Sunday, September 26, 2010

Photography: A Critical Introduction - 2. Surveyors and Surveyed

The second chapter, written by Derrick Price is more accessible, although at times does descend into a historical list of dates and photographers, again good reference, but making the book harder to read.  This chapter, however, deals with subjects close to my current interests discussing the use of the camera as a documentary tool.

As photography started in the 19th century it was viewed first and foremost as a means of accurately describing reality and thus in effect is by definition a documentary tool, although that term had not yet been coined.  In the early days it was not possible to reproduce photographs for mass publications, the newspapers of the time used etchings.  What I find fascinating is that many etchings based upon photographs were specifically labeled as such, this being believed to add an air of veracity and authority to the picture.

One of the key debates in photography, discussed in Chapter 1of the book, is the question of reality, does a photograph picture the real.  The Victorians took a distinctly scientific view, the camera was an instrument that could only record the reality of the scene in front of it.  However, very early on in its history documentary photography was misused, and by no less a luminary than Dr. Bernado who used photographs as a kind of before and after advertisement to show the benefits of his program.  Although well meaning and charitable his use of the same child at the same time, either dirty or hastily scrubbed up, undermined the truthfulness of photographs and asked questions that continue today.

Although this is clearly incorrect, the selective choice of scene, or moment is just as misleading unless very carefully placed in context. A photograph is defined as much by what is left out of the frame as by what is included.

The chapter deals quite extensively with the use of the camera as a social tool and as a record of the human condition.  In particular there is a discussion of the work of Jacob Riis in highlighting the brutal poverty of slum dwellers in New York at the end of the 19th century.  Although this highlighted their plight and worked to alleviate those conditions, I was struck by the seeming lack of empathy for the subjects.  I think Riis was very well intended, but still distanced himself from those photographed.  This is very much part of the almost voyeuristic nature of much photography, we want to sympathize with the plight of the poor, but from a distance.  This is described in the text as an obsession with the "OTHER".

During my past year of photography I have noticed that this is a recurring theme, professional photography focuses its lens on the edges of society, either the very poor or the very rich.  Photographing the rest of society seems to be left to the mass of amateurs.  I know that this is not strictly true, as Stephen Shore and William Eggleston demonstrate with many images of middle class America, but is definitely an ongoing process.  The book highlights the fact that in the 1880's a few dedicated photographers were penetrating the slums and highlighting poverty, whilst at the same time armies of middle class amateur photographers were shooting everything in sight.  I was very much amused to note that in 1880 photographers were defined as a public nuisance and needed a permit to work - nothing changes.

Colonialism and the use of the camera to depict far away places and far away peoples is also discussed.  Here the camera is almost a tool of oppression, the frequent images of half naked "savages" reinforced the self declared superiority of the western colonial powers, a process that is possibly still going on today, as travel photography is so frequently looking for quaint colorful picturesque locals to illustrate guide books.

War and how it is photographed has interested me from the start of the course, particularly that of Don McCullin. The practice of photojournalism is in an ongoing crisis, due to the ubiquity of television news and the progressive decline of printed news media.  The book makes a point that this is now shifting the emphasis in imagery from a record of what is happening now to more considered images of the effects of war and the impact upon the civilian population. The images produced are increasingly seen as art and are more likely to find their way into a gallery or book, than into a newspaper.

The chapter closes out on the emergence of the of colour photography and the use of the documentary style in the US and Britain, starting with Frank and going through to Martin Parr.  The choice of subject and even the order in which the images are presented has as much to do with the received understanding of the work as the so called reality being represented.

To close this quick commentary, I take away the following statement, paraphrased from the book:

Documentary photography is not a look or style, it is a context, practice, and the way the photographs are used.  Context is everything.

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