Surrealism and Documentary

I looked at the work of the photographers that were mentioned in the reader and at some photographs of Max Pinckers. I am very interested in this type of photography, the ‘tension between reality and fiction’, the use of reality in such a way that is seems surreal and triggers a certain subconscious feeling with the viewer.

The photographs of the FSA and Mass Observation already triggered questions whether documentary photography should be staged or not and in which way the vision or motives of the photographer is conveyed through the work. The photographers mentioned here take reality a step further. With the use of existing visual lines, subjects etcetera, they are able to recreate an alternative reality, making it possible for the viewer to open up their interpretation of reality and bring a deeper understanding of the images.

‘Sur’ means ‘over’, ‘above’ and ‘beyond’. Surreality is everything above and beyond the reality that we see and experience. The idea is to go beyond that, whether visually or through the ideas that are conveyed. In looking at the images of the artists suggested I found the following characteristics that work into establishing this effect:

Key Characteristics

  • Interplay of shadows and light. Shadows function as a defining compositional tool, opening up the insight into the reality outside of the frame, or adding a visual element to what’s in the frame, highlighting aspects that otherwise would not have been noticed.
  • subjects are exotic, strange, speak to the senses.
  • Use of symmetry, formal compositional rules in such a way that the image seems to be a bit ‘off’.
  • Use of mirrors, veils, masks and double exposures, which adds a sense of mystery and displacement to the image.
  • Scene and subject are intimately interwoven, bringing an other meaning to the subjects.
André Kertész (American, born Hungary, 1894 – 1985) (Getty museum) (no date) Available at: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/1847/andr-kertsz-american-born-hungary-1894-1985/ (Accessed: 27 January 2017).
Iturbide, G. (2017) Juchitan – amber. Available at: http://www.amber-online.com/collection/juchitan/ (Accessed: 27 January 2017).
My Brussels: Photographer Max Pinckers (2015) Available at: http://www.bruzz.be/en/video/tvbrussel/my-brussels-photographer-max-pinckers (Accessed: 27 January 2017).
Photographic psychology: Image and psyche (no date) Available at: http://users.rider.edu/~suler/photopsy/surreal.htm (Accessed: 27 January 2017).
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Personal Work: Underprivileged Children

Last December, a friend of mine organised a Christmas party for children of an organisation that helps them with education, after school activities and vocational skills. All these kids come poor families in Delhi, live in slums and don’t have access to proper sanitation, healthcare and quality education. My friend asked me if I could photograph them and give them all a print. I set up a space in her garden to photograph the children. They were really eager and happy to be photographed. Here are some of the photos that I took:

As I was editing the photographs I wondered about how I would perceive these beautiful people if I had taken their photos in their homes or streets they live in. Would I have felt pity for them? Would I have photographed them differently, still asked them to smile? Would I still categorise them as underprivileged, or just teenagers? What is it that I want to convey, besides just trying to make an image that the kids will like to look at and feel proud of?

I still have to go to the organisation and hand over the images. Maybe I’ll ask them to write something about it and it to my own files, have to think about that!

Excercise – Making Sense of Documentary Photography

After having researched some of the FSA photographers and having looked at their work I read the article ‘Making Sense of Documentary Photography’. This article shows that documentary photography is not as objective as it is perceived to be, the photograph and caption are influenced by prejudices of the photographer, the audience for which the photograph is taken, technical restraints, posing and arrangement of subjects and the final choice of photograph from the series in which it was taken.

I believe that there is no such thing as an ‘objective’ photograph to begin with and that this is something of which viewers and users of photographs should be fully aware of. Besides that, the way a photograph is perceived differs per viewer. Therefor it is very important to be able to read images and be aware of how captions, visual clues and composition influence the impact an image has on the viewer and the way it constructs a certain idea or judgement.

Personally I don’t think there is a right or wrong in techniques or practices itself, but it is always very important to question the reasoning, preconceived ideas and motivations behind the photographer and whether he or she is able to convey those successfully in the work. From there I certainly prefer Hine’s work over Riis’. Margaret Bourke-White’s over Dorothea Lange and Walker over Lee. This has to do with the way they either address certain inequalities, but don’t show racial prejudices, how they establish an equal understanding with the viewers or show a dismissive attitude towards their subjects.

When it comes to exploitation I find it difficult to come up with a clear opinion. I would be very upset myself if an image of me was used for political purposes that I oppose to, or that are not true to who I am or believe in. In that sense I would feel exploited and done wrong. On the other hand, documentary photographers have been able to raise awareness about injustice and have been a tool for social change, so I would not want to dismiss it altogether.

Concluding I think the most important thing is that viewers adopt a critical eye when looking at photographs and reading their captions. As a photographer I have to be aware and sensitive of the impact that my work may have on viewers and the impact it might have on the subjects in the photograph. It goes beyond what I produce, but also expands in the audience I choose to show it to and whether I use the image for personal gain or as a tool for change.

Makingsense.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/makingsense.pdf (Accessed: 18 January 2017)
Name (2011) Arthur Rothstein. Available at: https://lis471.wordpress.com/arthur-rothstein/ (Accessed: 18 January 2017)
The history place – Dorothea lange photo gallery: Migrant farm families (2012) Available at: http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/lange/ (Accessed: 18 January 2017).
Walker Evans (1903–1975) | essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of art history | the metropolitan museum of art (2000) Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/evan/hd_evan.htm (Accessed: 18 January 2017).

 

Humphrey Spender

Documentary Style Mass Observation Worktown

The goal to observe shines through all photographs. The photographers are standing from a distance, most of the time from a sideline, and photograph with a wide angle camera, which accentuates the distances between subjects even more. There are no signs of interaction between the photographer and subjects. Because most faces are photographed from the side it is hard to read the people’s faces, acknowledge their emotions and therefor establishing some rapport with what is in the photograph.

The photographs are categorized by elements of daily life; life in the streets, work, leisure, national holidays, assuming that the life of these people are centered around these central themes. The focus is on what the people are doing, not even so much on what is happening. Most photographs have a group of people in it, there are hardly any photos with one individual, let alone a photograph in which you can see a person’s emotion.

I do think the work serves the purpose of what the photographers had in mind when they wanted to make an observation of life in Bolton. However, I feel that the basis from which they were working already triggers some questions about their initial assumptions about the working class, as if the working class was a completely different breed that needed specific study and also focusing on it in such a way that the photographers and viewers would never find common ground, recognize themselves in the lives of others and their emotions.

What I miss in the photographs are the elements that show the individuality of a person. The setting in their environment and amongst others leaves no room for focusing on one person in the photo, because of the uniformity in the images, the viewer is immediately drawn back the the central theme of the photograph.

On the other hand, in sharp contrast of Avedon’s work, just as the viewer is kept away from the individual worker, it is also hardly influenced by the inner drives of the photographer himself. We’re forced to look objectively at a scene, therefor don’t get to know the people in the images, nor the photographer himself.

Atherton, L. (2017) Photography and archives from mass-observation. Available at: http://boltonworktown.co.uk/ (Accessed: 17 January 2017).

‘In the American East’ – Richard Bolton

I watched a documentary on Richard Avedon a few years ago and remember that I was really impressed with his work and ideas behind his practice. It seemed to me that he was able to tap into a deeper layer of humanity, going beyond the social economical status and background and establish a recognition between the viewer and subject that would enhance equality and understanding. Interesting how an article like this can overview these thoughts and show me that there are always more sides to ones initial ideas and convictions.

Bolton explains how in modern day’s information economy poverty and its conflicting realities and opinions have been taken out of sight and elaborates by using Avedon’s ‘In the American West’ as an example of how cooperations have occupied the independent, critical space that used to be art. The ambiguity of representing ‘the truth’ completely out of its context and using it in a commercial, uncritical setting raise questions on what defines documentary photography, when it sides to voyeurism and exploitation or is used for a wider understanding and empathy towards people who live in different circumstances.

Bolton says it’s bad faith in much documentary: Claims about the value of self expression obscure the manner in which relations of power inform representation, the way the privileged represent the reality of an other class.

However, I wonder if it’s just a matter of class differences, thinking about Martin Parr’s work, I think you could say almost the same about how he shows a certain group of people and exploits them. I think it has more to do with the problem of ‘motive and responsibility‘ that Bolton describes.

(No Date) Available at: https://www.lahc.edu/library/documents/pruden/Bolton.pdf (Accessed: 16 January 2017)

Catogories – August Sander

The works of August Sander, Irving Penn and Zed Nelson have much in common; all portray people in a way that is focused on their profession, either through their outfits, captions or props. All photographers have managed to bring forward the inner strength and dignity of their sitters and isolated them from an environment that would show their social-economic position, leveling the hierarchical position society puts them in. The viewers are directed straight to the character and perseverance of the individuals.

Even though the portraits are static, formal and have a timeless quality to them, they all signify a response to a changing society. Sander categorizes his sitters based on profession and class and position in society, not by race. Even though the categories might seem discriminative in our days (especially the ‘woman’ category), because all sitters are photographed in the same approach, with respect and focus on the character of the sitter, there is no sense of different levels of respect or reverence for the different categories. This in contrast to the paradigm of the rising fascist movement in the days Sander worked on his project.

Nelson and Penn on the other hand, focus on trades and profession that are disappearing in modern society. Because of the way the categories are chosen and the people are photographed, these projects are not a protest against the changes, but focus on the people that are effected by them, the loss that is felt and the fact that dignity is derived from professions and practices that society is rejecting or letting go off.

“I preferred the limited task of dealing only with the person himself, away from the accidents of his daily life, simply in his own clothes and adornments, isolated in my studio. From himself alone I would distill the image I wanted, and in the cold light of day would put t onto the film… Taking people away from their natural circumstances and putting them into the studio in front of a camera did not simply isolate them, it transformed them.” (Irvin Penn)

Penn says that through isolating the subject from its environment it is transformed. However, I believe that it is us viewers and photographers that are transformed when we are willing to see people for who they are, isolate our own prejudices and are really willing to take time to talk and shine a light on their dignity and strength. For me, this is where the power of these projects lie.

2009, L.A. and Produced By Jeffrey Henson Scales (no date) ‘Irving Penn: Small trades’ at the Getty museum. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/10/11/weekinreview/20091011_PENN_SS/index.html (Accessed: 8 December 2016).
Nelson, Z. (no date) Disappearing Britain. Available at: http://www.zednelson.com/?DisappearingBritain (Accessed: 8 December 2016).
Asander_sfmoma.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/asander_sfmoma.pdf (Accessed: 8 December 2016).

Salgado

Perhaps the best photojournalism fuses information and expression, document and symbol, in such a way as to create a metaphor: an image that retains the particularity of its referent but, at the same time, stands for a broader truth which transcends that immediate context.

In his article Sebasti o Salgado: Ways of Seeing Latin America, Mraz elaborates on how a photographer’s connection with the subject, use of captions, metaphors, symbols and personal involvement influences the overall perception of documentary photography. Through comparing the early and later work, Mraz shows how Salgado develops from creating distant photographs with a strong emphasis on metaphors and iconographic displays to images that are part of a context, with individuals in a specific context during a highly selected fraction of a second. 

What strikes me in the article is how Mraz shows how Salgado develops from a photographer who creates work that represents the Latin America how the Western world likes to see it, with an estrangement that Salgado must have felt when he returned to his homeland after having been abroad for a long time, to an engaged photographer that clearly addresses the conditions and lives of the people he photographs.

“In this way, he could sell to the developed world the estrangement it knows so well, but with the interesting touch of dressing it in exotic clothing and setting it against picturesque backdrops… the alienation of individuals who embody an ‘Orientalist’ otherness is evidently a horse of a decidedly different colour.”

Traditional photojournalism is more concerned with information; its images are documents which are predominantly limited to presenting particular situations. As such, they often lack the expressivity to transform themselves into statements which transcend the individual case. Conversely, fine are photojournalism such as Salgado’s leans more toward the expressive pole, and its images are often symbols that can fail to adequately present the particularity of specific situations, because they lack the information with which it could be constructed. Though conscious of the risks of such gross generalizations, we might say that, in general, fine art photojournalists make photos that tell us more about the photographers than the photographed, while the images of traditional photojournalists tell us more about what they are photographing than about those who have taken them.”

Mraz, J. (2002) ‘Sebastião Salgado: Ways of seeing Latin America’, Third Text, 16(1), pp. 15–30. doi: 10.1080/09528820110120687.