Marcus Bleasdale

I enjoyed reading the interview with Marcus Bleasdale. First of all, he seems to be a person who is willing to risk all in order to chase his dream, doesn’t give up and has a very clear idea of what kind of photographer he wants to be, his ethics and approach to people.

Bleasdale refers to Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness. I read the book a few years ago and it made a real impact on me as well.  ‘It’s all about the shadows and the guilt that rests in our mind and he (Bleasdale) challenges us to address that by using the genocide in Congo to question our values and beliefs.’ (Houghton, 2005) What made a real impact on me is the contrasts that Conrad is able to write down how the West is able to cover the poverty and misery in the world in their own societies, while their way of living is directly related to it. The book resists the feeling of superiority that comes from it, showing that although people in The West seem to have be civilized and have everything under control, beneath it is a system of poverty and oppression.

Bleasdale believes in the moral responsibility that the media has to focus, and continue to focus on these issues, forcing the international community to read. (Houghton 2005)

Bleasdale respects the people he photographs, he doesn’t just come in and photograph the first awful scene that comes up, he spends time with his subjects and connects with them. He is aware of the dignity of the people in front of the camera, even when they have lost that.

‘Respect of the people we work with is paramount to the success of the message you as a photographer are trying to get across and that is where the dignity is respected while trying to portray and often hard-hitting subject.’ (Houghton, 2005)

Houghton, M. (2005) ‘Interview with Marcus Bleasdale’, Eight Magazine, December, pp. 68–70.
Conrad, J. (1996) Heart of darkness. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Library.
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Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis – The Founding Fathers of Documentary Photography

In light of the discussion about the effect, motivations and portrayal of truth in documentary, Hine and Riis are two photographers stand out as fundamental documentary photographers. Their first goal was to show the reality of poverty to an audience that had been oblivious to it, comment on it and come up with reforms to make a change.

However, there are vast differences between Hine and Riis’s background, beliefs and practices that are reflected in their work. It is interesting to look into these, also in regards to whether documentary photography falls within the genre of art and the change of function it takes on.

Lewis Hine’s early interest were in sociology and education. He would stimulate his pupils to use their cameras to document people of all ways of life, which led him to Ellis Island, where he took monumental images of people entering the United States. From there on Hine produced work that would be used to fight against child labor and poverty, focusing on the working conditions and dignity of the people that were the force of the industrial revolution.

Lewis’ photographs primarily focuses on the worth and individuality of each person, almost separating them from their environment. His compositions draw the eye towards the person primarily and from there on, or through captions, the viewer learns about the environment this person is put in.

Hine empowered his subjects by observing the individuality of his subjects, not shoehorning them into oft-expressed stereotypes of alterity. He engaged individuals in poor circumstances, but he rarely found the character of his subjects to reflect the environment in which they lived. (Sampsell-Willmann and Trachtenberg, 2009)

Hine doesn’t reject the notion that photography was art, but takes not part in the Stieglitz’ photo recession movement. He believed photography was an art that had power, because through identifying with the subjects in the photographs, viewers are motivated to change. From an artistic point of view

Riis’ background was that of survival, heartache and an upwards struggle towards a prosperous life in the United States. He ended up writing articles and used photographs to accompany his work.

Through the use of flash Riis was able to photograph scenes that before that were never shown before, the way people lived, where they worked and slept. Riis’ style is much more photojournalistic, with an obvious distance between him and the subject. Because of the flash, all elements have an equal visual importance, which on the one hand shows more of the situation the people are in, but on the other hand, blends the people with their environment, making them part of the misery.

I’m much more drawn to Hine’s work than Riis. Riis’ images are shocking and provoking, but I don’t feel any connection with the people in his images and because of that I think Riis is missing the point. Hine’s work however lets me identify with the subjects he is photographing. I think about my own children when looking at the children he photographed, me being a mother and the worries it brings. He brings out the humanity in his subjects and makes me connect with people who passed away a long time ago. For me this is what documentary is all about.

Sampsell-Willmann, K. and Trachtenberg, A. (2009) Lewis Hine as social critic. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Roberts, S. (2015) Jacob Riis photographs still revealing New York’s other Half. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/23/arts/design/jacob-riis-photographs-still-revealing-new-yorks-other-half.html?_r=0 (Accessed: 16 November 2016).
Jacob Riis (2016) in Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob_Riis (Accessed: 16 November 2016).

Words Spent Today buy Smaller Images Tomorrow – Interview with David Levi Strauss

I’m reading Words not Spent Today buy Smaller Images Tomorrow, by David Levi Strauss. It’s a very good read, touching on a lot of the subjects that are discussed in the course. I found an interview in which he talks more about his book. Here are a few quotes that I found particularly interesting:

 There was a critique of documentary photography that happened in the ’70s and ’80s that made it nearly impossible to talk about representations of suffering because it was an “aestheticization of suffering.” At the time, I wondered why the aesthetic was seen to be such a toxic thing. This book is an update of that, where I ask if such critiques are valid any more, and come to the conclusion that they aren’t. The extension of that critique is that you cannot represent other people and their suffering, and I don’t want to live in a world where that is not happening. One of the things that photography has always been able to do is to register a relationship between the person behind and in front of the camera. Even though that is not a straight line to empathy, solidarity, and political change, for a long time in photography it was part of that, and that didn’t just go away. 

To tell a story, you have to slow everything down.

There was a part of me that was angry at George for showing them to me and for having made them, so it got inside that question of representing cruelty for me, uncovering again these questions I thought I had answered for myself. Those images are seared into my brain now, and took me all the way back to being a child just old enough to read when I found a file of images from the Nazi death camps—bodies being moved around with bulldozers. I didn’t know what it represented, quite, because I didn’t know that history yet, but I knew they were important documents of human cruelty. It changed me. Something shifted. There is a deep human need to make a connection. I was not in Rwanda, I did not see that, but I need to know about it and there is a way you can only know about it by seeing it, at least seeing images of it. Seeing is believing. There is no shortage of subject matter for looking at human cruelty, it’s going on all over the world and continues, and we’ve lived through some signal examples of it. George was acting as a witness and he takes that job and role very seriously, and so I had to look again at my responses. Again, I don’t want to live in a world where these kinds of images are not being made, as long as these things are happening in the world.

 The historical record shows clearly that if you try to suppress images, they will come back to haunt you. This is the history of iconoclasm—it really doesn’t work. There are things that people will not accept and will not believe unless they see an image of it. That is so deeply embedded in the human response to the visible world and the world of appearances and the world inside our heads that this is not going to change. The trouble is that these responses are often unconscious, way below the surface, and beyond what is easily accessed, which is what makes images so powerful and so able to control us.

 

Smith, S. (2011) DAVID LEVI STRAUSS with Jarrett earnest. Available at: http://www.brooklynrail.org/2014/07/art/david-levi-strauss-with-jarrett-earnest (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

Maartje van den Heuvel, Discussing Documentary

Maartje van de Heuvel’s Discussing Documentary questions the legitimacy and effectiveness of documentary photography in the art scene, whether it is still performing its role of militant eye witness or refers to a degree of reality. She concludes that documentary photography in museums are signs of the increased role of the media in how reality is experienced in our western society and a response to that.

Because of the increased role of the media viewers have become more visual literate and artists are able to visually literate their findings in their work. It is developed through looking at documentary photography and is developed from there. Van den Heuvel describes how the function and visual elements of documentary photography has shifted in style, subject and distance from the subject, resulting in taking a step away from the classic documentary as we know it and analyse and comment on the structure and effect of documentary in the mass media.

 

Photographers I want to study more after reading the article: Juul Hondius, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Julian Germain and Fazal Sheikh

 

Van Den Heuvel, M. (2005) Discussing Documentary (pp 105 – 110) Documentary now!: Contemporary strategies in photography, film and the visual arts. Rotterdam: available in North, South and Central America through D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers.

Killip, Danziger and The Survival Programmes

Looking at the work of these different photographers, although they all have a distinct photographic style, there are many things they have in common. First of all, they are able to photograph their communities in such a way that the subjects look like they are behaving as they always would, they are not posing and don’t have facial expressions that seem to be forced or guided (like you will see in Steve McCurry’s work for example). Second, they show communities and the broader picture of which the people are part of. Killip dedicates a large part of his photographs to the environment and elements taking place around the subjects, Danziger puts his subjects next to the other extreme, linking communities that, although they live very far apart on the social ladder, are connected to each other by their contradictions. The Survival Programmes put the subjects in a broader perspective through the use of interviews and captions.

The work shows that the photographers are trying to bring its viewers as close as possible to the subject and context in the photographs, without a pretense that the images are objective. Instead, they question what we’re seeing, putting emotion next to facts, not victimizing subjects, but showing real people with whom the viewer can identify and feel drawn to.

Here are a few pieces from an article on hyperallergic.com that I found really interesting and relevant to what I’m studying right now.

I wonder if one reason why it has taken so long for Killip’s critically celebrated series to be shown in New York is the strong anti-humanist strain that began spreading throughout the art world in the 1970s.

According to this way of thinking, the documentary genre of photography, which can only pretend to be objective, is doomed to fail; the smart, educated viewer isn’t going to be seduced or manipulated. Sherrie Levine and others associated with the Pictures Generation further solidified this view by appropriating iconic documentary images. In a world where nothing is real, everything becomes a code. This is how the Metropolitan Museum describes Levine’s 1981 photograph of Walker Evans’ photograph, “Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife” (1936), a close-up portrait of tight-lipped Allie Mae Burroughs, the wife of an Alabama sharecropper:

Levine’s works from this series tell the story of our perpetually dashed hopes to create meaning, the inability to recapture the past, and our own lost illusions.

Why does the museum’s description remind me of Dante’s Divine Comedy and the inscription at the entrance to Hell?

Abandon hope all ye who enter here?

Is this the aesthetic hell we currently inhabit — touring renovated sections of Manhattan dotted with fashionable waterholes, where we can relax and talk turkey before scooting off to the next gallery opening to see the latest expression of our lost illusions and dashed hopes? Or is this anti-humanist attitude the most efficient way to embrace our profit driven, property-centered grind? (Yau, 2016)

‘No one is posing, yet nowhere does Killip claim to be objective – a term that has been grossly misused by those who rejected documentary photography in favour of what they called art.’ (Yau, 2016)

Killip: If your pictures could convey what it’s really like to work here, that would be something. And I knew exactly what he meant. I was always trying to make photography with that responsibility. I wanted it to be more than a document, to be something that is as close as you could possibly be to the subject. (Yau, 2016)

 

killip-_len-tabner-painting-skinningrove-n-yorkshire_-1983-768x614
Kippin, C. (1983) Len Tabner Painting, Skinningrove, N Yorkshire” (1983) [gelatin silver print]. Available at: http://hyperallergic.com/277025/what-will-you-do-about-chris-killips-challenge/ (Accessed: 11 November 2016)
Yau, J. (2016) What will you do about Chris Killip’s challenge? Available at: http://hyperallergic.com/277025/what-will-you-do-about-chris-killips-challenge/ (Accessed: 11 November 2016).
The British (no date) Available at: http://www.nickdanziger.com/nick-danziger/books-prints/the-british (Accessed: 11 November 2016).

 

Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document – David Company

This article describes how photographs can reappear in other circumstances, which adds or differs meaning to the medium. Photographs can play different roles in different contexts, shift from one genre to the other and broaden or narrow its meaning to the audience, depending on where and when it is looked at. Brandt’s book The English at Home was unprecedented in the sense that he brought together photographs of different social economic classes, leaving it up to the viewer to draw its conclusions of the inequities that were shown.

Brandt had been unconvinced of the straightforward social description and trying to bring about social reform directly through photographs. He focuses on the rituals and customs of the daily life and through that is able to highlight the differences in an unconscious way.

The article describes how his image Parlour Maid and Under-parlour Maid Ready to Serve Dinner adapts new meanings and insights when it is published in a different context, it transforms into a image on its own, with its own narrative and meaning.

However, the article doesn’t really describe why B and W becomes such a trusted medium in documentary. It does note how the blacks and whites define the details in the photograph, which conveys deeper meaning than what is seen first hand. Also Brandt’s photograph seems to be a forebode of documentary images with decisive moments.

I don’t see why the stress is laid on B and W, since back in those days colour photography wasn’t as well developed and available as it is now. I wonder if it was a conscious choice. We do see Brandt’s work developing into more high contrast images, which lets the photographs stand more on its own.

Campany_billbrandt.pdf (no date) Available at: https://docs.google.com/viewerng/viewer?url=https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/campany_billbrandt.pdf (Accessed: 8 November 2016).

 

Legacy Documentary for Social Change – Photo Notes

Bullet list McCausland

  • Documentary Photography is not a fashion
  • Dedicated to the profound and sober chronicling of the external world
  • Realism, scientific, uncompromising honesty
  • Fact is a thousand times more important than the photographer
  • The photographer controls the aesthetics, finds the significant truth and gives its significant form
  • Art or not is not an issue
  • Bound to realism in a complex way
  • Reality uniting before our lens, to be set down imperishably
  • Prototype of the age of realism
  • No room for opportunism or exploitation, purpose must be clear, and unified, mood simple and modest
  • Montage of photographer’s personality over his subject will defeat the aims over documentary photography
  • Objective: To widen the world we live in, acquaint with range and variety of human existence
  • Useful work, beyond claims of mere personality or clique

The idea of this article is in stark contrast with Rosler’s thinking. Rosler’s approaches documentary from the viewer’s view, in a negative way, and puts the photographer as an intermediary, in the service of its viewers, who are complacent consumers. McCausland’s viewpoint however, starts with the reality that is being photographed. She emphasises the importance of communicating this in a way that is as true to the subject as possible. The  photograph serves as an intermediary but with the task to pull viewers into the reality they are seeing, letting them expand their horizon and become connected with the subjects in the photograph.

Both school of thoughts trigger me to be aware of my role as the photographer, what is my standpoint? Do I want my style and opinion to be the dominating factor? Do I purely want to show, or also want to connect? We don’t have control over the motivations for our viewers to look at our work, but we have a certain responsibility in presenting the context in which the work is taken, shown and used.

jantar-mantar-1-1-of-1
Jantar Mantar, New Delhi