Documentary and Beauty and Documentary

One fifty light

One fifty light

Just before two pm one family, four generations, sat for lunch. Sharing this meal I wondered whether I would have the opportunity to break bread with a great grandchild? Happy and privileged to do so at this time with those whose histories are nearing completion and others barely beginning. This light radiated into a new space in a new room newly completed in time for this occasion. A new light, an old practice, this illumination that is now captured and framed for as long as those that want to allow it to provide a memoir.

Thoughts on documentary.

Repetition is a word that keeps coming up as I reflect on my thoughts, the more I research, the more I find repeated messages,

not only the: Grieving mothers,

charred human remains,


women giving birth,

cock fights,

bull fights,

Havana street scenes,

reflections in windows,

football posts in unlikely locations,

swaddled babies,

portraits taken through mosquito nets,

needles in junkies’ arms,

… and on, and on – Broomberg and Chanarin ‘Unconcerned But Not Indifferent’, 2008

but also the need to question the validity and the purpose of the medium of photography as a ‘Documenting’ schema. What is the purpose? As Ingrid Sischy wrote in The New Yorker on 9th September 1991 (about Salgado’s Uncertain Death at the ICP in New York, a show guest curated by Fred Ritchin who also wrote the main text): “To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action.” The direction of travel for the ‘Documenter’ is away from the presentation of image to accompany, or to illuminate news – tragic or otherwise – that role is being granted to the ‘citizen journalist’ with Iphone and other mobile devices. It is implicit, that in the act of triumphanting the democratization of the means of image capture that the industry, that commercial practice of news ‘packaging’, has freed itself of any responsibility to the bounds of comprehension of the ‘why?’ to just the ‘what!’ “Were you there?” asks the BBC website. “Can you send us your pictures?” says the New York Times (and the Chicago Sun Times who now have no photographers on staff, how long before they all go the same way?).

Is there inherency in a photographer’s DNA to transcend the ugly beautiful, or to at least reify it to another more acceptable plane? But as Alfredo Jaar comments in an interview with Strauss et al 2009, “there is no way to represent anything without aestheticization. In other words, there is no representation without aestheticization.” And the squeeze to the gallery wall allows for both the release of the image maker and for the market to collude – how much now for the rights on Carter’s vulture picture? We know it as the ‘vulture’ picture and not of the infant being regarded by a vulture, we know it perhaps because we are complicit in it’s worth as cultural icon, but also as an emblem of the ‘Documentarist’s work; how many of us would love to have taken that vulture shot, the one that Carter waited for twenty minutes in front of, what we can only suspect was a dying infant, to get the composition, to win the prize that perhaps cost him his own life as well.

Geoff Dyer, in his documentary of documentarists ‘The Ongoing Moment” suggests I think that the spectator to these documents is convening with the photographer as much as the event on the screen or page. Responding to Sontag’s comments on “Here is New York” where she writes about the ‘Democracy of Photographs’ suggesting there was “ by amateurs as good as all the work of seasoned professionals. Unattributed and uncaptioned, all of the pictures in the show, whether by ‘a James Nachtwey or …. a retired school teacher’…. If Nachtway is a destination or place as much as a photographer, then that place can be New York as well as Grozny.”

Of course ‘Documentary’ isn’t only about the re-presentation of a mise en scene unnatural to the spectator’s eye for the purpose of excitement – eroticizing as Barthes might have it – and drawing the viewer in to that time honoured contract between advertiser and conduit. The purpose maybe much more prosaic; to communicate the response to a subject that the lens holder may be wanting to comprehend for themselves. And so to that oft worn trope of beauty; was there ever a subject so much discussed and so little understood, apart from maybe love? The recurrence of this one questioning theme, above all others on this voyage, has kept me at arm’s length. No painted work of pre-modernist art displays a lack of beautiful intent; moreover the rendition of beauty still lies at the heart of most artists’ work that I’ve witnessed. The painter and drawer seem both unwilling or unable to depict without challenging their capacity to deliver beauty, and when that isn’t achievable the notion of prettiness lies still on the canvass. The photograph has at its core the purposeful decision of what to exclude from the frame, the mechanical artist what to include which seems to me to be a much easier deliberation to contend with. However the ‘sunset’ still draws the photographic artist and its detractor to the conversation; it’s capture and safekeeping being both a hindrance and a burden to the artist who feels the need to express and expound their feelings on any subject in a medium, that which is still defying popular belief as a legitimate means of artistic expression.

The indexical nature of photography depicts everything as a ‘document’ of course, and so in that sense all photographers are “Documentarists”. And the question that I am most interested in is what is it that I want to document and why? Is the purposeful exclusion of elements from a frame evidence of censorship in the sub-conscious a portrait of the self and if so is it therefore a recognition that what I ‘frame’ is evidence of some epistemological development? Do I want to meet me in the frame?

Along with Broomberg and Chanarin, I care “…not to judge whether a photograph of a child suffocating to death in a mudslide is sufficiently beautiful to win a prize…” ‘Unconcerned But Not Indifferent’, 2008:  because that (unknown to me) photographer’s self depiction is not one I would want to mirror. My quest is myself.

And so to where should I look to find that sense of self; released from a need to express an other, either sublimated or prettified, I should perhaps look, as I remember my tutor extolling me to do very early in this course, to the reasons I made what I deemed ‘pretty’ pictures for they were surely an expression of me, however much I wanted to distance myself from them. I will not be a photojournalist, nor yet a pale imitation of campaigning media correspondent. My direction is inward, to an exploration of the self and to try and understand or at least search for why and how I react to what I see and feel about what is in front of me.

10:31 light

10:31 light

10:45 light

10:45 light

As ideas ebb and flow, these running rivulets of rain provide an echo to the hosts of thoughts that are collecting. Light is coming at the end of the year.

“As a two dimensional object they [the photographs] seek to represent the third. Yet they live by the forth.” Barry Thornton, ‘Edge of Darkness’ 2000. I knew Barry, not well, but well enough to talk to him occasionally, ask his advice with which he was very free. It was Barry that encouraged me to convert from traditional film based photography to digital at about the time this book was published, though he made his living from the likes of Ilford who utilised his knowledge, expertise, contacts and audience. This quotation is from the last book he published before he died prematurely and alone from a heart attack in a Birmingham hotel room. Barry was recounting how the photograph can represent many things, but universally they hold time as a marker, and the revelations he found after his father had a heart attack and died and whose photographs provided keys to Barry’s own past. I will not be countenancing any discourse on my father, rather I think I want to think about how I can mark time and use its representation as a memento. Whilst I will not set out to make ‘happy’ pictures I will seek to engage the viewer with some notion of the motion of time, how things might happen in a place and mark them, however prosaic they may be, with a sense of that time when the light, or the ambiance,  drove me to record that instance in my life.

I am aware that most of my work so far has been autobiographical in nature, stemming from a desire to find/understand my place. I think that now, and assuming I pass through to Level Three, which I am hopeful for, it will be an acknowledged engagement rather than skirting around and dipping toes. I’m not sure I want to dodge issues that have dogged me, and maybe I feel better about myself after facing things from the past through this course. I never expected it, but I sleep easier now.


More nice pictures



As I returned home yesterday I parked the car near to my house in order to post some letters, normally I would have driven on and walked back, no idea why on this occasion I decided to stop and I noticed this on the short walk to the post-box, and because I had cameras in the car after returning from the Echoes Group I was able to return quickly and make the image above. The light, from the sun was being reflected from a window opposite to the fence, so the light source was behind the fence. I thought the image had a beauty about it, strong contrast, framed within the frame, abstraction with a hint of realism about it. I knew I didn’t have long, that this image was in the process of moving on, this transient image would of course have been moving in opposition to it’s own source and with no sense of permanence, it’s transitory presence reminding me of what Jason Evan’s had described at the conference in Westminster – that magical light on a Wednesday afternoon at 4 o’clock ( the time and day of course merely symbolic). Maybe it’s been all that war photography that has impelled me to look for beauty, although I found it in heaps in some of the imagery in use for the documentary photographer – it’s use there as an enticement to allure the viewer into a discourse. Maybe I’m becoming to overcome my distrust of the beauty in my own images – which relates to my own motivations learned/ingrained over decades of image making – that have always been there to entice. Maybe I need to allow myself the privilege of acknowledging that so long as the motivation isn’t cynical, that the purpose of the image is to be able to engage and communicate, then it is permissible for me to employ beauty in the image. It is difficult though.

Inspired by the encouragement I felt with this image and from conversations around it with Anne, Stephanie and Clive I went out again to look for more inspiration. Looking for emotional responses to an environment that has held me like no other community has or will ever likely do come the following.


Antonino and the archive today

The world seems to need more pictures, more ways to fit them into our worlds; their omnipresence today appears to be tomorrow’s opportunity to create a competition to create more, more images and more ways to create them. Imagery creation, creating image. The ticking of the shutter release even on shutter-less cameras an increasing soundscape to all we do. Much has been said of the volume of pictures that flood our lives, Kessels’ installation of the Flickr upload in a 24 hour period is dwarfed if compared to all pictures made in the same period on the day he chose and already those numbers pass into the penumbra of a new day’s dawn of image creation. That of today.

At the turn of the previous century, on the cusp of modernism, Kodak provided the means of democratization in the medium by which the image both devalued and exalted the object of it’s gaze. Atget and Lartigue, the vernacularists attempting to catch the exhaustion that Calvino’s Antonino would come to accept, that the only course left was to photograph the photograph and not the photographed because it was already in an image album somewhere. The banal becoming first more beautiful and then, later in the century, reveling in a connoisseurship of the tawdry and mundane and as the clock ticks the numbers rise and their value, outside the speculated and manipulated, reduces. The worth of the photograph maker continues to diminish, the currency of the artist in a world now flush with bandwidth seems to be being directed to the walls of those that were not targeted by Kodak and are now by Nokia and Apple.

Cameras are now no longer a choice decision; they are part of the furniture of life. Exclamations of surprise at the cohabitation of image capture and creation with voice telephony is no longer shrill; it is now a purposeful decision to elect not to have a camera/phone or indeed a phone/camera. The interconnectedness is deemed not an optional extra but a choice au natural, why wouldn’t it be there? The camera exists as by rights on computers, on mobile phones, on walls, on children’s toys, on pylons, on doors, on spectacles, on kitchen appliances and on and on and on.

This ubiquitous availability informs how we value them, this sense of acceptance that the world is now available through an image has driven the photographer from the news desk in newspapers, from the documentary photographers place at the front line of conflict both national and domestic, the value of these images are as ephemeral as their permanence as records, Antonino’s precept has perhaps more currency today then when first proposed over half a century ago, and now seems more prescient than ever, though tomorrow will declare another record in image creation. Tick tick.

As I regard this medium’s diminishing worth in the stack ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap world that pervades our every existence as artist, as photographers, as life on this planet I begin to wonder at a most curious phenomena. This ever-reducing worth ascribed to the image has been matched by an ever increasing charge to the very same item. This denomination though isn’t, and cannot be matched by Gursky’s super banality monetary association but by the emotional value attributed to it by both individual and state alike. The photograph has never had so much collateral value, it potency comes despite the general acceptance of it’s lack of legitimacy, it’s mimetic potency when tasked with the presentation of so-called truth.

The creation of an image of a person or property is now more highly governed both in law and by social stigmatic response, than ever before. Individual rights associated with the capture of an image have some echoes with Papuan New Guinean tribes-people who thought that perhaps their souls were being extracted by this devilish contraption. That society feels a need to be protected suggests that the value of the captured image is perhaps even beyond valuation and that it’s very presence as a physical entity – despite it’s physical ephemerality – should be expunged from existence, that to have it available is anathema to the normal structure of a normal society. Calvino found his mid century perspective of his privileged Antonino’s perspective, a fond remembrance of a life without photographic restriction, his model voluntarily disrobing as a prelude to the act of photography, describing herself in an act of humility which guided them to love, had no need for a release form. The release in their case was love; that this love foundered on a photographer’s obsessive need for recreation of the object of his desire is a subjunctive denouement neither could have foreseen.

Indemnification against every possible eventuality is now a precursive intercourse between even complicit subject and object; signs abound about “no photography here”. I wonder if it is a condition of the ‘watched-society’ that fosters this predilection of concern of the potential potency of the image, but it is perhaps more curious that in a time where the image is valued less and less, becoming more and more fleetingly regarded; that it’s potency should have become so charged with emotive currency meaning that few dare to cross the rubicon of personal space to create images that were once standard fare.

Antonino’s search for imagery to photo-copy will, in another half century be perhaps thwarted by a lack of vernacular imagery, despite the omnipresent image capturing technology, despite the fathomless depths of digital storage, as those very images will have been deleted assuming they were ever taken. What then for the archivist to mine for a narrative of the early twenty first century, lost USB devices found and sold on an ebay flea market?

Thoughts on Assignment Five





Another archive, albeit quite small – some thirty or so photographs – has come into my possession and I want to investigate fiction. Appropriated text from the Russian classics applied to these English working class scenes. I am hoping to show that emotions are universal, that despite their origins these subjects have access to the same emotive range as those that are depicted in aristocratic terms. I note the irony that the textual characters are set in a time just prior to the popular revolution when the serfs, at least for a short period, overtook the regime and that the subjects visually depicted are from the same class (albeit with democratic freedom as their bulwark against oppression).

Assignment four – critical essay, reflections on tutor response and moving on


I found essay this harder than I expected, but for reasons other than those expectations. I relished the thought of reflecting what I thought of war documentary photography, knowing that by doing so I might draw a curtain between it and me; I have been immersed in it for some time now and feel the need to move on. I felt/still feel that if I was to continue on with this subject I might have difficulties withdrawing and tackling other subjects closer to me, to what I feel I want to be working on, though the specifics of where I am to move to aren’t at all clear currently. I have spoken about fiction before, how I feel that narrative, of important and difficult subjects, are perhaps better dealt with under the umbrella of fiction. The investigations that I did in filling the frame with an interpreted response – here and here – helped me to better comprehend how I thought about the fictiveness of the photograph. My few attempts at presenting the work have met with mixed responses, but whilst I instinctively feel that the concept has a sound foundation – though not yet a firm outcome – my early thoughts about assignment five, the personal project, which centered around having blank images supported with an audio narrative will be put on hold – at least as far as college work is concerned. This gives me a problem in that I now need to replace a germinated idea with something else that hasn’t begun as an idea as yet, so I’ll probably need to have a good think and maybe do some exercises, take some pictures, fill the void inside the frame….

My tutor was very supportive of the idea to use the absence of an image as the image and to address the narrative issues perhaps with an audio file, but my excursions for this project, albeit in it’s infancy, were so mixed that to present it as a final project, even in a mature state for assessment, seemed to be a high risk strategy and would need a great deal of contextualizing work as well as an engagement with assessors who might not have the time, or possibly the inclination, to invest in my work. And my only concern with the amount of work involved is that I might be further sucked into a subject that I am still feeling somewhat wary of. I presented the images (with no image) three times: the Thames Valley Group, a study day review in Bristol and locally with non-students. The worst reception by far was the Bristol event, probably due to how I presented the material; the audience seemed struck dumb and astonished with two or three handling the prints as if they were contaminated – mea culpa. It emphasized to me the need to contextualize the work, however poor the work is, to ensure the viewer(s) have a chance to comprehend and/or engage with what it is that I am trying to explore with the work.

I am toying with the idea of ‘re-photographing’ some of the war photographs, using landscapes nearby, perhaps local people to re-envisage or re-interpret images of war that I find resonate with me on an emotional level, though I am concerned that by doing so I may miss other images to investigate because I am not being objective enough in my selection.

I have some suggestions follow up from my tutor: What would be my proposal, rather then just a polemical piece of what is wrong, what would I suggest – something I think I need to consider for a while. And to do a short practical assignment to offer a way forward to help me stop thinking about photographs that give me grief and start to take photographs that make me happy. Well in answer to the last point I do take pictures that make me happy, this course is one aspect of me as a photographer – an important part, but nevertheless only a part. I will do the short assignment, but maybe not necessarily on war photography. Thanks go to my tutor for her support on this.

More War Photography

Wanted to add this video to the blog; How photographs told the story of the Vietnam War

“In a new 50th anniversary book – Vietnam, The Real War – the US news agency Associated Press has chosen some of its most powerful images, taken by photographers embedded with US troops fighting the Communist Viet-Cong.”

I’m having a bit of difficulty with the term ’embedded’ as this term was first used long after the Vietnam war was concluded – or lost as the Vietnamese might say – and denotes the way in which photographers were allowed ‘back into the fray’ post their exclusion after the Vietnam War. As the video says, photographers were unedited, this was being the last time in a major conflict they were unedited, maybe the only time they were unedited – assuming the process of editing can be an non-activity, which I doubt. Nick Ut’s photograph here is an edited version of the image he made whilst running backwards to fame. The self immolating monk, which as the narration reminds us, turned the coverage of the war from the back pages to the front page and kept it there for a decade more with more and more graphic images in a version of the truth that became a touchstone for censorship and political action that reverberates today.

My excursion into the graphic imagery of war and victim photo journalism will shortly come to an end, there maybe one or two more posts, including the edit of a critical essay on the subject and I hope to leave it alone for the rest of the course.

Today I made some nice images

At today’s session at the Echoes Group I was somewhat thwarted in my plan to take a full set of portraits, a significant number – more than half – were not able to come chiefly through medical reasons. I had planned a set of similar portraits, similar light etc so have decided to put that exercise off until next week. Whilst I was still able to collect resource for the calendar project I was interested in a set of abstract images that appeared to me within the space at the Fusion Arts Centre.

The conference at the University of Westminster had Jason Evans talk about ‘Nice’ images, about how he, amongst his practice, enjoys presenting images that appeal to him. “I like the secret places in a photograph” and “..the points of magical light, to a specific place, Wednesday afternoon at 4 o’clock…” thoughts that I felt immediately drawn to. I see those things every day – I especially like the Tuesday morning light just after nine thirty – photographers tend to do that. I remember talking to Barry Thornton who said that photographers are very lucky because they ‘see’ pictures all the time, we become accustomed to framing, to recognising both macro contrast local contrast, instinctively ‘seeing’ that it would work as a ‘nice’ image. Geometry, symmetry, harmony those distinct structures that inform the eye that things are combining for the lens. Evans has a website dedicated to showing a ‘nice’ image every day (though at the moment is has been a bit variable as to whether it gets updated). The object of the Dailynice is to display a pleasant image to make people feel better than they would had they not seen the image. That’s nice isn’t it?

I have struggled with my own images for some while now. I have found it too easy to produce pretty images, those that are on this blog piece for example, so I’m thinking about the difference between ‘nice’ and ‘pretty’. Evans’ ‘Nice’ images are filtered through an Art practice that is mature – his is a distinguished career already – so I wonder if he isn’t being a tad disingenuous calling his images ‘Nice’, where they might be considered as a comment on the ephemerality of photography today. Having resigned from an educational career in art photography, having been a photographer in the fashion business, Evans has witnessed several complexions of the face of a photographic artist. His images appear for short periods of time and there is only one image to consider, untroubled by the narrative complexities of other images to scroll into, Evans presents an image for the viewer to contextualise or not, as the fancy takes them. Surely he knows why he has made those images, they surely contain ‘points of magical light’ as the clock ticks relentlessly through the witching hour of 4 pm.

These images presented here were taken because they struck me at the time as nice images (I fear to associate the capitalised edition of the word with my own creations, lest a comparison is made) and whilst the word kindled a connection with Evans’ work, I have attempted to make them nice. I have prettified them, abstracted them further from the abstractions that they clearly are, but I was inspired by Evans’, I heard his words echoing as I gazed through the viewfinder and that together with my tutor’s encouragement to make some images that I don’t hate (a reference to the ‘war’ photography I have been researching for some time, and a battle area of “Documentary” that I would like to leave behind me).

A turning point?