Assignment 6: Joining the Dots

NOTE: this is the reworked version of this assignment for assessment, following feedback from my tutor. The revisions are minor structural changes, removal/replacement of sample photos and expanded visual analysis of remaining images.


Submission

Joining the dots: overcoming the photograph’s temporality problem

“A narrative is an account of events occurring over time. It is irreducibly durative.”

(Jerome Bruner 1991: 6)

“Photographs aren’t good at telling stories. Stories require a beginning, middle and end. They require the progression of time. Photographs stop time. They are frozen. Mute.”
(Alec Soth 2006)

These quotes, from a narratologist and a photographer, seem to make a similar point; the former appears to provide an explanation for the latter. Whilst a single photograph can share many characteristics of narrative (settings, characters, themes, styles etc) with other forms of communication, it stumbles on the core trait of a narrative: depicting change over time.

However, there is an argument that even if the former statement is true, the latter does not automatically follow – perhaps the singular photograph’s assumed inability to depict a progression of time is just an obstacle to overcome rather than a fundamental truth. This essay seeks to evaluate the intrinsic and extrinsic techniques available to circumvent this temporal limitation of the still photograph.

Narrative can mean both factual and fictional images; documentary is more obviously built on stories, but advertising and fine art can be too. Here we will focus on documentary and constructed tableaux for examples.

General theories of narrative

Ania Nalecka was referring to a photobook when she said “[it] gives you dots to connect, not drawing the lines. The question is how far you put the dots apart.” (2016) but the concept extends to all narratives, which are a combination of author and reader contributions (Barthes 1977: 142-148). In many textual narratives, the author’s portion is almost total, while others use techniques such as the ‘unreliable narrator’ to shift the burden of comprehension towards the reader.

The single photo narrative is perhaps analogous to the six-word short story usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” (citation disputed). In being short on ‘dots’ and long on ‘gaps’, this is an almost photographic narrative; the reader brings 90% of the story. This is how most single image narratives work.

If we accept that any narrative is partly created in the mind of the reader (/viewer) then the temporal limitations of the still photograph begin to weaken. We enter what Stephen Shore describes as the mental model of photography, where the contents of the frame are augmented by cognitive processes by the viewer (2010: 117).

Using Stuart Hall’s communication theory, the photographic message is deliberately encoded at the moment of production with the intent of it being appropriately decoded at the moment of consumption (1980: 128). This decoding places the image in a cognitive context where progression of time can be implied.

Peter Wollen categorised temporal levels of signification in photography as states, processes and events (in Wells 2003: 77). States are unchanging and so have no narrative ability, while processes (dynamically changing) and events (one-off changes) have at least two data points, even if the viewer needs to imagine one of them.

Wollen initially appears to support my hypothesis: “The fact that images may themselves appear as punctual, virtually without duration, does not mean that the situations that they represent lack any quality of duration.” (ibid: 77), though subsequently concludes that: “Still photographs, then, cannot be seen as narratives in themselves, but as elements of narrative.” (ibid: 78). He accepts that an image can represent a durative process or event yet denies its status as a narrative – a distinction I find curious.

I will now examine extrinsic and intrinsic approaches that can provide the additional data points needed to form a narrative from a single image.

Extrinsic techniques

A simple method of providing more ‘dots’ is to use text. This can be as concise as a caption to a news photograph or as wordy as an artist’s statement in a gallery. Barthes describes the three levels of message in the photographic image as denotative, connotative (to be covered shortly) and linguistic (1977: 36). While some images can communicate a narrative with no caption, others need at least minimal anchoring text to convey a meaningful story.

Compare two iconic images from the Vietnam War:

Don McCullin’s photo contains enough information for a viewer to construct a simple, self-contained narrative such as ‘he went into battle, he saw horrors, he is changed’. His uniform and rifle denote ‘soldier’; his dirty hands, face and clothes denote recent action (the ‘event’); his expression, with blank gaze and slightly open mouth, signify his shock at what he saw. The caption provides additional factual information, but even without it, the photo can act as a ‘closed’ narrative.

On the other hand, Nick Ut’s photograph shows that some horrific event has happened but only makes sufficient sense as a narrative when accompanied by a caption that specifies it followed a napalm attack. The text provides the ‘before’ that places the ‘after’ in a chronological context. Without this, the image of a naked child fleeing soldiers is open to misinterpretation; whilst it contains signifiers, it remains incomplete as a narrative without the caption.

The McCullin photo was one of the first images in the Tate exhibition and book Conflict-Time-Photography (2014), which shows us how aftermath photography relies on extrinsic information; a landscape becomes a battlefield, or an execution site, once a caption is added.

John Berger advises caution in adding text to an image as it may multiply the implied veracity of both:

“The photograph, irrefutable as evidence but weak in meaning, is given a meaning by the words. And the words, which by themselves remain at the level of generalisation, are given specific authenticity by the irrefutability of the photograph. Together the two then become very powerful; an open question appears to have been fully answered.” (2013: 66)

A less direct form of guiding the viewer using extrinsic information is to use connotations based on shared cultural codes. The placement of signifiers (metaphors and metonyms) can provide the cognitive pointers necessary to steer the viewer towards the intended story. When signifier is equated to signified in the mind of the viewer, it can provide a missing data point that can be added to the denoted image to construct an implied narrative. Recognisable characters or other references to commonly known stories can provide cognitive shortcuts.

Elliott Erwitt’s wedding scene projects a ‘love triangle’ narrative by presenting archetypes in an identifiable context. The dress denotes a wedding, and her expression suggests suppressed rage. It’s fair to assume that the man to her left is the groom; his bouffant hair and protective demeanour say ‘nice guy’. The slick-haired, smirking man plays the ‘bad boy’. A concerned best friend is visible to the right. The whole scene implies a preceding infidelity ‘event’.

bratsk
Bratsk wedding, 1967 by Elliott Erwitt

In this example the viewer provides the build-up and the photo provides the punchline. In other instances the image is called upon to project both backwards and forwards in time, or as Berger says, “When we find a photograph meaningful, we are lending it a past and a future.” (2013: 64).

Outside of constructed tableaux, this kind of narrative is harder to achieve than a simple past-present or a present-future pairing. In factual photography the misunderstood notion of ‘the decisive moment’ (usually erroneously attributed to Henri Cartier-Bresson) seemed to imply that a well-timed single image could provide the fulcrum of an implied story.

Bate suggests that “The viewer of the picture can run their imagination back and forth across the time before and after the depicted action to imagine the sequence of events constituting the story” (2009: 57-58).

However, I remain unconvinced that this is inherently applicable to factual photography. In reality, it is the retrospective historical viewing, where extrinsic information is added to the image – i.e. the viewer thinks they know what happened before and after – that provides this illusion of peripeteia (in the Goldberg photo here, no-one got shot; he put the gun away).

Ultimately, I prefer Swarkowski’s interpretation that the moment is decisive to the picture, not the story (2007: 100).

goldberg
Room 17, Riviera Hotel, San Francisco, California, 1987 by Jim Goldberg

Intrinsic techniques

One can organise elements within the frame to visually support a desired narrative reading, though these still rely on shared codes to a degree. One method is to mimic other forms of narrative. For example, one can capture or construct an image that places chronological signifiers in a directional reading from left to right or top to bottom, following conventions of written language (assuming a western audience).

jeff-wall-passerby
Passerby, 1996 by Jeff Wall

Jeff Wall’s Passerby uses the brightly-lit right-hand edge to depict the present and the murky centre portion to imply an immediate prior event. That the figure on the right is looking back to the heavily shaded/shady central figure gives an impression that something has just happened, or nearly happened. Both figures are in motion, enhancing the sense that this narrative hinges on a split second prior to the shot.

A related approach is to use internal framing devices to communicate separate pockets of time. Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler have used the device of dividing walls to imply discontinuous time in tableaux photographs. The sense here is of the shadow on the left representing an earlier, caged incarnation of the figure on the right, seen emerging into a brighter, more open setting. The window, half shaded and half lit, signifies a transition event.

stripping
Stripping, 1998 by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler

One can divide the frame to imply alternative scenarios rather than sequential time. The classic example is Reijlander’s The Two Ways of Life, which shows a present and two possible futures, though a contemporary example is provided by Craig Semetko, whose balanced image evokes a love story with alternative endings. The left couple sit together but not embracing, and the sullen figure in front appears to be regretting a lost love. The more tactile couple on the right is being observed by a more relaxed equivalent. The background could be read as a memory, the foreground the present.

hanoi-lonely-hearts
Hanoi Lonely Hearts, 2010 by Craig Semetko

An imaginative way of implying a narrative, inspired by both painting and cinema, is by repetition of a character. If multiple figures in an image are sufficiently similar, it can suggest the same character moving through time. Giacomelli’s dancing priests can be read as a single archetype moving around in a clockwise circle before collapsing on the ground, then regaining composure. The strong figure-to-ground contrasts enhances this sense of animated motion.

giacomelli
Senigallia, Italy, 1963 by Mario Giacomelli

Conclusion

I have sought to include a sense of narrative in single images in some of my work to date. I adopted a combination of still life and the Reijlander ‘alternative scenario’ approach in a constructed narrative about a decision to take a career break to study. The image can be read as either two competing halves, or a left-right transition from past to future, but in either case a change of state – an event, therefore a narrative – is communicated by the placement of multiple signifiers.

two-ways-of-still-life
Two Ways of (Still) Life, 2015 by Rob Townsend

I am increasingly thinking about how to consciously build a sense of narrative direction into single documentary images, even if they also add up to create an overarching narrative in the form of a photo essay.

I believe the examples given – using extrinsic signification and intrinsic visual techniques – provide sufficient evidence that it is possible to tell a story in a single photograph. The key to this position is the Barthesian view that the reader is a kind of author, working with information provided by the originating author to construct meaning (1977: 142-148). Communicating a narrative in a single image is a matter of placing sufficient clues for the viewer to connect the dots.

To return to Soth’s quote: a photograph may be frozen but it does not need to be mute, if you can listen to what your mind is saying when you look at it.

(1986 words)


Bibliography

Barthes, R. (1977) Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press.

Baker, S. and Mavlian, S. (2014) Time-Conflict-Photography. London: Tate Publishing

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin.

Bruner, J. (1991). The Narrative Construction of Reality. Critical Inquiry. 18 (Autumn).

Cartier-Bresson, H. (2004) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. Woking: Aperture.

Erwitt, E (2003) Elliott Erwitt Snaps. London: Phaidon

Goldberg, J (2015) https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jun/07/magnum-photographers-on-the-images-that-changed-their-lives (accessed 15/01/2017)

Hall, S. (1980) ‘Encoding, Decoding’ https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/SH-Encoding-Decoding.pdf (accessed 03/12/2016)

Koch, R (2009) PhotoBox: Bringing the Great Photographers into Focus. London: Thames & Hudson

Lardinois, B (2009) Magnum Magnum. London: Thames & Hudson

Marien, M.W. (2012) 100 Ideas that Changed Photography. London: Laurence King.

McCullin, D., Evans, H. and Sontag, S. (2003) Don McCullin. London: Random House.

Nalecka, A (2016) http://colinpantall.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/farewell-photobook-bristol-2016.html (accessed 02/12/2016)

Semetko, C (2010) Unposed. Hamburg: teNeues Verlag

Shore, S. (2010) The Nature of Photographs: A Primer. (2nd edn). New York: Phaidon.

Soth, A (2006) https://alecsothblog.wordpress.com/2006/09/13/90/ (accessed 02/12/2016)

Szarkowski, J. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye (2nd edn). New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Wollen, P. (2003). ‘Fire and Ice’. in: Wells, L The Photography Reader. London: Routledge.

List of illustrations

Shell-shocked marine, Hue, 1968 by Don McCullin

Children fleeing a napalm bomb attack, Trang Bàng, South Vietnam, 1972 by Nick Ut

Bratsk wedding, 1967 by Elliott Erwitt

Room 17, Riviera Hotel, San Francisco, California, 1987 by Jim Goldberg

Passerby, 1996 by Jeff Wall

Stripping, 1998 by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler

Hanoi Lonely Hearts, 2010 by Craig Semetko

Senigallia, Italy, 1963 by Mario Giacomelli

Two Ways of (Still) Life, 2015 by Rob Townsend

Assignment 6: tutor feedback

I had my final video tutorial with my tutor Helen a couple of weeks ago but have waited until now to write this up as I’ve been working my way through the six assignments for rework in chronological order, and now it’s time to finalise Assignment 6.

General comments

Whilst there were a few positive comments…:

  • “Presented and formatted clearly”
  • “This is a large topic, which you have approached in a well-rounded manner to cover a spectrum of ideas”
  • “I am really pleased to see that you’re engaging with your peers again here and dealing with their feedback”
  • “It’s clear you’ve also worked to source a wide range of relevant images, creating a varied selection across documentary, fine art and constructed genres. Whilst this is certainly ambitious and admirable…”

… most of the feedback was rework advice; following straight on from “ambitious and admirable” was the counterbalance point:

  • “… I feel it conflicts with being able to discuss points and illustrations in significant depth”
  • “if you even had a few less images, this would allow you to demonstrate more fully, the analysis skills you’ve been developing throughout the unit”

In short: I went too broad and shallow in the original version. I covered too many genres and too many specific images, which diluted the focus of the points I was trying to make.

Helen suggested two possible paths to rework:

  • Merging sections
    • The ‘text’ and ‘connotations’ segments are both extrinsic elements and so could be addressed together and judiciously edited
  • Weaving the narrative theory in with technique areas
    • Instead of separating as a precursor segment

Having gone through the essay again after a few weeks of not looking at it, I can see the former approach working better with this material. The challenge with the latter is that the key points of theory are, to my mind, equally applicable to both extrinsic and intrinsic approaches and therefore difficult to synthesise the theory and the applications without repetition. I therefore plan to first of all try the former approach suggested above.

Specific pointers

A few itemised suggestions for improvement:

  • McCullin image:
    • Explain what ‘information’ I am referring to in the accompanying text, and be less prescriptive in assigning a definitive reading
  • Ut image:
    • Reword to be less ‘closed’ and more objective
  • ‘External coding’ section: decide whether to stick to the ‘decisive moment’ point or the ‘rewritten narrative point’ (and if the former, source an example)
  • My own practice:
    • Reword opening to be less negative
  • Sources:
    • Add list of illustrations
  • Fewer images:
    • Remove duplicate examples to male ore room for better visual analysis of fewer images
    • I think the following images can be cut: Cummings; Fink; Riboud; Reijlander; Goicolea
    • I may however add in an image to illustrate the ‘decisive moment’ point
  • Were there any exhibitions that might have influenced you during this project? I would include these and any other works/texts that you looked at during this time in the bibliography – even if you haven’t directly cited them in the essay
    • Good point – one certainly springs to mind (Time-Conflict-Photography) from 2014/15) and is very relevant; I will mention this

Assignment 6: Joining the Dots [original]

This is the original version of the assignment as submitted to my tutor. The reworked final version for assessment is here.

A printer-friendly PDF version is available.


Joining the dots: overcoming the photograph’s temporality problem

“A narrative is an account of events occurring over time. It is irreducibly durative.”
(Jerome Bruner 1991: 6)

“Photographs aren’t good at telling stories. Stories require a beginning, middle and end. They require the progression of time. Photographs stop time. They are frozen. Mute.”
(Alec Soth 2006)

These quotes, from a narratologist and a photographer, seem to make a similar point; the former appears to provide an explanation for the latter. Whilst a single photograph can share many characteristics of narrative (settings, characters, themes, styles etc) with other forms of communication, it stumbles on the core trait of a narrative: depicting change over time.

However, there is an argument that even if the former statement is true, the latter does not automatically follow – perhaps the singular photograph’s assumed inability to depict a progression of time is just an obstacle to overcome rather than a fundamental truth. This essay seeks to evaluate the intrinsic and extrinsic techniques available to circumvent this temporal limitation of the still photograph.

Defining terms

Narrative is defined well by Bruner above. For the purposes of this essay story and narrative are interchangeable (narratologists may disagree). To place parameters around the discussion, this analysis is primarily concerned with intentional narratives; a viewer may sometimes discern a narrative because the photographer created an ambiguous sense of ‘narrativity’ – “that is, the qualities of a story, minus the story itself” (Marien 2012: 79), but these images are not our core subject. Intentional narrative can mean both factual and fictional images; documentary is more obviously built on narratives, but advertising and fine art can be too. The difference in techniques used partly depends on the degree of direct authorial control by the photographer: lower for documentary, higher for advertising or art.

This essay acknowledges the existence of a literal approach to depicting the passage of time in a still photograph, namely long exposure times. The resultant images may show time or movement but any ‘story’ evoked is simplistic to the point of abstraction. We focus here on less literal, more inventive approaches to the problem.

Theories of narrative

Ania Nalecka was referring to a photobook when she said “[it] gives you dots to connect, not drawing the lines. The question is how far you put the dots apart.” (2016) but the concept extends to all narratives, which are a combination of author and reader contributions (Barthes 1977: 142-148). In many textual narratives, the author’s portion is almost total, while others use techniques such as the ‘unreliable narrator’ to shift the burden of comprehension towards the reader. The single photo narrative is perhaps analogous to the six-word short story usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn” (citation disputed). In being short on ‘dots’ and long on ‘gaps’, this is an almost photographic narrative; the reader brings 90% of the story. This is how most single image narratives work.

If we accept that any narrative is partly created in the mind of the reader (/viewer) then the temporal limitations of the still photograph begin to weaken. We enter what Stephen Shore describes as the mental model of photography, where the contents of the frame are augmented by cognitive processes by the viewer (2010: 117). Using Stuart Hall’s communication theory, the photographic message is deliberately encoded at the moment of production with the intent of it being appropriately decoded at the moment of consumption (1980: 128). This decoding places the image in a cognitive context where progression of time can be implied.

Peter Wollen categorised temporal levels of signification in photography as states, processes and events (in Wells 2003: 77). States are unchanging and so have no narrative ability, while processes (dynamically changing) and events (one-off changes) have at least two data points, even if the viewer needs to imagine one of them.

Wollen initially appears to support my hypothesis: “The fact that images may themselves appear as punctual, virtually without duration, does not mean that the situations that they represent lack any quality of duration.” (ibid: 77), though subsequently concludes that: “Still photographs, then, cannot be seen as narratives in themselves, but as elements of narrative.” (ibid: 78). He accepts that an image can represent a durative process or event yet denies its status as a narrative – a distinction I find curious.

I will now examine three areas of technique, not mutually exclusive, that can provide the additional data points needed to form a narrative from a single image.

Text as context

A simple method of providing more ‘dots’ is to use text. This can be as concise as a caption to a news photograph or as wordy as an artist’s statement in a gallery. Barthes describes the three levels of message in the photographic image as denotative, connotative (to be covered shortly) and linguistic (1977: 36). While some images can communicate a narrative with no caption, others need at least minimal anchoring text to convey a meaningful story.

Compare two iconic images from the Vietnam War: McCullin’s photo contains enough information for a viewer needs to construct the simple, self-contained narrative ‘he went into battle, he saw horrors, he is changed’. The caption provides additional factual information, but even without it, the photo can act as a ‘closed’ narrative.

shell-shocked-marine
Shell-shocked marine, Hue, 1968 by Don McCullin

On the other hand, Nick Ut’s photograph shows that something horrific has happened but only makes sense as a narrative when accompanied by a caption that specifies it followed a napalm attack. The text provides the ‘before’ that places the ‘after’ in a chronological context. Without this, the image of a naked child fleeing soldiers is either cryptic or open to wild misinterpretation.

nick-ut-children-fleeing-a-napalm-bomb-attack-trang-bang-south-vietnam
Children fleeing a napalm bomb attack, Trang Bàng, South Vietnam, 1972 by Nick Ut

John Berger advises caution in adding text to an image as it may multiply the implied veracity of both:

“The photograph, irrefutable as evidence but weak in meaning, is given a meaning by the words. And the words, which by themselves remain at the level of generalisation, are given specific authenticity by the irrefutability of the photograph. Together the two then become very powerful; an open question appears to have been fully answered.” (2013: 66)

Extrinsic signification

A less direct form of guiding the viewer to a narrative is to use connotations based on shared cultural codes. The placement of signifiers (metaphors and metonyms) can provide the cognitive pointers necessary to steer the viewer towards the intended story. When signifier is equated to signified in the mind of the viewer, it can provide a missing data point that can be added to the denoted image to construct an implied narrative. Recognisable characters or other references to commonly known stories can provide cognitive shortcuts.

Elliott Erwitt’s wedding scene projects a ‘love triangle’ narrative simply by presenting archetypes.

bratsk
Bratsk wedding, 1967 by Elliott Erwitt

Brian Cummings’ Fairy Fatales series provides feminist rewrites of traditional tales. This not only relies on, but adds to, the Rapunzel story to create a new narrative.

rapunzel
Rapunzel, 2012 by Brian Cummings

In these two examples the viewer provides the build-up and the photo provides the punchline. In other instances the image is called upon to project both backwards and forwards in time, or as Berger says, “When we find a photograph meaningful, we are lending it a past and a future.” (2013: 64). Outside of constructed tableaux, this kind of narrative is harder to achieve than a simple past-present or a present-future pairing. In factual photography the misunderstood notion of ‘the decisive moment’ (usually erroneously attributed to Henri Cartier-Bresson) seemed to imply that a well-timed single image could provide the fulcrum of an implied story.

Bate suggests that “The viewer of the picture can run their imagination back and forth across the time before and after the depicted action to imagine the sequence of events constituting the story” (2009: 57-58). However, I remain unconvinced that this is inherently applicable to factual photography. In reality, it is the retrospective historical viewing, where extrinsic knowledge is added to the image – i.e. the viewer believes they know what happened before and after – that provides this illusion of peripeteia. Ultimately, I prefer Swarkowski’s interpretation that the moment is decisive to the picture, not the story (2007: 100).

Visual techniques

Along with extrinsic approaches, one can organise elements within the frame to support a desired narrative reading. One method is to mimic other forms of narrative. For example, one can capture or construct an image that places chronological signifiers in a directional reading from left to right or top to bottom, following conventions of written language (assuming a western audience).

Jeff Wall’s Passerby uses the brightly-lit right-hand edge to depict the present and the murky centre portion to imply something that has just happened, or nearly happened.

jeff-wall-passerby
Passerby, 1996 by Jeff Wall

Though less common, implied front-to-back depth can also be used to evoke a sense of movement and therefore chronological narrative. Larry Fink is a master of compositional depth, and here uses the device of the doorway and forward motion to imply the transition from one space (and time) to another. The fact that it is a birthday cake that emerges enhances the sense of a temporal narrative.

fink-birthday
Pat Sabatine’s 8th birthday, 1977 by Larry Fink

A related approach is to use internal framing devices to communicate separate pockets of time. Whether intentional or not, this windowed image from Marc Riboud emulates the look of comic strips, implying discontinuous time.

riboud-peking
Peking street, 1965 by Marc Riboud

Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler have used the device of dividing walls to imply discontinuous time in tableau-style photographs.

stripping
Stripping, 1998 by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler

One can divide the frame to imply alternative scenarios rather than sequential time. An early example of this is Oscar Reijlander’s pioneering photomontage The Two Ways of Life, which manages to show a present and two possible futures.

two_ways_of_life
The Two Ways of Life, 1857 by Oscar Reijlander

A more contemporary example is provided by Craig Semetko, whose balanced image evokes a love story with two different endings.

hanoi-lonely-hearts
Hanoi Lonely Hearts, 2010 by Craig Semetko

An imaginative way of implying a narrative in a single image is by repetition of a character. If multiple people in an image are sufficiently homogenous, an interpretation can arise that depicts them as the same character moving through time.

senigallia
Senigallia, Italy, 1963 by Mario Giacomelli

This borrows from a historic art technique that depicts a character in different portions of a painting to note past, present and future, and simultaneously adds a cinematic dimension to the still. This repetition can be observed, as by Giacomelli, or constructed (actually digitally manipulated) as by Goicolea here.

blizzard
Blizzard, 2001 by Anthony Goicolea

My own practice

I haven’t consciously sought to include a sense of narrative in single images a great deal, with one notable exception to date. I adopted a combination of still life and the Reijlander ‘alternative scenario’ approach in a constructed narrative about a decision to take a career break to study. The image can be read as either two competing halves, or a left-right transition from past to future, but in either case a change of state – a narrative – is communicated.

two-ways-of-still-life.jpg
Two Ways of (Still) Life, 2015 by Rob Townsend

I am, however, increasingly thinking about how to consciously build a sense of narrative direction into single images, even if they also add up to create an overarching narrative in the form of a photo essay. This is a direction I intend to take my evolving documentary photography style towards.

Conclusion

I believe the examples given – using text as context, extrinsic signification and intrinsic visual techniques – provide sufficient evidence that it is possible to tell a story in a single photograph. The key to this position is the Barthesian view that the reader is a kind of author, working with information provided by the originating author to construct meaning (1977: 142-148). Communicating a narrative in a single image is a matter of placing sufficient clues for the viewer to connect the dots.

To return to Soth’s quote: a photograph may be frozen but it does not need to be mute, if you can listen to what your mind is saying when you look at it.


Sources

Barthes, R. (1977) Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press.

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin.

Bruner, J. (1991). The Narrative Construction of Reality. Critical Inquiry. 18 (Autumn).

Cartier-Bresson, H. (2004) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. Woking: Aperture.

Erwitt, E (2003) Elliott Erwitt Snaps. London: Phaidon

Fink, L. (2014) Larry Fink on Composition and Improvisation. United States: Aperture.

Hall, S. (1980) ‘Encoding, Decoding’ https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/SH-Encoding-Decoding.pdf (accessed 03/12/2016)

Koch, R (2009) PhotoBox: Bringing the Great Photographers into Focus. London: Thames & Hudson

Lardinois, B (2009) Magnum Magnum. London: Thames & Hudson

Marien, M.W. (2012) 100 Ideas that Changed Photography. London: Laurence King.

McCullin, D., Evans, H. and Sontag, S. (2003) Don McCullin. London: Random House.

Nalecka, A (2016) http://colinpantall.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/farewell-photobook-bristol-2016.html (accessed 02/12/2016)

Semetko, C (2010) Unposed. Hamburg: teNeues Verlag

Shore, S. (2010) The Nature of Photographs: A Primer. (2nd edn). New York: Phaidon.

Soth, A (2006) https://alecsothblog.wordpress.com/2006/09/13/90/ (accessed 02/12/2016)

Szarkowski, J. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye (2nd edn). New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Wollen, P. (2003). Fire and Ice. In: Wells, L The Photography Reader. London: Routledge.

 

 

Assignment 6: draft for review

This is the proposed essay for Assignment 6, awaiting peer review from kind-hearted fellow students.

It is missing sources at the moment, as I will add these in the version I submit for my tutor.

I’m making small tweaks to this as I’m going along – which may render some comments a little cryptic – apologies.


Joining the dots: overcoming the photograph’s temporality problem

“A narrative is an account of events occurring over time. It is irreducibly durative.”
(Jerome Bruner 1991: 6)

“Photographs aren’t good at telling stories. Stories require a beginning, middle and end. They require the progression of time. Photographs stop time. They are frozen. Mute.”
(Alec Soth 2007)

These quotes, from a narratologist and a photographer, seem to make a similar point; the former appears to provide an explanation for the latter. Whilst a single photograph can share many characteristics of narrative (settings, characters, themes, styles etc) with other forms of communication, it stumbles on the core trait of a narrative: depicting change over time.

However, there is an argument that even if the former statement is true, the latter does not automatically follow – perhaps the singular photograph’s assumed inability to depict a progression of time is just an obstacle to overcome rather than a fundamental truth. This essay seeks to examine the intrinsic and extrinsic techniques available to circumvent this temporal limitation of the still photograph.

Defining terms

Narrative is defined well by Bruner above. For the purposes of this essay story and narrative are interchangeable. To place parameters around the discussion, this analysis is primarily concerned with intentional narratives; a viewer may sometimes discern a narrative because the photographer created an ambiguous sense of ‘narrativity’ – “that is, the qualities of a story, minus the story itself” (Marien 2012: 79), but these images are not our core subject. Intentional narrative can mean both factual and fictional images; documentary is more obviously built on narratives, but advertising and fine art can be too. The difference in techniques used partly depends on the degree of direct authorial control by the photographer: lower for documentary, higher for advertising or art.

This essay acknowledges the existence of a very literal approach to depicting the passage of time in a still photograph, namely long exposure times. The resultant images may show time or movement but any ‘story’ evoked is simplistic to the point of abstraction. We focus here on less literal, more inventive approaches to the problem.

Theories of narrative

Ania Nalecka was referring to a photobook when she said “[it] gives you dots to connect, not drawing the lines. The question is how far you put the dots apart.” (2016) but the concept extends to all narratives, which are a combination of author and reader contributions (Barthes 1977: 142-148). In many textual narratives, the author’s portion is almost total, while others use techniques such as the ‘unreliable narrator’ to shift the burden of comprehension towards the reader. The single photo narrative is perhaps analogous to the six-word short story usually (unverifiably) attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “Baby shoes for sale. Never worn” (uncited). In being short on ‘dots’ and long on ‘gaps’, this is an almost photographic narrative; the reader brings 90% of the story. This is how most single image narratives work.

If we accept that any narrative is partly created in the mind of the reader (/viewer) then the temporal limitations of the still photograph begin to weaken. We enter what Stephen Shore describes as the mental model of photography, where the contents of the frame are augmented by cognitive processes by the viewer (2010: 117). Using Stuart Hall’s communication theory, the photographic message is deliberately encoded at the moment of production with the intent of it being appropriately decoded at the moment of consumption (1980: 128). This decoding places the image in a cognitive context where progression of time can be implied.

Peter Wollen categorised temporal levels of signification in photography as states, processes and events (in Wells 2003: 77). States are unchanging and so have no narrative ability, while processes (dynamically changing) and events (one-off changes) have at least two data points, even if the viewer needs to imagine one of them.

Wollen initially appears to support my hypothesis: “The fact that images may themselves appear as punctual, virtually without duration, does not mean that the situations that they represent lack any quality of duration.” (ibid: 77), though subsequently concludes that: “Still photographs, then, cannot be seen as narratives in themselves, but as elements of narrative.” (ibid: 78). He accepts that an image can represent a durative process or event yet denies its status as a narrative – a distinction I find curious.

I will now examine three areas of technique, not mutually exclusive, that can provide the additional data points needed to form a narrative from a single image.

Text as context

A simple method of providing more ‘dots’ is to use text. This can be as concise as a caption to a news photograph or as wordy as an artist’s statement in a gallery. Barthes describes the three levels of message in the photographic image as denotative, connotative (to be covered shortly) and linguistic (1997: 36). While some images can communicate a narrative with no caption, others need at least minimal anchoring text to convey a meaningful story.

Compare two iconic images from the Vietnam War: McCullin’s photo contains enough information for a viewer needs to construct the simple, self-contained narrative ‘he went into battle, he saw horrors, he is changed’. The caption provides additional factual information, but even without it, the photo can act as a ‘closed’ narrative.

shell-shocked-marine
Shell-shocked marine, Hue, 1968 by Don McCullin

On the other hand, Nick Ut’s photograph shows that something horrific has happened but only makes sense as a narrative when accompanied by a caption that specifies it followed a napalm attack. The text provides the ‘before’ that places the ‘after’ in a chronological context. Without this, the image of a naked child fleeing soldiers is either cryptic or open to wild misinterpretation.

nick-ut-children-fleeing-a-napalm-bomb-attack-trang-bang-south-vietnam
Children fleeing a napalm bomb attack, Trang Bàng, South Vietnam, 1972 by Nick Ut

John Berger advises caution in adding text to an image as it may multiply the implied veracity of both:

“The photograph, irrefutable as evidence but weak in meaning, is given a meaning by the words. And the words, which by themselves remain at the level of generalisation, are given specific authenticity by the irrefutability of the photograph. Together the two then become very powerful; an open question appears to have been fully answered.” (2013: 66)

Extrinsic signification

A less direct form of guiding the viewer to a narrative is to use connotations based on shared cultural codes. The placement of signifiers (metaphors and metonyms) can provide the cognitive pointers necessary to steer the viewer towards the intended story. When signifier is equated to signified in the mind of the viewer, it can provide a missing data point that can be added to the denoted image to construct an implied narrative. Recognisable characters or other references to commonly known stories can provide cognitive shortcuts.

Elliott Erwitt’s wedding scene projects a ‘love triangle’ narrative simply by presenting archetypes.

bratsk
Bratsk wedding, 1967 by Elliott Erwitt

Brian Cummings’ Fairy Fatales series provides feminist rewrites of traditional tales. This not only relies on, but adds to, the Rapunzel story to create a new narrative.

rapunzel
Rapunzel, 2012 by Brian Cummings

In these two examples the viewer provides the build-up and the photo provides the punchline. In other instances the image is called upon to project both backwards and forwards in time, or as Berger says, “When we find a photograph meaningful, we are lending it a past and a future.” (2013: 64). Outside of constructed tableaux, this kind of narrative is harder to achieve than a simple past-present or a present-future pairing. In factual photography the misunderstood notion of ‘the decisive moment’ (usually erroneously attributed to Henri Cartier-Bresson) seemed to imply that a well-timed single image could provide the fulcrum of an implied story.

Bate suggests that “The viewer of the picture can run their imagination back and forth across the time before and after the depicted action to imagine the sequence of events constituting the story” (2009: 57-58). However, I remain unconvinced that this is inherently applicable to factual photography. In reality, it is the retrospective historical viewing, where extrinsic knowledge is added to the image – i.e. the viewer believes they know what happened before and after – that provides this illusion of peripeteia. Ultimately, I prefer Swarkowski’s interpretation that the moment is decisive to the picture, not the story (2007: 100).

Visual techniques

Along with extrinsic approaches, one can organise elements within the frame to support a desired narrative reading. One method is to mimic other forms of narrative. For example, one can capture or construct an image that places chronological signifiers in a directional reading from left to right or top to bottom, following conventions of written language (assuming a western audience).

Jeff Wall’s Passerby uses the brightly-lit right-hand edge to depict the present and the murky centre portion to imply something that has just happened, or nearly happened.

jeff-wall-passerby
Passerby, 1996 by Jeff Wall

Though less common, implied front-to-back depth can also be used to evoke a sense of movement and therefore chronological narrative. Larry Fink is a master of compositional depth, and here uses the device of the doorway and forward motion to imply the transition from one space (and time) to another. The fact that it is a birthday cake that emerges enhances the sense of a temporal narrative.

fink-birthday
Pat Sabatine’s 8th birthday, 1977 by Larry Fink

A related approach is to use internal framing devices to communicate separate pockets of time. Whether intentional or not, this windowed image from Marc Riboud emulates the look of comic strips, implying discontinuous time.

riboud-peking
Peking street, 1965 by Marc Riboud

Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler have used the device of dividing walls to imply discontinuous time in tableau-style photographs.

stripping
Stripping, 1998 by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler

One can divide the frame to imply alternative scenarios rather than sequential time. An early example of this is Oscar Reijlander’s pioneering photomontage The Two Ways of Life, which manages to show a present and two possible futures.

two_ways_of_life
The Two Ways of Life, 1857 by Oscar Reijlander

A more contemporary example is provided by Craig Semetko, whose balanced image evokes a love story with two different endings.

hanoi-lonely-hearts
Hanoi Lonely Hearts, 2010 by Craig Semetko

An imaginative way of implying a narrative in a single image is by repetition of a character. If multiple people in an image are sufficiently homogenous, an interpretation can arise that depicts them as the same character moving through time.

senigallia
Senigallia, Italy, 1963 by Mario Giacomelli

This borrows from a historic art technique that depicts a character in different portions of a painting to note past, present and future, and simultaneously adds a cinematic dimension to the still. This repetition can be observed, as by Giacomelli, or constructed (actually digitally manipulated) as by Goicolea here.

blizzard
Blizzard, 2001 by Anthony Goicolea

My own practice

I haven’t consciously sought to include a sense of narrative in single images a great deal, with one notable exception to date. I adopted a combination of still life and the Reijlander ‘alternative scenario’ approach in a constructed narrative about a decision to take a career break to study. The image can be read as either two competing halves, or a left-right transition from past to future, but in either case a change of state – a narrative – is communicated.

two-ways-of-still-life.jpg
Two Ways of (Still) Life, 2015 by Rob Townsend

I am, however, increasingly thinking about how to consciously build a sense of narrative direction into single images, even if they also add up to create an overarching narrative in the form of a photo essay. This is a direction I intend to take my evolving documentary photography style towards.

Conclusion

I believe the examples given – using text as context, extrinsic signification and intrinsic visual techniques – provide sufficient evidence that it is possible to tell a story in a single photograph. The key to this position is the Barthesian view that the reader is a kind of author, working with information provided by the originating author to construct meaning (1977: 142-148). Communicating a narrative in a single image is a matter of placing sufficient clues for the viewer to connect the dots.

To return to Soth’s quote: a photograph may be frozen but it does not need to be mute, if you can listen to what your mind is saying when you look at it.

Assignment 6: essay plan

I believe the research phase of my critical review has come to an end, and it’s time to corral my thoughts into shape. The first step of this is to draft out an essay plan, to give a sequence to my line of argument and to assign approximate word counts to each section.

Working title

Stretching the Moment: overcoming photography’s temporality problem

Essay plan

  • Introduction
    • Establish argument
    • With quote? tbc
    • 200 words
  • Define terms
    • Narrative
    • Narrativity
    • Ambiguity
    • Fact vs fiction
    • 200 words
  • Narrative theory
    • Dots vs gaps – cognitive effort
    • cf literature
    • Mental modelling  (Shore)
    • Encoding/decoding (Hall)
    • State-process-event (Wollen)
    • 250 words
  • Topical time techniques
    • Long shutter
    • Multiple exposure
    • Composites
    • Examples
    • 150 words
  • Contextual techniques
    • Supporting text
    • Caption
    • Embedded text
    • Juxtaposition (series / pairs)
    • 250 words
  • Intrinsic / formal techniques
    • Composition
    • Directional reading
    • Tableaux
    • 250 words
  • Extrinsic / cognitive techniques
    • Lending a past / future (Berger)
    • Signification – metaphor / metonymy
    • Cultural references – identification
    • 250 words
  • Application to own practice
    • Past
    • Future
    • 200 words
  • Conclusion
    • Refer back to opening argument
    • 200 words

Total word count based on this plan = 1950, so I have a little wiggle room built in.

Next steps

I’m going to do a first draft of all of the above sections today, with the possible exception of the introduction and the conclusion as I may add these in at a subsequent draft.

Assignment 6: potential examples

I had a bit of a breakthrough with planning out my critical review this weekend, when I took out a bunch of photo books to pick out example images to support my intended line of argument. The following images won’t all make it into the essay as examples, as I have multiple images to support the same point in some cases,  but just collecting a longlist has helped to focus my mind on how to structure the subject matter.

I’ll explain more in my next post, which will be an outline essay plan. Until then, here’s the image selection that I may be working with whilst I write:

Assignment 6: research and preparation

I’ve spent most of this last week trying to wrestle the subject area of my critical review (in short: overcoming the limitations of the still photograph for narrative) into some kind of shape, as it is potentially a little sprawling. I needed to get my thoughts down in the form of a mind map and then start honing it down into a line of argument.

Mind map

I’ve been using mind mapping for assignments for a few months now, and I’m definitely a fan. They help to capture the breadth and depth of a subject, and help me to identify connections, overlaps and gaps. To some degree they help with the essay structure, although that’s maybe more a function of the essay plan (to follow).

I usually do my mind mapping straight into an iPad app, but for the first time the subject area felt so vast that I started on an A3 pad:


Once I felt this was as full as it needed to be, I transferred it onto the digital format. Maybe it’s psychological, but even just repeating the same words in a neater format feels like progress :-)

Line of argument

There are a few different ways I could structure this essay, and to be honest right now I’m not completely sure which way to go. It will depend on the hypothesis I choose: what angle I’m taking, the point I want to make – this will help me to determine the ‘backbone’ of the essay. The sequence of arguments and the introduction/conclusion bookends will fall into place from this backbone. My approach here is influenced by the fact that my last essay, for Documentary, went through a complete re-write when I conceded that my first draft did not have a strong core hypothesis. I am trying to avoid repeating that mistake.

The basic ‘bookends’ of hypothesis I have in mind is something like:

  • Introduction:  (phrased as a question) Can a photograph tell a story?
    • Alternative phrasing: start an appropriate quote and interrogate it
  • — [middle bit] —
  • Conclusion: no, a single photograph cannot tell a story in and of itself
    • But there are clever ways of working around it

It’s the middle bit, the line of argument, that can be organised in a couple of different ways…

  • Address the subject from a point of view of a fundamental genre split
    • Fact (documentary)
    • Fiction (art, advertising)
    • Discuss approaches that are appropriate to each genre based on their inherent characteristics
  • Address the subject from a point of view of the different types of approaches employed
    • Internal i.e. within the frame
    • External
    • Mental modelling
  • Address the subject from the point of view of characteristics of narrative
    • Temporality
    • Transition
    • Characters
    • Apply each to single image photography and discuss techniques for working around them
  • Narrow it down to one major limitation to address: temporality
    • Examine techniques employed to lend a sense of time to the still image
    • Look at it from either genre-first or approach-first point of view, per options above

Next steps

  • Make a decision on the central line of argument
  • Write up an essay plan
  • Send to my tutor for comment

Assignment 6: initial thoughts

I’ve been a little quiet on here lately as I switched to focusing on my other course Documentary for a while. I have however decided that realistically I only have the time to complete one of my Level 2 courses in time for the January submission deadline, and that one will be Gesture & Meaning as I am closest to the end, and Documentary finishes with a rather large photographic assignment which I am only a little way through – G&M finishes with an essay, which is much more achievable in the remaining winter months!

Critical review – thought process

I had originally envisaged an essay based around portraiture, specifically that which obscures the face, as this is an area of interest to me as a viewer (but not especially as a photographer). However, after some discussions with my tutor it became apparent that it would be more useful to focus on areas that align better with my own evolving practice, which leans more towards documentary than any other genre, and I’m not much of a portrait photographer really. I switched to covering portraiture for the oral presentation, albeit with a documentary twist. For the critical review I needed to get back to basics and find a subject that both interested me and fit in with my own practice.

I thought about what aspects of my Level 2 courses (both of them) have made the most impression on me this year, and which of them lend themselves best to a critical review. The aforementioned ‘faceless portrait’ concept was one, but not related enough to my own practice. The possibilities of authorship in documentary photography was another, so I covered this in my critical review for Documentary.

I remembered that I’d attended the OCA symposium Photography Matters in May this year and came away with a sense that I had identified a consistent thread across most of the papers presented: in one way or another, they had explored the limitations of the still photograph, and suggested ways of overcoming the limitations. In particular, the paper by Keith Roberts on archival portrait pairing struck a chord with me. This tangentially led to a thought process that brought me to the proposed critical review topic…

Proposed subject

I am interested in the use of photography for storytelling, as this is one of the foundations of documentary photography. The notion of storytelling is not limited to documentary photography and can also be applied to fictional narratives such as fine art photography or advertising.

Whilst the ability of photography to tell stories is generally predicated on the use of multiple photographs (e.g. the photo essay format), there are some photographers who have attempted to make a single photograph carry a narrative. This is however working against the photograph’s inherent nature as a still, single, silent, flat artefact.

What I am interested in is the range of approaches that have been adopted by photographers over the years to work around the narrative limitations of the still photograph. In an age when the vast majority of visual news media is audio-visual, does still photography continue to have a narrative purpose? If so, how?

So my working title is:

Can a photograph tell a story?

The title may evolve as I plan and draft the text, so I will revise this towards the end.

Other inspirations

In addition to the symposium mentioned above, I recalled a few other pointers that I’ve picked up over my studies that relate to this subject area, and will form part of my reading for the essay:

  • John Berger’s essays ‘Appearances’ and ‘Stories’ in Understanding a Photograph (2013)
  • An old Alec Soth blog post on storytelling
  • A quote by photobook designer Ania Nalecka: “A photobook gives you dots to connect, not drawing the lines. The question is how far you put the dots apart.” (2016)

Expected areas to investigate

  • Characteristics of the photograph (including limitations)
  • Application of storytelling (factual, fictional)
  • Juxtaposition with other images (single images, part of series)
  • Use of text – captioning, context, embedded text etc
  • Composite photography inc collage
  • Camera techniques e.g. timelapse, multiple exposure, ICM etc
  • Application of semiotics e.g. metaphorical signifiers

Next steps

  • Start a draft mind map
  • Collate some reading material