Square Mile Post Shoot Research

Having completed, processed and published excerpts from the Square Mile shoot I sense that it has the makings of a longer term project that might run in parallel with the Identity and Place course. Following a comment from Kate Aston, one of my fellow students, about dog walking photo series I started to seek out similar projects and found four that I was able to look at in some depth.

Fig. 02 - 1/125 at F/8, ISO 200

From the series The Square Mile – People – Steve Middlehurst 2015

My Square Mile People project had not specifically focussed on dog walking but my choice of location and timing inevitably meant that a high percentage of the people in the area  were with their dogs. On review it was the owner and dog images that were most interesting and I began to wonder why this might be the case. Dog walking is a repetitive social activity that we can now see all across Britain but fifty years ago it was probably only seen in urban environments so even the existence of dog walkers on Frensham Common reflects a shift in behaviour (i). Looking at the four series included below there have been many obvious changes to the way we have engaged in this activity in the period since 1944 so by documenting it in different places and in different eras these sets provide a small but useful insight to our social history.

Nina Leen

Nina Leen who died in 1995 was one of the first women contributors to Life Magazine. She was first published in 1940 and remained affiliated with the magazine until it ceased publishing in 1972. In that time she shot over 50 covers and, according to Liz Ronk “countless reports and photo essays from around the world” (1). Liz Ronk goes on to describe her as “one of the most prolific and accomplished fashion photographers Life ever had” but her first love appears to have been photographing animals. (ii)

The series that caught my attention is from 1944 and features celebrities walking their dogs in New York, (2) the series was published as City Dogs.

New York Dogs - Nina Leen 1944

City Dogs – Nina Leen 1944

This series is definitely of a time and place, an era when the “stars” “dressed” to walk their dogs, a far cry from contemporary paparazzi photographs of dressed-down, scruffy, celebrities. Leen’s profession as a Life fashion photographer appears to direct even this, her less formal, work; the caption writer draws our attention to no less than three mink coats and there are at least two more and a fox fur stole that speaks of a time before animal rights.

The overall impression is of stylish people playing a role; some shots, such as Joan Caulfield (top right) with her elegant leg stretched out to good effect, are as posed as any fashion shoot; others such as Joan Roberts (top left) suggest the professional actors love of the camera in the days before intrusive celebrity photography and the gallerist Daniel Cooney (2) believes that whilst most were taken on scheduled shoots a few, such as Joan Roberts, were serendipitous.

As a series it provides an example of how the interpretation of photographs changes with time; was Leen, a self professed animal lover, in any way conflicted by the extensive use of animal furs in fashion? and, would anyone have asked that question in 1944? The passage of time has injected a tension into these photographs that would not have existed in the forties; animal lovers posing with their pets dressed in the skins of several dead animals being photographed by a woman who published multiple books of animal photographs. (ii)

Who are these “stars”, I recognise one name and my children would recognise none so it speaks to the fleeting nature of celebrity but they do offer a window into a world that now seems long gone.

The inclusion of their dogs reveals something of the character and identity of the subjects, character traits that might otherwise be obscured; Lauritz Mechoir’s face (top centre) displays the expression that men reserve for their dogs and grandchildren; John Boles (second row left) is caught reasoning with his stubborn pet, caught in mid-sentence as he pursues a one sided argument. It would be interesting to know the story behind the shoot and how long it took to compile this series and why, amongst all these “stars”, Leen included one shot of a small boy reading the “comics” with his dog waiting patiently near by.

Keith Arnatt 

In many ways Keith Arnatt who died in 2008 is the antithesis of Nina Leen. A highly acclaimed conceptual artist who had regularly used photography in his practice including well know pieces such as Self Burial 1969 which comments on the death of the artist or perhaps, as suggested by Liz Wells, is a metaphor for digging oneself into a hole (3) and Trouser – Word Piece 1972 where the artist holds the statement I’m a Real Artist which in David Campany’s view “adopts the rhetoric of ‘straight fact'” ..” but contains within it the seeds of its own doubt.” An alternative view would be that Arnatt was mischievous and created visual jokes which challenged the art world.

In 1973 after attending a lecture on the work of Diane Arbus, August Sander and Walker Evans (5) he embraced photography and according to David Hurn (iii) never again referred to himself as an artist only as a photographer.

Arnatt’s subsequent work gravitates between, what might be referred to, as straight documentary photography and the photography of both the ordinary and the absurd that, according to O’Hagan (5), played with the ideas of the “disappearance of the artist” and photography as a “reliable arbiter of truth”. In the context of this essay it is his documentary work that interests me.

Arnatt was interested in series recognising the power of the repeated message and of typology, his series of Gardeners is as equally compelling as Walking The Dog. Typology, the classification of types, is superficially about similarities but this is in reality is a single sweeping statement for each series, these are all Grain Silos (iv), or allotment structures or gas stations (v) or dog walkers photographed in the same way. If we move beyond that these series are in fact about the subtle differences across subjects within a common theme and the interest lies in seeing the individuality that lies behind the generalisation.

Arnatt, like most typologists, adopted a common approach but not the rigid same distance, same crop, same flat light of the Bechers; he worked with his subjects to ensure both the owner and the dog were looking at the camera and whilst all his subjects are all centrally positioned within the frame there is a noticeable variety of poses, crops and lighting. This gives his series a less formal feel, a sense of chance meetings with a wandering photographer rather than the formality of the Bechers’ work. Arnatt saw in this series something about the brief relationships he formed with his subjects saying that some of the pictures “might hint at the behaviour involved in getting them” (9)

I find this work intriguing in terms of its value as a document of the 70’s; the clothes, haircuts and urban backgrounds but it is even more intriguing as a timeless glimpse of a narrow example of humanity in a particular context, that is, whilst walking their dog. When the photographer goes out on location to photograph strangers he or she has to make an obvious choice between working candidly or in the open but if the photographer chooses to engage with the subject there is a less obvious choice regarding how much information is collected and potentially published with the final image.

The collection and use of this information fundamentally alters the context of the work. For example in Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York (10) we are presented with engaged photographs often accompanied by quotes from the subject or a commentary by the photographer, this makes the book about the subjects’ stories and it is all the more engaging for that but it also imposes the photographer’s and or the subject’s ideas on the viewer, we are left little room to create our own stories. With Arnatt’s Walking the Dog we are given no information, not even a location, we are left to interpret the photographs and create our own stories; where has the man been and what is in his little white bag (bottom right)?, is it his lunch or the dogs? why is he so smartly dressed? is he about to go to work or is of the generation (like my father) who was never allowed to leave the house without wearing a jacket and tie?

Neither approach is better or worse, both have their advantages and Brandon Stanton’s approach is probably more commercially astute in an age when many people appear to want their opinions pre-packaged and delivered as a sound-bite, ready to share on Instagram or Facebook but I want to explore Arnatt’s subjects and create my own stories. So for me the young man (bottom left) in his bell-bottoms and Bay City Rollers’ haircut has been sent to walk the family dog by his mum but it’s his opportunity to have a sly fag.

Arnatt had an eye for the ordinary and saw the value in documenting the most mundane aspects of his neighbourhood, the things we pass by without seeing, and in this series of forty photographs he explores the similarities and differences of a group of diverse people engaged in a common task.

Julia Parks

Julia Parks (11) a film maker and photographer from Cumbria but living in London paid homage to Keith Arnatt with  her own Walking the Dog series. Parks uses a 6x 6 camera and black and white film and adopted the same criteria as Arnatt, that is the subject and dog needed to be looking at the camera and no other person is included within the frame.

She added her own interesting twist by also inviting the dog owner to photographer the photographer with their dog. This has resulted in parallel and very different series linked together by the pets. I want to concentrate here on the owners and look at this series in the context of Arnatt’s original work. This is not intended to question the value of the parallel series which was clearly an important part of the practitioner’s concept and is, in itself, interesting showing the high level of engagement the photographer achieved with her subjects and the varying level of skills displayed by the temporary camera operators.

Walking The Dog - Julia Parks

Walking The Dog – Julia Parks

I am assuming that this series was taken sometime around 2012 so it offers an intriguing comparison with Arnatt’s work around thirty years previously. At a superficial level there are the obvious differences in fashion; somehow people seem more consciously dressed for dog walking in the 21st century with practical shoes and coats, not just what they happened to be wearing when it was time to take the dog out.

As might be expected the strengths of this series are similar to those seen in Arnatt’s work; Parks adopts the same direct documentary style; the subject is centrally positioned offering just enough background to provide context without distracting from the main subject. Mark Durden points out that “repetition is important for Arnatt, allowing a certain cumulative force” (12); this accumulation ultimately converts the mundane and ordinary into something more important and meaningful.

Sergio Larrain once told David Hurn that he had a talent for “quietly observed humanistic photography” (6) and I see this same attribute in Arnatt and Parks’ series. The individual photographs are non-judgemental, pure records with no photographic or post production artfulness and convey the photographers empathy with the subject. However, this form of human typology not only compares the similarities and differences between a number of people engaged in the same activity but explores the viewer’s own prejudices and preconceptions as we instinctively categorise the subjects based on their clothes, hair and, in this instance, their dogs. This categorisation potentially reveals more about the viewer than the subject but we are left with the belief that we have been shown something important about the personality and identity of these dog walkers.

Marc Shoul

The forth and last series is by Marc Shoul, a Johannesburg based portraiture and documentary photography (13). It has the appearance of being a series about dog walkers but has complex undertones that explore the relationship between the privileged classes, their domestic workers and their dogs.

Dog Walkers - Marc Shoul 2014

Dog Walkers – Marc Shoul 2014

This is a very different series from the other three but there are similarities. Each of these four series have used dog walking as a way to look at contemporary society. Leen may  not have intended her work to have relevance as social documentary but the passage of time has given it that status; Arnatt and Parks are consciously exploring social habits at a particular time and in a specific place with the added factor of Parks positioning her work in reference to Arnatt’s series that predates it by thirty years. Shoul is using Dog Walkers to explore the social hierarchy, attitudes and practices of post-aparthied  South Africa. Similar to Arnatt and Parks, Shoul adopts a direct and factual documentary style with centrally positioned subjects and simple, as found, backgrounds and poses.

The differences are obvious; Shoul has chosen to work in colour, who wouldn’t when given the opportunity to work in the clear air and naturally saturated colours of the high veld ? And, he uses a landscape format which gives the viewer a wider perspective on the immediate surroundings of the subject and he provides the names of his subjects, the dogs and their location.

However the main difference is in his intent, this work is social documentary with strong political commentary; the subjects are not dog owners, but servants working for the middle class residents of Johannesburg’s suburbs. This simple fact provides an insight to the economic and social structure of South Africa, a country where the wealth differential between, not just the elite and the poor, but between the professional middle classes and the ordinary working man or woman is so great that one group can afford to employ the other. To find a similar period in European history we probably need to go back to before the Second World War but it remains the norm in many parts of Asia, The Middle East, Africa and South America. Shoul’s commentary supporting his images looks beyond this economic and social factor; he discusses the lifestyles of the middle-classes and how they are a mixture of complacently lazy and “too busy”  to walk their dogs; the security of life in the suburbs; and the changing status of the pet dog in South African society. Overall he explains that the sight of these domestic servants as he commutes to the city reminds him “how unaffected the rituals of suburban affluence are during this period of seismic urban change”.

Conclussion

This has been an engaging piece of research and thanks again to Kate Aston for triggering the process. It has led me from a Life fashion photographer to a conceptual artist turned photographer, to a young contemporary photographer and film maker and finally to an African documentary photographer. Along the way I digressed and read the thoughts of David Hurn and was introduced to the work of Bill Jay. For me research is always like that, I start with one subject and discover a series of interesting little links to other places that have to be explored.

I will take away two key thoughts. One is that I might have found a project that could be explored for the next year and that might come together at the end of the course as the self directed project required in assignment 5.

The second thought is that Don McCullin’s well publicised comments on art and photography have been somewhat misrepresented by the press. Having now read some of David Hurn’s comments regarding the same subject I suspect that the real point is that we should recognise the strength of photography as a medium, value its directness and innate relationship with and ability to tell the truth and not, in the pursuit of “art” discard the very attributes that make it unique.

Notes on Text

(i) Country dogs were usually kept for a purpose, herding, hunting, retrieving or guarding and exercised themselves as they went about their daily duties. Even when villagers such as my parents kept dogs as pets they were allowed to run free, we would go for a walk and the dog would come but we never went out just to walk the dog. As rural Britain became urbanised, and by this I mean not just an increase in population density but by the movement of people from urban to rural environments bringing the attitudes and practices of the town to the country, a greater percentage of dogs were just pets and letting your dog wander freely around the village became socially unacceptable.

(ii) In the latter part of her career Nina Leen published an average of two books a year including a highly acclaimed photographic documentary on the life of bats. In total she published 15 books, a number of which are still in print.

(iii) David Hurn is a Magnum Photographer who established the documentary photography course at Newport College of Art just before giving the lecture that Arnatt attended. According to Photo Histories (6) this course went on to become the most successful course in photographic education in Britain. Throughout his colourful career as a photographer, writer, educator and magazine editor he remained a documentary photography who, like Don McCullim (7), is concerned that photography should remain photography and not art “Photography at its best is about seeing the world in a very direct way. The second you deviate from that it is less interesting, because what you are then doing is moving into areas that other forms of communication, or art, do so much better.” Hurn’s contributions to Magnum Contact Sheets (8) are especially interesting as in his notes he not only describes the shoots from which they come but explains how the contact sheet should be used as a powerful form of self education.

(iv) Bernd and Hilla Becher always come to mind as the classic example of photographic typologies, they photographed gasometers, grain silos, winding towers, water towers and other industrial and agricultural structures. Each set was presented in grids, i.e. as typologies of the “class” of structure.

(v) Allotment Structures: Joachim Brohm; Gas Stations: Edward Ruscha, Jeff Brouws and Eric Tabuchi. For more on this subject see my earlier essay on Seriality and Neutrality.

Sources

Books

(3) Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. Abingdon: Routledge

(4) Campany, David ( 2008) Photography and Cinema. London: Reaktion Books

(8) Lubben, Kirsten (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets. London: Thames and Hudson

(10) Stanton, Brandon (2013) Humans of New York. New York: St. Martins Press

(12) Durden, Mark ( 2014) Photography Today. London: Phaidon Press.

Internet

(1) Ronk, Liz (2012) Photographer Spotlight: Nina Leen (accessed at Time Life 3.12.15) – http://time.com/3506134/photographer-spotlight-nina-leen/

(2) Kall, Ellyn (2015) Delightful Photos on 1940s Celebrities Walking Their Dogs in NYC ( accessed at Feature Shoot 3.12.15) – http://www.featureshoot.com/2015/03/delightful-photos-of-1940s-celebrities-walking-their-dogs-in-nyc/

(5) O’Hagen, Sean (2015) Keith Arnatt is Proof that the Art World Doesn’t Consider Photography real Art. (accessed at The Guardian 4.12.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/aug/27/keith-arnatt-photography-exhibition-spruth-magers-absence-of-the-artist

(6) Harrison, Graham (2010) David Hurn (accessed at Photo Histories 3.12.15) – http://www.photohistories.com/index/58/index-of-articles

(7) Brown, Mark (2015) Digital Images Can’t be Trusted, says War Photographer Don McCullin (accessed at The Guardian 28.11.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/nov/27/don-mccullin-war-photographer-digital-images

(9) National Media Museum – Animalism – Keith Arnatt (accessed at the National Media Museum 3.12.15) – http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/nmem/exhibitions/animalism/artists.asp

(11) Parks, Julia. About Me (accessed at the photographer’s website 3.12.15) – http://juliaparks.co.uk/about-me/

(13) Shoul, Marc (2014) Dog Walkers (accessed at the photographer’s website 4.12.15) – http://marcshoul.com/portfolio/dog-walkers/

 

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2 Responses to Square Mile Post Shoot Research

  1. Kate says:

    I enjoyed this – thank you. Will return when I’m less busy with my own coursework. I found the Arnatt series immediately accessible and very memorable.

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