the-sound-of-silence/ (Accessed: 20 October 2016).

Own Research 1 – General Observations

Although the course material provides quite a few starting points, photographers and academic writings to explore, as ever, it is always better to carry out research of your own. This gives you a broader view of the subject you are studying (and beyond) and in theory should help you narrow down how to approach your own work, even if only how you DON’T want to proceed.

Because it is always handy to refer back to photographers and artists I have decided to link to my old blog exhibition visits 2008-2011 and also 2012-2013. It will also be interesting to see if my view has changed on any of them over time. In the 2012-2013 there were a few that I mentioned but never got round to writing up which were:

Sharing Photography and Photographs – Photography in a Connected Age 2013
Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2014
Deutsche Borse Photography Prize 2014
Sony World Photography Award 2014
Klein+Brooklyn 2014
Steve McCurry Afghanistan 2014

Now, I may or may not get around to commenting on them, as I have so much else to read and mention. However, as some may be relevant to documentary they may get a heads up within posts and possibly even a full write up!

To add to that list  I have, since ending my old blog, also attended the following:

In Conversation: Simon Norfolk  and Julian Stallabrass. @Barbican 2014
In Conversation: Stephen Shore and Gerry Badger @Barbican 2014
In Conversation: Martin Parr with Kate Fox and Sean O’Hagan @ Science Museum 2014
Lartigue: Bibi 2014
11 Oct – 5 Jan 2014
Deutsche Borse Photography Prize 2015
The Chinese Photobook 2015
Lifting The Curtain – Keith Greenough 2015
Drift Exhibition  – an exploration of contemporary urban environments 2015
Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2015
Syd Shelton – Rock against Racism 2015
Saul Leiter 2016
Gallery visit and book signing with Joel Meyerowitz 2016
Alec Soth Gathered Leaves 2016
Gallery visit and book signing with Edward Burtynsky 2016
In conversation: William Eggleston @NPG 2016

There maybe a few more that I popped along to during this time period but nothing that is standing out in my mind or that I have come across tickets or leaflets for, and I usually make sure I pick a few odds n ends up so that I can do a write up (or not!)

In attending these exhibitions, talks and book signings I have picked up a few good books:

Joel Meyerowitz – Taking my Time
Tom Hunter – The Way Home
Martin Parr – The Non-Conformists
Chris Killip – Seacoal
Edward Burtynsky – Essential Elements
Stephen Shore – Uncommon Places
Steve McCurry – Untold and In The Shadow of Mountains
Simon Norfolk – Burke + Norfolk

In the spirit of spending even more money and doing further research, I have just ordered Basics Creative Photography 02: Context and Narrative and renewed my BJP subscription; this month’s edition looks particularly relevant.

Hopefully, over the next few days I shall get my physical learning log started and the pile of tickets, leaflets and other ephemera will be stuck it with a view to annotation…

What makes a document? – Post Links

I felt the last post would have become overly long if I added any thoughts and reflections on the links within the WeAreOCA original post and responses so am commenting here instead.

The first link is from Jose himself advising us that context is “a necessary attribute in a documentary photograph, as it is clearly emphasized in a book a recently reviewed for We Are OCA.”

The post for that is here and on reading the entry it looks like a handy reference book to own so I have just ordered it, will update you as to its value as I read through it.

Jose 27 August 2011 at 5:56 pm due to the turn in the conversation posted a link to the BBC news with regards to the “leaping wolf” scandal.

“Your comment reminded me of a photograph which was eventually disqualified from the 2009 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.”What’s most interesting about this case is that we are not talking about digital fakery but a key piece of information which was disclosed and completely changed the way we responded to the image. And that’s because even though what the photograph shows is a wolf jumping, what it tell us is something about the quality of ‘being wild’. Once we know the wolf may have been trained to do the stunt our perception of the image totally changes. The quality ‘wild’ is immediately gone, even though the actual image is very much the same and real, as in, presumably, not the product of digital trickery.

In the context of the original question the shift for me became less that the photograph documented a wild animal but that it documented the lengths that some people will go to in order to enter and win a competition and that from now on the photographer will be linked to a cheating scandal.

Peter Haveland 28 August 2011 at 11:52 am added
For those who like to get their theory via fiction and drama try Stephen Poliakoff’s Shooting the past

All documents mediate that which they seek to document.

From reading the plot outline I gather his meaning is that some people only perceive photographs to have a value is they have context and narrative. I wholeheartedly concur that this is true as sadly years after my Dad died my Mum threw out a load of old photos because she didn’t know who they were! I didn’t realise this at the time as I am fascinated by old photos and have also been tracing my family tree. My father also served in Korea and she threw away all the photos he had of that time bar a few of him that are in really poor condition. If only I had a time machine to go back and rescue them!

Gareth 1 September 2011 at 8:15 pm also contributed
Some photos are documents as soon as they are written to the memory card of course, this startling example from Monday is a case in point. The editorial and comments however show how people bring their own meanings…

Which also supports my argument that images don’t have to have time to be considered a document.

Peter Haveland 3 September 2011 at 12:38 pm then added
Take a look at this chapter by John Berger

but I don’t think the link took me to where it should have…

Pdog19 17 November 2013 at 5:24 pm said
This is one of the more insightful reviews of the difference between photojournalism and documentary photography written by Antonin Kratochvil (Czech-born American photojournalist).

So I will have to make sure I take time to read the article in full but at a quick glance it states:

Photojournalism—in its instant shot and transmission—doesn’t show “life.” It neither has the time to understand it nor the space to display its complexity. The pictures we see in our newspapers show frozen instants taken out of context and put on a stage of the media’s making, then sold as truth. But if the Molotov cocktail-throwing Palestinian is shot in the next instant, how is that told? And what does that make him—a nationalist or terrorist? From the photojournalist, we’ll never know since time is of the essence, and a deadline always looms. Viewers can be left with a biased view, abandoned to make up their minds based on incomplete evidence.

Through documentary work, the photographer has a chance to show the interwoven layers of life, the facets of daily existence, and the unfettered emotions of the people who come under the camera’s gaze. When finally presented, viewers are encouraged to use their intelligence and personal experiences, even their scepticism, to judge. By eliciting associations and metaphors in the viewer, an image has the potential to stimulate all senses. But photographs that do not fulfil this potential remain visual data whose meaning is limited to the boundaries of the frame; the viewer is left to look, comprehend the information presented, and move on.

Nigel Monckton 25 November 2013 at 10:22 pm mentions
A document is “…any concrete or symbolic indexical sign, preserved or recorded toward the ends of representing, of reconstituting, or of proving a physical or intellectual phenomenon.” So says Suzanne Briet in ”What is documentation” – one of the founding texts of information science  On this basis both the balloon, and the image of the balloon are documents – the one of the power of a leader, the other of the existence of a particular balloon. The photo is also a secondary document, in that it references the message of the first document.

All which scarily echos Walton.

Peter Haveland 17 June 2014 at 10:22 am gives us more useful information
There is, currently, a scan of the article but much better to buy Berger and Mohr’s “Another Way of Telling” from which it comes.

but I hate reading PDFs so will possibly download and print it for later consumption.

jsumb20 June 2014 at 11:12 pm adds
Here’s Susie Linfield – author of the Cruel Radiance talking about Documentary, fascinating for all sorts of reasons that are explored on the Documentary course.

Having been to a Don McCullin talk I was interested in this artcle for many reasons. Possibly another post for another day but a snippet would be:

Throughout the book, Linfield asks herself – and us – questions such as: what does it mean to look at photographs depicting violence and suffering? Is the refusal to do that truly a form of respect? Why is this type of photography branded as voyeuristic, exploitation and pornography? What would solidarity with the people in such photographs mean? What would our understanding of the world be like without photographs and why do some thinkers maintain that a world without images would be a better one? What does it mean to acknowledge another human being’s suffering knowing that to truly understand it is often impossible? And how has the photography of political trauma and political witness responded to the radical changes in how war is made, and what it is made for, in the course of the past eight decades?

Anne Bryson 30 April 2016 at 11:23 pm states
I have read the posts of Folio, Anne and Peter, (September 11) questioning whether or not facts are really true. So that brings into question the images such as Felice Beato’s image of the massacre at Lucknow where he apparently arranged disinterred bodies in the foreground before taking his picture to stress the scale of the massacre.

Just like Andrew Gardner then…just because the bodies were moved does not make them less dead, the horror less real, the facts of war a lie, but the images themselves are not in a true sense ‘authentic.’ However they do still document truths and a moment of historical significance…

Leonie Broekstra 29 August 2016 at 1:20 pm adds
Phew, so many replies and ideas to ponder on! I read this article, that questions what makes a documentary and concludes that the question should be ‘when is a documentary?’

But I must admit to not reading any of that yet….again 23 pages of a PDF…

Despite this exercise being time consuming it certainly was worthwhile. I have picked up some useful documents to read and ordered a book which hopefully will further develop my theoretical understanding and inform my photographic practice.

What makes a document? – What makes a document post

The next exercise its to read the post “What makes a document” on WeAreOca ensuring each link is visited. I need to then make a substantial and authoritative reply expressing my opinion on the topic and refer back to other contributions. Posted in 2011 and with 75 responses I may be a while.

What makes a document?

In English literacy when you get an exam question you are often asked to refer to the context of the novel or poem within your response. This way you show a greater understanding of what you have read. Why was it written, who was it written for, who wrote it, what was their background or agenda for writing it, when was it written, what historical events were happening at the time to influence the writer? How and why was it published? What vocabulary did they choose, what language devices, how effective were these and what was the effect on the reader? You have to be able to answer all of these to demonstrate complete understanding of the text. Great when you have all that information to hand and just have to make learn it. However, if you just “read” a novel without knowing any or all of the above does it make it any less of a novel? Do you get any less enjoyment out of it? Just as listening to a piece of music can make you feel happy or scared without knowing it was written in a major or minor key.

The same can be said of a photograph; to truly have full understanding you need to know the context in which it was taken etc, but there maybe difficulty in obtaining all of the knowledge that you can apply in literature, as you may not always know the full history or histories behind it.But does this make it any less a document? Therefore I stand by the belief that any photograph is a document. If that document gains more significance or importance due to context and possibly time remains to be seen. I don’t think time has to pass for a photograph to have historical importance or gain the label historical document. The image of Neil Armstrong on the moon was historically important the moment it was taken as was Tank Man by Jeff Widener. The first digital photograph ever taken (whenever that was) had historical importance. Historical definition being of or concerning history.

Having read the entire post and all the responses I still stand by what I have written above and the general consensus on the forum is that a photograph is a document, stat.After showing us two images and giving us the background stories behind both Jose asks:

is it really context that makes a document? Or is it time?

The first image for most of us is self explanatory; it is a hot air balloon depicting Colonel Gaddafi, we can more or less guess it is in the English countryside, probably at a balloon festival (I mean would anyone really commercially offer flights in such a contentious, even then, balloon? It could have been taken to record the festival or just due to a chance happening. Whilst out and about in Milton Keynes once, I happened to come across a Virgin balloon getting ready for take off and snapped a few frames as it was, for me, an unusual sight. It could have been taken as it is an amusing metaphor; Gaddafi was always said to be full of hot air and rhetoric, his ego larger than life etc etc.But that is my interpretation. His die hard supporters may look at this image and feel sorrow and anger, as we are always being told, photographs are polysemic after all.

The second is possibly a little harder to read. I’d guess that it was from a family album due to the discoloured corners that would have come from sticking it in. Therefore assume it was either family, close friend or possibly both. I can tell they are both men; a soldier due to the uniform but without knowing the precise details not the country, and a priest. The priest’s outfit pins the location to Mediterranean/European but then I’d have to give up.

The background story behind the capture of the first does not necessarily change how you first perceived the image, at the end of the day it’s a well taken, sharp image of a balloon that documented a day out and a chance encounter. What makes it more interesting today is the events that unfolded in Libya then, and continue to unfold today due to the power vacuum. But this post isn’t going to be about politics…It was originally a document of a day out, and as Jose said he “didn’t think of it as any more than something purely anecdotal, a good dinner table conversation starter.” It then became a teaching document as well as a document of a set time in history. I’d love to know what they did with it after!

The family snap shot becomes more interesting due to the history of the man, not the history of the image. Knowing that he had to escape and hide to avoid execution (without which Jose would not exist) that he hid in what sounds like horrendously scary conditions (if word of mouth stories are true and not subject to a little embellishment) adds a poignancy to the photograph. You feel more emotionally invested in it, but again it does not make it less or more of a document because of better understanding.

Reading all the responses and following the links also gave greater insight into certain areas but before I reference the links I want to comment upon some of the replies:

Amano on 27 August 2011 at 2:18 pm wrote:
One of the more interesting books on Photography that I have read is Photography: a very brief introduction by Steve Edwards… he states that the photograph can never really be separated from being both a document and a work of art. With an individual photograph, the extent to which it may be art or document can be determined and certainly many images lean to one side or the other.

Interesting stance as the debate of ‘is it art’ rages on…I don’t want to get into that prickly topic now but to a certain extent, yes, I think most things are art.

anned on 27 August 2011 at 2:19 pm wrote
I think the story supplied by Jose is what makes this photograph a document … Without the date, the place, the personal knowledge it would be very much less reliable as a document.

This I disagree with, the anecdote supplies context and a narrative but without it is still, by definition, a document. The question, if we are nit-picking was is it or when does it become a document. We aren’t being asked to question the reliability.

urszula jakubowicz 11 October 2014 at 9:30 am wrote
I believe that every photograph is a document, its importance however can change with time.

This I completely agree with time and hindsight can alter importance, meaning and how it is read by the audience.

Jim D N Smith 29 July 2013 at 7:02 pm wrote
Is the photograph authentic, and does this matter?

A case in point then would be the famous Valley Of The Shadow Of Death made by Roger Fenton in 1855, which is considered to be one of the oldest known photographs of warfare. It may well also be one of the oldest known examples of a staged photograph, with the path with cannonballs to make the photograph have more impact. I guess that one way or another it is a documentary photograph, although the interpretation might be more difficult depending on whether or not the viewer is concerned about the authenticity of the image.

This one I thought could be tricky, but came to the conclusion that although the authenticity might change the meaning and how it is viewed, the photograph would still be a document, even if nothing more than to document: the skill of the manipulation, the intent of the manipulation and the technology available at the time to manipulate the image –  be it digital manipulation or as mentioned in an earlier post the movement of dead American Civil War soldiers by Alexander Gardner.It is a document of the conflict but not an authentic representation.

PDog1917 November 2013 at 5:24 pm wrote
 My first point would be that in order to be a document the photograph needs to be of a ‘real’ event, so regarding this photograph (as Rob stated) “If nothing else it also documents that [Jose’s Grandfather] stood in front of a large wall on a sunny day.” That said, I do not question that a fictional novel is a document.

I think I know where PDog is coming from when he means a “real” event but even a staged event photograph is a real event, because something happened. it becomes a document that someone went to the effort to fabricate or re-enact and record that moment of ‘theatre’ or whatever it was. Ha, and he agrees that a fictional novel is still a document.High 5!

Ed Lerpiniere 21 September 2015 at 3:17 pm wrote
So, if any photographic image made is a document and a record, what about the images we make accidentally, or are of poor quality, badly lit, under or over exposed, heads missing etc.? From time to time we all shoot maybe one or two frames (or in my case many more) that are of feet, sky or nonsense, and many more that have other defects which make them unusable. They, by the dictionary definitions, are both documents and records, but are they useful? If one was to attach comments of pertinent observations about why they are as they are, they could be useful as learning points, without them they wouldn’t even elicit a grimace, they’d just be overlooked by all and sundry and possibly have some wondering glances passed.

Exactly that! They are documents to the fact we did something wrong, either pressed the button by mistake or used the wrong settings, no-one else may give them a second glance but they are still a document to your actions in that time and place.

mattjamesphotos 31 May 2014 at 7:28 pm wrote
I believe context, content, time and audience make a document.Although we may not all understand an image and its contents this does not make it any less of a document than a fully explained image.

A Selfie taken of a teenager posted on facebook or Twitter showing what she is wearing to go out on a Saturday night becomes a document straight away, it is documenting these facts but is of a little interest to anybody outside her circle of friends, this does not stop it becoming a document. With time this will become more of a document to her as it will remind her what she looked like, what she was wearing and stir memories of a particular night or time in her life. With more time this document may even be of interest to others as it is showing how people acted socially at a particular period in time. We do not need a narrative or a back-story of who and why this simply documents a period in time. Like the image of Jose Navarro’s grandfather, this is still a document without the narrative, but like the Selfie this image has much more meaning to him and his family and others when explained.

I agree with everything written here apart from the opening line that content, time and audience are needed to make a document. To be boring and parrot too many people, a  popular definition of what a document is:

‘A piece of written, printed or electronic matter that provides information or evidence or that serves as an official record.’


*update* I am now reading, dipping into and out of, Basics Creative Photography: Context and Narrative by Maria Short and have found some useful quotations with regards to this topic where she describes photographs as capturing ‘documented moments.’ (Short, M. 2011, p.9.)

Further responses to the links within the blog are on the next post



Maria Short, 2011. Basics Creative Photography 02: Context and Narrative. 0 Edition. AVA Publishing.

What makes a document? -Realism

Highlighters. Highlighters – How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

Gotta love a bit of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, almost as much asI love my highlighters. Do you think she would mind me appropriating her poem to describe my love of stationery? Or do you think, like some photographers, she would feel that her creation was not being put to a suitable purpose? When I nicked it for fun – to demonstrate my need for colourful writing implements – to talk about one of my modes for learning (I do enjoy a bit of kinesthetic “touchy-feely” learning. Seriously, I do find, despite using PDFs and reading PDFs, there is nothing better than to sit, pen in hand, frantically scribbling over bits of paper in front of me. When I get round to starting my physical learning log, hopefully next week, as I already have a pile of papers to insert, this will become more apparent) I wasn’t linking it to appropriation and usage, or Barthes but that’s the problem with immersing yourself into study mode. Everything links to photography! The other problem is branching off research…so I wrote “writing implement” and wondered “is there a better word for pen than that”…hmmm everything comes up with alternative words like trapped or sty so writing implement remained…the next thought was “where does the word ‘pen’ come from?” Easier to find and obvious really, original pens were invariably quills made from feathers, the word feather in Latin is Penna…so we learn everyday and not always solely that which we set out to learn!

But I have now been here for over half an hour and still not entered a post about what I am supposed to be doing..kicks self..Realism…

In the previous post concerning the history of documentary the emphasis was on how the images were used to capture historic moments, real places, real people, real events. The images placed in front of people were believable and believed. There appears to have been more trust placed in photography and its ability to accurately record a scene in front of the photographer. No-one then wondered if Andrew Gardner, renowned American Civil War photographer, had moved dead bodies into different positions, even going so far as taking them to different locations, adding props so he could record more powerful scenes. I liked the term coined by one of the commentators on this article; as Photoshop hadn’t been invented yet Gardner was in the habit of “realityshopping.”

Yet photography was, and is, used as a “documenting process” with the French Missions Héliographiques commissioned by the government to record their historic monuments, proffering an air of legitimacy to the art form:

Photography itself was the technical analogue to the absolute belief in the legitimacy of appearances, a belief whose philosophical expression was, of course, positivism and whose artistic expression was realism and naturalism. (Solomon-Godeau,1994 p.155)

And onto the exercise which is to read the first three sections (pp 1-8) of the essay “Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism” by Kenneth L Walton and to write a reflective commentary in my learning log outlining my views on his ideas of photographic transparency… I have not read him before and have no inkling what this essay is about so diving in with fresh eyes and an open mind… see you in a while…


Well…that’s several hours of my morning gone! I have lots of thoughts opinions and side notes about this essay which can’t possibly be condensed into 200 words so what I shall do is waffle on about initial thoughts, and side research, then write a summary. I could probably do it in one word but that isn’t the aim of the game or possibly polite!

To begin, I like the way the essay opens up with quotes from opposing points of view. The first from André Bazin, a French critic, film theorist and social activist, who argues “The photographic image is the object itself,” and the other from Edward Steichen who stated that “Every photograph is a fake from start to finish.” However, that’s where I found myself feeling a bit dubious about the essay and as suspected he was taking Bazin’s quote literally. Or seemed to be arguing from that stance. Also Steichen, during World War I, had helped establish the first U.S. aerial reconnaissance operation and therefore knew the importance of accurate “real” images. Note the importance here of selective quotations to back up your argument or thesis as Bazin has also said about photographs that they are “a kind of decal or transfer” and “it is its tracings” which implies he recognises that they aren’t the object itself more of a copied image.

I’ll then jump to the final paragraph where Walton states “we have uncovered a major source of the confusion” within academic writings being the “failure to distinguish ….between a viewer’s really seeing something through a photograph and his fictionally seeing something directly.

My confusion seems to stem from all the flip flopping of the argument that Walton himself had. He tied himself in knots on the subject of Bazin; his language, I would go so far as to say was in places petty, simplistic and insulting, or is he merely using hyperbole to get his point across?

In the opening paragraph Walton tells us that Bazin and others consider photographs to be “extraordinarily realistic” and proceeds to rubbish his views from then on; one minute stating “perhaps we shouldn’t take his [Bazin’s] words [The photographic image is the object itself] literally” (another seriously dude? moment) then “there is no readily apparent non-literal reading of them” and that Bazin assumes ‘reality’ due to the mechanical process of capturing the image as opposed to “handmade” images. (down Walter Benjamin) Walton then states “That photography is a supremely realistic medium may be the common sense view,” citing Steichen to back him up that “it is by no means universal” casting doubt on this idea. However, reading on, Walton states “I shall argue that…it deserves to be called a supremely realistic medium.” Hang on I also just read him saying “My claim is we see quite literally, our dead relatives when we look at photographs.” Sorry, what? Or is he saying that Bazin was right just his reasoning was wrong? Or because Walton wasted a good bit of ink explaining what he meant by see we understand that he doesn’t mean his Grandfather is actually 8×6 whereas Bazin obviously meant that a lump of granite in California is that small…sorry being just as hypercritical as Walton.

I did find I agreed with many of the points he made to argue the case of public acceptance of images as factual, honest representations: the use of forensic photographs at trial, replays of sports events (think how useful goal mouth replays are now and racing photo-finishes) that certain images are regarded as invasion of privacy…if we argue photographs do not represent realism then we could argue that they are then not invading privacy.

Written in 1984 the essay touches upon photo-realistic paintings v photographs but skills appear to have moved on since then as can be seen here. This is mentioned as to separate why photographs are considered real and paintings aren’t, although both are representations and none are the thing itself (down Magritte). It is a slippery path to be on as you then get into the semantics of  them being interpretations by the photographer/artist and therefore open to the baggage each brings to the table. I did agree with his remarks that a photograph is always a photograph of something that actually exists despite it being disguised or playing a role, whereas a painting could be total fantasy eg his example of unicorns.

Then I fell about laughing at some of the examples of realism he gave; immediately after commenting on claims that the photographs of Abraham Lincoln are more realistic than paintings of him, is where he state that photography is special and deserves the label of being a “supremely realistic medium.”  Sorry what? I thought everyone knew about the stitching together of John Calhoun’s body and Lincoln’s head? Note the importance of choosing examples that  unequivocally support your argument.

There is a lot of repetition on the “special nature” of photography. I don’t see it as special just different. There is also a lot of emphasis on the interpretation of the word “see” as opposed to “perceive” oh, how easy it is to spend hours debating the meaning of a word. If I show someone a photograph and state “that’s my garden” I am sure they realise that I don’t mean it literally IS my garden, but rather a representation on paper or more likely on my phone, that we all understand  to be a perception of my garden.

Finally, five pages in we get to read about transparency, the main title of the essay. Walton argues that photographs are transparent, they enable us to have a perception of the world (Blink and you miss it) that seeing is a way to find out about the world and we see through photographs. How then can’t we see through paintings? If we look at a representation or whatever you want to call a photo and realise that it is just a snap shot in time and derive other information about it then why not the same of a painting. He chooses Henry the VIII as an example, saying we only see a representation of him and that a painting is fictional. But then he isn’t as fussy in his definition of fictional – being invented, make-believe or imaginary. If a true painting (and I’m not going down the route of constructed, politically biased paintings) Henry VIII it isn’t any of those. Although he might have argued that the painting of Anne of Cleeves was! For an image to be transparent, to be able to see the world through it you need to first understand the world it is partially describing.

Having read a lot about his Aunty Mabel she was probably grimacing because she’d just read his essay and had to summarise her view in 200 words! But I guess that is now what I need to do…

‘Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism’ by Kenneth L Walton

On reading the title I assumed that Transparent Pictures meant seeing the truth of and behind the images taken rather than seeing the world through them, but I was incorrect it was more conceptual. I don’t feel that on reaching the end of the sections I had to read Walton had ever reached any real conclusion of his own with regards to realism, as he does in places seem to argue against his own points. At the end of page 8 he acknowledges that there are differing points of view; confusion lies within those views due to a total failure to distinguish between accepting a photograph that can help you perceive the existence of an object/person and, through that an idea of the world beyond, and fictionally seeing something directly. This can be explained a little more clearly if you listen to an interview here which I found through another blog where Walton expands that if you see a photograph of Judy Garland dressed as Dorothy you see a photograph of Judy Garland but a picture of Dorothy.

His tone when discussing Bazin was disconcerting and examples and quotes did not necessarily help to prove many of the points he was trying to make, nor did his inconsistency when using the word ‘literally.’ I found it difficult to understand in places, not due to any technical jargon or confusing concepts just that he seemed to jump about a bit with his ideas.

Whilst I agree with a few of his observations on how and why the realism or accepted realism of images can be maintained, it all seemed to fall apart in places, maybe that’s because I felt aggravated by the points made above. To answer the exercise question of what do I think about photographic transparency I have to admit that I agree with his statement of seeing the world through photographs and that cameras and photography have opened up a new way of seeing. Although a person’s experiences, background and preexisting knowledge of the world will impact on that transparency. I don’t think it is special just different.

Some things to note for myself and future essay writing: the importance of good quotes, the importance of not appearing to undermine your own argument and to be coherent with points being made.


Copyright (2016) André Bazin – cinema and media studies – Oxford bibliographies – obo. Available at: http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199791286/obo-9780199791286-0006.xml (Accessed: 16 October 2016).

Heppenheimer, T.A. (2006) Steichen’s navy. Available at: http://www.airspacemag.com/military-aviation/steichens-navy-11442318/?no-ist (Accessed: 16 October 2016).

Solomon-Godeau Salzmann – documents (2015) Available at: http://docslide.us/documents/solomon-godeau-salzmann.html (Accessed: 16 October 2016).

The bizarre practice of staging civil war photographs (2014) Available at: http://knowledgenuts.com/2014/11/24/the-bizarre-practice-of-staging-civil-war-photographs/ (Accessed: 16 October 2016).