Tag Archives: Documentary

Comparing Sectarian murder by Paul Seawright with Elephant by Alan Clarke

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Scene from Elephant by Alan Clarke 1989

Photographer Paul Seawright and Director Alan Clarke have both made interpretations of the sectarian murders which took place during the 1970s in Northern Ireland. I was interested to see how the two individuals approached their own interpretation using the two mediums of photography and film.

Paul Seawright’s Sectarian murder is a series of colour photographic images of the re-visited murder sites accompanied by text captions taken from newspaper reports with references to any specific religious belief deleted. The images are deeply poignant and I felt compelled to reflect upon and reconsider the horrific act of murder in the name of religion and worse still to lose one’s life because of religious belief.

We have I believe gained what Susan Sontag terms disaster fatigue (?) when reading or listening to documentary news stories. By isolating the text and combining it with the photographs to make an art form Paul Seawright creates a deep and significant emotional impact which merely grew the longer the images were viewed.

Deleting any references of religion from the text adds to the sense of the futility of the original crimes. A needlessness which Seawright again achieves by revealing the murder sites in the aftermath as they return back to their usual function of playgrounds and beauty spots.

The only question mark that I would raise is his use of shallow depth of field and foreground objects, which are employed in certain images but not others. I felt that this is a distraction and inconsistency for the viewer and could be considered as un-necessary.

Earlier in the course I had probably considered that moving documentary work into the realms of the art gallery would in some way detract from the original purpose. I would now change this view and believe that documentary can certainly be developed as an art form in it’s own and to achieve it’s original objectives.

This is the second time that I have considered Paul Seawright’s Sectarian murders and all in all I find his work to be extremely moving and artistically executed.

Alan Clarke’s Elephant is a film of 39 minutes with virtually no speaking so the soundtrack consists of the everyday noises of the traffic, the door bell, the wind blowing with the ordinariness disrupted only by the sound of gunshot ringing out.

The film is constructed of a series of episodes which flow from one to another each showing a different re-enactment of a murder. The gunman enters the scene he approaches his victim and shoots his victim dead then leaves the scene of the crime. The camera lingers on the dead body for several seconds before moving straight into the next scene following the exact same routine. It is a brutal depiction leaving nothing to the viewer’s imagination.

The techniques used by the director includes the grainy colour film which recreates the feel of the 1970s, the camera view at eye level which follows the steps of the killer as they search for their victims the ordinariness of the soundtrack, the repetitive and routine nature of the killings. The result is the creation of a front row first hand experience for the viewer, who becomes a witness to the crime creating a truly shocking experience.
Neither Alan Clarke or Paul Seawright make any reference to the religious beliefs of either the murderers or those murdered but this is the only similarity. In Sectarian murder we can sense the futility of the violence in Elephant we sense only lawless brutality.

These are two completely different interpretations of the same events and information fundamentally different from artistic perspectives more than differences in the medium employed.

Slide

Paul Seawright taken from Sectarian murder 

Both very successful in their own right I probably prefer Paul Seawright’s work which by using art in a reflective poignant manner to communicate it’s message I believe that he offers the viewer an opportunity to reflect upon a wider range of thoughts. I believe Alan Clarke offers less of an opportunity as his is a shocking and brutal offering which is almost as inhumane as the killings they depict leaving the viewer with almost no emotion left to think.

I was also surprised to find that Paul Seawright made Sectarian murder in 1988 which I thought had been made at least 10 years later but also that Alan Clarke made Elephant in 1989 which I had expected to have been made much earlier.

Reference list 

http://www.paulseawright.com/sectarian/

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097270/

Part 2 Narrative, project 1: Telling a story

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Dr. Ceriani helps the town marshal carry the heart attack victim to the ambulance. There, the country doctor will see that his patient is as comfortable as possible, knowing there’s nothing he can do to save him.

Perhaps the simplest form of narrative is story telling and we begin with the research of the classic photo essay Country Doctor that Eugene Smith (1948) made for LIFE magazine and The Dad Project by Bryony Campbell (2009).
Eugene Smith’s work is a classic story-telling project recording Dr. Ernest Ceriani working in rural Colorado, U.S. The images were an intimate and close up first hand account of the GP visiting and treating his patients. The essay is a descriptive account of the doctor’s work with limited hidden depth and no ambiguity.

The viewer is an audience spectator of cinematic scenes of a fragment of society not ordinarily accessible to the readers of LIFE magazine. The subjects don’t notice or recognise the camera or the outsider who is taking the photographs, which could quite easily pass for stills from a 1940’s black and white Hollywood film. Whilst the compositions are at times quite dramatic they are very straight and literal emphasised by the accompanying text describing the scenes adding only surface level detail and information and not necessarily adding any interpretive value to the viewer.

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Not published in LIFE. Dr. Ceriani examines his handiwork after the partial amputation of a patient’s leg, Kremmling, Colo., August 1948. The patient, Thomas Mitchell, was suffering from a gangrenous infection.

Certain images were deemed to be unsuitable for the final cut for LIFE magazine such as the baby being treated in an incubator and also the patient’s partly amputated leg. As we learned in part 1 to critically appraise any photographic work requires a thorough understanding the context of the photography and we should therefore take into account the commercial agenda and therefore the editorial control ensuring that only a dramatic yet sanitized representation of real life could be offered up to the American public. The story was of a totally committed professional working against the odds to support a local community of honest hard-working folk and this narrative fitted with LIFE magazine’s promotion and recording of the American way of life.

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Bryony Campbell, taken from The Dad Project (2009)

The Dad Project by Bryony Campbell documents her own father’s battle with cancer and eventual death. In comparison to Eugene Smith Campbell creates a completely different photographic outcome by involving both the viewer and herself in the series. Her subjects look straight into the camera and Campbell is the insider and an active participant and narrator of the story. The whole project and therefore the images are extremely intimate and open in a manner, which forced Campbell to question herself many times.

The context of the project is Bryony Campbell’s MA Photography studies providing more neutral editorial conditions than those experienced by Eugene Smith. In so far as the underlying agenda would be to make a project of quality as oppose to selling magazines.

Campbell uses metaphors and aspects of everyday detail to convey meaning and evoke atmosphere. This combines with some extremely intimate and, at times almost shockingly, raw images to create an extremely powerful project of work.

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Bryony Campbell, taken from The Dad Project (2009)

As a contrast to Eugene Smith’s straight scene images, Bryony Campbell makes more artistic compositions revealing themselves at a slower pace. These poignant images evoke deep feelings and raw emotions and this is made all the more powerful by the interspersing of images of ordinary everyday scenes such as creases in the sheets of her father’s bed amid the sadness and heartache experienced by Bryony Campbell and her family.

Campbell achieved her MA with Distinction but has also received wide professional acclaim and coverage as The Dad Project has gone onto help many other people come to terms with their own similar circumstances. In her final summing up Campbell refers to the project as a story about an ending without an ending. I think this refers to her own view that the images and project in general now have a life and future of it’s own and through her relationship with the project her memories and therefore relationship with her since departed father has n’t actually ended at all.

Reference list

Eugene Smith’s Country Doctor (1948) can be seen at

http://time.com/3456085/w-eugene-smiths-landmark-photo-essay-country-doctor/ (accessed 20/04/16)

Bryony Campbell’s The Dad Project (2009) can be seen at

http://www.brionycampbell.com/projects/the-dad-project/?overview (accessed 21/04/16)

La Grange, A Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. (2005) Abingdon: Focal Press

All images were accessed from these sources.

Reflections on part 1: The photograph within documentary and as a document

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O’Neill, A. Holborn (2016)

Initial understanding

I originally saw documentary photography as a real account of a particular event or situation. The purpose of which was often to expose or highlight a hidden truth with the intentions of reporting unjust circumstances although this was not an exclusive relationship. There were clear areas of relevance to journalism, protest and change. I also recognised that the photograph as a document played a fundamental role in areas such as security, control and surveillance.

What do I now think after part 1

Photographs are constructed they are not found, they are a representation, a picture, an image, they are not real. Equally it is the photographer who is responsible for the original context and narrative of the photograph thus providing the image with meaning. Also there is no such thing as absolute objectivity it does not exist, it is a social construct there is only subjectivity initiated by motive and need.
This leads to a disruption of the cognitive illusion, which creates the special relationship between photography and an objective reality or universal truth. That confusion arises if and when we can’t recognise and reconcile this objective reality as the authenticity and realness of the image is as much about how the concept of photography has developed in a social world as it is the photograph itself.

There are specific categories which have provided a structure for the development of photo-documentary for instance social documentary work typified by the images made by Dorothy Lange and the (FSA) Farm Security Administration, Photojournalism and Robert Capa’s images of the D-Day landings, Reportage typified by Henri Cartier-Bresson and art photography represented perhaps by Paul Seawright.

However this structure came about as much to interpret the development of the medium as much as any explicit need for structure and as time goes by there has been an increasing blurring of the lines and this will only continue as the medium continues to evolve. and as visual culture continues to converge, and so to must the categorisation of photography develop.

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Nick Hedges, 1971, as part of a project documenting the inner city slums in the 60s and 70s later appearing in the exhibition Make Life Worth Living (2014) arranged to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the charity Shelter

An equally relevant part of any debate on photo-documentary is concerning the original and changing context. Photographs such as the one above taken by Nick Hedges in Liverpool 8 in the 1970s start of as one thing only to become another.

Earlier in our part 1 coursework the question was posed whether Sarah Pickering’s work Public Order was an example of effective documentary or was it misleading, well I certainly see this as an effective use of documentary. Equally Paul Seawright’s work is at times regarded more as art than documentary but this perspective on his work in my mind would be unjustified. As photography as a medium continues it’s development to continue to be relevant so must it’s categorisation. I would also add the photomontages such as Martha Rosler’s series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home into the documentary genre.

Documentary is still a very emotive subject because of the special relationship photography has with ‘the real’ and documentary tradition which puts the images of real situations at it’s very core. Photographs are powerful signals able to transmit and communicate meaning and all signals are made for a reason. As photographers we might focus on the debates which are important to us, we discuss the events we choose to discuss, we say the things that we want to say, the motives and reasoning may be mutable but the role of the photographer in creating the image, context and narrative and therefore message and meaning is irrefutable.

Reference list

Hedges N,(1971) image above taken from The Observer, p.10, 07/02/2016

The manipulated image – further research: Photomontage and Martha Rosler and John Heartfield at the Tate Modern

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John Heartfield Whoever reads bourgeois newspapers becomes deaf and blind (1930)

As part of my growing interest in the manipulated image in general I visited the collection of John Heartfield photomontages held at the Tate Modern in London.

John Heartfield was one of the early masters of photomontage the process of manipulating, cutting and putting photographs together. Photomontage incorporates the German term ‘Monteur’ for mechanic giving the connotation of an industrialised production process far removed from the artisan’s studio.

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John Heartfield, Fritz Thyssen Pulls the Strings (1930)

A member of the Berlin Dada group Helmut Herzfeld changed his name to the more English sounding John Heartfield as a protest against the rise in wartime nationalism in Germany during WWI. From 1920 he joined the German Communist Party and focussed his work on producing satirical photomontage images for the communist weekly AIZ often targeting Nazism, Hitler himself and Capitalism.

Given the political climate of the day within Germany and Europe Heartfield’s work is not only brave and bold but intelligent, raw and uncompromising.

Martha Rosler As part of a continued study into the work of Martha Rosler I have also researched her work with the photomontage and specifically looked at her work House Beautiful: Bringing the War home which became the vehicle for her response to the intense and graphic media and TV coverage of the Vietnam War. Rosler saw how the constant news depiction of Vietnam had effectively brought the War into the living room lounges and therefore daily lives of the American public and the impact of this in terms of desensitisation and creating a spectacle of the violence of war.

An image which typifies Rosler’s style in this series is Cleaning the Drapes from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home

This image can be seen at http://www.moma.org/collection/works/150123?locale=en

Her images juxtapose images taken from Life magazine of the perfect American lifestyle alongside the true horror and reality of war creating an extremely powerful body of work, revisited through the creation of a second series as Rosler’s protest against the Iraq War.

I found it difficult to download any decent images but you can see more of Rosler’s work at her own website at
http://www.martharosler.net – and and by visiting the Museum of Modern Art website at http://www.moma.org/collection/artists/6832

Power of Montage

My interest in photomontage lies in it’s ability to create a powerful sense of reality from what is clearly a manipulated environment, through piecing together part images taken from real life representation, previously known as the real photographic image. In other words, we know the final composition isn’t real but it could be and what does this newly created reality mean in relationship to our perceived reality.

The methodology of photomontage lends itself perfectly to thematic subjects which question, protest or subvert a convention through it’s ability to counter everyday surface image and reality.

Reference list
John Heartfield Whoever reads bourgeois newspapers becomes deaf and blind (1930).

Taken from http://fineartkingston.co.uk/amyeckleben/2014/03/13/john-heartfield/ (accessed 07/03/16)

John Heartfield, Fritz Thyssen Pulls the Strings (1930)

Taken from http://spartacus-educational.com/FWWheartfield.htm

(accessed 07/03/16)

More information can be found on Martha Rosler at http://www.martharosler.net and by visiting the Museum of Modern Art website at

http://www.moma.org/collection/artists/6832

 

 

 

Aftermath and Chloe Matthews: Shot at dawn

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Matthews, C taken from shot at dawn

Relevance to my work
I originally saw Chloe Matthews Shot at Dawn in 2015 so when I was planning assignment 1 series 2 I returned to Shot at Dawn (and also Paul Seawright’s Hidden) for inspiration when trying to create a sense of something that was missing or had happened. 

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Matthews, C taken from shot at dawn 

Commissioned as part of the commemorations of the centenary of WWI Chloe Matthews visited sites where British, New Zealand, French and Belgian troops were executed for cowardice and desertion between 1914-1918.

In accordance with the protocol of the day these men were executed at dawn and Matthews revisited and photographed the execution sites, again at the break of dawn. What became understood in years to come was that the mental health of these young men was severely damaged and affected by the brutal trench warfare and some Governments, such as Britain and New Zealand, have since granted posthumous pardons to all victims of this tragic situation.

The series of images are deeply sombre and seem to invite the viewer to re-evaluate the judgement of the soldiers’ original shameful crimes whilst reflecting on their unnecessary and deeply unfair deaths and the impact that this would have had on their families.

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Paul Seawright taken from Hidden

Matthews’ work has clear similarities with Paul Seawright’s work Hidden and Joel Meyerowitz archive of the Aftermath of 9/11. David Campany’s essay safety in numbness (2003) argues that this late photography can create a sense of ‘indifference’. I would prefer to regard such images as an appropriate response allowing the viewer to reflect more deeply and consider their own personal response. And in doing so appropriately avoiding the creation of a spectacle to be exploited.
I believe late photography creates a physical and cognitive space between the past and the present which allows and almost forces the viewer to take responsibility to reflect upon and evaluate their own response which I consider to be a deeper emotional process and one which I both intriguing and challenging.

Reference list

Chloe Matthews, Shot at dawn can be seen at http://shotatdawn.photography/work/
(accessed 12/03/16)

Campany, D safety in numbness essay (2003) can be read at

http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/            (accessed 04/03/2016)

Joel Meyerowitz Aftermath can be seen at http://www.joelmeyerowitz.com/photography/book_aftermath.asp (accessed 04/03/2016)

Paul Seawright Hidden can be seen at http://www.paulseawright.com/hidden/

(accessed 04/03/2016)

 

Martha Rosler, In, around, and afterthoughts (On documentary photography) and The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems

In developing an awareness and understanding of photography as a document I have reflected upon Matha Rosler’s essay In, around, and afterthoughts (On documentary photography) (1981) in which she is critical of current documentary work. The essay is a thought provoking text raising many valid if not controversial points such as, “documentary fuelled by the dedication to reform has shaded over into combinations of exoticism, tourism, voyeurism, psychologism and metaphysics, trophy hunting and careerism.”(Rosler, M. 1981).

On many levels I agree with the overall direction of the essay but I believe that if there is a weakness in her criticism it is in her treatment of the individual, “The liberal documentary assuages any stirring of conscience in its viewers the way scratching relieves an itch and simultaneously reassures them about their relative wealth and social position specially the latter, now that even the veneer of social concern has dropped away from the upwardly mobile and comfortable social sectors.”(Rosler, M.1981).

I believe that although there is a sense of ‘well at least it’s not me’, in people’s minds and even a voyeuristic sense of superiority over the other may at times be it’s expression there is also a subconscious element of survival as well as perhaps a lack of individual and collective understanding, education and awareness and this to a greater or lesser extent makes us all victims of convention and system. I would therefore balance this criticism with an emphasis on the shortcomings of a society based on a capitalist and political system in creating and perpetuating how society is structured and how reality is represented and ultimately how human behaviour is shaped.

Either way it is a really and important essay to read certainly at this stage in my photography which is well summarised in Ashley La Grange’s, A Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. (2005).

As part of this exercise I have also looked at Martha Rosler’s own representation of the problems of The Bowery in her work, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems where she depicts the area in an alternative manner to the traditional format of documentary photography. Rosler’s work combines views with text but omits the people of The Bowery and in doing so avoids their personal exploitation. She describes her work in the following way, “a work of refusal. It is not defiant anti-humanism. It is mean’t as an act of criticism….there are no stolen images,”. (Rosler, M. 1981).

How effective is this work? By omitting the expected drunk and vagrant subjects from the images the viewer is forced to question their own reaction to what is missing from the image and this is magnified by the range of words used to describe drunkenness and through their implied meanings have the effect of lightening and darkening the atmosphere of the project. I think that the work is much more successful than a traditional range of street based people getting drunk images could ever be.

There is a sense that the artist is approaching the subject on a far deeper basis and asking many more questions than would ordinarily be achieved by simply highlighting the situation and plight of the residents of the Bowery. Rosler is clearly a talented and experienced photographer and artist who is able to translate her thoughts and views into a simple yet complex artistic representation without having to resort to straight forward basic voyeurism. It was difficult to download any images of the collection but they are easily accessible via internet searching from various gallery and photography art websites and of course the artist’s own website.

Reference List

La Grange, A Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. (2005) Abingdon: Focal Press

Rosler, M In, around, and afterthoughts (On documentary photography) (1981) copy of the original essay can be seen following the link: http://everydayarchive.org/awt/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/rosler-martha_in-around-afterthoughts.pdf (accessed 30/03/16)

More information can be found on Martha Rosler the artist and her collection The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems at http://collection.whitney.org/object/8304 (accessed 02/04/16)

http://www.martharosler.net/about/index.html

 

Exhibition visit: Janet Mendelsohn Varna Road, IKON Gallery, Birmingham

 

An old cache of black and white photographs were discovered by Kieran Connell, a social historian who was preparing an archive as part of the 50th anniversary of Birmingham centre for Contemporary Cultural studies where the photographer and documentary film-maker Janet Mendelsohn had arrived from Boston to study for a MA in 1967.

The images tell a story of Varna Road, at the time a notorious street in the slums in Birmingham. At the time it was thought that up to 200 prostitutes worked in the area and Mendelsohn’s images show life for the residents and workers on the streets, in their houses and in the pubs and cafes in Balsall Heath.

Mendelsohn became particularly close to a sex worker who is referred to as Kathleen and she and her baby and partner who also operates as her pimp become the subject of a number of Mendelsohn’s images.

“Mendelsohn was encouraged by Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart – then deputy and director of the Centre for Cultural Contemporary studies in Birmingham – to explore ways in which photography could be used in field research. The resulting archive of 3,000 photographs and interviews are now held at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.” An extract taken from the exhibition catalogue, (Mendelsohn, J. (2016) Varna Road. Birmingham: IKON.

The exhibition proved to be a timely case study in critical analysis of documentary photography having just been reading the carious critical debates proposed by the likes of Susan Sontag, Martha Rosler and Abigail Solomon-Godeau.

The original photographs were part of an academic study as oppose a specific campaign for social reform. As a study for a contemporary culture student then life in the inner city slums in the 1960s was a major topical subject and so the attraction is obvious. The images are balanced, subjects dealt with honestly but also empathetically. Kathleen’s state of mind is implied in a number of haunting shadowed portraits but these are balanced with images of her laughing with her baby and her partner / pimp also holding the baby. In Solomon-Godeau’s mind the images tell ‘a truth’. (La Grange, A. 2005).

Mendelsohn took over 3,000 images from which 53 were exhibited by the IKON gallery so clearly there is an interpretation and selection process which has been administered to present the final collection to meet the needs of the narrative. Susan Sontag states, “the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth.” (Sontag, S. 1977)

Are the street workers the new exotic birds having their pictures taken by social anthropologists, with the images destined to end up in an art gallery much in the same way as a stuffed bird from an exotic Island would have ended up in a glass case in a Museum in the 18th or 19th centuries.

In terms of winners and losers there is no suggestion that any of the subjects benefitted from this experience, indeed Kathleen’s partner Salim was murdered not long after this period. (Khaleeli, H. 2016). Mendelsohn’s career has passed but she eventually gains some sort of recognition in an exhibition although due to a major illness she could no longer recall or remember taking the photographs. The photographs now sit in the University of Birmingham so the academic network has a valuable asset in the recording of the City’s and, indeed, England’s history. A society, which creates the environment and subjects for the photographs, ultimately reap the benefits.

For a full review on the exhibition you can visit

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/jan/11/wickedest-road-in-britain-photographer-janet-mendelsohn-varna-road-birmingham

(accessed 15/02/2016)

Reference list

La Grange, A (2005). A basic Critical Theory for Photographers. (9th ed.) Abingdon: Focal Press.

Khaleei H, (2016) The wickedest road in Britain: the photos that told the truth about red light Birmingham The Guardian 11/01/2016

Mendelsohn, J. (2016). Varna Road. Exhibition, Birmingham: IKON.

Sontag,S. (1977). On Photography. Reissued, London: Penguin.