Founded in 1937, by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, writer Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, the Mass Observation organisation would work with volunteers and full-time observers on a range of social research projects, including East end Anti-Semitism and the West Fulham by-election 1938. Based in a Bolton house they called Worktown and Madge’s home in Blackheath, London, Harrison and Madge favoured different methods when it came to collecting data. Harrison preferred a top-down approach, where behaviour of a group or class of people would be observed, whereas Madge used a top down approach, asking individuals for responses and using surveys to provide qualitative data. After some initial hesitation, the government’s Ministry of Information would work with Mass Observation during WW2 to report on public morale and the effects of the war. Madge would leave the group in 1940, citing the government commissions as one of his reasons, believing that it was a slippery slope from being a majority government-funded organisation, to becoming a spying organ of the state, facilitating government manipulation of public opinion. After the war, many of the Mass Observation workers would go on to join the newly established Government Social Survey, and this coupled with lack of funding saw the organisation eventually merge into a market research company. Among sociologists and anthropologists, Mass Observation is still valued for its pioneering work in the field of participant observation.
For this section in the coursework we are asked to explore Humphrey Spender’s work on ‘Worktown’ and reflect on the style and themes used, paying particular attention to the ethics and purpose of the project. A link to an article ’90 and Counting’, published in BJP magazine is given to provide background information to the photographer and the project.
Spender was the Mass-Observation’s main photographer although the survey also included written material, with ‘eavesdroppers’ listening to conversations and making notes. The intention was to record the everyday life and customs of the British public accurately and unobtrusively. Spender wanted to be unobserved, capture natural reactions and leave behind any pre-conceived ideas that he may have had. Ethically, they had the best intentions yet the House of Commons referred to them as ‘spies and snoopers’ Barron, J. (2000)
An article in the Guardian quotes Spender as saying:
We were called spies, pryers, mass-eavesdroppers, nosey parkers, peeping-toms, lopers, snoopers, envelope-steamers, keyhole artists, sex maniacs, sissies and society playboys.
Next up…read ‘In the American East’ by Richard Bolton (in Bolton, 1992, pp.262–83) and write a 200-word reflective commentary on its relevance to documentary practice.
Then look at the work of Charlotte Oestervang in Appalachia (Foto8, V6N1, June 2006, pp.58–9)
To understand the significance of the essay you have to be familiar with the work of Richard Avedon and in this particular instance his body of work In the American West.
Immediately below is a selection of his portraiture.
I found a good article about his work here and the link to In The American West is here. To appreciate his style this quote is quite handy:
I’ve worked out of a series of no’s…No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions, no to the seduction of poses or narrative. And all these no’s force me to the ‘yes.’ I have a white background. I have the person I’m interested in and the thing that happens between us.
I often asked myself why he included the black frame of the edge of the negative, apparently the answer is to make it clear ‘that the only crop had been in his mind’s eye’. As you can see his style of portrait photography did not alter.
The next exercise has me looking at August Sander, a photographer that I have heard of, and looking more closely at some work by Zed Nelson (new) and Irving Penn (known) and comparing the bodies of work. Is there any connection?
Zed Nelson – Disappearing Britain
To find out if there is a connection I need to dig into Zed Nelson first…from his website:
Having gained recognition and major awards as a documentary photographer working in some of the most troubled areas of the world, Nelson has increasingly turned his focus on Western society, adopting an increasingly conceptual approach to reflect on contemporary social issues.
Love Me … reflects on the cultural and commercial forces that drive a global obsession with youth and beauty. The project explores how a new form of globalization is taking place, where an increasingly narrow Western beauty ideal is being exported around the world like a crude universal brand. The project spans five years, and involved photography in 18 countries across five continents. Love Me was recently nominated for the 2011 Deutsche Borse Photography Prize, short-listed for the Leica European Publishers Award for Photography, and received First Prize in the 2010 Pictures of the Year International awards.
Previous awards include the Visa d’Or, France; First Prize in World Press Photo Competition; and the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award, USA.
Nelson’s work has been exhibited at Tate Britain, the ICA and the National Portrait Gallery, and is in the permanent collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Nelson has had solo shows in London, Stockholm and New York.
The images we had to review were from his body of work called Disappearing Britain, which fits in neatly with the ideals of Meadows, who also wanted to capture the vanishing ‘English.’ Nelson also travelled around the country, photographing people from different walks of life, with a variety of occupations and interests. Also some of the ‘style’ is the same, B&W images, people having full length portraits taken, staring directly into the camera, it was voluntary…as people came off shift etc they were invited to pose in make shift studios where they worked and lived. However, they were isolated from their ‘backgrounds’ but all had props to enable the audience to understand their profession or interest.
Within this work Nelson wanted – through his portraits of specific people – to archive the losses that Great Britain went/is going through, due to privatisation – causing pit closures, reduced fish stocks, hunting bans, cut-backs in shipbuilding and other ‘fading traditions’.
These stories are not just about fading traditions, but also a compass to political, environmental and moral change.
Nelson categorised his subjects by profession/interest and there was no age or gender divide, he also captioned each image with the name of the subject and gave a little background information, making this a more personalised, less anonymous project. Due to this more personal approach the audience tends to feel the loss slightly more than the nostalgia, or that could be because I lived through the miners strike etc etc etc…
Irving Penn – Small Trades
A brief intro for those who have never heard of Irving Penn:
Irving Penn was one of the most respected photographers of the 20th century. In a career that began at the premiere fashion magazine Vogue in 1943 and spans more than six decades, he created innovative fashion, still life, and portrait studies. His photographs are defined by the elegant simplicity and meticulous rigor that became the trademarks of his style.
…so much research…time consuming, but necessary and interesting. I had never heard of Daniel Meadows so it wasn’t a quick refresher or a light bulb moment where I went, ‘Oh I think I’ve seen his work!’ I am pretty sure this is all new to me so off I toddle to Google…gotta love the internet…In his own words:
Once upon a time…I lived in a double-decker bus, reg. JRR 404, better known as the Free Photographic Omnibus. She was my home, my travelling darkroom and gallery. For fourteen months in 1973 and ’74, we travelled about making a national portrait of the English. We covered 10,000 miles shooting pictures and giving them away. In January 1975 we parted company. But that wasn’t the end of the journey…
…I’m still working.
In those 14 months of travel he offered free portrait sessions in 22 different towns, photographed 958 people, the majority of whom remained anonymous, collecting their free portraits the following day.
Daniel’s time on the bus marked an important turning point for him; he came back with not just the ‘national portrait of the English’ he had aimed for, but an entirely new perspective on human nature.
Listen to Daniel Meadows talk about his work then read the essay ‘The photographer as Recorder’ by Guy Lane.
When writing stories at school we are told you should have a beginning, a middle and an end. As you progress through the years this becomes a little more sophisticated; you need to take into consideration the plot, the characters, the setting, the complication, the climax and the resolution. The story is more interesting if the reader has to infer meaning, that you use metaphors, symbolism, strong emotive language and vivid imagery.
Photo-stories work on exactly the same principle. If photographs contain the above they can work as stand-alone images or when edited properly, put into a specific order, interconnected events can tell a complete story. Re-arranging the order of the images can impact upon and even alter the story being told.
Exercise – Information and expression
Explore the denotative and connotative aspects of the documentary work of Sebastião Salgado by reading the essay written by Mraz: Sebastião Salgado: Ways of Seeing Latin America’ (2002).
Research the work referred to within the essay and evidence this research in your learning log.
Before launching into the essay I had a scout around online Googling dear old Sebastião. I was first introduced to him several years ago through his body of work about Kuwait which was first published in 1991. Now 100 of these images have been reproduced, 25 years later, in Kuwait: A Desert on Fire. There are some truly stunning images within this limited edition book, for which he deservedly won the Oskar Barnack Award, recognising outstanding photography on the relationship between man and the environment. To be honest apart from this and GenesisI don’t really know much about his other bodies of work, although I do recognise some of his images when they come up from other studies I have completed. Genesis has been described as:
Mastering the monochrome with an extreme deftness to rival the virtuoso Ansel Adams, Salgado brings black-and-white photography to a new dimension; the tonal variations in his works, the contrasts of light and dark, recall the works of Old Masters such as Rembrandt and Georges de La Tour.
Whilst I really liked the compositions and the subjects taken – I went to the exhibition and I bought the book – I can’t agree with the above. I think there was nothing deft about his post-processing and someone should have told him to walk away from the RAW sliders…I can’t seem to find many reviews that agree with me…but thankfully I did which makes me feel less insecure about the review I did back in 2013! I agree with the comments made by most of the aesthetic beauty of the images, and producing what others expect to see, yeps, sometimes there is nothing wrong with a picture that just is good to look at… but I still can’t get over the post-processing…
Sebastião Salgado: Ways of Seeing Latin America – John Mraz
To understand the context of the images Salgado took of the Latin Americans – Other Americas (1986), Terra (1997) and Migrations (2000) you probably need to know that he was born in Brazil, but left in 1969 due to his opposition to the military dictatorship and subsequent involvement in the activist movement. This meant when he eventually returned, he was capturing images that resonated with him on a very personal/intimate level as well as being an outsider.
Despite being hailed as a ‘legend of photo-journalism’ Salgado attracts his critics, me included from time to time, in the way he presents his work, his preference for grainy images, and how he tends to pander to his audience. With the Other Americas Mraz accused him of giving ‘his consumers in Europe and the USA what they expect and want…the exotic other.’
Other Americas was Salgado’s first book and as with a lot of his work it has mixed reviews, not that I’d expect his publisher to say anything other than it was brilliant (although it was also deemed award-winning) and Mraz is highly critical of it throughout his essay.
The overall tone is described as one of overwhelming ‘sadness, misery, doom and mystery’ and on looking at this video of his book I can understand why. The choice of music by the YouTube subscriber didn’t help!
What I couldn’t get over again was some of the post-processing! How much was that sky darkened? Look at the halo around those kids? It creates an ominous atmosphere and a sense of foreboding.
It would appear that Salgado opted to make his images darker to convey a dour, depressing outlook. Mraz wonders if this portrayal of an alienated rural community was influenced by Frank’s alternative representation of the USA in The Americans.
Mraz’s other criticisms of the book are Salgado’s choice to: photograph only rural areas, the repeated signifiers, his style of narrative form and lack of accompanying text that did not allow for any other interpretation other than to believe this was a ‘natural’ way of life for Latin Americans. There was no hint of the ‘historical forces, such as dependent capitalism, imperialism and neo-liberalism’ which was making life so difficult. Why were all the subjects so miserable, even on supposedly joyous occasions such as a wedding, or celebrations on The Day of the Dead?
… photographs are by nature ambiguous and polysemic texts; their narrative capacity is weak and their meaning is often determined by the immediate context created for their publication: the synthesis of text, titles and […] the accumulated significance of the images themselves…
What can you read into this? Why is the Bride in the front seat on her own looking so downcast? Are they on their way to the ceremony or away from the ceremony? Does she feel forced into the marriage, or maybe the groom has failed to show? Who is the woman? A friend or a relation? Have they had a disagreement? Is this why she too looks unhappy? Maybe she is against the marriage? There are so many connotations. The signifiers we can see are: a desert, derelict buildings, more ominous skies, two segregated silhouettes in the background… the future definitely does not look rosy…
On watching this video several times I can see Mraz’s point, the signifiers all point to death, oppression and alienation from each other. I could see: darkness, religious icons staring out, train tracks, crosses, poverty, funerals, dead bodies, cemeteries, fog, unsmiling faces, bones, workers in fields bending over, symbolism of the cross, sharp pointed plants, lots of windows/doors/frames separating people.
Mraz argues that as a fine art photo-journalist Salgado made the fatal mistake of using symbols within the images that failed to ‘adequately present the particularity ‘ of the situation. The audience only picks up on the misery and despair because the cumulative effect of the photo-essay’s sombre content gives us ‘no other interpretive framework.’
Read Chapters 4 (Narrative) and 5 (signs and Symbols) in Short, M. (2011) Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne:AVA Publishing.
Lots of reading and research… sat here with a pile of books and dived into:
Susan Sontag: On Photography
John Berger & Jean Mohr: Another Way of Telling
Maria Short: Context and Narrative
Liz Wells: Photography – A Critical Introduction
I’ll begin with Maria Short but will slip in references to the others as I go along.
The aim was to read chapters 4&5, but as with the last directive I found it just as important to have read the previous chapter as well, not just cover what we ‘have’ to look at…Basic pointers… There is no point in having signs and symbols without having an audience. There is no point in having an audience if they cannot ‘read’ the images you are producing. There must be an intention ‘behind photographic communication’ and equally as important, you must appreciate the audience and ‘the context in which it will be viewed.’
Short continues by mentioning the process of picture making and how the photographer’s connection to the subject can influence the audience responses and reactions. Once again emphasising how important it can be to have intimate knowledge about your chosen subject, or at least a passion about it. She references Don McCullin, Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland.
Don McCullin from an interview he gave for The Guardian in May 2010; he realised he changed from being a ‘gung-ho’ war photographer, into someone who cared more about what he was capturing than securing approval from his peers or employers and climbing the career ladder, when he was covering the Biafran War in 1969. She writes: it occurred to him that his purpose should be to highlight the unacceptable. (p70)
Of Berenice Abbott’s love of New York after a decade in Paris, McCausland wrote: Only from passion and fantastic passion does any sense of reality in art, or life, come. (p73)
Moving swiftly on to Chapter 4: Narrative: the aim of narrative techniques is to ‘provide meaning, coherence…a sense of rhythm [they are] a kind of visual punctuation,’ (p96-113)
There are many ways that a photographer can form a narrative:
Linear story telling – example Susan Dirges: Full Circle
Aesthetic continuity – example Jill Cole: Birds
A sequential story – example Jose Navarro: Trashumantes
Visual Punctuation – Example Barbara Taylor: Beds
In Another Way of Telling Mohr includes a delightfully simple set of images of a blind girl laughing outside his window, revealing her relationship with him and the world through sound and the animal noises he was imitating.
Difficulty may arise in trying to tell a narrative from within a single image. In this instance the narrative ‘can be drawn from all the components of the picture’ and this is why it is even more important to make sure that you are aware of all the narrative devises and their ‘implications…the aim of the narrative is to provide or anchor meaning and coherence.’
‘Absolute absorption’ helps a photographer spot all the elements coming together, they will ‘notice the symbolic, allegorical or metaphorical … [to] convey something that they have seen or intend.’
The quote from Mike Weaver, ‘The Picture as Photograph’, The Art of Photography, leads us nicely into Chapter 5.
The relation between fact and symbol, expression and idea…is the result of an artist’s negotiation with the actual world according to certain principles.
Chapter 5 : Signs and symbols.We see them everywhere; some we recognise instantly, some we know have meaning but we have not yet learnt them: red=hot, blue=cold…Morse Code I’d have to learn beyond … – – – …
The study of these signs and symbols is called semiotics and many people have had a go at being academic about it…
Ferdinand de Saussure – a Swiss linguist – and Charles Sanders Peirce (yes my head doesn’t like the way he spells that either) an American philosopher and Roland Barthes- a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic and semiotician, – came up with the following: (you know you are in trouble when you have to add words to the dictionary…)
Signifier – the form that the signs take
Signified – the concept it represents
Representamen – the form
Interpretant – the sense made of the sign
An object – to which the sign refers
Studium – the general enthusiasm/interest in the photograph
Punctum – the point of the image, that which arrests attention
Other terminologies are:
Symbol – used to represent something else – the signifier does not resemble the signified
Icon – resembling or imitating the signifier – e.g. a cartoon, scale mode, metaphor
Indexical signifier – linked to the signified – e.g. smoke means fire, footprints – a trace of a physical being
Signs and symbols within a photograph may be a mix of staged imagery, previous research into an area, or pure good luck and skill at editing images. Practical techniques such as shallow depth of field, motion blur and lighting can also provide subtle nuances.
Robert Frank’s The Americans is often referred to when exploring symbolic meaning.
In going through Photography – a Critical Introduction (Wells 1997) I found the section on the symbolism used in the United Colours of Benetton’s advertising campaign really interesting, but a more in-depth response shall have to wait.
Barthes states in The Death of the Author (1967), that the understanding and interpretation of an image is personal/subjective, therefore any intentional ‘meaning’ by the creator is no more or less important than a ‘meaning’ read by the audience.
Research The Americans, by Robert Frank, find five images within this body of work where symbols are used. Explain what they are and how they function in the images. Then read the introduction to the book by Jack Kerouac. Find symbolic references that you can also identify in Robert Frank’s photographs, these do not have to be the same images used previously.
I ducked and dived and found these videos that show his book and reveal some insights surrounding this iconic body of work.
This interview with Frank in The Guardian gives more information with regards to his background and how the book came about. The Americans was unusual in that it was visualised as a book from the outset and is not just a compilation of several bodies of work.
To sum it up: Frank created a book that was raw, captured a feel, an emotion, an essence, an era. He ripped up the compositional rule book and used a ‘snapshot aesthetic’ to create informal, ambiguous images that were often described as visual poetry; they were more of an artistic, emotional expression than a single message.
When published in 1958 people still had the ideal in their minds with regards to the ‘American Dream,’ but, as an outsider looking in, Frank showed them a different viewpoint, revealing how the country and its people were still trapped. Trapped by segregation, segregation of race, class and economy.
Publications were readily promoting glossy advertisements and holding up Hollywood icons as role models (not much has changed!) but Frank wanted to show what was beneath the mask, he portrayed everyday people and everyday situations. Initially his book was not well received. Not only because of the subject matter, but also in the way he chose to present his narrative; the informality of the shots, grain, the off-kilter framing and unusual subject matter meant that it did not receive rave reviews.
He had a knack for photographing what seemed to be the ordinary, the trivial, but the truths behind them, what lay beneath the mask and the profound perceptions you could make when reading the symbolism made for a wonderful historical, photographic legacy.
Below are the five images that I have chosen to look at in terms of their symbolism and my interpretation of their meaning.
The signifiers –
1. A blurred starlet
2. The evening gown and jewellery
3. Her disinterested gaze
4.She is central to the frame but walking out of it
5. The crowd of fans behind some smiling – not all looking at the actress
6. The woman with her hand to her face behind
7. The everyday dress of the crowd – e.g. headscarves
8. The Squires sign behind
The signified –
1. The starlet represents our fascination, then and now, of celebrity . That she is blurred illustrates that this way of life is an illusion, a mask, as well as Frank’s experimentation in ways to present his narrative.
2. The evening gown and jewellery underscore the divide between the rich and poor
3. Her disinterested gaze could show the lack of communication and unwillingness of the American people to try to alter the balance of this way of life.
4. That she is walking out of the frame represents how easy it was to ignore the harsh realities of life.
5. The smiles reveal the rush people get when meeting their heroes, the fact that not all are looking at her could signify the 15 minutes of fame culture and they are preparing for the next thing to come along.
6. The woman tentatively chewing her nails represents anonymity, how for the majority of us this is life, there is nothing more than this.
7. The everyday dress further illustrates the social and economic divide of the nation
8. The advertising sign portrays the advancement of consumerism
Charleston, South Carolina
The signifiers –
1. A street scene
2. A blurred background
3. A white baby
4. A black woman holding the baby
5. She is leaning against the wall
6. Neither subject are looking at the camera nor at each other
7. The style of blouse could be a uniform
The signified –
1.This is an everyday event
2. That the relationship between these two people are what is of import to the image
3. & 4. The interracial relationship reveals the class divide/racism that persisted in The South, that more often than not, black women were ‘the hired help.’
5. Leaning against the wall could represent the weary resignation of this situation
6. Illustrates how they are accepting of being together but are not really part of each others world.
7. Uniforms show how people accept their position in life and blindly follow instructions/rules without question
I chose this image in particular as it struck a chord having looked at the United Colours of Benetton section as mentioned earlier. The symbolism of this image upset many people due to the connotations of black slavery rather than the hoped for interpretation of racial acceptance. Frank’s version has been described as an American apartheid “Madonna and Child.”
Elevator – Miami Beach 1955
The signifiers –
2. An elevator
3. Elevator operator in a uniform
4. Blank expression – far off gaze
5. Fur stole
6. Off-kilter framing
The signified –
1. Realities of life
4.Isolation even if surrounded by others – dreaming of better things
5. The social and economic divide of the nation
6.The unfairness and occasional awkwardness of reality
The young girl was found many years later after coming across the image in an exhibition:
Robert Frank took about four photos of me without a flash in the elevator. I didn’t know he was taking them. And then when the elevator emptied of its ‘blurred demons,’he asked me to turn around and smile at the camera. And I flashed a smile, put my hands on my hips. I hammed it up for about eight or ten frames.
However, it was the moment she revealed her inner self that Frank captured and printed.
Drugstore, Detroit, 1955-56
The signifiers –
1. Covered, blurred cake in the foreground
2. Lots of advertising for Orange Whip
3. Prints or adverts on the walls
4. Behind the counter there is mess on the floor
5. Long marble lunch counter
6. Male only customers appear to be of one race
7. Men sat at the counter appear not to be conversing
8. The servers appear to be of African-American heritage
9. Wearing uniforms
10. Food consumption
The signified –
2. & 3. Consumerism and consumption
4. Real life isn’t always tidy
5. The divide in society
6. Inequality of women/racial divide
8. Sense of communities within community
9. Corporate identity, conformity, emphasises community within community
10. Rituals of food link us together
Drive-in movie, Detroit 1955
The signifiers –
2. Two men on the screen
The signified –
1. Fascination with Hollywood, celebrity, escape from reality – the American Dream.
2. Inequality of women, women not portrayed, men’s status elevated.
3. Consumerism, mass production, isolation – drive in’s replacing the intimacy of the cinema and the closeness of couples sitting next to each other. The reliance on motor vehicles.
Introduction by Jack Kerouac
Kerouac reels off a list of symbolism to be found within the remaining images which also summarise the American psyche:the jukebox, coffins, funerals, cemeteries, crosses, windows, the American flag, canes, old people, cowboys and cowboy hats, open roads, cars, gas stations, cafes, musicians/music, ethnicity, urinals, telephone poles and television. These are signs of advancement, life and death, communications and status. Kerouac reads the images like poetry as intended by the originator.
It could be that the signs and symbols were just ‘there’ and it was skillful editing that managed to pull the images together. As America moved out of the Depression era and away from WWII consumerism and mass production took over, it would have been difficult to avoid what now, in some respects, have become cliches. Yet Frank managed to capture images to convey a certain atmosphere. The Detroit Drugstore image reminded me of this Danny Lyon shot, and whilst very similar in subject and composition the signifiers are slightly different and illustrate a totally different mood.
The counter does not seem to be used as a divide rather it is used as a meeting place suggesting community, the eye contact is not hostile, women are seen to be equal despite being in the minority in this shot, there is social interaction, there is less signage creating a less claustrophobic atmosphere. The marble counter and accoutrements are similar demonstrating that wherever you went in American you could expect the same. Sadly, many places are losing their identity to commercialism, walk down any High Street in the UK and you will see the same chain stores offering the same goods. Even when you visit local attractions they all seem to buy their merchandise from the same manufacturer so that mementos are also generic!
Intentional or unintentional, signifiers will be captured within our images, or in scenes we might wish to capture. It is important to be aware of these visual clues and consider how they may alter or enhance the meaning of the narrative we are wishing to tell.
Graham Clarke: How do we read a photograph? From ‘The Photograph’ 1997
Clarke wrote that when we view a photograph we ‘engage in a series of complex readings which relate as much to the expectations and assumptions that we bring to the image as to the photographic subject itself’ and that the ‘photograph achieves meaning through what has been called a ‘photographic discourse [which] involves its own conventions and histories.’
He also reminds us that ‘in any image, however, the primary frame of reference remains the subject of the photograph’ even if this can cause problems. Clarke then discusses Roland Barthes’ distinctions between ‘the relative meaning of different elements within the photographic frame, distinguishing between what has been termed the denotative and the connotative.’
The meaning of these semiotic terms are:
denotative -the literal meaning and significance of any element in the image i.e. a gesture, expression, or an object. What we look at: a smile, a table, a street, a person – what an image SHOWS us.
connotative – the aspects of the elements of the scene -‘the imposition of second meaning on the photographic message proper’ … ‘its signs are gestures, attitudes, expressions, colours, and effects endowed with certain meanings by virtue of the practice of a certain society’. Or to put it another way visual clues or ‘codes’ that underline and reflect ‘signification within the culture.’- what an image TELLS us.
When reflecting on the work of Lewis Hine Clarke states that his images ‘suggest a whole series of complicating levels and meanings’ and not only do we see things that are actually there but we infer meaning from these ‘structures and terms of reference.’ So documentary photographs both show and tell us something.
To look at and analyse a photograph by Martin Shields, make a list of the denotations and connotations. Then compare my findings with those of other students.
Denotations – what I can see
The image was taken so that the tenement buildings stretch into the distance.
Knowing people from Glasgow and having visited them, this looks typical Glaswegian council housing stock that has fallen into disrepair.
There is only one lamp-post.
The pavements and open spaces/possibly once grassy areas also look as if they have seen better days.
Two young boys, in the foreground, walk away from the camera arms around each others shoulders. They are in the centre of the frame.
They are facing towards each other conversing.
The boys are wearing clean, rival football kits, (no coats) possibly Celtic and Rangers, who have a fierce rivalry. They both carry a ball each.
One boy has a number 10 on his shirt.
Hard to tell due to the quality of the image, but the skies look typical, grey and overcast as there are no deep contrasts or shadows.
Connotations – what I can infer
This is a poorer working class area and the two boys are from working class backgrounds.
Despite the obvious rivalry of the teams they support they are good friends, suggesting a close-knit community or stronger bond beyond friendship.
The cleanliness of the kit implies they are just setting out to play.
The separate footballs could imply they are going to play in different games and that there is some form of divide between them.
The number 10 could be his age.
No coats suggest a warm summer’s day.
The lack of lighting could suggest danger at night.
The fact they are in the centre of the frame suggests that they are important – children signify hope for the future?
The cloudy sky could suggest problems lie ahead – maybe the houses are to be torn down and the boys will lose their friendship if re-housed?
What other students thought…
Denotation – the photo shows us:
Two young friends from rival football teams Walking through a rundown area Possibly on their way back from playing a match They are in the very front of the image’s depth, with the path ahead stretching out in front of them
Connotation – the photo tells us:
That there are prospects for peace in a place divided by sectarian tension [my guess was Glasgow from the striped kit] That the journey to peace starts with this generation That the path ahead might be long and difficult
Denotations * Two young boys, about 11 years old * Friends, comrades, both on their way to play football (they are still very clean) * Walking through a poor, dilapidated area, I assume that they live here themselves, but the image doesn’t make that clear * The flats are empty and deserted, in decay.The boys are walking on the grass, next to a road. * It’s a cloudy summer day. Connotations * Even though you live in poverty, sports bring people together and build friendships * Together you are much stronger than alone * Together you can face decay and be able to put your mind on other things * Every child has the right and need to play, this is universal and makes the viewer connect with the boys, even if they are from a different socio-economical background
Denotation: Two boys with footballs. Smiling with friendship, this can be seen in their raised cheek bones. Rough waste ground. Boarded up derelict houses in the background. The boys have a football each, and support different teams, one stripes one a solid colour, this cannot be identified fully due to the black and white.
Connotation: The image looks like it is set in a run down area of Glasgow. The boys would appear to be a Celtic and a Rangers fans, this is muted and not as obvious as it would be in colour. The boys may have gone out alone as they are both carrying footballs but are going away as friends. Strong sectarian divide between the two football teams, Catholic and Protestant united by the younger generation. The road running along the edge of the frame in their direction of travel could denote that they have a long way to go yet, the road is long and never-ending. The rough ground they are on cold tell us that it is a long and bumpy path they have to travel. Their friendship and happiness, their willingness to unite could be their way out of the area they live. They are walking away from us as though to say we have a bond and a friendship
Denotations: They are both of about the same age: -/+ 10 yrs old. They are wearing different clean outfits – may be from opposing teams? They are on their way to a football match – they are too clean for coming from a match. They both carry a football but they are different. They are walking on rough ground. There are no trees or live plants visible. There is 1 street lamp. They are walking behind what may be blocks of social housing. The low wall they are walking next to is not new & is crumbling away. Some of the windows in the blocks of flats look boarded up. The photo was taken early this century. The photo is in B&W.
Connotations: If the photo is posed:
The children are not from the council houses. They look happy & there is no threat of violence. They are well-fed and well looked after & probably come from a loving environment. They are probably chatting about who will score more goals & what they will eat afterwards. There is a terrific bond between them. There is a dissonance between the surroundings & the boys’ outfits & demeanour. There will be a happy ending. The B&W nature of the photo suggests that the message it illustrates is to be taken seriously – as it appears in a newspaper but this is at odds with the boys’ friendship which is central to the photo. The football removes the boys from any but the working class/lower middle class environment – or a staged environment. If the photo is not posed:
The photographer treats the boys with respect. These boys are survivors – they will stick together & make the most of life. Their future is rosy although the overcast skies tell me otherwise. The very straight, concrete lines of the walls & the layout of the blocks of flats connote that their lives have been set & they will not cross them, they will remain in their working class environment. This is at odds with the second connotation in this set. The B&W & grainy nature of the image removes any creativity/joy & puts the content in the serious/difficult category of social reporting. Wider social & cultural questions are implied in the football & denote a link with the social housing aspect of the council flats. The boys are surrounded by social/economic/material deprivation. The rough area they are walking on is likely to trip them up figuratively. The contradictions in the image tell me that the photo was either staged for the newspaper article or that the children have been photoshopped in. It could also mean that my cultural compass is faulty!
On reviewing the comments made by other students there were some similarities and some differences. On the whole the similarities picked out the main points: the children being the central point of focus, the probable age of the children, the deprivation of the area, different football kits, friendship, possible divide/ problems ahead. Some considered that the image could have been staged; that did not cross my mind. In some instances there were some differences: I had not considered the analogy of sport bringing people together nor the child’s right to play. Nor did I consider that they were well fed and that their kits were in good condition. Despite a few variations this suggested we all have a very similar cultural upbringing and therefore arrived at similar interpretations.
I then needed to read the original newspaper article and consider if the text related to my initial deconstruction and if it changed my perception of the image.
The main article was concerning the fact Glasgow tenants had voted to sell off council housing, or rather allow a housing association to take control, refurbish ‘crumbling’ homes and build many new homes. From the tone of the story it would imply that tenants would not be being forced to move as it states that ‘existing tenants’ would not face a rent increase and could look forward to the ‘good-construction industry.’ Some people were for this move, believing in investment and speeding up regeneration, whilst the others against thought it would lead to higher rents and the end of social housing.
Has the text changed my deconstruction? Yes and no. I picked up on the poor housing in the background, and the area probably being in Glasgow – well-known for its deprived slum areas – but I thought the children were going to be the main subject. I read into the opposing shirts as a rivalry between children/their parents and that they represented a brighter future. This was a more literal reading of the photograph/story being about them. However, the article gives the image a more abstract interpretation; regenerating the area for the benefit of all, including the younger generation with the opposing views being adults from the political divide.
The caption under the image emphasises the human element that currently the boys have to play in a rundown area and deserve better.
Clarke wrote that using the subject as the primary frame of reference could be problematic and Barthes stated ‘the structure of a photograph is not an isolated structure; it is in communication with at least one other structure, namely the text – title, caption or article – accompanying every press photograph… These two structures are cooperative but, since their units are heterogeneous, necessarily remain separate from one another.’
Which goes to prove that sometimes the symbolism is more conceptual that we imagine and that more often than not we needs words to help us truly read an image.
The coursework also mentions photographer Gideon Mendel, who shoots in both B&W and colour, and was instrumental in raising funds and awareness surrounding the tremendous problem of AIDS in Africa. In December 2000 the Guardian Weekend published a special issue containing an extended 30 page article and photo essay dedicated to the problems facing Malawi.
An article written in 2002 makes for harrowing reading and it is sad to think that despite all the hard work being undertaken there is still an epidemic happening and much educating to be done. What I liked about this body of work is despite the emotional and traumatic subject matter Mendel also shows the lighter side (if there is one) of the population being educated on how to use condoms!
Moving swiftly on to the next exercise…looking at the work of Marcus Bleasdale. I need to read the interview in Eight magazine (V4N3, Dec 2005) and in particular look at his work in the Congo and his publication One Hundred Years of Darkness, 2002. I had issues with the rest of the instructions as the Guardian Magazine 16 January 2010 was nowhere to be found, and the link for the tear sheets of his work, on the agency VII, also came up blank…I’ve emailed the OCA who hopefully will amend the coursework pages or tell me what I am doing wrong! In the absence of those links I’ll just do my own thing 🙂
If you go to Marcus’ website and click on the ‘about’ page he is definitely keeping up the traditions of the concerned socially committed photographers’ ideals of wanting to influence the world, as it states:
MARCUS BLEASDALE IS A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHER WHO USES HIS WORK TO INFLUENCE POLICY MAKERS AROUND THE WORLD.
and a huge chunk of lazy copy paste…
Over the past fifteen years spent documenting some of the world’s most brutal wars Marcus has focused on campaigning against human rights abuses. He has been documenting these issues for Human Rights Watch and he is a contributing photographer for National Geographic Magazine.
Using his background in business and economics, he researches the sources of financing driving the conflicts, which usually leads to the mines, and the armed networks linked to them. Marcus covered the wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Somalia, Chad and Darfur, Kashmir and Georgia.
Since 2000 Marcus has worked extensively in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo documenting a war funded by the extraction of the minerals used in every day electronic products. Marcus has partnered with international advocacy groups Human Rights Watch and the Enough Project to engage US and European politicians and multinational companies to change government policy and working practices.
Over the past three years Marcus has been working in the Central African Republic documenting the conflict in the region. The work from Central African Republic won the Amnesty International Award for Media in 2014 and the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal from the Overseas Press Club of America in 2015.
Marcus has published three books “One Hundred Years of Darkness” (2002) documenting life along the Congo River after the overthrow of Mboutu”The Rape of a Nation” (2009) documenting the exploitation of natural resources in Eastern Congo and most recently “The Unravelling” (2015) documenting the brutal conflict in the Central African Republic.
Marcus is currently studying for an MSt in International Relations at Cambridge University whilst still documenting human rights issues around the world.
He lives in Oslo with his wife Karin Beate.
He has also won a tremendous amount of awards:
2015 Overseas Press Club of America The Robert Capa Gold Medal
2015 FotoEvidence Award
2015 Amnesty International Award
2014 Soc. of Environmental Journalists Award
2014 Overseas Press Club of America The Photography Prize
2013 World Press Photo Contemporary Issues
2013 The Photographer Society The Hood Medal
2011 USA Webby Award
2010 Picture of the Year USA Book of the Year Award
2010 Hansel Meith Award
2010 Anthopographia Award Human Rights and Photography
2009 Days Japan Readers Award
2009 Picture of the Year USA
2008 American Photography Award
2007 Freedom of Expression Foundation
2006 Overseas Press Club of America Olivier Rebbot Award
2006 World Press Photo Daily Life Singles
2005 Open Society Institute
2005 Alexia Foundation for World Peace Award
2005 Picture of the Year USA Magazine Photographer of the Year Award
2004 UNICEF Photographer of the Year
2004 Picture of the Year USA Magazine Award
2004 NPPA Magazine News Story Award
2003 Picture of the Year USA News Award
2002 Picture of the Year USA Magazine Award
2000 Sunday Times Nikon Ian Parry Award
On looking through his other bodies of work Bleasdale does not shy away from showing the world exactly what is happening within the areas he embeds himself. The images are shocking and disturbing, and they have to be in order for the international community, and the people who are supposedly in a position to do so, to affect change! Sadly, this does not always happen – as outlined in the interview he gave back in 2005.
One Hundred Years of Darkness – Pygmies Renowned for their skills as trackers and hunters, CongoÕs pygmies have been recruited as military scouts by both rebel and government forces. To avoid being drafted, many crossed the river to neighbouring Republic of Congo. Long isolated in central AfricaÕs dense jungles, the pygmies are highly susceptible to disease in new urban environments.
Maria, a mother of three, lost her arm defending her children in Nizi, northeastern Congo. She recounts the story of soldiers eating her flesh after they had hacked off her arm. 2003
And even if laws are passed it does not always have the desired results.
I also found some superb YouTube videos, which I have only skipped through at this moment in time, but fully intend to watch in their entirety once blogging is caught up with.
The first video echoes a lot of questions and responses within the interview, which I shall bullet point below:
Enjoying photography as a serious hobby Bleasdale took some evening classes in B&W printing – obviously due to financial constraints etc – have posed the same question to Marcus as I did to Nick Danziger re shooting in B&W versus colour. Be interesting to see if I get a response :)*
disillusioned with banking and spurred on by the lack of compassion shown by colleagues, Bleasdale set out to pursue his passion in photography and record what was happening in the Balkans.
Earning money as a photo-journalist can be very difficult.
He thinks carefully about how he is going to try to create his images and refers back to other photographers work all the time.
He takes inspiration from other Ats as well – citing Heart of Darkness as his road-map for his journey through the Congo.
Politics plays a huge part in whether conflicts or atrocities are reported and how they are reported – links to the FSA and the Government want to promote the reforms they wanted to push through – would they have funded this project otherwise?
The media has a moral responsibility to focus on important issues and raise awareness and help implement change.
He works with NGO’s to put pressure on the UN, Governments, banks, commodity traders and directly responsible companies.
Hopefully this pressure and communication will not only raise awareness but also enforce responsibility.
He believes that the general public are quite capable of ‘reading’ single images or a series of pictures.
He cites Tom Stoddart – shoots in B&W, Don McCullin – shoots in B&W, and Eugene Richards – shoots in B&W and colour, as photographers who have had a huge impact on the world and having the ability to touch people.
He feels it is possible to record events yet still treat people with dignity and, that as a human being, it is most important that you don’t forget that first and foremost a photo-journalist is a human first and a photographer second. – a sentiment echoed by Dorothea Lange,as highlighted in the video on a previous research post.
When working with NGO’s he shoots what he wants to, then edits for the brief later.
Another photographer he mentions is Heidi Bradnor – shoots in B&W and colour- and her work in Chechnya – both she and Bleasdale have stuck with the same topics for a long period of time.
Winning awards is not only nice, but also financially rewarding, and allows for his work to continue as even years later it is still difficult to sell work that is a political hot potato.
I can quite understand why Bleasdale is included within this section of the coursework as he is truly committed towards raising awareness of the atrocities happening across the globe, and uses his images to petition for this change. Although he does shoot in both colour and B&W, the work we are asked to look at follows the tradition of hard-hitting B&W documentary photographs.
In interviews given, and in the videos he makes, he mentions the use of multi media and cross platforms to put his argument across, emphasising how, as photographers and humans, we need to make sure we are media savvy and target people of different generations, companies, governments and consumers to ensure the constant pressure for change to occur.
There is much to be gleaned from this interview and the videos, for example: on his approach, how he may defuse a tense situation by offering cigarettes to start a dialogue, his use of other photographers and writers as inspiration, how NGO’s may support your work where publications may not.
I think it is brilliant when busy, famous people take time out to reply 🙂
I hope you don’t mind me emailing to ask you a question? I work in a grammar school helping out in the Art and Photography dept as well as currently undertaking a Photography degree with the OCA.
Currently I am doing research into the tradition of B&W photography with the Documentary genre and as one of our exercises we have to read your interview with Eight magazine and look closely at work body of work One Hundred Years of Darkness. I note that on your own website you also use colour photography. Could you tell me if you would prefer to always shoot in B&W and are the colour images at the request of the NGO/Agencies that you work for?
Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and thanking you in anticipation,
I use the medium the situation demands, more recently I shoot more colour. It is me who determines that not the client. But that said, I wouldn’t sell so much to national geographic in Back and white as they rarely publish in that medium
Here we are advised to complete our own research into some of the photographers already discussed..wooohooo did that as I was going along! However, I have now got to consider if social documentary work was their prime focus and how they all fit together…
Chris Killip – Documented the political and social changes in working class communities around Britain as major industries closed down in the 70’s and 80’s. His work focused on unemployment and the hardship that followed. He embedded himself within the communities and shot in B&W. He continued to do so until the early 1990’s; the Pirelli work would be the “last and very necessary piece of the jigsaw puzzle” of Killip’s work in Britain. In September 1991 he took a teaching position at Harvard University. Killip seemed to be more interested in showing what the realities of life were and the repercussions of political decisions rather than being a social advocate rooting for change.
Exit group – Formed in 1973 the collaboration were concerned with social problems such as poverty, racism, religion and unemployment in 70’s and 80’s Britain. These three photographers: Nick Battye, Paul Trevor and Chris Steele-Perkins, understood exactly what difficulties were being faced by society when they decided to collaborate and produce the book The Survival Programme In Britain’s Inner Cities (Open University Press, 1982). They also embedded themselves with the community and shot in B&W. However, they seemed to be documenting the situation rather than being social activists.
Nick Battye had a varied career: poet, photographer, mystic, therapist, teacher, sadly he died on 12 November 2004.
Paul Trevor – revisited areas from the initial book creating a new body of work, Like you’ve never been away. Between 1973 and 2000 Paul worked on the Eastender Archive, ‘an extensive project which offered a personal record of the changing community near his home in Brick Lane, East London. Several of these photographs were included in the London Street Photography exhibition, at the Museum of London in 2011.’
Chris Steele-Perkins – has remained in photography and is part of the Magnum stable, winning many accolades. He has continued to shoot social documentary, these days in colour, in this country and abroad, but seems to record rather than be a social activist.
Bill Brandt – was a not a native to the UK, but by shooting images of his Uncle’s household and family members, he too was partially photographing what he knew or was embedded in. His documentary work in a pre WWII era focused on the social divide. After a time Brandt moved away from social documentary and into the surrealist art genre.
Jacob Riis – was a self-taught photographer who saw the injustice within NY slums. Riis was not a photographer first – he used the medium to illustrate his book, as a way of exposing the hardships in the slums, and in order to gain support and promote social change. Riis went on to write many other books: (1900), The Battle With the Slum (1902), Children of the Tenements (1903), and autobiography, The Making of an American (1901). He was more of a social campaigner who used photography as a tool than a social documentary photographer, even if his images began the tradition…
Lewis Hine – was a photographer, sociologist and humanist studying and teaching at the Ethical Culture School in New York City. In 1908 Hine published Charities and the Commons, a collection of photographs of tenements and sweatshops. Hine hoped he could use these photographs to help bring about social reform.
Lewis Hine was trained to be an educator in Chicago and New York. A project photographing on Ellis Island with students from the Ethical Culture School in New York galvanized his recognition of the value of documentary photography in education. Soon after, he became a sociological photographer, establishing a studio in upstate New York in 1912.
For nearly ten years Hine was the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, contributing to exhibitions and the organization’s publication, The Survey. Declaring that he “wanted to show things that had to be corrected,” he was one of the earliest photographers to use the photograph as a documentary tool. Around 1920, however, Hine changed his studio publicity from “Social Photography by Lewis W. Hine” to “Lewis Wickes Hine, Interpretive Photography,” to emphasize a more artistic approach to his image making. Having joined the American Red Cross briefly in 1918, he continued to freelance for them through the 1930s. In 1936 Hine was appointed head photographer for the National Research Project of the Works Projects Administration, but his work for them was never completed. His last years were marked by professional struggles due to diminishing government and corporate patronage, and he died in 1940 at age sixty-six.
Unlike many of the other photographers, who were open with their work, Hine often had to hide his intentions. especially from factory owners.
So…there are similarities and differences between all of these photographers. They all documented poverty, the effects of government policies and laws, or no policies and laws. They all shot their initial work in B&W, either through lack of technological advancement, or though choice/tradition. Some like Riis were accidental photographers. Some were out for active social reform whilst others were interested in showing the results or their anger at the injustice of it all. Some remained within the field, others did not. Their work may have moved from out of the realm of ‘documentary’ to historical document or art but as Sontag observed: Socially concerned photographers assume that their work can convey some kind of stable meaning, can reveal truth…the photograph is, always, an object in a context…meaning is bound to drain away…and become progressively less relevant,’ she discusses how they become ‘supplanted by subsequent uses…by the discourse of art into which any photograph can be absorbed.’ (2008, p.106) Whatever their eventual role, the end result is a legacy for historians and photography students alike.