Catherine’s Chairs

Image courtesy of Catherine Banks

Image courtesy of Catherine Banks

Photography is a tool for dealing with things everybody knows about but isn’t attending to. My photographs are intended to represent something you don’t see.” Emmet Gowin cited in ‘On Photography’ by Sontag p 200

The chairs aren’t Catherine’s, they belong to a chap in his eighties that Catherine knows; he was widowed four or five years ago and other than the couple were childless, I have no other information of this chap. Yet the image, even with this scant knowledge to situate him, or the room, this home depicted – for which I have only ever seen this image – starts to build an image which is more than the two dimensional four sided photograph that I saw recently, is something I find interesting.

I haven’t experienced a loss of a loved one, in that all the people I have loved are still with me. My father died a decade or so ago, but I never felt loss there, maybe a sense of relief, but no loss of sleep. So how the image that Catherine presented spoke so lucidly of loss to me with those few anchoring words is something I find intriguing.

Twin book piles. Image courtesy of Catherine Banks

Twin book piles. Image courtesy of Catherine Banks

Two chairs, co-joined by an occasional table which is itself weighted down by two piles of books and a ‘silver lady’ statuette. The image is split in half offering a place for two people, a chair, a set of reading each and a wing each from the angel.

Behind one chair is the window to a tended and nurtured garden, net curtaining providing a screen but also a connection to an other world beyond. Behind the other chair is the hallway, a door to the exterior world and four coat pegs; three pegs having men’s hats, the fourth, nearest to the sitting room, has a scarlet scarf and a jacket.

Image courtesy of Catherine Banks

Image courtesy of Catherine Banks

The chairs have been well used, relics perhaps from when the house was first occupied, these comfortable armchairs have had replacement covers that now have their own signs of wear and evidence of use, with stains at the end of the arms where people grasp to get up and down from them. These coverings are now starting to rumple but they both have hearty cushions, though not in the same colour; the one, a healthy pink/cerise and the other a pale/ghostly white.

The television is turned off, but on the screen we see a reflection of a staircase that provides access to another space upstairs, when the time is right.

Reflection. Image courtesy of Catherine Banks

Reflection. Image courtesy of Catherine Banks

A rug lies on the floor in front of the chair with the cerise coloured cushion; it avoids the other armchair as if in a gesture of politeness the chair with white cushion has offered it to the other. One chair seems still to be sat upon, the other looks as though it has been vacant for some time.

It is a quiet image, a reflective device that is depicted in soft warm melancholic tones.

Nowadays he doesn’t think of his wife, though he knows he can turn around and evoke every move of her, describe any aspect of her, the weigh of her wrist on his heart during the night” Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

It is in the image that I detect that sense of loss, a powerful narrative sense that emanates from this single image. That Catherine had other images that she was working to form into a cohesive set for an assignment was something that I was aware of; but I found that this image drove a narrative that chimed with that sense that I had detected – probably from how Catherine had spoken about this chap who had been widowed. A sense of loss of a loved one, irreplaceable, gone but still with a sense of presence, holding on.

Looking at this image, from a set I created for assignment three – a narrative – I felt a similar sense of loss when I first worked the image, being projected from the absence of a person – a physical absence, rather than a metaphorical one – rather than loss as in an emotional ‘presence’ described beautifully in “Catherine’s Chairs”. These three people, collected in a row with a space between them, as if there was once a fourth but now no longer – seems now a much more prosaic image. Too deliberate. Too elemental.


Documentary, identity and place

Some of the most unexpected outcomes of taking this course are the discoveries that crop up along the way. The course notes require, or at least strongly suggest, various texts and artists to consider and reflect upon. Of course it wouldn’t be much of a course if there weren’t new things that find themselves on the horizon, some of which will surely disappear from view as quickly as they arrive and others will become larger, perhaps more significant in the landscape.

The section marked “Project Documentary, identity and place” suggests, under a sub heading of “Reflexivity and authorship” the work of Alex Webb and in particular his piece on Istanbul. Turkey is another country I have spent a lot of time in, though in the capital Ankarra, rather than it’s most populist city. The first image of the set is “TURKEY. Istanbul. 2001. Ferry crossing the Bosporus.” It is an image of a journey.

On the Mumbai to Elephanta island ferry

On the Mumbai to Elephanta island ferry

Of course all courses are journeys, one starts at a place and sometime later one finds oneself in another place. In Webb’s “Ferry” image we note the vessel is travelling across the Bosphorus, and whilst I remember the many many times I have flown into Istanbul, over this water in order to transit to the capital, I am also reminded of the significance of the water, something I wrote about here, though with Webb’s image there is a less of a tangential connection to the sense of place. The man on the ferry seems to be in a reflective mood, we might think he is reflecting on his journey to work – these ferries in Istanbul are in heavy use for commuter traffic – or it could be that we see him as a Turk on a metaphorical journey from one place to another. From the post Attaturk revolution to a ‘new’ future as a world player. Or we might connote that, as the direction of travel is set right to left, that he represents a gesture of friendship and conciliation to the neighbouring country of Greece. There maybe many reflections that could be read into this image. And so I wonder about whether it is because it is a ‘good’ image that I can do this, or perhaps it is because the reference is from a set of course notes and therefore, like an image on an exhibition wall, it has a higher place because of it.

On viewing all the images a week or so ago, my first reaction was that Webb’s use of titles were both an annoyance and, perhaps eventually revelatory. There are very few images that denote Turkey, let alone the specificity of the ancient city that has now become Istanbul. There aren’t that many that tell the viewer that we are viewing a land whose dominant religion is that of Islam, moreover I first connected these images with the work of Winogrand, of Ewing and that of Leiter.

The notes in the course suggest that “Webb has not simply taken photographs of Istanbul; he has recorded his impressions of a place called Istanbul….”

I can see how Webb has constructed his image set and acknowledge that many of these images might be read in many ways, this is a subject I will return to in another post, but it is my interpretation of the work, how I view these images that is the topic of this reflection.

The sub-heading for this section purposefully uses the word, or perhaps better defined as a term, reflexivity; it foregrounds it, and it is this that I want to consider, as it is something that has provided me with a significant backdrop to a lot of what I have been thinking about, in terms of what I determine art to be for me.

I can understand how Webb might have been feeling as he created his portrait of Istanbul, his reflections determined by his knowledge, or lack of one, of the history of the place. Like Willsdon’s essay on Sugimoto’s image of the Aegean, mentioned earlier; Webb’s comprehension would have been driven by his knowledge and appreciation of this seat of European history, or as Willsdon has it “This is the dead centre of the Aegean Sea. From a European perspective, or at least from any perspective oriented, critically or otherwise, to what used to be called the ‘European mind’, no body of water in the world is as heavy with history and mythology.” Singular Images ed’ Howarth pp 100.

The series of 75 images are precisely editied. The first image has the man crossing the Bosphorus from right to left, the last one has (another) man travelling left to right. The second and penultimate images have images of Taksim square, which of course is now being synonymized with contemporary popular unrest in a city that has seen more unrest over a longer period than perhaps any other city on the planet. And whilst these images of Webb’s take hold of my imagination, this article by Roger Scruton comes to compound the eddying of my memory, news items, comprehensions and other encumbrances.

Scruton’s article attempts, quite well I think, to situate the current issues in Turkey and elsewhere in the Islamic cauldron that is called the Middle East, as a consequence of a history that isn’t a decade or less in length. That the issues that Turkey and it’s neighbours face are as much to do with how the West, and maybe the UK in particular, have placed them in over centuries. Whether I agree with that Scruton says, after he hasn’t finished the series yet, is largely immaterial, what he has done is to remind me, just as Willsdon did, that there is more to the eye, than what is held by it.

Russian and Nationalists execute opponents to their view of how the land should be governed in North Western Persia, bordering what is now Turkey and what was once all part of the Ottoman Empire.

The course suggests in the following text attributed to Sekula “Documentary is thought to be art when it transcends its reference to the world, when the work can be regarded, first and foremost, as an act of self-expression on the part of the artist.” Alan Sekula, in Liebling, 1978, p.236) And what I understand that to mean is, that if Webb decides that his work on Istanbul is a work of self expression, or as the course notes denote” “..he has recorded his impression of a place called Instanbul.” then who am I to disagree.

My thoughts though suggest that the notion of reflexivity that stem from the titular instruction could also intimate that the viewer to this work would take it on another journey. That as Webb, in the Magnum catalogue has defined, through titles, the place and therefore the cultural connotations of that place, then dependent on the cultural background of the viewer it re-presents the narrative dependent on the viewers contextual perspective. I now see Webb’s work more as a documentary and less as an impressionistic vision of a city at a place and time. I see the conflict between old and new, I see that in terms of where it was and how it has now become, How Attaturk’s visions have been appropriated by different and conflicting purposes.

Widening the view of Webb’s work and looking at his personal site, which may or may not have an alternate perspective as the Magnum site where the Istanbul series is situated, I am intrigued by his series on the Southern Caucasus. I have never been to this area, though my impression is that these could be re-titled Anatolia, or even Istanbul without too many visual conundrums to demystify. However as soon as I connect the Caucasus with photography I connote to Vanessa Winship whose work I first saw in Hereford a couple of years ago and which I wrote about here, and then to the recently published work “she dances on Jackson‘ which, whilst a long way from Istanbul, provides me with a greater sense of the document as a work of art than Webb’s initial entry to these thoughts on the choppy waters of the Bosphorus. And whether that water is entitled Bosporus or Bosphorus matters not, but it was the start, the embarkation that took this reader, as it did Webbs’ traveller, to consider the journey where the guidebook is as much to do with the cultural baggage as the ticket’s destination.

Thames Valley meeting August 18th 2013.

Thinking now about the day yesterday I have some mixed feelings. I think that the level of commitment shown by all was exemplary, the quality of the work, from an intellectual perspective gets stronger, the respect shown to all by everyone is extremely conducive and encourages the participants to be open about their feelings and responses to the work. It is an entirely positive environment.

My own work regarding the development of a narrative – here and here – was discussed during the time allotted and I think that I need to consider a number of possibilities before submitting for assignment three.

I had coupled the image of the butterflies with the wishes clearly defined above an image that had been taken within a short time of seeing the ‘wish’ and therefore informed by that image. Discussions took place about how the presentation affected how they were ‘read’, about how the butterfly image subordinated the other image by the placement within the frame of the paper with the two images on. That I printed the two images of equal size maybe also helped to reinforce that subordination. Questions were raised about how important the text image was to the narrative – I am concerned at this point that any narrative would be ‘too enigmatic’ without the text. This ambiguity question is a difficult one for me to cross, to allow the free association of the image to be the only transport medium of idea to the spectator. I will need to gather nerve to do this.

I think I will need to perhaps re-shoot the responses – this might be interesting, as time will have coloured my responses to the texts – or re-edit them, both in how they appear in the narrative sequence and/or how they occupy the frame.

A note I made on the day ‘Need to foreground the emotional response over the text. But how to do that and provide an entry into the work?” Would/could that be done with a statement? I am loathed to provide titles, so maybe captions, where the caption contained an image of the butterfly?

I can’t see how I would have moved forward without this session.

Documentary photography

During my visit to Arles I stayed in a house owned by the parents of Isabelle Wesselingh a reporter, currently in Roumania but who has had extended periods in Caucus’ from where she published Raw Memory. We met a couple of times and chatted about photography – she also went to see some of the work in the festival. I decided to ask her about her thoughts on ‘Documentary photography’ her response came a little later than she had wanted because she is covering the case of the stolen (and possible incineration) of the Monet, Picasso and Gaugin paintings. An interesting reflection on the conversation today at the Thames Valley Group. Nevertheless I thought I’d share both my question and her response in it’s entirety.

“…In the Rencontres there were two distinct approaches to documenting the big issues in Africa, war, famine etc. One by Robin Hammond for example and the other by Alfredo Jaar. Hammond has a hard documentary style, focusing on the depravity, the injustices etc, whilst Jaar seems to project a futility in the use of images.


I would be interested to understand your views from a position of privilege about whether you think either position is worthwhile, appropriate?”


Date: 17 August 2013 17:07:43 BST

To: John

Subject: Re: Documentary photography

Dear John,

I think both positions are appropriate and worthwhile in a way but:

Hammond is focusing on depravity, injustices etc. Of course, we need to have this type of testimony not to forget about the fact that people in the world do not have the same chances as us for example. I think it is very important for people in Western Europe (who generally tend to complain more and more about everything) to be conscious of the living conditions of people in Africa. It is so easy to forget. Hammond with his hard documentary style provides an insight of the fate of people suffering from mental health for example. I think this approach is important. That is also why I think images from wars and the horror of wars are also important, especially nowadays when governments make us believe that wars are “clean”, with precise strikes and no suffering for the civilians or the soldiers. But there is also a danger linked to this hard documentary style. Photographers can be tempted to focus only on this aspect of life in Africa and hence contribute to create and reinforce clichés about Africa. In general, the public expects sad news about Africa –famine, poverty, violence–. If you focus on this, you meet the expectations and newspapers, magazines are happy to publish your pictures. Jury members for photo contests (World Press Photo, Perpignan etc…) are also very sensitive to this aspect, so your chances to won a prize are also bigger. But by focusing only on depravity, injustice and violence you are actually not documenting a continent but only a very small part of life on this continent. So what is the value of your documentary? How long do you live there to get familiar with the local culture and not react only with your own cultural background?

I give you just one example I witnessed. A photographer I know called me once, four years ago, because he wanted to do a documentary on the Romanian orphanages. Of course, everyone remembered the terrible state of orphanages in Romania under communism. After the fall of Ceausescu, the images were broadcast all around the world. This was in 1990. He called me in 2009. “I spoke with Care (the NGO) and they tell me that the state of orphanages has not changed since the fall of communism. This is realy horrible”, he told me. “Care wants to pay all my expenses to document the situation and they will then use the pictures to raise funds. We will help these people”, he added. Well, you could think, +how nice, someone wants to document the injustices and try to help the poor children+. But “the problem” is that Romania made tremendous efforts to improve the conditions in orphanages in the last twenty years and the conditions are not at all like they were in twenty years (this is what experts working in the field for Unicef, child protection, other NGos told us, this is what my colleague who wrote about the orphanages twenty years ago witnessed). So basically this photographer who never set a foot in Romania wants to document something with a preconceived idea that is completely untrue. I told him things have improved a lot (even former orphans told us so) but he did not want to listen. Care neither as they wanted sad pictures to make people emotional and donate money. The photographer even told me that with this “scandalous subject we could denounce injustice and maybe win a prize”…..My text colleague who covered in depth the subject of orphans in the last twenty years went with the photographer to several orphanages. In one town, he was convinced the children were still in the old Communist orphanage. They were not. They were in a very modern building, small unit with psychologist, play therapists etc….He as very disappointed. As he could not shoot the sad pictures he wanted, he chose to make close up on mentally disabled and physically disabled children. Of course, they look disabled and people feel sad about them. But this was chosen to so call “document” the terrible state of orphanage and this was just a lie. The photographer is seen by many as “a very good photo documentary maker”. As I saw how he worked, I cannot consider him so and I would consider his position inappropriate.

I think to document a country and a continent, you have to focus on complexity and sometimes the hard documentary style in photo is unable to do so. As a correspondent in Romania, I do not want to write only about the clichés people have about this country, so I think a lot about the “balance” between subjects. Yes, there is corruption and poverty (but corruption cases you also find in Britain, France, Italy etc…) but there are also some of the best IT specialists in the world (Romanian is the second most spoken language at the head office of Microsoft in the US), there are incredibly successful Roma (This year, a Romanian Roma actress graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London….are British newspapers talking about this, are we having pictures of this?), the average internet speed is higher than in Germany. So what are the pictures we are seeing about Romania? How do they really document the country? Or are they just confirming preconceived ideas? I think the dilemma is the same for Africa.

And that is where the approach of Alberto Jaar is appropriate and important: because pictures should be questioned as much as anything else but we are not taught to question them, to read them. His approach is telling us about the rest, the things we are not shown. It is telling us about who is talking about what. For example, I think you need to live a certain time in a place to understand this place and not only judge it through your own cultural filter. You need to go deeper than the surface and this takes long. That is the reason why for example news agency like Reuters, AFP and AP work with local photographers (and text journalists), who are full time staff. This is combined with foreigners who come to stay four five years to have time to understand better a country: combine and external eye to an internal one.

I hope this helps. Feel free to ask other questions if you want.



Working on narrative

In Dominic Willsdon’s essay “Hiroshi Sugimoto Aegean Sea, Pilíon 1990” published in ‘Singular Images’ ed’ by Sophie Howarth we take at face value the title of the print; it defines so much for us, the viewer/reader. The Aegean Sea at Pilíon looks across the water towards Troy on the Anatolian coast, he mentions the nearby Dardanelles, Gallipoli, Thrace, Constantinople, Macedonia, and in three short sentences conflates three thousand years or so of history. pp 100. “This is the dead centre of the Aegean Sea. From a European perspective, or at least from any perspective oriented, critically or otherwise, to what used to be called the ‘European mind’, no body of water in the world is as heavy with history and mythology.” pp100. Willsdon goes on to reflect on the Iliad and The Odyssey, drawing also on the earliest literary references of the Adamic language – Genesis in the Old Testament – before reflecting on the influences of modernist photographers, the likes of Ansel Adams and his perspective of Yosemite. This burden of reference on an image that might otherwise be suggested as being an exercise in tonal containment, or as Ansel Adam himself might have put it; zones two to eight.

These comments on Sugimoto’s photograph (not awfully well reproduced in the book) had me wondering when I started to try and edit a set of images for assignment three – A Narrative. Of course I am not trying to draw together my images and Sugimoto’s, however I am thinking (again) about the directive use of text. If, for example, the Sugimoto image had been mis-read – like for example in the introductory essay to Hatje Cantz 400 page tome entitled “Hiroshi Sugimoto”, where Kerry Brougher talks about one of Sugimoto’s  Dioramas, taken in the American Museum of Natural History, “…of a polar bear hovers over his victim. Caught just after the kill, the photograph shows the beast poised over a freshly dispatched penguin, suspended forever…” The print doesn’t depict that of course, how could it. The good folk at the museum wouldn’t pair a slaughtered penguin from the Antarctic region with an Artic carnivore. So it could be that we might be misled, especially with such an enigmatic image such as that with which we are presented with, quite poorly in this case, by the usually fine publisher Aperture.

The narrative of Sigimoto’s image is, in Willsdon’s essay, guided wholly by the author’s flight of fancy, informed perhaps by a classical education and schooled in European history. Sugimoto himself has spent a good deal of his life in the west, living as he does between New York and Tokyo, but as far as I can find out has offered no reason for the view he chose, above looking at atlas’ finding seas with interesting names, going there, spending a few days before making a few exposures. A great concept, if you can afford it. But that’s not the point, or rather it’s not the reason why Sugimoto’s image, or Willsdon’s reading of it has come to mind.

I have over twenty images strewn over the carpet in my lounge trying to elicit a narrative that might comply with the brief on assignment three – A Narrative. The images all have two photographs per print. The one having an image of a paper butterfly with an anonymous wish written on it and the other a reflective image culled from another set of images that provided, in my view, a reflective comment on the butterfly wish. I am considering the notion that I might be able to conjure any number of narratives from any formulation of sequences. I can envisage differing complexions of stories depending on how these images might be viewed – from left to right, from top to bottom, two banks of five, five banks of two. I have already discovered that by randomly assembly the images other tales might be woven together.

A beginning, a middle and an end is what the brief mentions. It is entirely possible to create a fiction from any set of texts, the reader’s interpretation of these wishes will demand a response that creates a narrative, the gaps will be filled in, the narrative journey from one set text to another will be bridged in the sub-conscious. And so, on the one hand the brief will have been met. The start of the narrative will be defined by how the set is laid out, the central section – those five or six texts – will, with any amount of clashing scripts, provide a conduit to ‘the end’. The viewer will know it’s the end as there won’t be any more in the series, no more images to travel to, no extensions, no epilogues. Amen.

Willsdon provided the reader the directions to those sites of civilization as if Sugimoto had intended to take us there. The archipelago jutting into the Aegean was a presentation of Willsdon’s mind, his sub-conscious, informed by his life experiences and served as a self evident truth. But what if, like Brougher the image hadn’t been the one we, or he, had thought. Aperture had either slipped up and introduced another image altogether, or the sub-editor had misnamed the image ‘The Sargasso Sea, Bermuda”? I have no knowledge whether Sugimoto had ever considered the Sargasso Sea or not. It is certainly a water that has the weight of history and a uniqueness about it that could provide a draw to the artist. And the reason I ask myself this question, is whether I should care about a couple of things. Whether, for example, the fiction is based on a fiction, surely Willsdon’s is, it is his fictive fantasy conjured from his background. Or, whether I should worry about the generation of a greater fiction, by that I mean altering the text, adding a text, deleting a word, a letter to tell better the story that I feel impelled to relate.

My inclination is to continue to think and explore how these images might combine to add to the simple narrative provided with the text. I need to settle with these images, map them, work with them and try to trust my instinct that there is something there to explore.

Thinking about narrative

Assignment three has the notion to produce a set of ten images that, as a set, tells a story and conveys a narrative in colour.

To say that I’ve been feeling down about the course as a whole which, together with the other tangential issues of studying with the OCA, would, to put it mildly, be understating things. The trip to Arles was perhaps too inspiring, too rich in ideas, too full of work and ideas that I had a reaction to it that suggested a futility in continuing, knowing that I would never match up, nor approach, nor even veer near the artistry of what was on show. I had thought of requesting time off to consider my options. I may still do so. I now recognise the distance to travel and it seems unlikely, at this distance, that I will achieve that goal. I had a brief chat with my tutor who suggested a couple of things to try and thankfully, didn’t pressurise me to work towards the next assignment.

Coming away from Arles I have become more and more aware of text. It has clear purposes, it directs and informs, it positions and denotes more easily that imagery. But with that authority it can also mislead, misdirect and misinform; sometimes wilfully and sometimes without malice aforethought. I am becoming more and more attracted to the significance of the word as part of where I think I may head to, whether I’ll reach that particular end is another matter, but no matter – I am told it’s just about the journey!

I’ve been away again; post Arles, we decided to go away. Nothing to do with the course, just about being away. A few days in Cornwall, some peace and quiet (even in August) to walk and talk. It was suggested that I took my camera both by my wife and by my tutor, I wasn’t going to. Why? What for? I did and was happy that I had. A couple of years ago I would have packed a big case with at least two cameras, plenty of film, some lenses and a tripod; we would have walked miles, trekked up and down hills/mountains, across woods and forests and around lakes and seas. Looking for and finding pictures that provided a singular look at a subject. I call them thin pictures, Jesse Alexander has them as ‘Easel Art’ and he is much kinder than I  “‘Contemporary Photography’ also stands up to ‘Pictorial Photography’, which is really about vision on a much simpler level. In my article I quote Paul Hill describing the tradition in pictorialism, for ..’easel art’, which implies two things: firstly, that the thing might need to be appealing to look at (which much contemporary photography – in itself – is not) and secondly; that the thing is meant to stand alone, without the company of other photographs.” I won’t link to it here, but his original article is here and his recent reference to it can be found on his blog site – I absolutely don’t want to ride on his coat tails. So going away without a camera would have been a first in about a quarter of a century, and I had intended/expected to come back without an image.

What I found that sparked some contemplation was text. At the Eden project they have an installation whereby people make wishes on paper butterflies and pin them to a (very) large net. I would hazard a guess at around ten thousand wishes so far; most are in a heap on the floor as the net gets lowered for more access. But the wishes are still pinned to the net, the hopes and dreams of those impelled to express their desires, were continuing their journey of hope or desire. I was immediately struck by the possibility of generating a narrative from the material that connected, for me, anonymous individuals to a ‘wish’. I decided to try and also take some pictures that I felt connected me to those wishes, to appropriate the texts, as if they were mine, to contextualise an ‘other’s’ emotions with my experience. And so I took a lot of other, non ‘wish’ images, with a very singular purpose which was to look for images that, from a personal perspective had a strong sense of symbolism that I could associate the imagery to the text. Knowing what the words had said, what sort of emotions they were expressing and what the words meant to me would, I hoped, inspire the images that came through that process.

Whether I’ll use the images for the next assignment or not isn’t yet an option. I have to live with them for while and see what they say. I have done a first pass edit and have come up with a few images. I decided to couple the text to my image, to couple the appropriated narrative pinned to the netting with an image, which whilst it will never denote the context of the text, goes someway to express my associated thoughts about the text. What I mean to say is that I had the text in my mind whilst I took all the images that I have freely associated with the butterfly wishes.

Images are diptychs – a text coupled with an image. A first pass, but at least I am thinking about what the course is requesting………………. The composite images are in no particular order. I feel that I should be able to develop a narrative with these texts and images – whether it will have strength to get through the assignment is another matter entirely.

Thoughts on Documentary – McCullin and Rosler

Matt Damon’s politics owe a great deal to his mother. The first time Nancy Carlsson-Paige saw her son featured in a glossy magazine, she was appalled. “My beautiful boy is being used to sell products,” she told a newspaper. “He is just a cog in the capitalist system.” She’d never even read a magazine like Vanity Fair before, her son explains. “She’s a professor…. And she said, ‘This thing is nothing but page after page of adverts for products that nobody needs!'”  The Guardian

Watching the documentary “McCullin” for the third time I was struck by a number of points that he made. I think it is important to recognize that this film, wonderfully produced by David and Jacqui Morris, allows McCullin to have the sole voice. Of course editing decisions have been made to develop the narrative and therefore we understand as viewers that there is a form of censorship in play; but I get the sense that McCullin may have objected quite publicly if he was unhappy about the representation by which he is depicted with this film. I imagined I was listening to the ‘voice’ of McCullin.

This re-watching of the film has come about with Martha Rosler’s strident text “In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)” as published in “The Contest of Meaning” edited by Richard Bolton 1992 still revolving in my head. Rosler posits, I think, that no documentary work comes without the baggage of ‘an angle’. That the ‘Documentary photographer’ is driven by motives beyond the exposition of the dispossessed, the dying, the etcetera of the documentarian’s standard canon. And so, when McCullin admits, very early in the film, that he may be ‘addicted to danger’, and that when after establishing himself with a contract with the Guardian he is offered an “opportunity… my great chance… to make an impression” by covering the civil war in Cyprus, without a hint of what the conflict issues were or what he thought they might be. I thought then of what Rosler had said about Eugene Smith’s cover shot for the work he did for Camera 35, April 1974 on the plight “mercury laden effluent waters” dumped into by the Chiso chemical firm in Minamata: “Smith had sent in a cover photo with a carefully done layout. The editor, Jim Hughes, knowing what sells and what doesn’t, ran a picture of Smith on the cover and named him “Our Man of The Year” (Camera 35’s first an probably only” one)” pp 308 C & M. McCullin though, instantly knew – he said he felt he was “levitating” he felt so good “…that another door had opened for him and he was ready to go”. That his time had come to seize the opportunity that photography had provided when it afforded him an escape from Finsbury Park, to something that he felt provided him those few wonderful years at the Guardian and “eighteen fantastic years at the Sunday Times” under Harry Evans and Thomson.

McCullin is seen in vintage footage describing how he seems to need at least one war a year, maybe even two wars a year to cover and whilst he recognizes it, he may, because of his appetite for war, increase his likelihood of not returning from the war zone other than in a body bag, his eagerness seems undimmed.

These “Muckrakers” are an inconvenience. Damned as they were by opponents of Roosevelt, these busybodies serve to itch the side of the body corporate and they have served as such to varying degrees from Riis through McCullin to Stirton and beyond. It was Murdoch that put paid to McCullin’s continuance on the Sunday Times, as News International, who, through his mouthpiece Andrew Neal had said wars were out, we’ll have lifestyle and leisure instead – they pay more. McCullin’s mark had been made though, which was probably why he was refused a passage to the Falklands when Thatcher declared war. Riis, one of the originals rakers of the Bowery was accused of the same, but did eventually made money and fame out of those same occupants that stared dumbly at the new fangled flash chemistry that Riis had refined.

Rosler, though, contends another position for the Documentary photographer which, whilst not disregarding the money of course, transcends the sole notion of fiscal gain or positional amplitude, and that is that all these documentarists chart a course that builds a comfortable distance between subject and spectator. Riis did so to appeal to a burgeoning class that tended to ameliorate their liberal consciousness by ‘giving’. McCullin, whose determination to ‘go further’, to jump that plane to Stanleyville, to bring the Congolese atrocities home for Sunday breakfast thereby cementing his reputation as ‘the’ provider of ‘otherness’. The albino on spindly legs, the bum in the Bowery, the needle pocked, sore ridden, HIV infected whore in the Ukraine are all ‘others’ served up to forge a void between us and them. Just a few years after Edward R Murrows refused to cow-tail to McCarthy he appeals ‘ the viewers (then a more restricted part of the population that at present) to write their congressman to help the migrant farm workers, whose pathetic, dispirited victimhood has been amply demonstrated for an hour – ….. because these people can do nothing for themselves.” Pp306/7 ibid. Nine years later McCullin is in Nigeria finding that albino, an ‘other’ in an ‘other’ land, holding his hand and in a further dozen years he will swoon at the heat and stench of Lebanese hospital ward for blind mad children locked inside a room with no food or water. But like Riis and Stirton, McCullin gets his shot and delivers the pain for breakfast. The pages turn and the advert says Special K for a healthier way to get slim.

Stirton enters a competition with his drug addicted prostitute and wins category in the world press awards, McCullin gets awarded a CBE for his services to photography – the only photographer to achieve the accolade, Riis publishes and assures his financial security and gets to marry his childhood sweetheart. They have all made the grade, passed go and collected their rewards, just as Major ‘Mad Mike” Hoare  – an apt homonym if ever there was one – “…was just there for the adventure and the money” according to McCullin.

Riis wanted to remain anonymous, leaving his victim’s of both camera and destitution rubbing their eyes after the frying pan of light has receded from their retinas. McCullin’s decision to stay in the front line during the Tet offensive, counting himself fortunate not to be amongst the 50% who didn’t make it home in a body bag and ensuring he held the gaze of the shell-shocked soldier for the spectator to behold. All the way to Stirton who has perhaps paid for the prostitute to look at the camera as she fallates her punter – did he pay for the work to get his shot? The money shot? Both punter and whore are victims of the lens and a society gone mad. Is the only difference in a century one of collaboration? Is this unholy alliance of prey and hunter what we should expect, how much further does Stirton’s successor have to tread to keep the spectators eyes blinking in some form of disbelief?

This distancing, this ‘othering’, allows the spectacle to be viewed from a safe distance assuaging our collective guilt by texting to Children in Need, and not just to shut Wogan up. You can’t go on, thinking, nothing’s wrong. Call now! Give us your fucking money!

Rosler goes on to relate how photograph will have two moments the ‘first’ when the image was made, that immediate moment in front of the lens, however contrived, constructed, composed, edited or post processed. And the ‘second’, which is the most likely reading of the photograph, after it has passed into history – the ‘aesthetic-historic’ as she places it; which is of course how most photographs are viewed most of the time. “....a refusal of specific historical meaning yet ‘history minded’ in its awareness of the pastness of the time in which the image was made.” pp 317 ibid. Not a million miles from Barthes (again) then. But these photographs were made, there were these witnesses to these atrocities, whether in the McCullin front line approach or, perhaps, with Robin Hammond’s slightly more reflective accounts, that suggest, as Paul Theroux proposes in his travelogue “Dark Star Safari” – the only news coming out of Africa is bad news”. I am reminded of that old aphorism ‘it’s only bad news that sells”

During every avenue that I look at documentary photography I am beset with commerce; Riis, Hine, Theroux, Stirton, Hammond and McCullin all with vested interests in providing their version of the awful truth. As Sontag might observe, there seems to be some image fatigue setting in!

But does any of it work? As Rosler points out, these images mutate almost as soon as they are created. Baggage collects on them as pollen to bee, or as refuse does to a drain cover. Various political persuasions are convinced of their rhetoric by the availability of the same captured frame of information. The only way for Florence Thomson not to try and want to gain some recompense for Lange’s impertinence to exhibit her destitution, would have been to absent herself from the frame in the first place, and in doing so deprive the San Franciscan populace in raising capital to fund a relief effort – and maybe just to ensure they were fed enough and strong enough to ‘ride on by’ to get to the ‘bread basket of America’; wouldn’t that have been a greater crime? The appropriation of meaning, maybe the ‘contest of meaning’ for these images serve too many masters. The right for saying ‘well I told you so’ and the left for saying ‘let us rage against the machine’.

The rage we feel we see in these images has to be contextualized, both in terms of the motivations of the protagonists of the image and the perspective of the spectator. McCullin went where most wouldn’t dare; those he accompanied in the irrigation channels avoiding sniper fire, weren’t volunteers, they were largely conscripts. But those documents he made were like death warrants, so many of those he photographed died in the attempt to impose tyranny on a volunteer army of local insurgents, and I make no comment on the futility of their efforts to attempt such an imposition, but perhaps on the worth of the role to bear witness.

If McCullin’s Nikon hadn’t been there would it have made any difference? Rosler wonders also I think. That these images, that have sunk into mythological status and have lost their initial currency, who now wonders about Florence’s plight as she dragged her family south? Who now wonders about the albino whose ‘otherness’ was further ‘othered’ by his lens? I suspect no-one. Kevin Carter’s image of the baby girl being stalked by a vulture was perhaps remembered by him as he gassed himself; but most talk of those images are about verité, about how truthful they are, about whether they are. Or, as Rosler suggests I think, about re-focussing the zeitgeist to somewhere else. About how Szarkowski favoured “the connoisseurship of the tawdry’ pp 321 ibid with the ‘new documentarians, Winogrand, Arbus and Friedlander.” pp321 And from his position of cultural power vested the value of the document away from the atrocities that the opponents of “..our own global enemy, world communism” p 307 ibid – now read world Islamism – were doing on our behalf, on behalf of the ‘free world’ to the quotidian notions of photographers, who in one case thought the taking of the image was more important than the presentation of it. Now that is a notion of hers I do have some sympathy with.

Rosler speaks about the ‘radical metonymical’ nature of the photographs discussed in her essay, and her refusal to be ‘sold’ to the materialistic valuation of the image; a notion I also have a great deal of sympathy for. I attempt at all turns to refuse to be commodified to the hegemony of consumerism, unwilling as I am to be ‘rolled-up’ into a statistic. I fully acknowledge Rosler’s dialectic that posits no image comes without the conflation of purpose, position and penny. ‘The documentary of the present, the petted darling of the monied, a shiver-provoking, slyly decadent, lip-smacking appreciation of alien vitality or a fragmented vision of psychological alienation in city and town, coexists with the germ of another documentary – a financially unloved but growing body of documentary works committed to the exposure of specific abuses caused by people’s jobs, by the fanancier’s growing hegemony over the cities, by racism, sexism, and class oppression, works about militancy, about self-organisation, or works meant to support them. Perhaps a radical documentary can be brought into existence. But the common acceptance of the idea that documentary preceds, supplants, transcends, or cures full, substantive social activism is an indicator that we do not yet have a real documentary.” pp325

I can’t top that, but maybe Matt Damon’s mother can: “Corporations have been allowed to assume, without public dialogue or debate, a growing influence over children’s play, thoughts, and values, an influence which is, for the most part, a negative one. Those who market to children do not base their decisions on the well-being of children but on the well-being of their profits. And if violence sells, then they provide it, no matter what the costs are to children and society, no matter how much the values they push conflict with those of families.” Nancy Carlsson-Paige