This year Magnum and the Barbican Centre have been cultivating a relationship where they have been organising both talks and exhibitions featuring Magnum photographers. The talk which I recently attended was concerned with the art of story-telling and the debate as to whether or not this can be achieved with a single image.
The audience was given a brief history of the founding of Magnum and the diversity of its membership and more contemporary approaches to the different genres: Henri Cartier-Bresson, ‘the artistically inclined street photographer’; Robert Capa the archetypal photojournalist; George Rodger the tireless traveller; and David ‘Chim’ Seymour the concerned humanitarian.’
The discussion was chaired by Geoff Dyer; the invited photographers were Patrick Zachmann and Magnum nominee Matt Stuart, and they argued their different viewpoints with regards to the use of a single image or series of images as a tool for storytelling.
Matt Stuart explained that his approach is based upon the ideals of Cartier-Bresson: ‘Sometimes there’s a unique picture whose composition possesses such vigour and richness and whose content so radiates outward from it that the single picture is a whole story in itself.’ Despite being interested in stories he believes that the single image is the ‘holy grail.’
Stuart acknowledged that this isn’t always easy, having spent the last 20 years or so ‘walking the streets of London hunting the single image and the only thing that links these single images together is the place.’ The first book he published contained 10 years of work. Stuart went onto explain how his single images ‘contain a depth of narrative’:
There’s often one picture that I find that you can pull from something if you absolutely have to, and my daily grind is to try and get one picture from the day of what actually happened.
An interview for Lensculture gave more background details on his approach and 2016 Magnum nomination. Recently he has been trying to vary his approach and tried to take images just for one week, then just one day followed by just one hour to sharpen his observation skills and trying to tell a story with a minimum/one image.
As he explained, he flicked through a PowerPoint presentation., highlighting the importance of spotting body language and background information that provides juxtaposition, or cohesion:
Sometimes, especially with street photography, stories can be implied, and in this particular picture I think there’s an interesting collision between these two people. There’s a man who is pretty evidently lost in the foreground, and you can tell he’s lost due to the fact he has a map, he’s on the telephone and he’s covering his mouth. Body language is something that I’m quite interested in and something that I look at a lot when I’m out on the street, so I realize when people appear to be lost. The two young men behind him know exactly where they’re going, or at least that’s the implication because one of them is pointing confidently. The difference between the two has made this strange swirl of gestures of two men who know where they’re going and one man doesn’t.
Stuart continued the talk by telling us how he now has tried to change what he occasionally photographs, previously his images were about capturing humour and odd situations but more recently he has been drawn to the more serious reportage side of documenting image that, within them, narrate an entire story. Examples he cites and images he showed included the recent tragedy of The Grenfell Tower fire and the London Bridge terror attacks. Both of these events had to be handled with respect and dignity as they were both complex and emotional. He told us of people who wanted to tell him their story, of people staring open mouthed as events unfolded.
After the terror attacks on June 3rd, 2017, Stuart walked with intent, hoping to capture a photograph that summed up the mood of the day. He showed us a series of images he took of a woman crossing London Bridge with a Union Flag hanging from her handbag, discussing why he went with one over the other, the discrete semiotics that helped convey the mood.
I decided to get up very early in the morning and go to London Bridge. I was there at 5 o’clock in the morning; I was looking at people walking along the bridge and coming to work, and at about 8 o’clock, which I know is a busy time on London bridge, I saw a woman walking with a Union Jack in her bag. It was just the stick poking out, and I thought, ‘That’s strange that she is walking with a Union Jack in her bag,’ so I followed her, which is something you do a lot as a street photographer, and took two frames that I find interesting. I found her very relevant to the day. In another moment she pulled out the flag and just walked across this bridge with it, so there’s two images with different moods – one potentially positive and one more sorrowful.
He asked us to consider which is weirder? The man who carries things or the man who photographs the man who carries things?
Brexit came up as a typical and topical subject…something that I will think about with my assignment 5.
Patrick Zachmann’s approach to photography is the exact opposite of Matt Stuart’s, preferring a ‘long-term approach to building a story.’
He feels his commitment is to tell stories about the outside world and himself, he believes by doing this he understands himself better through looking at ‘others’.
Some of his images, whilst looking like straight documentary, occasionally are not quite what they would seem. The example that sticks most in my mind was a Chinese drama student demonstrating against the then current regime. Zachmann captured her performance piece as she writhed on the floor in agony, without the captioning on the image you would have thought she had just been struck down. Although his image was a truthful documentation of an event, by not revealing the entire picture the narrative was open to interpretation, maybe even misrepresentation. This is why he strongly believes that captions are an important tool for his style of documentary photography. He also keeps a diary to ensure that when he edits and uses his images at a later date he always knows the context and backstory, photography is not enough in his opinion it can go further.
His work as been described ‘incorporating cinematic ploys…interwoven with narrative strands of fiction.’ Zachmann gets to know his subject matter over a long time, approaching it from many different angles and perspectives, which enables him to have a multi-layered narrative. Again a relief to hear was his confession that there will be images that are weaker than others, ‘like music there is a rhythm.’ The images that really make no sense he does not include. NB to self to edit ruthlessly.
At first he did not identify with Magnum and even now he does not allow the organisation to pressure him into doing things he does not want to do. He advises anyone ‘keep going your way.’
Zachmann and Stuart, despite having totally different photographic voices were appreciative of each other’s work. Zachmann commented:
I’m not like Matt Stuart but I really like his work as a street photographer. I have never identified with street photographers. From the beginning, my commitment to photography is to tell stories – about the world, about others, and about myself and my own family, often through that work.
I am very often asked if I consider myself more a photojournalist or an artist and I have never been very clear on my answer, and I’ve recently come to think that I am both.
This was quite reassuring when you are struggling to pigeon-hole your own take on the ‘art’ of photography, finding your own voice.
Zachmann is fascinated by diaspora – a scattered population whose origin lies within a smaller geographic locale. Diaspora can also refer to the movement of the population from its original homeland – he considered his own family history and wondered how much of this influenced his approach.
His projects are many and varied and focus on groups in society from a range of different countries. He gains inspiration from many sources, both film and newspapers. For example one of the earliest projects that brought him acclaim – his body of regarding the police and mafia in Naples – was inspired by a small newspaper story. This developed into ‘a collection of cinematographic photographs’ which culminated in his first book, Madonna! in 1982. This was eventually accompanied by a fictional novel inspired by the experience illustrated with the images, published a year later. Note to self on how you can further develop an idea and sustain your practice.
As mentioned earlier Zachmann spent much time in China, his first trip being in 1982, and returning on several occasions over the following decades, taking inspiration from the Shanghai film noirs of the 1930s. Once more this investigation into another lifestyle led him to a smaller group within that society as he examined ‘the underbelly of the city.’
I really found a love for these movies, which were dealing with the underworld of the Triads – the Chinese mafia, secret societies, prostitution and illegal gambling; all these things interested me as a photographer, visually. Then, when I started my work on Chinese diaspora and then I continued working in China, I realized that, consciously or unconsciously…that’s also what I think makes the difference between a journalist and an artist. When you’re a journalist you cannot be led by your unconscious or by interesting light or faces, but you have to look for information.
Being patient and forging relationships also helped him capture hard to document images. Zachmann photographed the now long-gone “Forbidden” or “Walled City, a ‘lawless area in Hong Kong that belonged to mainland, communist China.’ Gaining access through a nervous guide, referred to as “W” enabled him to photograph the dark world of the Walled City. He thinks that the quality of light is the most effective tool when telling a story, shooting in black and white with a Leica. The atmospheric images reminded me of Bladerunner.
Zachmann was photographing Beijing youth in 1988 to 89, he captured images of the Tiananmen Square protests at their beginnings, while there was more of a festival feeling, describing it as a “Chinese Woodstock.”
Having spent a great deal of time understanding Chinese culture from various entry points, Zachmann’s images could be said to be ‘more nuanced, than the foreign press. A fact that I have discovered to be true – it is easier to photograph what you know or have researched.