Exercise: Getting the Parr feel

Brief

For this exercise, photograph people engaged in a fun or social activity outdoors. For example, you could go to a seaside resort and photograph people having a good time. Or photograph people at an outdoor party or function. Try to capture the Martin Parr ‘feel’.

Produce a set of eight colour images. Ensure that the colour is bright and reflects the nature of Martin Parr’s work. How does this lighting effect change the nature of your images? Make some notes in your learning log.

Response

I saved up this exercise until the weekend just gone as I felt a particular event that would be a good subject – the annual carnival in Nice, France.

I confess however that the exercise didn’t exactly go to plan for a couple of reasons.

It was an unseasonably wet and grey weekend and most of the carnival events got cancelled. One parade went ahead, but still in the rain, so I shot at this one. I know Parr himself wasn’t afraid of a bit of Bad Weather, indeed he made a whole project out of it! So I made the best of it and decided to shoot at the rainy flower parade.

I found myself attracted to the many different umbrellas people were using and so the project turned into a kind of typology exercise rather than focusing on people’s faces (which was rather difficult given all the brollies, and hoods – I’d have had to get in very close to get many portraits, and I’m not quite as fearless as Mr Parr).

The second point on which this exercise veered off plan is that my off-camera flash was taking an inordinate amount of time to recharge (and I know the maxim about a bad workman and his tools, and it was most likely neglect on my part to not have brought a fully charged set of spare batteries) – and so I abandoned the flash early on and took most of the images with natural light, albeit with the saturation settings on my camera dialled up slightly.

The end result is, I think, Parr-esque in some ways (colour palette, subject matter) but not in the crucial technical matter of using flash. Something I only picked up on after the event was how I’d used shallow depth-of-field too much. Parr usually (thought not always) goes for deep d-o-f with everything in focus. Seems like I’m not very Parr-like at all :-/

Having discussed this with my tutor we’ve agreed that rather than re-do the exercise, I should document my challenges, including which ones I overcame and which I did not, and move on.

Footnote: after I’d taken the brolly set but before I uploaded this post, I was checking Martin Parr’s site to compare my aesthetics with his – and the photo below made me smile. Seems that shooting a brolly from behind is the kind of thing Mr Parr might do (although I think this one is actually a parasol…)

FRANCE. Evian.
From Evian, 2015 – Martin Parr

Sources

Martin Parr http://www.martinparr.com (accessed 02/03/2016)

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Research point: Contemporary awareness 1

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

Richard Billingham (+ Nan Goldin)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Briony Campbell

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

Luc Delahaye

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

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

Melanie Dornier

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

Nadav Kandar

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

Steve McCurry

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

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

Mimi Mollica

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

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

Brent Stirton

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

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

Medford Taylor

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

Ed Thompson

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

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

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

Albrecht Tübke

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

And finally – one of my own favourites:

Alec Soth

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

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

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

Sources

http://www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/artists/richard_billingham.htm (accessed 03/02/2016)

http://www.brionycampbell.com/projects/the-dad-project (accessed 03/02/2016)

http://www.artnet.com/magazine/features/sullivan/sullivan4-10-03.asp (accessed 03/02/2016)

http://melaniedornier.photoshelter.com/gallery-list (accessed 03/02/2016)

http://www.nadavkander.com/nadav_kander_small_screen.html (accessed 03/02/2016)

http://stevemccurry.com (accessed 03/02/2016)

http://www.mimimollica.com (accessed 03/02/2016)

http://www.brentstirton.com (accessed 03/02/2016)

http://www.medfordtaylor.com (accessed 03/02/2016)

http://www.edwardthompson.co.uk (accessed 03/02/2016)

http://www.tuebke.info (accessed 03/02/2016)

http://alecsoth.com/photography (accessed 03/02/2016)

Research point: Real and hyperreal

Reading the course notes on Jean Baudrillard‘s theory of hyperreality and researching the subject, it was at first quite inpenetrable to me. Thanks to the help of a few key additional sources it became clearer. I now believe I understand the key concepts well enough to say which I agree with and which I find a little too ‘far out’ to be of useful application.

Influences and comparisons

I found similarities between Guy Debord‘s ‘spectacle’ and Baudrillard’s ‘hyperreality’/’simulacra’. Both are concerned with the development of society away from the real/natural and towards a collective image-saturated version of reality presented to the passively consuming masses.

While Debord’s theory culminates in a view of the spectacle as something that can be resisted, or overthrown by developing an alternative media, Baudrillard’s view is more extreme and more pessmistic; he rejects the spectacle and concludes that (and I’m paraphrasing here) – it’s too late, nothing is real any more. Baudrillard’s world view comes across as an extreme extension of Debord’s idea until it collapses in on itself.

Steven Best and Douglas Kellner summarised it thus:

“For Baudrillard, we leave behind the society of the commodity and its stable supports; we transcend the society of the spectacle and its dissembling masks; and we bid farewell to modernity and its regime of production, and enter the postmodern society of the simulacrum, an abstract non-society devoid of cohesive relations, shared meaning, and political struggle.”
(Best & Kellner 2007)

The other parallel I detected was with the deconstruction theory of poststructuralist Jacques Derrida. Where Derrida concluded that there is no ultimate foundational meaning to be found in any text, that everything is relative and signs point to each other endlessly, Baudrillard seems to be applying a similar logic to life itself – that there is no defining ‘reality’ that anything ultimately refers to. Again, Best and Kellner summarise it well:

“‘Reality’ implies something singular, sui generis, a touchstone by which to measure everything else. But in the conditions of reproduction, Baudrillard claims, all this is lost: reality becomes what can be infinitely extended and multiplied in a series, through a reproductive medium. No longer sui generis, it infinitely resembles itself in identical copies.”
(Best & Kellner 2007)

My simple-minded view on Baudrillard’s theory is that it is somewhat extreme and exaggerated. I concur with the criticisms of Mark Poster in his collection of Baudrillard’s writing: hyperbolic, declarative, totalising, ignoring contradictory evidence (Poster 1988: 8). It’s a shame that some good ideas get lost under thick layers of hyperbole.

Application to photography

The useful application of Baudrillard’s theory to photography is the notion of the four stages of an image (Baudrillard 1988: 173):

  1. Truly reflects reality
  2. Masks and perverts reality
  3. Masks the absence of reality
  4. Bears no relation to any reality – is its own simulacrum (hyperreality)

In isolation this list was slightly obtuse to me, but I found examples that brought it to life. I am going to paraphrase from an article in the online journal Continent (as the language in the original is a little… earthy):

  1. Here is a photo of my girlfriend
  2. Here is a photo of my girfriend after I Photoshopped it to make her skin smoother and her waist slimmer
  3. Here is a photo of a model that I found online and pretend is my girfriend
  4. Here is an image of a beautiful woman that I created using game design software

(My issue with Baudrillard is his exaggeration of how much of society is ‘hyperreal’, his stage 4: CGI in movies is; Disneyland is; virtual reality is – but the whole of modern life isn’t… the Gulf War did happen.)

Documentary photography in its purest sense should be at stage 1, though some may veer towards stage 2. It shouldn’t ever reach stage 3, although other genres of photography belong in this stage (advertising, fashion, tableaux).

In my simplistic world-view, photography cannot exist in stage 4. The indexicality of photography means that it must have a basis in the real and at its most extreme is a fictionalised setup (stage 3) but cannot be pure simulation in anything other a highly theoretical (conceptual) sense.

Other forms of art can be hyperreal: literature, painting and sculpture, certainly. Even photomontage can be hyperreal (but I don’t believe that photomontage IS photography; it is graphic art that USES photography).

Summary

Right now I consider this something of a diversion from the main thrust of this section on Documentary. It might be more appplicable when we look at advertising later in the course. I may therefore revisit some of the ideas then.

Sources

Baudrillard, J. (2001) Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Edited by Mark Poster. 2nd edn. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Bertens, H. (1994) The Idea of the Postmodern: A History. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Debord, G. (1992) The Society of the Spectacle. London: Rebel Press.

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press

Best, S. and Kellner, D., 2007. Debord and the Postmodern Turn: New Stages of the Spectacle. http://www.uta.edu/huma/illuminations/kell17.htm (accessed 29/01/2016)

http://www.continentcontinent.cc/index.php/continent/article/viewArticle/91 (accessed 29/01/2016)

Assignment 1: Preparation – being there

This post isn’t quite a research point, nor is it an exercise – it’s really a kind of structured response to one of the points raised in the Altruism in practice section in the course handbook. I needed to consider the points raised here as part of my assignment preparation.

I broke the ‘being there’ discussion down into two questions:

  • Consensual or candid?
  • Insider or outsider?

Consensual or candid

I believe that most successful documentary photography employs an element of consent; whilst it is not about every single shot being approved before the shutter is pressed, the general approval to shoot should have been given by either collaborative or authority consent. The downside to this is that the act of observation risks changing that which is observed! A successful documentary photographer makes themselves so unobtrusive that the subjects do not change their behaviour significantly in their presence. I presume this is why some documentary projects are so lengthy – a lot of time may be needed for this kind of trust (or ‘invisibility’!) to develop.

Pure candid photography (along the lines of classic street photography) is potentially an appropriate vehicle for social documentary but is open to accusations of exploitation. Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958) is often held up as a successful example of candid documentary, though its scope is a whole nation so it’s a set of broad ‘truths’ about a society that emerge rather than specific revelations about a single community. Candid documentary is also at risk of being too shallow or misinterpreting the situation – missing the important context that might better explain what is unfolding in front of the camera.

Insider or outsider

The subject of whether an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ is better placed to document a community is an interesting one. From my point of view, particularly with selecting a subject for Assignment 1, I need to decide whether to photograph a ‘community’ that I am already part of, or one that I am merely temporarily observing for the purposes of the project.

The classic text on this subject is Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s 1994 essay Inside/Out – I confess that I have not been able to source the original essay but I have read the summary and analysis of it in Basic Critical Theory for Photographers (La Grange 2005). Solomon-Godeau’s examination on the issue can potentially be boiled down to the dilemma in this sentence: “We see truth as being on the inside, yet define objectivity as being on the outside.” (La Grange 2005: 126). Without positioning her views at either extreme, Solomou-Godeau is more critical of outsider photography in that some veers too far towards voyeurism or exploitation.

Whilst the criticism of outsider photography is understandable and often justified, for the sake of balance I offer two concerns about insider documentary photography: firstly, the insider risks being so close to the subject matter to not be able to discern what is interesting; and secondly, it requires a member of the community to be a curious and skilled documentarian like a Nan Goldin or a Larry Clark (and frankly able to afford a camera) and so the concept of insider photography is inherently self-limiting. Some ‘truths’ can only be revealed by an outsider (the notions of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ i will cover in a separate post).

For me the sweet spot rests between the two extremes, though closer to the outsider end of the continuum; an outsider who embeds themselves in the community long enough to get under its skin (the ‘temporary insider’?), without being a ‘full member’… someone who can, over time, make themselves invisible enough for the scene to revert to its natural state – Chris Killip and (early) Martin Parr for example. There still remains the risk that in the selection and editing of the images, the photographer could be misrepresenting the ‘scene’, but this is the nature of multiple subjective ‘truths’.

Assignment implications

So what does all this mean for my proposed Assignment 1?

My preference is definitely for getting consent to shoot, as the ability to see a community in its own environment, at close quarters, must be more fruitful than stalking people on the street! My problem is that so far, both of the organisations I have approached for permission to shoot have not yet approved my request. I will persist.

I’m clearly not going to live with a community for any length of time like Killip or 1970s Parr, so the ’embedded outsider’ compromise isn’t an option. In this respect I am the classic outsider – swooping in, trying to be a fly on the wall, hoping I can get a feel for the community in a short space of time. Might be challenging! I love a challenge though.

Sources

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press

Research point: Forgotten communities

Identifiable trends in documentary photography – such as the more personally-driven work typified by the New York school, or the growth of colour documentary, or the deadpan chronicling of the likes of Parr – may come along and add to the mix, or even be the predominant ‘flavour’ of the time, but in the end they add to rather than replace the more traditional social-change-driven documentary.

The work of Manuel Rivera-Ortiz (b.1968), Sebastiao Salgado (b.1944) and others demonstrates that social documentary as activism, à la Riis, Hine, Lange, Evans et al, still continues to exist in the modern world.

Rivera-Ortiz and Salgado

The course notes highlight Rivera-Ortiz and Salgado in particular for the work they did with communities affected by poverty in developing countries. One of the interesting aspects of both men is the gestures they have made to ‘put your money where your mouth is’ (if that’s not an inappropriate phrase for non-profit based endeavours…). Rivera-Ortiz established a foundation in his own name, with the stated mission:

“… to support photo and film reportage as a catalyst for change and social justice in communities where needs are most pressing.” – http://mrofoundation.org/about/mission

Salgado promotes the rights-free delivery of images to those at the centre of the cause in question, giving back to the affected community the ‘voice’ the the work has amplified. This way the photographer cannot be accused of having an agenda, or from exploiting the cause for his or her own gain.

In the 2005 University of California interview Salgado and curator Fred Ritchie speak of the difficulty of getting images published in the mainstream US media and the need to work in different media and different countries to circumvent the prevailing editorial constraints – which speaks to the extent to which the mainstream media get to drive the narrative in many western societies.

One interesting question (to which I do not have a simple answer) is the extent to which the continued expansion of the internet into developing countries will make information about such ‘forgotten communities’ easier to communicate, without the editorial control of big media – or will it get subsumed in the torrent of imagery that multiplies on a daily basis?

British photographer-activists

You don’t need to travel quite so far away from home to find ‘forgotten communities’ and in turn find the photographer-as-activist. In recent years I have visited exhibitions of UK-based photographers who use the camera as a tool for pushing a social change agenda and giving voice to more local communities.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Nick Hedges (b.1943) produced a huge body of images taken to highlight the squalid living conditions that some of Britain’s poorest families were suffering. These were finally exhibited in 2014/15. Did they instigate social change? It’s not clear whether they directly led to policy change, but the main use at the time was as part of Shelter’s political campaigning for better housing conditions.

More recently, Mark Neville (b.1966) is a UK photographer who has worked on a number of socially-driven projects, including Deeds Not Words, which I saw in 2013. This focused on a specific geographical community, Corby in Northamptonshire, affected by a spate of childhood deformities linked to the disposal of toxic waste by the local council. Neville’s method of distribution was interesting: he produced a photobook that wasn’t generally available but sent to 433 UK local authority environmental health officers, and selected international environmental agencies – an audience he believed might actually have an influence on policy on contaminated land and toxic waste. However, it remains unclear how successful this was in actually leading to any changes in policy.

Summary

The course handbook asks us to consider a couple of questions:

  • Is there a connection to be made with the work of Riis and Hine in the first half of the twentieth century?
    • I think so; the context is different, the media landscape is different, the horizons of many viewers have been vastly expanded – but at bottom the aims of the activist-photographer is the same: to use images to drive social change (not simply to witness or chronicle)
  • Can a documentary photographer really make a difference?
    • Some can; Rivera-Ortiz and Salgado clearly have – but I’m not wholly sure that ‘making a difference’ is as common as simply ‘raising awareness’
    • Salgado goes as far as to say in the interview clip that it’s not enough to show problems, one must also show solutions

Sources

http://mrofoundation.org/about/mission/ (accessed 27/01/2016)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6fRykp6nRQ (accessed 27/01/2016)

https://robtownsendcn.wordpress.com/2015/01/31/exhibition-nick-hedges-make-life-worth-living/ (accessed 27/01/2016)

https://robtownsendoca.wordpress.com/2013/09/02/exhibition-deeds-not-words/ (accessed 27/01/2016)

 

Research point: Martin Parr

The exercise Getting the Parr ‘feel’ is slightly tricky for me to do straight away as it calls for “people engaged in a fun or social activity outdoors” – and it’s January in the north of England so there’s not much of that going on outdoors! However, in February I will be at the carnival in Nice in the south of France, which should provide the right kind of environment for this. So I’ll come back to the exercise later. [EDIT: exercise is here]

In the meantime, I’ve been adding to my existing knowledge of Mr Parr in the context of this course and thought it useful to capture some of my observations and opinions.

Martin Parr is often held up as a ‘Marmite’ photographer that one either loves or loathes. I may be in the minority in that I am somewhere in between! I have mixed feelings about Parr and his work that I will summarise below.

A new form of documentary

On the one hand, Parr demonstrated a kind of ‘documentary’ photography that broke from the past and opened up a new sub-genre. It was neither the earnest ‘social change’-driven documentary photography of the late 19th / early 20th century, nor the more personal approach of the mid-late century New York school. It was a peculiarly British – more specifically English – way of capturing the world.

Parr’s aims are less specific than traditional documentary, and more detached than personal documentary – he excels at simply chronicling the world around us, holding up a mirror to society (or more accurately societies) and often drawing out small moments of universality that encapsulate daily life.

So generally, I am in favour of the kind of subjects he chooses and the moments his eye picks out. There are a few exceptions: I much prefer Parr’s observational, unposed work to the images where he admits that he intervened, or asked the subjects to pose in a certain way. And his typological studies of objects leave me cold – he’s simply a collector, and no-one finds a collection quite as interesting as its owner! At least with his ‘collections’ of people there’s a bit of variety and character…

A very ‘distinctive’ aesthetic

Where my admiration for Parr stutters is in the aesthetic. Of all his work, I’m much more attracted to his 1970s black and white work such as the Non-Conformists project from Hebden Bridge (which I saw in a joint Parr / Tony Ray-Jones show in 2013). It’s not just the colour palette, his eye for composition and framing was sharper, and the toning of the images was more appealing and drew the eye in more than the harsh, flash-lit look of his later and more typical work. And crucially, there is more empathy – he lived there for about five years, among his subjects.

His later and more typical style is more anthropological, deliberately detached. The decision to switch to colour, lit with garish daytime flash, led to a more forensic, less forgiving representation of people. Often his composition comes across as deliberately ‘bad’, as though bringing the ‘snapshot’ aesthetic to his images is a deliberate conceit.

martin_parr_nice_2015_int_1
From Life’s a Beach: Un Anglais à Nice, 2015 – Martin Parr

There’s a comparison with Diane Arbus in his motivation: she famously said “You see someone on the street, and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.” (Sontag 1977: 32), and Parr came up with a similar comment in the clip suggested by the course notes: “I had access to that point of vulnerability that I’m always looking for.” (Parr 2000).

I know that a photograph doesn’t need to look ‘beautiful’ to be meaningful, but I find that I don’t want to look at most Parr images for more than a few seconds. They don’t draw me in; some of them almost kind of repel me. Does this make them as powerful as a photo that you can stare at, just in a different way?

When it works

Where I think Parr’s aesthetic and world-view combine to make interesting art is the specific subject of people at leisure – the title of this section in the course notes. He excels at what you might call ‘off-street photography’.

My last experience of new Parr work was a pop-up show he did in Nice last year, where he took, printed and displayed beach photos daily over three days. This was accompanied by his themed exhibition Life’s a Beach, containing images from various resorts over the last few decades. This show consolidated my opinion that given the right subject matter, his quirky mix of ironic detachment and lurid colours is spot-on. The overlit, false aesthetic matches the slightly other-worldly experience of being on holiday.

Interestingly my favourite image from the Nice show was a little removed from typical Parr style: a calmly composed and symbolism-heavy shot of a sunbather covered in pebbles. Stones on a body are a death symbol in some religions, his pose resembles either a crucifixion or a shot body fallen to the ground, and the cigarette packet mentions dying (albeit in French). I found more to see here than in most Parr shots.

PAM2015031G00134.jpg
Nice, 2015 – Martin Parr

I do have a soft spot for The Last Resort, possibly because New Brighton is like the resorts where I used to spend my own northern working class summer holidays. I can forgive him for what I first thought of as sneery class tourism, as revisiting the book now what comes through more is the warmth underpinning the grimness. I noted down the first word that came to mind when looking at the gestures and expressions in the pictures: friendly, curious, excited, affectionate, familial, loving…

In many of his projects since, Parr seems to be trying to recreate the approach and feel of The Last Resort, not always successfully in my mind. It’s easy enough for him to recreate the aesthetic, that’s mainly about the kit – but the connection with the people themselves is perhaps harder to fake.

Summary

My opinion of Parr can be summarised as:

  • I like the way he chooses and approaches subjects, especially people at leisure – he’s a great chronicler of these aspects of life
  • I am not that keen on his aesthetic approach – not just the colour palette and harsh light but the ‘snapshot’ approach to composition (occasional wonky horizons etc)

Regarding the controversy surrounding his membership of Magnum – for the first point above, yes he deserves a place in the agency; for the second point, I can see the objections, but at the end of the day that’s personal opinion. The course notes state that the Magnum issue was one of integrity, but to me it’s much more about quality of work!

Having said all of that – I’m actually looking forward to visiting a new exhibition of his work shortly opening at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield! As a good open-minded student I’m going to give him an opportunity to change my opinion.

Sources

Parr, M. (2012) The Last Resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis.

Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJinAgBYaLs (accessed 20/01/16)

http://www.martinparr.com/2015/a-nice-pop-up-show/ (accessed 20/01/16)

Exercise: The journey

Brief

Go on a journey. This needn’t be a long journey but make it a journey you haven’t done before. It’s the process of planning and examining what’s there that you’re engaged with in this exercise. What will you record? The transport? The people? The places? Who will you meet?

Produce a series of images in photo essay form. The images must stand alone as great images but reveal more when they are linked together. Make a contact sheet. Analyse the editing decisions you’ve made in your learning log or blog.

Response

 

For the last eight years or so we have lived a couple of miles from a zoo. And we’ve never been! Which is crazy really. So we’re going tomorrow.

Planning

My intention is to make a photo essay that follows my journey into and around the zoo. I want to get over the:

  • Staff: the zookeepers and other workers
  • Visitors: how they react to the animals
  • Animals: especially the primates for their similarities to humans!

I’ll try to follow a reasonably standard photo essay structure:

  • Establishing shot: approaching the zoo (e.g. entrance sign?)
  • Medium shot: hoping there’s nice wide view of multiple enclosures
  • Interaction shots: feeding time?
  • Portraits: close up on a zookeeper?
  • Detail shots: hands (human and/or primate)
  • Closing shot: to be confirmed!

OK, I’ll pause here and update this post once I’ve actually been and taken the photographs.

My images

The following is a selection of the images I ended up with. Click any image to start a slideshow.

What I’ve learned

I’m not convinced that this is a particularly good response to the brief. However, once my original plan fell through due to inclement weather, and I already have another outdoor exercise that I need to come back to in better weather (Getting the Parr feel), I decided to crack on, get it done and move on.

The idea of visiting a zoo and shooting the people rather than the animals was OK in theory, but the cold weather and the out-of-season timing made for a disappointingly quiet experience. Also, the place is quite close by (3 miles or so) so the travelling part of the journey was short and uneventful.

I think what I’ve mostly learned from the experience is that one can plan the shots to a certain degree, but if you haven’t been to a place you will inevitably be surprised by certain aspects of it, for the good and for the bad. For example, I was expecting there to be a big obvious entrance area with a ‘ZOO’ sign and smiling staff ready to check my ticket – but as the zoo is part of a bigger theme park, there is no such identifiable entrance, it just morphs from theme park to zoo. Also, I was really hoping for monkeys! There were apparently some baboons but they stayed indoors due to the temperature. The other realisation once I got there (though I clearly could have thought about this before…) is that taking pictures of people at a zoo probably involves capturing images of children, with all of the ethical / social issues that accompany it. So once there, I made an effort not to shoot too many images where a child was really identifiable. I did leave children in one of the group shots.

On a more positive note, I didn’t know until I got there that one can shoot downwards onto the tiger enclosure, looking out of the windows to the humans outside, thus giving a picture from the tiger’s viewpoint, observing the humans. This made for a nice shot, and it wasn’t planned.

Generally speaking though, I did mostly get shots of the staff and the visitors, which was the main thrust of my plan. So I did follow the plan, broadly, but also deviated from it as the need or opportunity arose. What I didn’t really do is get any sense of narrative, or vary the style and viewpoint of shots sufficiently to make this a ‘photo essay’ – it’s pretty much a slideshow. I’ve done better photo essays than this, I promise…

As subject matter I think it has potential; but not potential that I could fulfil in one 90 minute visit on a sub-zero January morning.

In summary, I’ve learned that it’s good to plan, but don’t expect to stick to the plan!

(I’ve also learned not to stress too much about exercises and to save that for the assignments!)

Research point: Diane Arbus

My introduction to Arbus was my first reading of Clarke (1997), and I was bemused at how much he was able to read into a couple of her images (1997: 28-30). Over time though, learning more about how to read photographs, and the wider context of her work, I began to understand her enduring mystique. Later in the book Clarke uses the memorable phrase: “Collectively, her photographs suggest an overwhelming sense of angst and loneliness.” (1997: 121).

Seeking the flaws

Arbus first achieved recognition photographing what she called ‘freaks’, people on the edges of society for reasons of deformity, sexual proclivity, eccentricity or some other Otherness. They were victims, first of life and then of Arbus’ camera. By her own admission she was drawn to her subjects not so much for their physical appearance but for what she believed must have been going on inside their heads.

A popular quotation of hers (reproduced in Liz Jobey’s Arbus essay in the Sophie Howarth book Essays on Remarkable Photographs (2005) is: “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.” (2005: 70) – and she didn’t mean physical details. She was looking for what John Szarkowski called “the unique interior lives of those she photographed” (Howarth 2005: 72).

Where I believe Arbus started taking her world-view away from a humanist interest and into a voyeuristic plane was when she turned her camera away from obvious ‘freaks’ and towards more (nominally) ‘normal’ members of society. Even with people lacking obvious trauma she gravitated towards what she found ‘wrong’ with them: “You see someone on the street, and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.” (Sontag 1977: 32).

Jobey’s chapter in Essays on Remarkable Photographs is an examination of the 1966 Arbus image A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, NYC. The photograph is a typical Arbus portrait in many respects. An air of melancholy hangs over the family; the son is mentally disabled; the mother looks disappointed with life; the father looks vulnerable, downtrodden; only the babe-in-arms isn’t judged by Arbus’ lens. She subverts the cliché of the happy family portrait by depicting them looking anything but.

A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, NYC, 1966 – Diane Arbus
A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, NYC, 1966 – Diane Arbus

Jobey quotes Arbus in a phrase that summarises a theme in her work: “[…] there’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you” (Howarth 2005: 72) – and this is what she exploits. She captures the heartbreaking sadness of a family trying to put on a brave face to the world, and failing.

The image included in the course notes, A child playing with toy hand grenades, is perhaps the best (worst) example of Arbus’ anti-humanist world-view and approach. With carnival ‘freaks’ the ‘flaw’ is self-evident; with her portraits of so-called ‘normal people’ she sought and magnified their flaws; but here was a regular young boy playing, in a single frame pulling a creepy face and looking sinister. This isn’t a ‘flaw’ or something that the boy is trying hide from the world; there is no ‘unique interior life’ being revealed here, it’s a momentary expression. Arbus misleadingly represents the boy as a ‘freak’, which may have fitted in with her view of the world, but I think in this instance crossed a line.

A child playing with toy hand grenades – contact sheet – Diane Arbus
A child playing with toy hand grenades – contact sheet – Diane Arbus

The course notes ask: Why might Arbus have selected this particular image?

I think this question is broadly answered above in the discussion of Arbus’ flaw-seeking approach to life. A deeper question is: Why this negative world-view in the first place?

Sontag posits the theory that it was a rebellion against her affluent, comfortable upbringing: “Arbus’ interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged, to vent her frustration at being safe.” (Sontag 1977: 43).

A variant explanation is underpinned by the idiom (usually credited to Minor White) “All photographs are self-portraits“. Maybe Arbus saw herself as a ‘freak’ and was compelled to capture that in others, either as self-validation or self-loathing. As with Francesca Woodman, her suicide simultaneously adds credence to the authenticity of her despair, and robs us of any definitive explanation.

Morality

The research point concludes with asking us to discuss the Daniel Oppenheimer quote:

“Arbus, perhaps more than any other photographer before and after, forces us to question the morality of photography. What is it that we’re doing when we take a picture, and what gives us the right?”

I do agree with this statement. It comes back to the ‘gap between how people think they look and how they actually look’. It’s the closest I think photography gets to the primitive myth of the camera taking your soul; it doesn’t take your soul, but it can allow people to see inside it.

When you consent to someone taking your photograph, your assumption (hope) is that they will make you look good; in a lot of cases you might be disappointed if you look less attractive than you imagine yourself to be; it takes a photographer such as Arbus to specifically seek to make you look bad.

To take Oppenheimer’s two questions and answer them from Arbus’ imagined point of view:

  • What is it that we’re doing when we take a picture?
    • Holding up people’s flaws for public scrutiny
  • What gives us the right?
    • Nothing; maybe we just took it and didn’t have the right

A way of seeing the world

One of the enlightening realisations over the course of my studies is that admiring the work of a particular photographer transcends finding their individual images pleasing, it becomes admiring the way they see the world – literally. You appreciate what aspects of life moving in front of them they chose to freeze in a rectangle for future perusal.

This notion extends beyond those artists whose work you like, as you can have a reaction against a photographer precisely because you don’t like the way they see the world. This is my take on Arbus. I can appreciate and intellectually admire her world-view and how successfully she projected it into her work, but that doesn’t make me like the pictures or that world-view.

I’m glad that these images exist; I’m glad someone took them; I’m glad someone took the then-transgressive step of helping to move photography beyond notions of beauty and into something more profound – but I have no empathy with her world-view, no intention to replicate her style or approach, no enjoyment in looking at her pictures outside of the context of study.

Sources

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Howarth, S. (ed.) (2005) Singular Images: Essays on remarkable photographs. London: Aperture.

Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin.

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/arbus.html (accessed 16/01/16)

Exercise: Shooting from the hip

Preamble: the notes suggest watching a video of Eric Kim shooting on the streets with flash. Why, I have no idea. Kim is a terrible example of a street photographer, with an extremely abrasive and invasive style that is the exact opposite of good street photography work. He comes across as a poor man’s Bruce Gilden (someone else who gives street photography a bad name). There are any number of excellent contemporary street photographers that could have been held up as examples: Jeff Mermelstein, Trent Parke, Matt Stuart, Maciej Dakowicz, Melanie Einzig, Jesse Marlow, Ying Tang, Nick Turpin and most likely many others. Highlighting Eric Kim is odd to say the least.

OK, now I’ve got that off my chest, onto the exercise.

Brief

Take some time out to develop the technique of shooting very quickly. You’ll probably produce some very blurred and even disastrous images, but fortunately mistakes aren’t as expensive in the digital age as they were when Winogrand was working the New York streets.

Produce a set of eight images that demonstrate the life and vibrancy of city living. If you don’t live anywhere near a city, choose a spot or a day when there’s a lot going on – the busier the better. If you need to, re-read the safety advice in the Introduction to this course guide.

Analyse and reflect on your final images in your learning log or blog:

  • What makes the successful images work well?
  • What difficulties did you experience?
  • How do you feel about this type of work? Is it honest? Are your images a truthful representation or did you edit the truth in some way, consciously or sub-consciously?

Response

I shot over a couple of days in the city of Nice in the south of France. The city centre and the promenade are the two busiest parts of the city so I focused on these two areas.

To the questions in the brief:

  • What makes the successful images work well?
    • Composition: capturing the ‘decisive moment’ (accidentally, it has to be said)
    • Content: images with ‘lots going on’ seemed to work well in some cases
    • Action: capturing some movement or interaction that give the viewer a sense of the vibrancy of the place
    • Emotion: I was drawn to the images where I caught someone expressing something gesturally as I found myself empathising
    • Incongruity: spotting something out of the ordinary happening (like a man urinating on a palm tree)
  • What difficulties did you experience?
    • No ‘external’ ones such as people objecting; only technical difficulties such as blurry images, until I found the right combination of aperture, shutter speed, ISO – and my own speed of walking!
  • How do you feel about this type of work? Is it honest? Are your images a truthful representation or did you edit the truth in some way, consciously or sub-consciously?
    • I quite like this kind of work, although I recognise that successful  images are hard to come by and it takes patience and perseverance to find the gems; an exercise like this is necessarily contrived as it requires a number of images in a relatively short space of time and so none of these are of the quality that I would normally share
    • It’s ‘honest’ in as much as the images are unposed and are of moments that naturally happened, but…
    • I edited the truth in many ways through the process: I chose what to point my camera at (even when it wasn’t held up to my eye) and when to press the shutter; I decided which images to reject and which to include; and they have been slightly processed (cropped/straightened) for visual effect
    • In summary, they are ‘a’ truth, not ‘the’ truth (if there is such a thing…)

Sources

Howarth, S and McClaren, S (eds.) (2010) Street Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson.

Research point: spectacle and truth

I found the course notes for this project to jump around different aspects of the subject a little, and was left wondering how to pull the threads back tonether in the context of Gesture & Meaning course generally and the Social Documentary section in particular. It did come together in the end.

Atrocities and desensitisation

The notes open by talking about the work of George Rodger, the British photojournalist who captured harrowing images of Second World War concentration camps using a calm and unsensational visual style. The point is made that images such as shocked at the time yet people have become desensitised. For what it’s worth, not everyone agrees; Clarke says: “Rodger’s images of concentration camps remain painful and difficult studies of mass suffering and evil“, and “Although the images […] have been frequently reproduced they never lose their power as images.” (Clarke 1997: 159)

Sontag’s On Photography is quoted here, though a full reading of the appropriate section in the essay In Plato’s Cave (Sontag 1977: 19-20) reveals a more subtle and complex interpretation: Sontag’s point is more that one’s initial exposure to photographic atrocity is suitably remarkable and revelatory, but subsequent horrors need to ‘up the ante’ to achieve the same effect. Ironically for Sontag it was images from Bergen-Belsen, possibly those of George Rodger mentioned above, that set the ‘atrocity benchmark’ for her.

I read this as: nothing will move you as much as the first photographic atrocity – unless it is even more horrific/inhuman/transgressive. You will see images of suffering and will mentally compare them: “That’s terrible, but not as horrific as Bergen-Belsen/Cambodia/Sudan/whatever.“. Once an image does break through, it replaces the former ‘worst image’ in your mind. This is how I think desensitisation may actually work, ‘backwards’ from a particular reference point – rather than ‘forwards’ through cumulative exposure to multiple images.

Sontag’s original stance in On Photography (1977) that “images anaesthetise” led to the commonly-held view that photography of atrocities and inequalities has led to ‘compassion fatigue’, although she later rescinded (or at least qualified) this stance in Regarding the Pain of Others (Sontag 2003): “Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand.”

I found the later, more in-depth analysis of the issue in Regarding the Pain of Others to be a much more rounded discussion than the ‘compassion fatigue’ generalisation in the 1977 essay.

Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.” (Sontag 2003)

It’s difficult to summarise and ultimately I found her views to reduce to a kind of ‘it’s complicated / it depends’ conclusion. One key takeaway was that the reaction to images of war and atrocities is influenced in part by the empathy felt by the viewer, the connectedness to the event depicted. This may seem selfish, but I concede that I am more shocked by images of violence and death in Paris than in the Gaza Strip.

The spectacle and photojournalism

The course notes then move on to discuss spectatorship and voyeurism, introducing the concept of ‘the spectacle’ covered by Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967). The book is a dense, meaty dish that I am chewing through slowly, and digesting more slowly still. The general sense I initially got from starting reading Society of the Spectacle was that it pertained more to the (mis-)use of imagery in mass media, government, big business and increasingly social media than to journalism – but my takeout from Anandi Ramamurthy’s essay Spectacles and Illusions: Photography and Commodity Culture in Wells (2009:207-236), is that photojournalism absolutely falls into the definition of the spectacle. This is something of a revelation to me, and a worrying one at that.

“The spectacle is the stage at which the commodity has succeeded in totally colonizing social life. Commodification is not only visible, we no longer see anything else; the world we see is the world of the commodity.” (Wells 2009: 213)

The course notes asks us to consider this quote in the context of photography in general and photojournalism in particular.

Photojournalism falls under the spectacle of commodity because photojournalism is a commodity. As per Ramamurthy in Wells (2009: 207): “The photograph is both a cultural tool which has been commodified as well as a tool that has been used to express commodity culture.

Whilst it tempting to see photojournalism as an inherently truthful genre, a platform for objective visual news communication, there is a potentially more problematic and sinister drive underpinning much journalism. It loops back to the earlier point on desensitisation. If journalism requires attention in an ever-busy spectacle, it will be the most novel – graphic, lurid, sensational, horrific, transgressive – images that will be sought, shot, selected and presented to the public: “if it bleeds, it leads“. The search for attention in a saturated, desensitised world can lead to unscrupulous photographers manipulating scenes, and this is not a recent phenomenon by any means (Wells 2009: 210). The ‘truth’ implied by photojournalistic images is undermined. Who to trust?

I believe an important distinction to make here is between the two ends of the ‘photojournalism’ spectrum: at one end is the genuinely compassionate photographer, seeking to be as objective and accurate as possible (the George Rodger, the Don McCullin) while at the other end is the paparazzi photographer. It’s a question of intent, which in turn becomes a question of patronage: who is funding the photojournalism? Or is being taken speculatively to be sold to the highest bidder after the event? “Follow the money“!

The course notes make an interesting point on the specific responsibility of photography with regard for ‘truth’; unlike video footage, the momentary/fragmentary nature of photography removes the immediate context and relies on the exact image contained within the frame being representative. This goes back to the idea of authorial control (even before one gets into the question of subsequent editorial control).

But why do people want to see increasingly horrific images? Because they’re used to seeing them; it’s become normal. It’s what they see in the newspapers, on TV, on the internet and so it is entirely understandable that they will continue to want to see them. In the Debord world-view, it’s the spectacle that is both feeding them and generating their appetite. We helped create the spectacle by happily consuming it.

To go from Wells to Weller: “the public gets what the public wants / the public wants what the public gets” (Weller 1980).

Summary

So what have I taken from all this? I’ll persevere through Society of the Spectacle at my own pace as background reading and may write more later. This reading has certainly made me more keenly aware of the inherent (sometimes misplaced) trust we place in news photography, and how our tastes/interests are shaped by the wider cultural and social landscape (Debord’s spectacle).

In a way it’s made it clearer to me the intent of artists who make so-called ‘edgy’, ‘alternative’ or ‘anti-establishment’ art. It’s articulated reasonably well just what it is such artists are ‘against’, if that makes sense. It has given me a stronger understanding of how to perceive particular types of imagery, be they art or documentary (or both) – as being a part of, or a stand against, the prevailing visual culture.

Sources

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Debord, G. (1992) The Society of the Spectacle. London: Rebel Press.

Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin.

Sontag, S. (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.

Weller, Paul (1980) Going Underground In: Going Underground. London: Polydor.