A postmodern documentary – A decisive moment? Part 2 Jon Levy

The aim of this exercise was to watch a video interview with Jon Levy, founder of Foto8, where he discusses the exhibiting of documentary and photo-journalistic photographs, within an art gallery setting, and my reactions to his comments. I guess me saying I think everything he said was spot on and I agree isn’t a sufficient enough response?

Serious head on ;o) We only see a very short snippet from what is obviously a longer interview where Levy is discussing the merits or reasons for displaying documentary based or photo-journalistic images within an art gallery. My initial reaction was that this is perfectly acceptable. As an interested party I enjoy seeing this kind of work displayed somewhere other than in a magazine, newspaper or on-line. I am a great believer in being able to appreciate the work more as a properly printed photograph rather than as a thumb nail, or poorly presented in a photo-book; across a double page spread where you miss half the detail as it vanishes into the spine, and to see it as part of a whole body of work.

As Levy states, both the galleries and the photographers themselves, have an important role to play in showing images from these genres, helping spread awareness of issues, be they current or historic, opening them up to a wider audience. To be honest even if it’s because we merely LIKE the images rather than wanting to buy into the message they are sending does that ultimately matter? If people enjoy it they will discuss it and the message will be disseminated anyway. Does it matter if they also label themselves as artists? I could spend a long time arguing that everyone is an artist and anything is art, a simple line on a page is art, art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, there is an art to making coffee…I’ll stop…

However, he does take umbrage if the sole intention of the photo-journalist is to pander to an elitist market as he feels this goes against the remit, and I also totally agree with this. A journalist’s job, be it as a writer or a photographer, is to provide information to as wide an audience as possible, to spread the story. Occasionally the story will be targeted at a specific audience perhaps, but even so, not to one so extremely narrow; by limiting the audience they are not fulfilling their role.

Many photographers are adept at using many different platforms, ‘mixing media’ as he puts it, and a prime example Levy gives is Simon Norfolk, whose work I actually do like and was lucky enough to see in conversation at the Barbican (and got my book signed). Levy does have issues with others, whose motives and reasons for exhibiting their work is ambiguous. He believes that you can never be sure of their message, of what their intentions are and this is unsettling. On this I also agree, you do view the same photograph under a different light once you are aware of the true intention behind it. As with the written word  the writer’s reason for producing a certain article or book may be manipulative-propaganda or advertising- or may be more straightforward, i.e so as to inform. In either case, understanding the writer’s underlying purpose will help you interpret the context of the writing and the same is true of photography. Perhaps he was also thinking of the recent controversy surrounding the digital manipulation used by Steve McCurry, who was purporting to be a photojournalist yet was digitally manipulating his images to make them more aesthetically pleasing for an ‘art’ market. Part of me doesn’t have an issue with this as a street scene in India with 5 guys in a cart is the same street, the same cart, the same day, the same circumstances with one removed. If the intention is merely to reveal India still uses carts, it rains (or whatever) and there are dirt track roads it is still a valid image…but the other part of me says but hmmmmmm its not being totally honest is it?

Back to the documentary image in an art gallery setting…I know that some argue against some historical images being seen for their aesthetic quality rather than the true original meaning, but I still think that the original purpose and story is being told when we view the photographs, which I found quite apt as today I got an email through from Beetles & Huxley advising that they have on display one of the original alternative frames of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. As mentioned in a previous post socially committed photographers have to accept that over time the context of their images will change and so will how they are perceived and used. Sontag (2008)

On the whole an interesting video, which made me realise how strongly I felt that there can be a crossover between Documentary/Photo-journalism and Art, especially if the payments received from exhibiting the work can ensure the photographer makes a living and can possibly fund more projects.


Photojournalism as art (2017) Available at: https://vimeo.com/album/1720878/video/18510352 (Accessed: 9 January 2017).

Sontag, S. (2008) On photography. London: Penguin Classics.

A postmodern documentary – A decisive moment?

‘Il n’y a rien dans ce monde qui n’ait un moment decisif’ or ‘There is nothing in this world that doesn’t have a decisive moment.’ Considering all the hype, you may be forgiven for attributing these words to Henri Cartier-Bresson. It has been put into print so many times that he ‘coined this phrase,’ meaning people have forgotten, or have never known the full version: ‘There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment and the masterpiece of good ruling is to know and seize this moment,’ or it’s original author, the 17th-century cleric and memoirist Cardinal de Retz.

I mean, in France Bresson’s book was originally entitled Images à  la Sauvette. Apparently, Tériade, a Greek-born French publisher who Cartier-Bresson admired, gave the book its French title, Images à la Sauvette, which can be translated as ‘images on the run’ or ‘stolen images‘ (Bresson considered the stolen images as stolen moments in time) and it is also reported that Dick Simon, of Simon & Schuster, came up with the English title The Decisive Moment…so it wasn’t even Bresson’s idea!  I have tried to find the definitive source for this information but all I can find are sites that all seem to quote each other… But I still have to ask ‘so how much did he actually coin this phrase?’

Stewing quietly over this point for a good few years, it is quite reassuring to discover during research that it has been mentioned in a few other places. May be it is more fitting to  say he made the phrase synonymous with a certain photographic style and technique?

For me what should be more relevant is what he actually had to say about capturing his images:

To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.

Galvanized by a Martin Munkacsi photograph, taken in 1930, of three silhouetted boys running into the surf of Lake Tanganyika, which captured ‘the freedom, grace and spontaneity of their movement and their joy at being alive,’ Bresson is claimed to have said ‘I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant.’ And the rest was history.


Henri may have captured certain magical moments, where everything came together, but he did not take just one frame – another popular myth – as this blog posting   illustrating his contact sheets reveals. He would observe, capture the action in front of him, and if lucky there would arise that moment when the stars aligned and everything within the frame created a perfectly composed image that froze a significant juncture.There will be many ‘decisive moments’ leading up to the activation of the shutter, but it is the photographer who makes the decision over whether or not the scene itself is aesthetically pleasing enough to be printed and shown to the waiting world.

The next exercise is to read Simon Bainbridge’s article on the 2011 Hereford Photography Festival, select one of the bodies of work and write a 200 word reflective commentary. So for background information:

Simon Bainbridge is a London-based writer, editor and curator specialising in photography. For the past seven years he has served as editor-in-chief of the monthly British Journal of Photography, the world’s oldest photo magazine, established in 1854, along with its online and iPad editions.

In 2010 he co-curated Paper, Rock, Scissors: The Constructed Image in New British Photography at Toronto’s Flash Forward festival. And in 2011 he curated Time & Motion Studies: New Documentary Photography Beyond the Decisive Moment at Hereford Photography Festival.

The Time & Motions Studies exhibition presented the work of five photographers:Vanessa Winship: Georgia 2009-10, Donald Weber: Interrogations: Big Zone Little Zone, Manuel Vasquez: Traces, Robbie Cooper: Immersion and George Georgiou: The Shadow of the Bear, 2009-10, all featured in the British Journal of Photography.

In this article Bainbridge explains how each photographers’ work is a result of ‘deliberate and sustained observation,’ that they are trying to ‘communicate their ideas about the world and tackling subjects that aren’t always obviously photogenic.’ In the festival he hopes to show the works to a wider public audience than usual and reveal the ‘diversity of contemporary documentary practice’ whilst also revealing a little about the person behind the photographs. In a juxtaposition to Bazin’s ideas of the objectivity of the photograph Bainbridge hopes to ‘demonstrate that a photograph is not so much a result of what’s in front of the camera, rather than the motives, instincts and ideas of the person behind it.’ I wonder if Rosler would like them ;oO He mentions how each photographer embedded themselves into the situations which reminded me of Danny Lyon and Martin Parr.

Bainbridge states that the ‘decisive moment’ is an old fashioned idea, something echoed in an article written by Sean O’Hagan. Not sure I totally agree with that point of view, yes photography may not be so pedantic about shape, form and rules of composition but it still plays its part in many images on display today and Bainbridge does concede there is a sense of ‘the right moment’ that still pervades photography. I feel that contemporary street photographer Matt Stuart exemplifies this.


His visual wit and impeccable timing is reminiscent to that of Elliot Erwitt.

The article finishes on a note that recognizes the end of publishing images as we used to know it, with the onset of modern technologies and different platforms but is optimistic that if such different work can ‘sit side by side’ it is more of ‘a sign that photography is maturing rather than a medium in peril.’ Which is in such a much happier place than all the doom and gloom expressed by Martha Rosler all those decades ago. During my research I discovered that the OCA had in fact had a study day for this very exhibition and I shall at some point allow myself to be diverted long enough to follow fellow students links to their reviews of the day.

John wrote on Winship and Weber

These two photographers allow the viewer to grasp a sense of honesty, all be they framed in critically disparate circumstances, one confident that their past informs their present and their future in equal measure and from generation to generation, the other that the past has informed on them and that there may be no future as a result. Both sets edited to draw, at least from this viewer, an emotive response that I am sure will last long in the memory. The one printed to deliver a haunting beauty, the other with a concealed spectre of a wholly different kind.

It is good to get the perspective of others who have seen the work first hand.

So a quick overview of all the works before I choose one to look at in more depth:

Donald Weber: Interrogations

These are not staged images but real interrogations of suspected criminals in Ukraine. With no idea about the supposed crimes committed they appear brutal and extreme as Weber attempts to capture ‘the vestiges of a still-powerful, hidden system.’ The book is described as ‘the result of his personal quest to uncover the hidden meaning of private, unpleasant encounters with unrestricted Power.’ Weber had to work hard to gain access to these interrogations.

Robbie Cooper: Immersion

The Immersion project is a collection of videos and stills revealing either ‘the grotesque [or] dull expressions appearing on people’s faces as they play video games and watch YouTube.’ The audience does not see what the players/viewers are watching although we are  told what it is that is entertaining them. A fuller review of this work can be found here on my blog. Cooper worked in collaboration with psychologists to fund and complete this work and embraced new technologies to enable him to capture his images.

Manuel Vasquez: Traces

I didn’t think I had heard of this photographer until I looked at his work and realised I had seen this image, I am sure, within the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize several years ago.

In Traces he:

developed a deep interest in chiaroscuro, (This is an Italian term which literally means ‘light-dark’. In paintings the description refers to clear tonal contrasts which are often used to suggest the volume and modelling of the subjects depicted.) and the compositions that can be created through its manipulation. In Traces in particular he plays fast and loose with patterned pools of light, illuminating passers-by with theatrical effect. The results are otherworldly in atmosphere; the staring faces of strangers peering out of the darkness as though trapped underground for years, taking their first fleeting glances into the world above.

Vasquez uses technology, the surveillance culture and montages to piece his work together.

George Georgiou: The Shadow of The Bear, 2009-10

This project is a document looking at the aftermath of the peaceful ‘colour’ revolution that took place in Ukraine against the backdrop of Russia’s resurgence as a major international power and it’s continuous interfering in their sovereign and domestic affairs. It looks at signs in the domestic and public spheres, that when taken together build up a representation of how the people of Georgia and the Ukraine negotiate the space that they find themselves in, the individual aspects of the two very different countries, and aspects common to them through their shared history in the Soviet Union

Georgiou, like Vasquez, uses ‘sequential imagery.’ Focusing on the daily lives of everyday people, ‘capturing them in sequences shot from the same vantage point.’ His work reminded me in some ways of Paul Graham who shot sequentially people mowing lawns or smoking cigarettes.

Vanessa Winship: Georgia

Vanessa Winship is Georgiou’s partner and travelling companion so it is intriguing to see how differently they approach the same subjects; he tries to remain hidden and captured candid shots in wide open spaces, whilst she captured totally aware subjects with a direct gaze, taken in almost sterile surroundings, devoid of any outside information.

Having had a quick peek at the bodies of work mentioned within the article I chose to discuss the work of Manuel Vasquez. I admired the dogged determination and perseverance of Weber, the inventiveness of Cooper and the differing techniques of Winship and Georgiou but it was Traces that really drew me in. So much to say and only 200 words…

‘The intent of this project is to place the observer as a witness of “spectacle” where the mechanization of movement and transport are the protagonist of places where loneliness and similarity are accentuated.’ – Manuel Vazquez

Traces – Manuel Vazquez

A quote from Walter Benjamin used when describing this work is: ‘to dwell means to leave traces.’ Traces closely examines invisibility, anonymity and exposure by looking at the visual traces left behind in public places.

Vasquez composed montages where the ‘deep black canvas is an allegory to the city’ with people under a spotlight; the technique of chiaroscuro separating them from reality and the rest of the world. His subjects appear frozen with resulting images creating a tense and anxious atmosphere. Vasquez uses his camera like CCTV; fixing his lens and capturing subjects as they pass.

Everyday occurrences are filmed constantly by CCTV in ‘non-places…such as airports…and tube stations’ – this body of work was begun in the Atocha train station, Madrid, which ‘has a unique lighting situation…beams of light that people cross all the time…[it was] like an installation…some beams of light and cameras and a final image is created with the people that enter the space.’

I particularly like the way Vasquez embraces an old painting technique, combining it with computing technology and using the influence of even more modern technology, in the form of CCTV surveillance, to achieve his vision, opening up new avenues of exploration within the genre of Documentary. Whilst not using Bresson’s ideas of capturing background detail, or love of geometry he certainly uses shape and form and the decisive moment as people walked into the light.



Fynn, S. (2013) The decisive moment: Understanding Convergence. Available at: http://www.studiofynn.com/journal/decisive-moment-understanding-convergence (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Gallery, T.N. (no date) National gallery, London. Available at: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/glossary/chiaroscuro (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Georgia (no date) Available at: http://www.vanessawinship.com/gallery.php?ProjectID=175 (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Halliday, A. (2006) Artist Robbie Cooper’s video project immersion stares back at Gamers and YouTubers. Available at: http://www.openculture.com/2013/03/artist_robbie_coopers_video_project_iimmersioni_stares_back_at_gamers_and_youtubers.html (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
IN THE SHADOW OF THE BEAR, UKRAINE (2009) Available at: http://www.prospektphoto.net/stories/george-georgiou-in-the-shadow-of-the-bear-ukraine/ (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Jose (2011) OCA students visit the Hereford photography festival. Available at: https://weareoca.com/photography/oca-students-visit-hereford-photography-festival/ (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Kim, E. (no date) Start here. Available at: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2014/05/23/debunking-the-myth-of-the-decisive-moment/ (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Liberation®, P. (2014) Manuel Vazquez traps his subjects in patterned pockets of light. Available at: http://www.itsnicethat.com/articles/manuel-vazquez (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
O’Hagan, S. (2014) Cartier-Bresson’s classic is back – but his decisive moment has passed. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/23/henri-cartier-bresson-the-decisive-moment-reissued-photography (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Pictet, P. (2016) Resources. Available at: http://jp.prixpictet.com/nominators/bainbridge-simon/ (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Project, T.E. (2007) Manuel Vazquez’s <em>Traces</em>. Available at: http://theexposureproject.blogspot.co.uk/2008/12/manuel-vazquezs-traces.html (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Times, T.N.Y. (2015) The week ahead: Jan. 14 – 20. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/14/arts/14weekahead.html (Accessed: 18 November 2016). Robin Pogrebin (January 14, 2007). “Art”. New York Times.
Vazquez, M. (2010) Traces of a lonely crowd, by Manuel Vazquez. Available at: http://www.co-mag.net/2010/manuel-vazquez/ (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Weber, D. and LensCulture (no date) Interrogations – photographs by Donald Weber. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/donald-weber-interrogations (Accessed: 18 November 2016).

Ribas, Xavier (2009) Catalogue Rastros. Exhibition Photocolectania. Barcelona. 2009. P, 130


A postmodern documentary – Martha Rosler take 2

Considering this is a ‘simply’ written article it still took me a few readings, and about a week of dipping into and out of, to get to grips with what Rosler was actually trying to say about ethics and the direction that Documentary Photography is headed. It answered a few questions for me, made me research some basic historical and theoretical points, ask more questions than I think I answered and in places annoyed me. I wrote my response before watching a video I found and was pleased to hear the speaker also say that Rosler’s essay annoyed her too. For me it comes across as very negative, but I am reading this essay 30 years after it was written and have no real idea of the state of documentary photography back then.

As a broad sweeping comment, my first impression is that her perspective is very Western in its approach, especially ‘Western American’ and in some respects very cynical. She discusses American Liberalism an awful lot throughout her essay and to understand the criticisms surrounding this you need to first understand what is meant by the philosophical beliefs of Liberalism in the USA. Here I relied on good old Wikipedia, not often a totally reliable source, but on this occasion suited my needs.

Modern liberalism in the United States includes issues such as same-sex marriage, voting rights for all adult citizens, civil rights, environmentalism, and government protection of freedom from want.National social services such as: equal education opportunities; access to health care; and transportation infrastructure are intended to meet the responsibility to “promote the general welfare” of all citizens. Some American liberals, who call themselves classical liberals, fiscal conservatives, or libertarians, support fundamental liberal ideals but disagree with modern liberal thought, holding that economic freedom is more important than equality, and that providing for the general welfare exceeds the legitimate role of government

Since the 1930’s, without a qualifier the term “liberalism” in the United States usually refers to “modern liberalism”, a political philosophy exemplified by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and, later, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. It is a form of social liberalism, whose accomplishments include the Works Progress Administration and the Social Security Act in 1935, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

According to Louis Hartz, liberalism in the United States differs from liberalism elsewhere in the world because America never had a resident hereditary aristocracy, and so avoided much of the “class warfare” that swept Europe.

Roosevelt’s New Deal came about due to The Depression and the obvious and dire needs of huge swathes of society, who had lost everything overnight and for whom the opportunity to rebuild and progress had vanished. The Federal Government intervened, setting up various agencies and passing laws to reform the Stock Exchange and banking. The jury is out as to whether it was working or not but the onset of WWII saw a much needed boost to the American economy and as they say ‘the rest is history.’ With my own small and potted history lesson over I can go back to the content of Rosler’s essay.

Which is quite apt place to begin. With history. Rosler states that to understand the current state, and future of Documentary as a genre, you need to look at where it has been and why it went there. But, unfortunately, Rosler mainly seems to discuss the genre beginning with The Depression, although she does give a nod towards John Grierson.

There have been many discussions amongst theorists and  photographers alike, not just documentary photographers, with regards to ‘bearing witness,’ do we no longer seek to ‘reform’ just ‘know’? Rosler at one point is quite scathing about John Szarkowski, ‘ a powerful man in a powerful position’ who ‘makes a poor argument for the value of disengagement from ‘social cause’ and in favour of a connoisseurship of the tawdry.’

Rosler’s essay tries to tackle this head on, making a huge deal about people in power, the balance or imbalance between the subject and the photographer. Her notes at the end of the essay gave an interesting back story to the relationship between Arthur J Munby and his ‘hidden’ wife Hannah Cullwick.

According to her opening few paragraphs, documentary photography was used to ‘represent the social conscience of liberal sensibility.’ It was part of the ideology of the New Deal, of do-gooders revealing the ‘tangible reality of generalized poverty’ but ultimately ended up achieving very little. Do we believe her cynical rhetoric that documentary images were merely taken to salve the guilty consciences of the rich, that they were produced in the spirit of ‘moralism,’ rather than to reform at best and to further careers at worst? Although I would like to rail at some of her notions I can also see some darker truths in what she writes. How many of us walk passed images from UNICEF or Save the Children, or the plight of Polar Bears, shake our head thinking ‘isn’t that terrible’ and walk on by? Occasionally we may donate some time or money, but truth be told, not many of us can afford to support every cause we see and there is a sense of ‘compassion fatigue’ – indifference to charitable appeals, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals- and a ‘there for the grace of god go I’ attitude.

Rosler picks up on this before the term ‘compassion fatigue’  entered into the OED, arguing that sometimes the images were more ‘unsettling than the arguments enveloping them’ and accuses Riis of wanting to create sensational journalism and careerism more than campaigning for actual change. And how much do the photographers contribute after? Should they do anything after? Is there a duty to further a campaign? Or should they be allowed to do their job and continue to pursue the next assignment in peace? Why is it that documentary photographers, more so than the writers, get vilified for making money from their work? How many journalists are held to account and asked ‘ well you wrote this article about X,Y and Z ten years ago. You are still making money from the book you wrote subsequently, did you give the people/cause that you wrote about some of your proceeds?’ I told you I ended up asking more questions of myself…

This essay  was written in its original form, before revisions, back in 1981 yet makes pertinent points that are levelled at contemporary photographers today. For example Steve McCurry has been very vocal in the arrest of Sharbat Gula, better known as Afghan Girl.  Her portrait was taken in 1984 yet, apparently she never saw a copy of the photograph until 2002.

I agree to a certain extent with her remarks about the’victims’ of documentary photography, and the possible exploitative nature of ‘liberal documentation’ where, according to Rosler, dedication to reform has been
replaced by ‘exoticism, tourism, voyeurism…and careerism,’ et al.

Careerism, and the desire for making money, for all concerned within the documentary process, has moved into the realm of the curator. Images are no longer solely intended for magazine articles and books, they transcend into galleries and museums. A few noted photographers who follow this line are Steve McCurry, Edward Burtynsky and Sebastiao Selgado.  The Photographers Gallery seem to underline Rosler’s point as they call Salgado ‘an exemplar of the tradition of ‘concerned photography’ [whose]  in-depth bodies of work document the lives of people the world over, finding beauty, strength and hope even in those in the bleakest of circumstances.’ He may not produce work to fulfil this criteria but this is how it is being marketed.The work of the above named may all eventually become ‘historic’ but their very contemporary work is exhibited alongside their ‘retrospective.’ More so in her notes, rather than the essay (which I also read and found insightful) Rosler is very caustic about the labels that Documentary Photography then splintered into, calling ‘concerned photography’ a ‘nonsensical designation…signifying the weakest possible idea of social engagement.’

Don’t get me wrong I am not saying that this route should not be taken. The world today is a much smaller space and multi-media and cross platforms for showing work must be employed for a photographer’s survival. At the end of the day it is their career and any person who is working or building a career wants to make sure it pays the bills, but photographers do need to consider carefully why they are taking certain images, what is the intended use and are they exploiting anyone else along the way.

Rosler chooses The Bowery, a ‘skid row,’ as her example. Why continue to photograph those already photographed? The audience learns nothing new, their intention is not to campaign for improvement but to gawp at the unfortunate mix of humanity in a way that Victorian Society did at Bedlam Hospital. Have we traded one form of unsavoury entertainment for another? Again I think Rosler uses emotive language, a list of diatribes and hyperbole to make her point but she does seem to hit some uncomfortable nails on uncomfortable heads.

Rosler mentions Dorothea Lange’s photograph of Florence Thompson, aka the ‘Migrant Mother’ and the fact Thompson bemoans the fact that her image hangs ‘all over the world’ yet she gained no benefit from it.

It would appear that not much has changed; in 2002 National Geographic started to pay Sharbat Gula ‘a stipend’, not sure how much, whilst Steve McCurry’s signed print of her image sold at auction in 2012 for a realised $178,900. Do I think that he should pass some of this on?..not sure if I snapped a random stranger whilst on an assignment and if all of a sudden everyone loved it, I would want to part with any of my earnings from it…tricky when you put yourself in the frame (no pun intended).

Edward S Curtis is another person singled out for accepting the rich man’s dollar and producing a form of ‘fakery’ when documenting North American peoples, as he would take with him a stock of clothing and props for his subjects, most of which were not necessarily authentic or appropriate! However, it is recognised that despite this failing he did show them in a positive light and not dispossessed and destitute…what Rosler does not mention in her essay, but again fills in details in her notes, is that he also recorded thousands of songs on wax rolls along with oral histories which were eventually transcribed so he wasn’t just snapping away and leaving in a perfunctory manner.

Next, Rosler makes a point about the life of a photograph; in the first instance it captures the ‘now’  ‘created out of the stream of the present…[as] testimony…evidence…’ and then secondly as a historical document to be used as a teaching aid, for whatever purpose, to look at that period in history, to hold it up as an example of photographic documentary? As students are we perpetuating a problem? Is it a real problem or one that Rosler is making? If we consider the subjects as ‘victims’ in the first instance, is Rosler correct in her assertions that those revisiting previous topics are perpetrating the same rather than highlighting an injustice?

In an interview with Richard Billingham he did not feel as if his photographs of his parents and family were exploitation, as they were not intended for the eventual outcome and they were taken with a warmth, yet he acknowledges that in the age of the internet they are being taken out of context, and in another interview reference in a previous blog post, he states that to return to the same subject after the success of his book would have been exploitation.

Towards the end of her essay Rosler includes a reference to her own work The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75) which I think can be summed up in the blurb on the Whitney Museum of American Art web page:

In her work, Martha Rosler has often employed—and deconstructed—photographic conventions in ways that examine the authenticity associated with documentary photography and the unbalanced relationship between disenfranchised communities and their visual representations. Here, Rosler uses a combination of images and texts to respond to earlier documentary photographs of vagrants and alcoholics in Manhattan’s run-down Bowery neighborhood. Criticizing what she regards as documentary photography’s diminished power to motivate change, Rosler juxtaposed photographs of Bowery storefronts with shots of typewritten words associated with drunkenness. The resulting disjunction—between words that refer to an all-too-human state and images devoid of people—suggests the inherent limitations of both photography and language as “descriptive systems” to address a complex social problem. By arranging the work’s component parts in a grid, Rosler disrupts the traditional idea that a work of art, hanging by itself in a museum, is to be approached simply as an object of beauty.

I found an excellent review of an exhibition of her work here. And a great video here

Rosler ends by stating that there is a ‘germ of another documentary’ beginning to develop, one not controlled by money or social causes and hopes that this will develop into ‘real’ documentary.

In watching the included video and studying more contemporary photographers I don’t know if I am qualified to say we now have  reached the exalted state she required but I think that it is quite a healthy genre and is developing in new and exiting directions with the likes of Broomberg and Chanarin and the work by twins Hasan and Husain Essop.

As a photographer I can only hope that I avoid all the pitfalls of exploitation and not focus on the limitations of the genre, but think about how it can be explored as it embraces new technologies and ideas of Surrealism/manipulation to document events and ideals.


Adams, T. (2016) Richard Billingham: ‘I just hated growing up in that tower block’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/mar/13/richard-billingham-tower-block-white-dee-rays-a-laugh-liz (Accessed: 14 November 2016).

Boone, J. (2016) ‘Afghan girl’ rejects offer to suspend deportation from Pakistan. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/08/afghan-girl-sharbat-gula-rejects-offer-to-suspend-deportation-from-pakistan (Accessed: 14 November 2016).

Eyes of the afghan girl: A critical take on the ’Steve McCurry scandal’ (2016) Available at: http://petapixel.com/2016/06/07/eyes-afghan-girl-critical-take-steve-mccurry-scandal/ (Accessed: 14 November 2016).

Harris, G. (2016) Photographer Steve McCurry speaks out against arrest of Sharbat Gula, the ‘afghan girl with green eyes’. Available at: http://theartnewspaper.com/news/photographer-steve-mccurry-speaks-out-against-arrest-of-sharbat-gula-the-afghan-girl-with-green-eyes/ (Accessed: 14 November 2016).

Liberalism in the United States (2016) in Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberalism_in_the_United_States (Accessed: 14 November 2016).

Rights (2066) Whitney Museum of American art: Martha Rosler: The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. Available at: http://collection.whitney.org/object/8304 (Accessed: 14 November 2016).

Rosler, M. ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’, in Bolton, R. (ed.) (1992) The Contest of Meaning. MA:MIT Press (p. 303).

A postmodern documentary -The myth of objectivity

There is quite a bit of research and academic reading to complete in the first section of this module…and more to come by the looks of things. It is safe to say that some is much easier to read and digest on the first look than others. I have been asked to read two separate quotes, one from Allan Sekula and the other from André  Bazin, then compare their points of view and write a 250 word response, recording my own view on the issue of photographic objectivity. The basis of this exercise is to think about ‘the myth of objectivity’ and this myth has implications for documentary photographic practice. Objectivity meaning impartiality, absence of bias/prejudice, detachment, dispassion, and neutrality.

I find it difficult to evaluate a point of view, or an opinion, if looking at a single quote when removed from the entire essay, and therefore, possibly, taken out of context. I decided to read the essays they were individually taken from to gain a better understanding. As ever this is a double-edged sword; I learnt new things, but it was time consuming and involved sitting at my PC to get to grips with new terminology and look up various people who are referenced in the text.

The Ontology of the Photographic Image –  André Bazin

Firstly – ‘Ontology’- a set of concepts in a subject area, or domain, that shows their properties and relations between them; the nature of being; a study or concern about what kind of things exist. In relation to this essay I feel the third definition is what I need to be focused on.

My second port of call was looking up ‘plastic arts,’ may sound strange that in all my years of study I have never come across this term, but there you have it. So, for those also uninitiated, it is a term that is broadly applied to all visual arts to differentiate them from written arts, such as music and poetry. That was the title and first sentence sorted! It then got a little easier  (oh, apart from I had to look up who Sainte-Beuve was – literary critic of French literature – in the introductory blurb).

Bazin begins with the idea that the origin of visual arts was possibly religious, people believing that the continuance of an actual body, or representation of ensured they would continue to exist; therefore a very early introduction to the art of reality. Like Bazin I am therefore blaming the Egyptians…they obviously started all this! He summed it up by saying it was ‘the preservation of life by a representation of life.’ Over time this subtly changed; people no longer believed that the ‘representation’ of the thing was the thing itself and that, in the main, portraits and statues were made to remember people by and for the vanity of those wishing to be remembered. Bazin stated that ‘painting the whole world over…struck a varied balance between the symbolic and realism.’

This then shifted again, in about the 15th century, from ‘spiritual realities’ to the desire to be ‘as close to an imitation as possible.’ Taking it a step further is the 16th century Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I – an allegorical panel painting which reveal the queen surrounded by symbols of imperial majesty against a backdrop representing the defeat of the Spanish Armada – she stands with her hand on the globe and an open window behind her showing the sinking of the Armada, it is full of other signs and symbols of power as images became more and more politically motivated.

Then along came the camera obscura, which created the illusion of 3D space and perspective and threw the art world into turmoil…I mean do we stick to the spiritual reality or go with this new-fangled, psychological desire to ‘duplicate the world’?I love the fact Bazin writes that ‘perspective was the original sin of Western painting’! As photography developed the plastic arts no longer had to work as hard, no longer getting their knickers in a twist over making things look real, that it [photography] had once and for all somehow satisfied ‘our obsession with realism.’ Bazin quite firmly believed that photography wasn’t a physical process like painting, but captured the images by ‘ a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part’ making people really happy over how clever they were at capturing reality. Oh, and then came Picasso who took the textbook about realism, ripped it all up, danced over its grave and started the crisis all over again; painters said, righto we don’t need to worry about reality, photography does that for us and ‘the masses’ quite readily identified ‘resemblance …with photography and…the kind of painting which is related to photography.’

Bazin also comments that photography has ‘essentially [an] objective character.’ Then eventually, for those of you still with me, we get to the quote:

For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a non-living agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man.

followed by a truncated version of:

In spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space.

There were about 2 more pages of the essay which were just as interesting to read but to enable me to not make this post longer than necessary I shall stop my ramblings about Bazin here and move onto Sekula…

On the Invention of Photographic Meaning 1975 – Allan Sekula

….Allan, shakes head, oh Allan…you write about some really insightful things but seriously, I’d read more if it wasn’t such hard work – frowny face. The introduction states his writing was influenced by Barthes. Influenced by? I think he stole, swallowed then regurgitated his thesaurus! I printed out the entire 22 page document…how glad was I that the quote came on the third page? The first thing I learnt from this essay was that as much as we learn to translate and read the meaning of images we also have to learn to translate and understand essays like this! I don’t know how many times I had to read it before I could read through it fluently without pondering what it was talking about. I mean I could decode the words but know what they were telling me? Spleen vented I’ll get on… (though I may still mutter in my head as I continue).

In this essay Sekula investigates the ‘nature of photographic context and meaning’ and in doing so also considers the political implications and possible political uses of photography…brings up the old argument is it ‘a fine art,’ and the idea that certain ideologies could possibly impose ‘hidden interpretations on photographers and their subjects.’ There is more but I only read to the quote…

He opens his argument with the premise that the meaning, therefore understanding, of a photograph is linked to ‘cultural definition’ – we can only grasp its meaning and ‘read’ it if we understand the cultural references. We then move on through several paragraphs about ‘photographic discourse’ as being an ‘information exchange’ – basically a visual conversation. Yet we must accept that these conversations will be limited as they can be ‘tendentious’…runs to definition jargon buster….. tendentious – expressing or intending to promote a particular cause or point of view, especially a controversial one…now understanding what THAT meant allowed me to understand the bits that went before and after so much more clearly!

Accepting this about an image, we have to consider that in order to get the message you need to be interested in it, consider where it is coming from – do we accept the message as ‘right’ because it is coming from the anonymous ‘them’ – is it going to be considered as ‘art’ or information in the press? The press is naturally biased and plays to public perception and the political message of the day. Added to the ‘tendentiousness’ of images we also have to think about the rhetoric attached – the fact they produce an effect or make a statement rather than illicit information.  Sekula tells us the image itself will be ‘incomplete’ in its message as it depends on added external information to be fully ‘readable,’ that is you need to know the context and cultural background. However, photographic literacy can be learnt, even if we are told that images can be ‘beyond speech’ or have ‘universal significance’ that photography is ‘a universal and independent language or sign system’ which is what Bazin appears to be arguing. Then we get the quote:

But if we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image.

PHEW…..now I understand where they are coming from I can comment on their view points.

As a quick aside I recently found this older, but relevant OCA post which made some good points related to the subject of objectivity.

As a reminder Bazin wrote:

For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a non-living agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man.

In spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space.

Whilst Sekula believes:

But if we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image.

Exercise: The Myth of Objectivity

As mentioned in the course notes Bazin is a prime example of the critics and practitioners who historically believed in ‘the objective authority of the photographic image’ – asserting the camera mechanically produces images without the intervention of human creativity and put simply, the image is the true representation of the subject. I am glad I read the entire article, as other commentators were critical of Bazin’s stance, and taking these quotes out of context strips away some of the other ideas, making his statements less assertive and less clear cut; Bazin does acknowledge the impact of the photographers’ personality – through selection and purpose. Further on he also states ‘photography can even surpass art in creative power’ when discussing Surrealism. I think he realises that there are different forms of photography: one that creates art and another used to ‘embalm time.’

Sekula’s writing on photography has a more modern approach and he questions the purported realism, political impact and use of photographs. He also separates high art from press images and argues that for photographs to have meaning one has to first understand their context, cultural references, intended audience and purpose; here we can return to Berger’s theory of ‘ambiguity’ (Berger& Mohr, 1995 p.91).

So in conclusion, taken together these two quotes ascertain that a photograph can prove the ‘being’ of an object but not always its meaning. One could also argue that a photograph also cannot demonstrate any link between multiple objects captured within a single frame leading to ambiguity and there no longer being ‘an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image’ if there ever was one in the first place. The audience can make it’s own narrative.

A postmodern documentary- Martha Rosler

For a moment let’s put Rosler on the back burner and concentrate on some background research… (I’m also waiting for a book to arrive with the Martha Rosler essay in) Dr. Mary Klages is an Associate Professor, English Department, University of Colorado, Boulder and her areas of speciality are:

American Literature
Cultural Studies
Gender and Sexuality Studies
Literary Theory

She has written an article on Postmodernism

The Tate Gallery, as per usual, has some information in its glossary for when I need to research certain topics.

Mary Klages was, and I do believe still is, an Associate Professor within the English Dept. at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She has written several books including Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed. Within this she has written an essay exploring Postmodernism. The next exercise is to read an article by Martha Rosler and makes notes on it in my blog.

Before doing that, I felt I really needed to get to grips with what Mary Klages had to say about Postmodernism. I have to admit to not knowing much about literary or art theory, so this is quite a steep learning curve, and although it can be tedious looking up new terminology and theorists, I have found the information enlightening and relevant to the photographers work I have been researching, as well as linking to some of the exercises and assignments that are within the coursework.

It didn’t start well when Klages acknowledged that Postmodernism was a complicated term and hard to define due to it being a relatively new concept, only emerging as an area of academic study within the 1980’s. I wondered – if ‘experts’ couldn’t define it what chance would I have? That taken as read, we are asked to note that each new era only develops as a direct link, be it causal or reactionary, to what has come before. This I agree with as we consciously or unconsciously, mimic the world around us – a prime example would be our up-bringing; we either choose to emulate our parents ideals or declare there is no-way we will follow in their footsteps or behaviours. The same could be said of art/photography; we study other artists, which has either a negative or positive impact on the exploratory direct of our own work.

It is also hard to define as it is multi-disciplined crossing into other areas of study/disciplines – as did Surrealism before it. The first thing I could relate to was when Klages spoke about the traits which Postmodernism favours. Having just seen Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s 20 min film at the Tate I can state, quite categorically, that this falls 100% within the Postmodern genre…as she outlines that it follows certain ideas: “rejecting boundaries, rejecting rigid genre distinctions, emphasizing pastiche, parody, bricolage, irony and playfulness. “It also favours “reflexivity, fragmentation, discontinuity, ambiguity, simultaneity” and further on comments that Postmodernism doesn’t “lament the idea of fragmentation, provisionality or incoherence but celebrates that…” It has the attitude that “the world is meaningless..” so “Let’s not pretend that art can make meaning and let’s just play with nonsense.”

In Hermistos Children: Pilot Episode, Marvin Gaye Chetwynd does all of the above and more….I loved 2 reviews that I found on the film when first released…”The filmed performance was summarised by Adrian Searle as, “The young woman who rode to her own death on the dildo see-saw at the Sugar-Tits Doom Club,” and described by Richard Dorment as, “Silly beyond words and teetered at times on the edge of porn – but once you start looking at it I defy you to tear yourself away.” I sat there thinking WHAT am I watching (polite version for blog)…sadly a lot of the art references were lost on me…or am I that sad? I think I would be scared if I had understood it! Drugs, that’s what I blame it on, drugs, lots of drugs. (we should be getting some more information with regards to the film from the study day tutor. Once received I may have a more enlightened view which will be reflected in the write up when completed.)

However,  from the Tate blurb a more favourable review…”The art critic Tom Morton has also picked up on the multiple sources and connotations of Chetwynd’s work, writing that ‘the artist and her mummers’ band tell tall tales in a manner that recalls at once the theatre of Alfred Jarry and Bertolt Brecht, a disco at a science-fiction convention, and a primary school nativity play’ ” If you want your mind blown go watch it…

Klages goes on to  describe to us how ‘Modernity’ enjoys order and the rational, and society relies heavily on the binary concept of “order” and  “disorder.” In order for there to be ‘order’ (no pun intended) there has to be the opposite; if missing, something trundles along to ‘create/construct’ this ‘disorder.’ In Western society we are advised, “Thus anything non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-hygienic, non-rational, (etc) becomes part of ‘disorder’ and has to be eliminated…”

Which all links quite nicely to the exhibition I saw at the weekend at The Photographers Gallery, The Feminist Avant-Garde, women were supposed to be quiet, remain hidden, go stand in the kitchen… they decided to rebel against that.

New name to play with – Francois Lyotard – argued that “Totality, and stability, and order” are maintained by a “grand narrative” in which cultures tell  themselves about their “practices and beliefs,” the example given is that the USA tells the story that democracy is the most enlightened (rational) form of government” (not if Trump gets in!) I guess in photography, we use the medium to reveal the narratives that we know, reinforcing these ideals, or alternatively reject them and parody them in the Post-modernistic fashion, which Klages assures us is the “critique of grand narratives” as it is aware “that such narratives serve to mask the contradictions and instabilities that are inherent in any social organisation or practice.”

Alec Soth, Danny Lyon, those working for the FSA, Diane Arbus…et al looked at social outsiders, those outside the norm, contradictions to these grand narratives; Postmodernism apparently rejects the grand narrative in favour of “mini-narrative” which are “situational, provisional, contingent” – if I am reading this right I guess these photographers also fall in the Postmodern genre. Especially as postmodernism’s “mini-narratives” are “stories that explain small practices, local events, rather than large-scale universal or global concepts.” Cue assignment 1.

After a section relating to semiotics, ‘signifiers’ and the ‘signified’; a signifier being a sound/image and the signified the concept… I’ll look deeper into that one later…Mary Klage continues with the fact that Postmodernism is “concerned with questions  of the organisation of knowledge.” This knowledge is “equated to science”: Science:Good, Narrative:Bad (reminded me of Orwell’s Animal Farm, Four Legs: Good. Two Legs: Bad…unless you were a bird of course…) Bad being “primitive, irrational” and so linked to “women, children and lunatics”! – go the Feminists!

In our Postmodern society this acquisition of knowledge has become “functional”, learning things not just to know them but to employ that knowledge, that there is more “emphasis on skills and training” as opposed to learning for learning sake. This has become scarily relevant as more and more Arts Education courses are scrapped. The article comments on English graduates being asked “What will you DO with your degree?” which was echoed in a recent online blog post on PoisonandIce.com.

Working within the field of education it is very frustrating that there is STILL a huge problem of one size fits all, square peg round hole syndrome and not enough recognition of individual needs and differentiation…cue what I maybe looking into for my assignment 1…

After getting my head around all of that information, the next exercise is to read “In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)” by Martha Rosler in Bolton,R. (ed.) (1992) The Contest of Meaning. Cambridge, MA:MIT Press (p303). As mentioned above I have ordered a secondhand copy of the book and am waiting for it to arrive. Sometimes I try to source PDF files but I do prefer a printed page to highlight, they are also portable, but this essay comes from a book marked as essential reading, so thought it best to get hold of it.

Martha Rosler

Also I thought it a good idea to find out a little more about the person whose essay I was about to read. From her website.

Martha Rosler works in video, photography, text, installation, and performance. Her work focuses on the public sphere, exploring issues from everyday life and the media to architecture and the built environment, especially as they affect women.

Quite strange that having never heard of her before I saw her video, Semiotics of the Kitchen yesterday at The Photographers Gallery as part of the Feminist Avant-Garde exhibition study day which I will do a write up about, once I have caught up with a few more exercises and cracked on a bit more with taking some reference photos for my first assignment.

Will update this post once the book arrives…


As this post was fairly long I have created another to respond to the Rosler essay which can be found here


Martha rosler: About the artist (no date) Available at: http://www.martharosler.net/index.html (Accessed: 2 November 2016).

(No Date) Available at: http://www.poisonandice.com/tuesday-talks/lets-face-it-your-art-degree-is-going-to-get-you-nowhere (Accessed: 2 November 2016).

(No Date) Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/chetwynd-hermitos-children-the-pilot-episode-t13044/text-summary (Accessed: 2 November 2016).

Untitled document (no date) Available at: http://www.bdavetian.com/Postmodernism.html (Accessed: 2 November 2016).


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.

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).

Miranda Gavin on Documentary Photography

What is documentary photography?

The above is a short video interview with Miranda Gavin, a freelance writer, photographer, blogger and educator. Made about five years ago, some of her questions are still as valid now as they were then. These days, amongst other things, she writes on The Roaming Eye Blog (formerly Hotshoe Blog ) which in her own words is:

an eclectic dip into the world of contemporary photography and lens-based media from a multidisciplinary perspective.

So what are my reactions to her viewpoints and questions raised? Firstly I think we need to establish exactly what Documentary Photography is in essence, before we decide which photographs do or no not fall into this category. As far as I can establish Documentary Photography is photography that follows a single topic or story in-depth, over time and normally used to record significant and historical events – both in the outside world and also for more personal and intimate occasions. In theory it should deepen the audiences understanding and emotional connection to a given topic and historically was presented in an unaltered, truthful format- somewhat along the lines of photojournalism. Abigail Solomon-Godeau (1991) stated that ‘in the nineteenth century almost all photography was what would later be described as ‘documentary’.'(cited in Wells. 1997, p.63)

These days photographers have become more creative and artistic with their photographs but they still document the event, or provoke a need within the audience to alter a given situation.

A prime example would be Uffe Weng who successfully staged images to highlight the Greenpeace protest against the Lego/Shell partnership. Others closer to home would be the twee newborn baby photo or creative wedding albums widely available.

Now, as Gavin points out, and even more so since this interview, modern technology and ever changing publishing outlets have blurred the lines and made differentiating some work quite tricky. Personally, I quite enjoy the more creative/surreal images produced and can recognise their intrinsic value, as well as the need for more “straight/truthful” photo stories.

Gavin wonders if older terminology is still relevant within photography today – ‘reportage, photojournalism, documentary.’ Well, if Photoshop can use ‘dodge’ and ‘burn’ I can’t see why not, although maybe some newer ones could be thrown into the mix.

Picking up on her comment with regards to the ratio of women:men on photography courses, it is interesting to note that although the ratio may not be as large, women seem to out number men in most UK universities – so maybe her reasons given are not just availability of access etc. Having said that without digital photography I doubt that I would be on this course, but that opportunity to use digital is also still available to men. However, I do think that her remarks on the topics covered, and how the female viewpoint will impact upon the bodies of work being produced are valid. Most notably I can think of the recent (ish) exhibition on Motherhood and Identity which included Elina Brotherus’ staged self portraits documenting her failed IVF attempts.

From reading annasocablog I found the following interesting reading:

The April 2014 issue of the BJP is entitled Women only. In the editorial comment, Diane Smyth, deputy editor, states: I’ve been struck by how male-dominated photography is.” She tallies up the numbers of Magnum members: 8 women out of 85 members of whom only 4 are living; VII Photo has 21 photographers, 5 of whom are women; only 14% of the entries to into this year’s World Press Photo were women. By changing the gender balance of practising photographers, you would indeed change the content of documentaries.

Just as it always was, documentary photography is produced for everyone, to reinforce their ideas or alter their perspective, you will either agree or disagree with the points they are trying to make, feel strong emotions – positive or negative – or feel indifferent as you don’t care about the subject matter. In order to reach a large audience you do need to consider what platforms you are going to use. Another random side note: nosing about, apparently more women than men use Instagram so if wanting to raise awareness of testicular cancer don’t use Instagram…unless you target the girlfriends to do the checking and nagging (insert cheeky smiley) so maybe that isn’t such a bad idea….

The remarks made with regards to colour accuracy etc don’t just apply to documentary; advertisers, designers, fashion houses, artists et al must cry when they think of the small mobile phone screens being used to view their work. How many laymen colour correct their dust covered screens, which sit in the full glare of the sun….? In this respect the controllable printed image is still very important, but then this raises the question of printed where and how? Magazines and books do not always do justice to larger images. Who controls what advert an article is placed next to? Badly placed ads

To see a genuine print limits the audience to those who go to exhibitions and that won’t get your message across. So, in truth, to send a message these days you have to be prepared to use multiple platforms and not worry too much about the finer detail on some; the message often outweighs the clarity of the image. (Was the dress blue or gold and white?) Do we ask the photographer or the audience …shudders thinking of Barthes whispering in my ear about dead authors…what category it should be placed in? I guess that only matters if the reader only flicks to a given section within a photography magazine.

I did find I found exception to the idea that documentary work wasn’t ‘commissioned’ as much was and still is, Nick Hedges for example, was commissioned by Shelter in 1968 to expose “the poor housing conditions and abject poverty being endured by people across Britain.”

Interesting video which asked more questions than gave answers, which I guess was the intention and certainly made me do the usual wandering thoughts hence more than the required 200 words reply……


Hedges, N. and Museum, N.M. (no date) Make life worth living: Nick Hedges’ photographs for shelter 1968–72. Available at: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/Plan_your_visit/exhibitions/make_life_worth_living (Accessed: 10 October 2016).

Shontell, A. (2011) The 22 most hilarious, unfortunately placed ads ever. Available at: http://www.businessinsider.com/22-funny-bad-ad-placements?IR=T#-1 (Accessed: 10 October 2016).

1611, annag (2014) Annasocablog. Available at: https://annasocablog.wordpress.com/category/coursework/part-1/page/2/ (Accessed: 10 October 2016).

Putz, H. (2016) Home truths – the photographers’ gallery. Available at: http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/photography-motherhood-and-identity (Accessed: 10 October 2016).

Association, P. (2016) Gender gap in UK degree subjects doubles in eight years, Ucas study finds. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/jan/05/gender-gap-uk-degree-subjects-doubles-eight-years-ucas-study (Accessed: 10 October 2016).

Vaughan, A. (2014) Lego ends shell partnership following Greenpeace campaign. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/09/lego-ends-shell-partnership-following-greenpeace-campaign (Accessed: 10 October 2016).

Wells, L. (ed.) (1996) Photography: A critical introduction. London: Routledge.

What is documentary photography? (2016) Available at: https://vimeo.com/29752787 (Accessed: 10 October 2016).