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.


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