Category Archives: Documentary

Walls

All the talk from the US about building a wall reminded me that in November it is 30 years since the Berlin wall came down. I was working as a freelance and spent a week in Berlin. This pic was at the border crossing at Rudow. The man was chain smoking, pacing up and down and looking at everybody that crossed. He told me he was waiting for his daughter. I asked how long since he had last seen her. He stopped, looked at me and said 26 years. If I had been a good photojournalist I would have waited and taken shots of him and his daughter, it would have made a good story. I did not do that, preferring to leave him to enjoy the moment in private.

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Having a passion

You have ideas, thoughts about what to do, what to say but doubts creep in. Then out of the blue you read something, see something, hear something and everything slots into place. Today it was a passage in “The Wild Places” by Robert Macfarlane. His piece about the world of John Baker who tracked falcons and hawks in Essex for decades.

In the 1950s Baker was convinced they would die out because of agricultural pesticides and intensive farming. He was right of course. Baker was a man who some would say was obsessed by the plight of these birds. Obsession is a dirty word these days but we need people who are obsessed about ‘nature’ in all its forms. We need people with the passion to follow their vision, to do what they need to do without thinking of the rewards.

Often, I feel that we, as a society, as humans are on the edge of a precipice. Now is the time for the passions to surface, now is the time to follow gut feelings and do what you need to do. Follow that passion.

Thank you, Robert Macfarlane.

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First exhibition print

This is my first print in an exhibition. I do not remember much of the details but it was in Coventry probably around 1976, could have been a Coventry Photographic Society annual show. I was out one Sunday morning on an old WW2 bomb site in the Hillfields area when these kids came along with their dog. A few quick shots and they continued on their way.

Camera was a Pentax Spotmatic F with 50mm F1.8 lens Not sure which film but probably Tri-X or FP4 developed in ID11 at 1:1

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The Human Document

Last week I discovered the Mead Gallery, at the University of Warwick, are showing an exhibition – “The Human Document, the photography of persuasion from 1930s America to present day”. As it includes around 100 prints from the FSA (Farm security Administration) I just had to see it. And what an absolute thrill it was. Having studied the FSA photography 37 years ago as an undergraduate I just could believe that I was finally standing in front of prints by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon, Marion Post Wolcott and others. To see the prints and examine close up – as all photographers do – was overwhelming; the quality of the images is superb and you can see detail that is not possible in even the best reproduction.

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The biggest surprise is that Mead have not been shouting about this exhibition from the roof tops. The other surprise, or maybe not,  was that very few people were there, maybe 5 in the hour and a half it took get round. I would have thought there would be queues of college courses bringing students. Maybe they do not teach about the FSA now? Is documentary – photographing the real – not considered as art?  That was certainly one comment I heard in the gallery, “…can’t understand why the exhibition is here because it’s not art”.

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That is the second time the ‘art’ and ‘documentary’ thing has come up. For some documentary is not art because it deals with real life or is ‘too real’ for modern photography students. Has the conceptual overtaken photography so that documentary has become just too passé? I sincerely hope not because in these times of rapid political change we need photographers to document and question what is happening.

The modern photography included works by Paul Graham, Chris Killip and others. I thought that theses two fitted in the overall theme but the other photographers seemed out of place. They seemed to be trying to produce something more than a document and as such lost impact. I heard a visitor say that they looked staged, false, not authentic which was an interesting comment.

plates2What is evident is the enduring power of the FSA images, the stark fact that they are equally applicable today as they were 60 years ago. There have been similar photos from migrant camps in Calais and other places and I am sure there are images of poverty and desperation everywhere if you take the time to look. History repeats itself,

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Documentary photography, fact or fiction?

There is shock and horror on the net after World Press Photo announced a new contest with the provisional title of ‘creative documentary’. Evidently it would “not have rules limiting how images are produced.”

There has been a lot of controversy about manipulation of images. Steve McCurry was at the centre of much debate after it became clear that he had cleaned up some of his images. (See Petapixel) He responded to the criticism in an interview with Time.

“I’ve always let my pictures do the talking, but now I understand that people want me to describe the category into which I would put myself, and so I would say that today I am a visual storyteller,” (From: Time.com)

McCurry now says that he is a visual storyteller and not a photojournalist. I am not sure that gives him more freedom. There is the myth that persists into the 21st century, that photography is truthful and that no manipulation of images is allowed. In other words, we are stuck with a 19th century notion that photography is the objective representation of reality.

The manipulation of images is nothing new. In the Soviet Union it was common to remove people from photographs. There will be other examples of such pratices for propaganda or political ‘spin’. Even the selection of images considered to promote a more positive view of a person or product is, in effect, manipulation.

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Photo of Nikolai Yezhov (Naval Commissar) and Stalin walking alongside the Moscow Canal. After Nikolai Yezhov fell from power, he was arrested, shot, and his image removed by the censors. [Source: Wikipedia]

I am not saying that any level of manipulation is acceptable.  Personally I limit post production to changing density, colour balance and burning and dodging that could be done with silver prints. I also remove distracting details like branches in the edge of the frame or, recently, the wing mirror of a truck in the edge of a pic.

What nobody talks about how a photographer selects, frames and decides when to press the shutter. These are the biggest decisions in the process yet they are not questioned. In the days of film there was a debate was about cropping with a fad to print the edges of the film to show that you had not cropped. The idea being that it made the image somehow more truthful. It also implies that the photographer’s view of reality is fixed when the shutter is pressed and nothing should be allowed to interfere with ‘the truth’ in the image.

Any discussion about manipulation should recognise that all documentary photography is subjective and that there is no such thing as truth.  Then we might be able to move on to more interesting debates about what motivates a photographer to choose the subject, frame it and decide when to press the shutter. Or is that all too difficult?

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What we cannot see

I went to the People’s History Museum in Manchester yesterday to see a photographic exhibition – “Industrial society in image and word”. There were images from the beginnings of photography as well as many from the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

The exhibition included portraits of urban industrial workers together with urban landscapes. I have seen other exhibitions like this over the years and I always come away thinking about the lack of documentation of rural work. I know about the work of Emerson and others but it seems rural work is depicted in a more pictorial way and I am left with the feeling that it is seen as a the opposite of the worst of industrial squalor. This makes rural work less important and less visible.

Kate, 75 years, picking heads off tulips, Lincolnshire. Farmwork.

Kate, 75 years, picking heads off tulips, Lincolnshire. Farmwork. © Colin Shaw

The depiction of rural work is bound up with the rural myth, the idea that all was perfect in the countryside as opposed to the poverty and deprivation of the city. This incomplete view of rural life persisted through the twentieth century with little documentary photography of the realities of rural work.

Perhaps the most notable project was that of James Ravilious, 1939-99, who photographed rural life in the west of England. I have no problem with what he did and it certainly showed what living in the countryside was like. Maybe it is the way that the work has been interpreted in later years that is the problem. It seems to have slipped into some mythicised view of the rural where everything is perfect. Any hint of hardship is overshadowed by the pictorial and I am left with the feeling that living in beautiful surroundings somehow compensates for the daily grind of near subsistence farming.

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Last milking on a Warwickshire farm before the M40 was built through the middle of the farm. © Colin Shaw.

The lack of knowledge and subsequent misunderstanding of what really happens in the countryside is still as strong today. The separation of the rural and the urban is made worse by the redefinition of the rural as a place of leisure rather than work. The fact that modern farms have become industrialised, by the necessity to compete in ‘the market’, means that a drive, or train ride, though the countryside shows little evidence of anybody doing any work. This leads to the mistaken assumption that the countryside is a deserted playground for urban visitors.

How can photography represent rural work in a different way? There will always be the feeling that however harsh country life is it is never as bad as life in the city. But people do still work in the countryside producing food and many other things essential for modern life. It is just that they are less visible and making them more visible would mean accepting a different view of the land.

See also the Farmwork project and M40 Warwickshire.

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