Looking at the work of some notable photographers from the ‘black and white’ documentary era: Garry Winogrand, Walker Evans and Robert Frank

As we begin the progression in our awareness and understanding of context and narrative I have just recognised the actual and absolute control that is in the hands of the photographer over what type of image is created and this has become critical in my thinking.

This is more of a growing awareness that as photographers we must accept responsibility for what is presented first of all to ourselves and then to the viewer. We cannot escape this responsibility by accepting an illusion that the camera takes a picture of the world as it is.

As part of a wider research into specific practitioners I made a point at starting at the beginning and referred back to the works of Garry Winogrand, Walker Evans and Robert Frank as examples of the 20th century era of black and white documentary and reportage. As my critical thinking begins to awaken I am now beginning to see the differences in the subject matter and compositions between photographers.

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Garry Winogrand, 1969, Taken from Women Are Beautiful

Garry Winogrand’s work for the most part represented all that was considered good about the growth and development of America as a country in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Staying loyal to New York and especially the district of Manhattan photographing suited men and pretty women on their way to the office to earn the dollars to enjoy their increasingly prosperous lives as America’s economic power became increasingly dominant.

There were lots of images taken from sports stadiums, events and parties, parks and zoos creating essentially an optimistic view of America. There was very little mention of poverty or inequality in Winogrand’s main body of work but as his life progressed into the 70s and 80s he appeared to have become disillusioned with the American dream and this shows in his later work.

Whilst I can appreciate the quality and depth of the work I feel that the subject matter is at times a little frivolous, limited and lacks balance in it’s view of society.

images-14

Walker Evans, taken from American Photographs 

I also revisited the work of Walker Evans’ American Photographs having seen the work last year whilst studying with OCA but at that time I could n’t see too much in his work.

Evans was part of the (FSA) Farming Securities Administration photo documentary project highlighting the poverty and hardship experienced by the American farmworkers in the Great Depression of the 1930s, which almost saw the collapse of the capitalist system. Evans’ American Photographs details poverty and inequality, poor living conditions, colour and race juxtaposed with the progress and trappings of the American dream. Poorer people are often portrayed as religious and virtuous, resilient and honest. More affluent people seem to be portrayed as privileged, arrogant, cynical and untrustworthy. Evans’ personal voice is also further relayed by his use of irony in balancing images of abject poverty alongside advertisements of consumer products and a more prosperous existence.

I liked what I perceived to be a deeper level of awareness, a more honest collection than Winogrand’s work but aesthetically the series isn’t entirely my choice.

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Robert Frank, taken from The Americans

Another example of how 20th century America was portrayed was Robert Frank’s work, ‘The Americans’. Frank, a Swiss national, famously captured America as the archetypal ‘outsider’ shooting over 500 rolls of film on three separate gruelling road trips with his wife and two children across America.

Frank edited ‘The Americans’ down to just 83 images depicting the Country as he saw it, an approach bringing him huge criticism at the time. His dark images, critical views of capitalism and pessimistic vision for America and seemingly it’s future shocked the art and photography establishment. “It’s difficult to remember how shocking Robert frank’s book was,” (Szarkowski,J. 1968 cited by O’Hagan, S. 2009).

I really liked ‘The Americans’ and find the images readable but complex, subtle and intelligent. Whilst the work is 60 years large portions of the work I believe still have a very relevant and timeless quality.

The most interesting and relevant part of this exercise was to recognise how these three photographers interpreted and created such different impressions of effectively the same subject matter, American life.

I realise now that the story is in the image all along.

Reference list

Evans, W (1938) American Photographs, 75th anniversary edition, 2012, London: Tate Publishing

Frank, R (1958) The Americans, 8th edition, 2014, Gottinggen, Germany: Steidl

O’Hagan, S (2009) Robert Frank’s The Americans still shocks, 50 years on, article from The Guardian, can be read in full at

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/nov/30/robert-frank-the-americans-exhibition (accessed 16/02/2016)

Winogrand, G (2014) Garry Winogrand retrospective exhibition. San Francisco MoMA in association with Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

(ISBN 978-0-300-19177-6)

Information about the exhibition can be found at

http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/press-room/exhibitions/2014/garry-winogrand (accessed 12/02/2016)

O’Hagan, S 2014. Garry Winogrand: The restless genius who gave street photography attitude, article from The Guardian can be read in full at

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/oct/15/-sp-garry-winogrand-genius-american-street-photography (accessed 15/02/2016)

Images

Winogrand, G 1969, taken from Women Are Beautiful, accessed from the MoMA, New York website. (accessed 21/02/2016)

http://www.moma.org/collection/works/111089?locale=en

Walker Evans (date unknown) accessed 21/02/2016) from

http://www.britannica.com/biography/Walker-Evans

Robert Franks taken from The Americans, accessed 21/02/2016) from

http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/acklands-collection-of-prints-from-robert-franks-the-americans/Content?oid=1212935

 

 

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