Research point: Contemporary awareness 1

As directed, I have looked at a range of contemporary documentary photographers, those suggested in the course notes and a couple I’ve added. I will attempt to say something about all the practitioners, not just those whose work appeals to me (sometimes it’s interesting to note why something doesn‘t appeal).

Richard Billingham (+ Nan Goldin)

Richard Billingham is best known for Ray’s A Laugh, his very candid chronicle of life with an alcoholic father and an obese mother. The down-at-heel subject matter and cheap, grimy aesthetic reminded me of Nan Goldin and The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, but interestingly for me it didn’t stand up to my impression of the Goldin work. I had to ask myself why: the Billingham work is closer to home – I am of northern English working class stock, and whilst I didn’t grow up in an environment like this, I have known families like the Billinghams, I’ve been in their houses.

Untitled (from Ray's A Laugh) © Ray Billingham
Untitled (from Ray’s A Laugh) © Ray Billingham

I think that’s the exact reason I found the images hard to admire… a little too close to home? I can admire Goldin’s work as I am detached from it, the New York scene was never my home, I can be a ‘class tourist’, a voyeur into lives I might not otherwise see. With Billingham I was reminded of aspects of my life that I thought I’d left behind, and that made me uncomfortable.

This led me to a realisation: empathy with the subject matter can work both ways. A positive image of a known environment is nice to look at, whilst being reminded of negative things can be repellent; conversely, looking at positive images of an unknown environment is just dull, while the misfortunes of people outside of your own experience can be fascinating.

Is it social documentary? Billingham doesn’t seem to be overtly making a particular ‘point’, or seeking to move anyone’s opinions on a subject. In a sense it is simply a set of raw, honest ‘family photos’ that got treated as ‘art’.

In any case, the very idea that an art buyer pays to hang these very personal images of poverty on a wall as ‘art’ doesn’t sit well with me.

Briony Campbell

Campbell is best known for The Dad Project, a very personal account of watching her father’s terminal illness. I was interested to see what other work she had done. Her projects set in Africa stood out as good examples of Campbell’s very people-centric photographic style; there’s a warmth that comes through her use of individuals to imply narratives. She’s skilled at capturing gestures, expressions and ‘moments’. The images are documentary in nature, but whether they are ‘social documentary’ is pretty subjective.

Luc Delahaye

The interesting thing about Delahaye is how he straddles the normally quite distinct worlds of photojournalism and the ‘art world’. He has shot images that are clearly documentary in nature, and others that are more etheral and abstract – all from the same source material: war zones. He shoots on a large format camera and exhibits wall-sized prints that sell for thousands of dollars, yet the subject matter is the kind of thing seen daily in newspapers, magazines and on news TV – bomb sites, angry mobs, bodies.

One clue to this apparent contradiction is the title of his war-zone project: History. He seems to want to rescue these images from their transient, repetitive, ongoing-present and preserve them life-size as historical artefacts for the future. It’s a bold approach to documentary, no doubt about it. I think the fact that he makes so much money out of these images on the contemporary art market makes it easy to be cynical about his intentions, however.

Melanie Dornier

Dornier describes herself on her website as a documentary photographer and specifically talks about working on “stories that relate to my personal life and that can contribute to positive change“.  One thread that comes across strongly is the question of identity, especially in her work in India and China. Another distinctive aspect that emerges is giving voice to women in these countries; she seems to want to redress the traditional male bias in these societies by highlighting the lives of the women and girls.

Nadav Kandar

Whilst very interesting to look at, I found Kandar’s work to be a little too ‘conceptual’ and constructed to be examined under the lens of ‘documentary’. His portraits and typological studies of e.g. buildings are undoubtedly good photographs, and I have bookmarked the site for future reference, but he seems an odd choice for this list.

Steve McCurry

McCurry is the one I knew most about before I undertook this particular bout of research. I visited a fantastic retrospective exhibition of his work in 2014 and have one of his photobooks, although I confess I haven’t looked at it as much as I expected to.

Here’s the thing though: I never really considered him a ‘documentary photographer’! To me he’s a travel photographer par excellence, and his use of colour, light and composition is exemplary. But his photographs are of things (people, places) while real social documentary photographs are about things. I’m sure I’m doing the man a terrible disservice, and it’s most likely as I’ve seen his images taken out of their original context, but there you go. Sorry Steve.

Mimi Mollica

Mollica is a new name to me, and a great find so thank you, OCA course notes. The London shots are great exampes of contemporary colour street photography, not an easy genre to pull off. And the Athens and Brazil shots really give a feel for the ambience of these places.

Some of her work is more overly documentary in nature, such as Disability in India and Miscarriage of Justice in the UK, though I have to say I like the more broad-scope street photography / sense-of-place projects.

Brent Stirton

Karo People, South West Ethiopia © Brent Stilton 2007
Karo People, South West Ethiopia © Brent Stilton 2007

Stirton is very much an issue-focused documentary photographer, as evidenced by his simple project titles: India Blind; South Sudan Early Marriage; Mozambique Landmines and so on. He combines interesting subject matter with often very striking compositional skills, yet avoids being too sensationalist. In many ways he covers similar subject matter to McCurry but with a more overly photojournalistic approach. Stirton (along with Thompson) is one of the photographers on this list that I have found most admirable.

Medford Taylor

Taylor’s work reminded me a lot of McCurry’s – very colourful and well-composed but perhaps a little shallow? I really like the way he sees the world,but I didn’t feel particularly moved by anything. Again, a fantastic travel photographer but not necessarily a documentarian.

Ed Thompson

Like Stirton, Thompson is what I’d consider to be a classic social documentarian: subject matter includes Syrian refugees, the English Defence League, battery farm hens; vigilantes; the Occupy movement. Unlike Stirton, he covers subjects closer to home and in this sense feels like more of a potential role model – this type and quality of work feels achievable! I don’t always say that about photographers that I admire. In this respect, Thompson may become something of an influence on my upcoming assignment.

From Rehome © Ed Thompson 2010
From Rehome © Ed Thompson 2010

On a purely technical point (something I rarely comment on) I noted his preference for square framing – very unusual, especially for ‘serious photography’.

Albrecht Tübke

Like Kandar – lovely work, but not ‘documentary’.

And finally – one of my own favourites:

Alec Soth

The contemporary photographer whose work has excited me most over the last couple of years is Alec Soth. His Gathered Leaves show in 2015 was my favourite exhibition of the last few years. He sometimes chooses reasonably broad subject matter – Songbook is about the anxiety and nostalgia of modern American life – and sometimes more specific, such as the Mississippi river, Niagara Falls or hermits.

Adelyn, from Sleeping by the Mississippi © Alec Soth 2000
Adelyn, from Sleeping by the Mississippi © Alec Soth 2000

His images have a slow, elegaic feel to them, almost like he’s reverentially mourning the passing of a way of life before it’s completely gone. He may not be producing social documentary or photojournalism in the traditional sense, but he’s certainly capturing life in the more modernist vein of, say, Robert Frank or Walker Evans.

Sources (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016)


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