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
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Assignment 5: tutor feedback

Due to circumstances beyond her control, the tutor report back from my Assignment 5 (oral presentation) arrived a little while after the tutorial itself, and I confess that I have had the report a little while myself before getting around to writing this up. I’m reworking the assignment itself today, so this seems like an opportune time to go over the feedback and add my own comments.

General comments

Overall it went down well:

“I found your response to this assignment quite refreshing Rob – the presentation was structured and presented clearly with a pleasing visual treatment, which I felt strengthened its accessibility and my enjoyment of it.”

I was reminded to be more consistent and thorough in documenting my visual analysis:

“Remember to keep building up the depth of your research notes on written assignments as well as practical ones – especially re: image analysis and critical theory relating to illustrations you decide to work with – particularly relevant to the next and final assignment”

Specific pointers

Some pieces of advice, with my comments as appropriate:

  • Section intro slides left blank for up to 20 seconds – some reviewers commented on this
    • I will experiment with reducing this time in rework
  • Add list of illustrations to Acknowledgements slide (original version has photographer names only)
    • Good point – will do
  • As noted by some peer comments – the vocal has a certain echo, that if you have the time and resources, you could consider re-recording
    • Yes, I do intend to re-record now I have identified how to attach an external microphone directly to my computer
  • Daniel Meadows’ example images don’t really align with voiceover point about being non-judgemental / democratic, as boy on left looks ill-at-ease
    • Agreed, there are better supporting examples so I will update this slide to replace that image and ideally add more
  • Although you’ve clearly put a lot of time and research into this assignment and reflection is certainly well evidenced, I don’t feel specific research (into your sources or images) is logged as clearly as it could be. I would say it would be worthwhile writing any of these notes of critique and analysis up and tag clearly in the appropriate section before assessment.
    • Yes, accepted – I can augment the existing notes somewhat
  • You have posted several updates with the planning of this assignment, documenting concept and structure development, questions you’ve had and how you’ve dealt with certain challenges. This is a very useful record, which you’ve managed to make visual with use of screenshots and image ‘boards’ – I particularly find the latter useful in how it alludes to the criteria you’re setting yourself and patterns you might be seeing across certain images. As the actual text for this post is quite short, it would have been fantastic if this could have been followed up with further reflection on final images used (from later in the process), as you don’t refer to them specifically again.
    • Again, I concede that I could fill in some of the written gaps in my decision-making process
    • I have added more notes in the preparatory post I did shortly before completion

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: 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: 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

Assignment 5: Portrait Not Portrait [original]

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


This assignment is an oral presentation of just over 16 minutes on the subject of Portraiture as a Device in Documentary Photography.

As part of this assignment I’d like to do a Virtual Q&A, so please imagine you’ve seen me present this in a room and I’ve now asked if anyone has any questions. Have a think and put your virtual hand up by using the Leave a Reply form below.

Submission

Thank you.

 

Assignment 5: image decisions

I believe I’ve finalised the content of my oral presentation Portrait Not Portrait after an intensive few days pulling it together. I’ve done the slides themselves, written a script per slide and done a few runs through.

Screen Shot 2016-11-10 at 11.23.33.jpg

I just need to do the voiceover and it should be ready for upload and comment.

This post is to talk a little about how and why I chose the example images. Apologies, it’s quite long. I used a lot of images!

Overall principles

I looked at the key points I was trying to make per section, and at the examples I had selected and tried to map how I was representing each topic:

  • Eras of time covered in the ‘history’ section
    • In an early version I had too much from the 1930s/40s
  • Colour palette
    • As black and white historically tended to dominate documentary photography
    • In the end it was just about tipped (16:15) in favour of colour
  • Nationalities of photographer
    • As I’m conscious of bias to US/UK in a lot of academic sources
    • In the end it was almost but not quite evenly split between US, UK and the rest of the world
  • Gender
    • There’s been a clear gender bias throughout history, so aiming for 50:50 would have been unrealistic and unrepresentative
    • It was 80% male, 20% female for quite a while, but I ended up taking Dorothea Lange out (sorry, Dorothea) and ended up with 84% to 16%

In the end I’m happy with the edit and the flow. I’m sure I could have built many different versions. I’m sure I’ve excluded some important people and examples.

General images

I sought images for certain pages that didn’t necessarily need to support particular voiceover points but rather could just exist as simple visual punctuation.

The opening and closing slides were chosen for their composition – full-length  body shots – as I needed to overlay text blocks and this would not have worked with closer compositions, with the risk of obscuring facial features. Additionally, as full-screen images they needed to be in landscape ratio, not the norm for portraiture.

The Alec Soth image on the title slide is a great example of both the documentary and portraiture genres as it evokes the aesthetic most closely associated with the former and the single-subject focus of the latter. Getting specific at a graphic level, the horizontal pipe in the background perfectly dissected the image  and gave me space for the text block.

The David Chancellor image is visually useful in the same way, with its strong horizontal delineation that accommodates the text block. The colours and the punctum of the bloodied face are what makes this a striking closing image. As an aside, this is one of the slides where I picked a key colour from the photograph to use as the title text colour – a tiny point but one that I feel subtly helps the image and text work together coherently.

The contents page and the ‘What’ section title also needed images that made no specific point but gave examples of the breadth of the genre. I was drawn to both the composition and the muted palette of the Phil Borges image, as both differed sufficiently from all the other examples to get across my intended diversity . The face paint is later echoed by the Chancellor image, though I only noticed after the event. There’s a tiny punctum in the Borges photo that makes it successful: the biro cap on the necklace. There’s a story there, and seeing the image makes me want to know more.

The Mimi Mollica image is more in the traditional documentary photography tradition as seen by both the mono palette and the setting. It’s the thin, scarred face that makes this image so striking; again it begs for a narrative explanation.

For the brief comparison of portraiture vs documentary I wanted images that typified the genres. I love the Julian Germain image – it has the direct, consensual focus on one person that I wanted to get across, and possesses a warmth and humanity that’s helped by the colour palette and lighting.

The Mary Ellen Mark example is stereotypical documentary. Black and white, gritty subject matter, urban setting, subjects not addressing the camera. This all helped serve my point that documentary photography is about a wider reality over individual subjects.

For the other context slide where I talk about how a traditional portrait is different to a documentary portrait I wanted to make a simple point about the subject focus being the differentiator. The Christoph Soeder image is one I’ve done a visual analysis of already, but in short I felt it illustrated my point about a ‘pure’ portrait being both of and about the individual.

The photo by Brent Stirton uses props and a background that make it clear that the human subject is but one part of a bigger story. I was happy here to invert a couple of the genre norms: the colour palette is one and the gaze to camera (or  not) is the other. I wanted to show that the norms that I had established were not set in stone.

‘Then’

It felt appropriate to open the historical section with an August Sander, and I felt that one of his most famous images would work best.

Starting with the typology section: the John Lamprey diptych was chosen above similar examples by other photographers for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the use of frontal and profile views in one image, particularly against the grid background, really emphasised my point about treating people as specimens. Secondly, the only nudes in the presentation are, in an inversion of the general photographic norm, male rather than female.

For the specific Sander examples I wanted multiple images to emphasise the posing similarities. I chose three with differences in contrast: the first in shades of grey and the latter two with strong figure-to-ground contrast. My intent here was to show that though poses can be standardised, Sander did find ways of providing visual diversity. For me this set of three images is an exercise in first of all spotting the similarities, then the differences.

The Daniel Meadows images were chosen as I wanted to break the run of adult males in this section, so I selected a child and a woman. I found the boy’s face in particular very striking. [UPDATE: on advice from my tutor I will replace this image as it doesn’t align closely enough with my voiceover point about the images being non-judgemental; it could be interpreted that the boy was ill-at-ease and potentially had learning difficulties, and could therefore have been exploited.]

I felt that the social documentary section would work well opening with a Lewis Hine child labour portrait, and settled on this one for the unsettling gaze of the subject, and the diminishing perspective behind. The separation of subject and background seems to me to emphasise that she doesn’t belong there.

I wanted to include at least one iconic FSA-era image and at one point had both this Walker Evans picture and Lange’s Migrant Mother, but the later got cut. As noted in the voice-over, the visual style of this is very distinctive, with lens compression pushing the subject so close to the wall that she looks pinned, which could be a signifier.

The Chris Killip images as a contrast to the previous two head-on portraits to show how documentary portraiture had evolved by the 1970s. I find the graphical form of the first image very arresting – bunched up in an almost foetal position; the despair is tangible. The second image is one that is analysed in an excellent book The Documentary Impulse (2016) by Stuart Franklin, where it is used as an example of ambiguity in documentary photography. This pair of images made my point about a portrait not needing to clearly show a person’s face, and how this can heighten a metaphorical message. I also like the pleasing symmetry of the two subjects both sitting on walls. The distinctive brickwork places the tightly-cropped subjects in a specific urban environment with minimal detail.

Once I move onto self-expressive documentary it seemed obvious (perhaps too obvious?) to cover Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin. With hindsight these two make largely the same point about the autobiographical nature of some documentary portraiture. In both I was drawn to the piercing, challenging gaze.

Richard Billingham‘s Ray’s A Laugh project came to mind while researching this assignment, and I looked for images that most resembled portraiture – most of the images are wider scenes. I think it’s the masks in the background that make this image. It may not be an intended reading but masks always signify identity to me, and I read the overall project as a kind of examination of family roles and identities.

‘Now’

I open the contemporary section with an image by Chris de Bode, whose work I also discuss within the section. I find this opening image visually striking mostly because of the strong gaze.

The Charles Fréger set that opens the typology slide is intended to be a counterpart to the Sander trio from earlier, to draw out the differences in approach. This project and these portraits in particular appealed to me because, as well as getting over my point about diversity of subject, they just look so young and ill-at-ease that I find them fascinating.

Wherever possible I wanted to introduce sufficient contrast to make my points, so moved from Fréger’s deadpan colour poses to Zed Nelson‘s characterful black and white squares. As well as the strong mono contrasts, it’s the expressions that bring these alive, particularly on the chap on the right.

The contemporary social documentary slide is where I talk about Chris de Bode, though I’d used what I consider his best image as the section opener so looked for his second best. Like the earlier shot it combines a great facial expression with good background context.

The Lee Jeffries project I researched produced many strong images but this was most visually striking. It’s the combination of glassy eyes (cataracts?), the deeply aged skin and the running nose. This stood out as the best example of what Jeffries called the ‘heavy emotions’ he encounters in his subjects.

Boris Mikhailov is used as an counterpoint to the previous two examples that social documentary is more ethical now than before, and in some cases it’s the opposite. This particular image was chosen, to be honest, because most of the others were a little too extreme and would have been more jarring in the presentation context.

Finally in this section, I wanted to bring in photographers that push the boundaries of ‘documentary’ and how their portraits can overlap into fine art. Tom Hunter and his Vermeer homage sprang to mind immediately. It’s a good example of an identifiable art style being adopted, and so is a nice gentle introduction to the notion of hybrid genres before getting more conceptual with the next example.

The Aida Silvestri work is something I saw at The Photographers Gallery a couple of years ago and it stayed in my mind. It’s an amazing blend of documentary, fine art and portraiture, and it completely subverts the portraiture norm of showing the face. Obscured face portraits is something of an interest of mine.

Moving from something so conceptual to the straight photography style of Alex Soth might seem like a odd move, but I wanted to close with a style more like my own before I segue into my own practice. Soth is an art-documentarian in a much more subtle way than the others, in as much as his work is shot in a very naturalistic way, yet has an elegiac, melancholy feel to it that is difficult to articulate.

‘Me’

Putting together this last section was almost the inverse of the first parts – rather than structuring a line of argument and then sourcing images that support the theory, for this part I needed to collate a cross-section of my own work for the last few years and retrospectively find common threads, then apply these to the points raised in my analysis of the work of others.

Without going overboard on the self-analysis here, I found examples of:

  • Typologies
  • Archetypes (metonyms)
  • Narrative devices
  • Metaphor
  • Portrait subject as key part of story

One consequence of this assignment is that I’m realising that the most valuable part hasn’t been demonstrating my knowledge of the subject, but examining my own work.

The whole last section has been a revelation to me. I got a lot out of retrospectively identifying what I was doing and why – and more importantly I felt that I got a lot out of articulating what I will do with this knowledge in future.


The cutting room floor

Just FYI, here are some images I considered as part of my research but ultimately excluded:

Assignment 5: progress

As well as doing a mind map recently to organise my overall thoughts for this presentation, I have been working on a number of other strands in terms of context, structure and key messages – summarised here as a progress update as otherwise it might look like the final assignment arrived fully-formed (far from it).

My tutor is always reminding me that I need to document my working processes as I go along, layering up to the final delivered piece of work. I think this applies to academic assignments like critical reviews and oral presentations as much as photographic ones.

To this end, here are some reasonably structured updates on how I’ve been approaching the assignment.

Title

I’m a huge believer in the importance of a good title – I’ve blogged about this before on previous assignments. I often find that a project really starts clicking into place when I believe I have a title that suits it.

This time around I was looking for a succinct main title – short titles suit audio-visual presentations in my opinion – that could be further clarified with a subtitle.

One of the driving forces behind my attraction to the subject matter is my fascination that one genre of photography is used within another, yet subverts its original intent – a ‘true portrait’ is about the individual, while a ‘documentary portrait’ uses an individual to represent a wider point. The former is defined ‘inside-out’ while the latter is defined ‘outside-in’, if that makes sense. I want to get across this ‘it is but it isn’t a portrait‘ dichotomy.

My planned title for the presentation is:

Portrait Not Portrait

My more descriptive subtitle is in effect my working title so far:

Portraiture as a device in documentary photography

Structure

I had originally envisaged a simple three-part structure following the advice of my tutor:

  • History
  • Contemporary practice
  • My own practice

Working on the aforementioned mind map made me realise that there is a need for a short upfront section at the beginning to define my terms. It’s just a couple of slides but it really helps to correctly frame everything that follows. In particular I wanted to clearly present my distinction between a traditional portrait and a documentary portrait, as described above.

Presentation

I’m increasingly a visual thinker, so as well as doing the mind map I really wanted to make sure I had a presentation format that I felt best served the content. T0 this end, after I’d started my research and brainstorming I mocked up the presentation template that I want to the content to drop into.

My main criteria were:

  • Image-centric
  • Clean and contemporary

So far I am working with the template shown below:

Screen Shot 2016-11-07 at 11.13.23.jpg

Seeing the presentation itself take shape in parallel with the content being formed and tweaked is how I work best on things like this. The building up of the presentation in layers, filling in levels of detail iteratively, suits the way my mind works.

Content

Here’s a summary of the planned content of the presentation and the arguments I want to get across.

“What” – definitions

I’m reasonably comfortable with these two slides so far:

  • One defining genres of portraiture and documentary photography
  • One differentiating between a traditional portrait and one used as a documentary device

“Then” – history

In the mind mapping stage I worked out how I want to organise this section – a chronological history seemed inappropriate and potentially overwhelming for five minutes of content, so I think a more useful way of looking at the past is to identify a few categories of documentary portraiture, from a point of view of intent, e.g.:

  • Typology
  • Ethnography
  • Empathetic social documentary
  • Self-expression

This lends itself to map on the types of representation I listed in the definitions section:

  • Metaphor
  • Metonym
  • Narrative device

I also wish to analyse in this section some of the common visual language used in historic documentary portraiture.

I will touch upon some ethical aspects of critical theory (such as the Gaze, the Other etc) but to go too deeply into these could derail the main flow so I need to be careful here.

“Now” – contemporary practice

For consistency I will also look at this from a category point of view, looking at a few different types of documentary portraiture evident among current practitioners.

I want to use this section to highlight some ethical comparisons with how documentary portraiture has been done in the past, in particular ideas around respect for the individual.

I also want to examine the visual language being used by some key contemporary photographers, and how this has evolved from the more straight portraiture employed in the past.

“Me” – my own practice

This is where my recent research has taught me things about my own work that I hadn’t previously recognised. Looking at the different uses of portraiture in documentary and then applying the categorisation retrospectively to my own project archive has been an eye-opener. I am now more aware of how I’ve used people in my projects.

I most often use metonymy, as in using a person to represent a wider group or situation. I very rarely do purely typological projects, however – the use of person as exemplar / archetype is normally in the context of serving a wider narrative rather than being the end in itself. Occasionally I use a portrait as a metaphorical device, and I will include an example or two of this in the presentation.

The research has made me think about how to more consciously use portraiture in projects going forward. It has made me think about the ethical issues around using people as representatives over individuals, and how to mitigate the risks.

Specifically regarding subject matter, I’ve recently realised that a majority of my projects have been one one of two subject themes – which can overlap but are also separable: firstly, social inequality; and secondly, voluntary organisations. Both of these lend themselves to a respectful use of portraiture. I will expand on this a little in the voiceover.

Examples

I want the presentation to be very visual. Text should be kept to a minimum. Images and voiceover should carry the majority of the key messages. I’ve been gathering images for the last few weeks and will determine which are best suited to supporting my points per section/slide as I build up draft versions of the presentation. Some examples below:

Practical

Last but not least, I’ve been testing out the technology. I’m using Apple’s Keynote presentation app rather than PowerPoint, and I’ve trialled recording a voiceover to match the slides, and exporting the presentation to a video file. Both tests were reasonably successful. My main learning was to get a microphone to plug into my computer, as the sound from the internal mic is distractingly tinny.

Next steps

  • Select example images per section
  • Construct draft slides per section
  • Produce first full draft in next couple of days
  • Refine and publish for comment
  • Finalise for tutor submission

Assignment 5: mind map

I’m starting to embrace mind mapping as a technique for preparing academic assignments, on the advice of one of my tutors. I have used them on and off in the past but they do seem to be particularly suited to critical review essays and this oral presentation, as they help me in structuring the overall flow and argument of the work, in identifying content gaps, and in spotting connections between aspects of my scope.

img_3186

 

This will no doubt be a work in progress until I finish the presentation. It’s helping me so far, anyway.