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.


2 thoughts on “Documentary, identity and place

  1. I do keep pondering over this ‘difference’. the same images can mean art to one person and documentary to another and both to yet another. How far do you think that knowing the subject area – place, history etc – makes one decide ‘documentary’. I looked at Webb’s work and, to me, they did seem impressionistic. There was a fleeting air about them. They didn’t particularly make me think about the current situation, except for the absurdity really of having one woman peeping out from her black clothing whilst another pouts her lips seductively in a poster behind her. How can that make sense? Scruton’s article certainly did make me think about political v religious issues. I wonder whether my thoughts might have gone along a slightly different line if I had not seen Webb’s images first.

  2. I was ‘triggered’ to the Turkey of the ‘present’ by Webb’s titles – Taksim square etc; I’m not sure how I stumbled on Scruton, he isn’t someone I look for normally, though I shall try and catch the rest of his series. We are, as so many commentators tell us, a product of our past and that past informs all we see and interpret. So to answer your question, I think of that oft used phrase ‘it depends’!

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