As mentioned on the next page of the coursework, many people do dismiss ‘travel photography’ as a serious genre and lump it alongside tourism with an edge of disdain. However, I do believe that both have their niche under the documentary umbrella, even if their impact is minimal, they do indeed ‘foster greater tolerance and understanding’ of other cultures.
Paul Close is the photographer we are asked to examine next:
Go to: http://www.insight-visual.com/paul-exhibition.html and look at Paul Close’s environmental portraits. Analyse his visual style and consider whether the images work as documentary photographs and, if so, why.
So, firstly what IS an environmental portrait?
An environmental portrait is a portrait executed in the subject’s usual environment, such as in their home or workplace, and typically illuminates the subject’s life and surroundings. The term is most frequently used of a genre of photography.
Looking at his online portfolio Close’s photographs certainly fall within this category, although done in an unusual fashion, which I shall cover in my response after looking at his work.
The Snakebox Odyssey – the back story
Paul Close, a UK photographer initially rode his motorbike from South Africa to Kenya in the early 90’s. It was an era when Nelson Mandela had just been released and the new South Africa was opening up many new opportunities. Years later a souvenir from this trip was accidentally broken by his daughter, and the decision was made to repeat the journey, probably encouraged by The Long Way Round/The Long Way Down.
Is it documentary?
After my Assignment Two submission I think anything is documentary …tongue in cheek response!
Most of the images Close exhibits from this trip were taken on the last two legs of his adventure. Each day he would ask one person to sit for him, always using a white sheet as a portable backdrop, an almost faux studio setting, to ‘highlight the subject against a background of the colour and character of everyday African life.’ Then he would ask each sitter just one question: Is there one thing that could make your life better? Some of the responses were idealistic, others more personal and each response has been recorded alongside the image. For example, sitters told him they would like:
“To expand my business”
“To have a girlfriend”
“My children to go to university”
“To develop this school”
These simple statements not only reveal something of the sitters but also emphasise the commonalities and dreams of widely differing people in a widely differing culture.
In some ways I found this aspect of his work reminiscent of Chris de Bode’s I have a Dream series.
All kids dream. Whether their home is in Haiti, Liberia, Jordan, India, Mexico, Turkey or Uganda. Every child dreams of acquiring their own place in this world where they can be themselves, without being restricted by their living conditions. The past years, Chris has been following kids around the world to let them tell their stories and dreams.
Close has a unique approach which seems to have borrowed from various aspects of portrait/documentary photography which makes this body of work very interesting. He poses his subjects in a simple stance, in a similar fashion to August Sander, their clothes or props giving away their background as much as the backdrop beyond the sheeting, and Daniel Meadows with his Photobus project. In some respects they have an element of typology about them.
Although a completely different project the style also reminded me of the more recent work of Nick Brandt: Inherit the Dust.
In both bodies of work the choice of framing and composition isolates the subject from the surrounding landscape, whilst revealing how they were part of, or still remain part of it. They both document how life and the landscape has altered, will continue to alter and currently ‘is’. The creative use of the sheet, or the imposition of the animal portraits within each image, makes for a very coherent set of images and adds visual interest; the viewer is almost forced to pay closer attention to the various elements within the frame.
Having outlined all of the above do I feel the images work as documentary? I still will answer ‘yes’ for the following reasons:
- You can trace certain elements/styles within his image to historical documentary photographers as mentioned above. Another example would be Herbert George Ponting who recorded Scott’s Terra Nova expedition of 1910-13.
- You can relate his work to other contemporary documentary photographers, all of whom are documenting certain environmental aspects.
- There is a record/documentation of different cultures across the African continent.
- It is a document of Close’s travels and experiences, acting as a visual diary, as well as an eventual historical document of Africa at this time – peoples desires/wishes often reflect the social and political climate of the era.
Insight-visual.com. (2017). Insight-Visual Photography : Paul Close – Exhibition. [online] Available at: http://www.insight-visual.com/paul-exhibition.html [Accessed 22 Mar. 2017].
Brandt, N. (2017). NICK BRANDT | Inherit the Dust: Nick Brandt Photographs. [online] Nickbrandt.inheritthedust.com. Available at: http://nickbrandt.inheritthedust.com/ [Accessed 22 Mar. 2017].
Winchester.ac.uk. (2017). Paul Close – Snakebox Odyssey. [online] Available at: http://www.winchester.ac.uk/aboutus/ArtatWinchester/TheLinkGallery/Exhibitionarchive/exhibitions2009/Pages/PaulClose-Snakebox%20Odyssey.aspx [Accessed 22 Mar. 2017].