Julian Germain: Every Minute and Classroom Portraits

Charles Snelling  by Julian Germain

Charles Snelling by Julian Germain

For Every Minute You Are Angry You Lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness

I reviewed Julian Germain’s For Every Minute You Are Angry You Lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness (1) in August 2014 (here) when researching narrative for TAoP but as it has been identified as a reference point for the next exercise “Same Subject, Different Background” as well as being one of my favourite photo books I am more than happy to take a further look.

In 2014 I wrote:

 “Published in 2005, For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness by Julian Germain  is a collection of 42 colour plates of a single subject, Charlie Snelling, an elderly gentleman living alone in a small house in Portsmouth. Germain first met Charlie by chance in 1992 and for the next eight years, until Charlie’s death in 2000, he visited him on a regular basis and, on some visits, just had tea but on others built up an intimate record of a man and his relationship with his environment. Charlie had lost Betty his wife some years earlier but he maintained a close link with her through his treasured collection of photographic memories. This is not a sad book, far from it, Charlie is alone but not lonely, he is surrounded by the things he loves, the photographs of his life with Betty, his colourfully decorated house and his small garden and greenhouse. Germain says that he just got on with life taking pleasure from these things.(2)

In terms of narrative Germain has presented this series using the photographic equivalent of flashbacks. His own technically perfect, simple but elegantly composed, colour plates are punctuated with photographs of the pages of Charlie’s photo albums so, in parallel, we see the layers of Charlie’s current life and his previous life when Betty was still alive. Flashback is more commonly seen in photography when it is used to show comparisons of the same things at different times, a street scene compared after 50 years but it is unusual to see it applied as it is here.

Germain treats his two sources of pictures with equal respect both in the book and at the first exhibition of the collection held at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 2005 (3) where he displayed pages from the albums as floor to ceiling prints. Germain places great value on amateur photographs, When writing about the War Memorial Exhibition in 2008 he said “it is arguable that the most important photographs are those taken by amateurs, the ones we take ourselves to record significant moments in our lives.” (4). His own work is sophisticated, medium format photography and through it we learn about Charlie’s current life but it is arguably the amateur photos that fill in the detail and explain the later images. Germain is clearly comfortable to present his own work in this way and to allow some of his images to play a supporting role in double page spreads.

There is a commonality between the two sets of pictures that probably enables them to become a single collection. If we put aside the technical differences and look at the pictures we see two collections of very honest, straight forward pictures, no tricks, no eye-catching post production, no odd angles or irrelevant changes in technique or processing. The other common ground is that both photographers cared for their subject, Germain became Charlie’s friend and says that he never saw him as a project. This empathy shines through and underlines how we take our best photographs when we understand and value the subject.”

Revisiting  Every Minute now in the context of portraiture there are a few thoughts I can add. Germain himself offers the advice that photographers have no need to “to go hunting for dramatic subjects. If you deal with the ordinary and the everyday you have the opportunity to say something meaningful about our lives.” (2) Every Minute is a marvellous example of that idea; superficially Charlie Snelling was an unexceptional person, one of many widows or widowers living out their twilight years surrounded by memories of their soul mate. Germain describes him as a “simple, gentle man”, he was not lonely because he still had family in his life but lived alone surrounded by colour; the flowers he grew, his individualistic style of startlingly bright interior design, and the colour photographs of Betty, his late wife. He was not especially handsome, favoured cardigans and sensible shoes, lived in a basic little house that was obviously difficult to heat filled with dated furniture, mass produced art work and a record player dating from the seventies. The point being that there was nothing about Charlie Snelling that qualified him to be the sole subject of a highly acclaimed and collectable photo book (i) that is now in its third edition. In the context of the Identity and Place course this raises the question of what did Germain see in Mr Snelling as a subject?

It would be easy to over interpret this series; first and foremost Snelling and Germain became friends following a chance meeting and Germain’s affection for his subject is the foundation upon which this sympathetic portrait was developed but Snelling’s simplicity had a therapeutic effect on Germain, he became “my antidote to modern living”. Of course, he was not ordinary, because no-one is ordinary; Germain saw the best in Snelling and had the skill and compassion to photograph what made him an individual. By mixing Snelling’s family album with his contemporary photographs he goes a long way towards describing his identity. Stephen Shore built his reputation on the simple idea that photography had ignored the ordinary person and Uncommon Places (5) is a landmark collection because it treats middle-America and middle-Americans as special, a radical idea in the 1970s when photography was obsessed with stunning landscapes and beautiful or important people but, much as I admire Shore’s work, it is so precise, artful and considered that the mundane becomes exotic. Germain, who is no less of a accomplished technician, avoids this transformation; Snelling is not glamorised or photographed as a celebrity; he is presented honestly and with a gentle factuality. This faithful recording, this straight documentation of Charlie Snelling achieves what Berenice Abbott (7) identified as the great strength of photography, the ability to represent “The inherent genius and dignity of the human subject” which follows what she calls the “great tradition of realism”.

Every Minute seamlessly brings together portraiture, documentary, vernacular photography and narrative and acts as a reminder that the most interesting subjects are often on our doorstep, perhaps next door or in the local town or village. In addition this series underlines the importance of achieving a true understanding of the subject matter in documentary photography. The rise of the citizen journalist and the proliferation of photographers searching for a “meaningful” subject has led to a proliferation of poorly researched photo journalism and documentary work that is potentially aimed more at selling the photograph or winning prizes than telling the story. Stuart Freedman (8) believes that too much contemporary narrative is based on limited research and/or understanding of the subject, arguing that “Story telling in photography must be vigorous in thought and research”

The idea being that the photographer must understand the context of their subject matter to be able to tell the story and this knowledge can only come as the result of research unless, as is the case with Germain’s portrait of Snelling, an appropriate level of knowledge is acquired by more organic means. In either case the power of the final series is dependant on the photographer’s underlying knowledge of the subject and this is a process that cannot be rushed.

Classroom Portraits

Before moving on to look at some other practitioners who have created series about individuals I would like to briefly consider another Julian Germain book. Classroom Portraits (9) is a very different approach to portraiture than Sixty Seconds but remains relevant as an example of a consistent approach within a single theme. It records an ambitious project to photograph school classrooms and their occupants across nineteen countries; to accomplish this in a single town would involve the unravelling of miles of red tape, parental permissions and the cooperation of local authorities, governors, teachers and students so it is astounding that Germain replicated this process in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia.

Each picture is captured from the front of a class at the eye level of the students with the intent of showing the classroom as well as the pupils (10). There are no adults included because Germain felt they would be “too dominant in the images” (9) but the camera position replicates the teacher’s gaze and emphasises the generation gap between the viewer and the subjects, there is an overwhelming feeling of being an outsider looking in even though we can easily relate to the hopeful faces that confront us.

The adult influence on the school rooms is usually apparent but beyond the visual clues we are aware that adults have created and then placed the children in these places, organised them into patterns, imposed a curriculum and cultural constraints; The adult world determines nearly everything that happens in these rooms and as such they become reflections or microcosms of the broader societies in which they exist. Germain believes that his portraits challenge us, the adults of today, to consider our responsibilities towards these adults of tomorrow.

Like any typology this book has the dual levels of interest in finding similarities and differences, in this case on a global scale. From Dhaka to Madrid we find the generally common elements of a classroom; pupils, past work on the walls, desks in formal patterns, pens, books, notepads, varying degrees of uniform (iii), satchels and bags, posters and learning aids. We also see rooms full of enquiring faces and in those faces we see the future of these countries, the next generation of the educated classes with their dreams still being formed and with their lives ahead of them.

The differences often lie in the cultural, social and political background to the classroom, the single sex classes in the middle east, the four non-Asian boys looking out of place in Bradford, the military-style uniforms in the Yemen, the blackboard in Dhaka versus the computer screens in Tokyo.

Gambela Elementary School, Gambela, Welisso District, Ethiopia. Grade 1, Music - Julian Germain October 9th 2009

Gambela Elementary School, Gambela, Welisso District, Ethiopia. Grade 1, Music – Julian Germain October 9th 2009

It would be easy to write a thousand words about every photograph in this book such is the volume of social information Germain has captured in each shot. Every picture has its studium and in most cases one or more punctum (iv) but after turning the plates back and forth I have settled on my favourite.

The Gambela Elementary School in Gambela, Ethiopia. The walls are of baked mud, the windows, rough, wooden, stick-like slats, the room crowded with around seventy children who cluster on rough hewn benches or line the walls. Nearly all eyes are on the camera; this is a disciplined group but with expressions varying from pleasure to suspicion. One little girl in the front row faces the camera but her eyes are looking to its left, was her teacher standing there or was it Germain himself who stood to one side? There is a wealth of information; some children have shoes but most of the feet we can see are bare, they are all dressed in neat and clean clothes following international drab and shapeless fashions and there are some obvious ill-fitting pass-downs on display. We know that these children’s parents have taken pride in their appearance today? or everyday? But, the punctum is on the back wall; surrounding the intent faces of the back row there are dozens of hand prints, mostly too large to be from the children in the room and lists of what might be names scratched into the surface of the walls and organised into neat boxes like team sheets or the honours board in a historic school. These unanswered questions exemplify the underlying appeal of these pictures; for all the commonality each of these communities has it own very personal identity and Germain has captured just enough of that identity to remind us that each child is unique and each class is the unique combination of these developing minds.

Germain points out that schools are “rarely dealt with as a theme in visual art” (11) (ii),  so this series is quite unique. Classroom Portraits is both immediately engaging and the type of work that will grow in significance over time, a remarkable document of educational practice and social trends in the early decades of this millennium. As documentary it meets the basic criteria laid down by Abbott sixty years ago when she argued that a photographer should take the basic definition of documentary “evidence, truth, conveying information, authentic judgement” and then add “a dash of imagination”.

Notes on Text

(i) How can we measure success in photography? The value placed on individual prints? The location of practitioners’ exhibitions? The Tate Modern conferring greater recognition that the local camera club for example. Or, we can look at the value and availability of a photographer’s publications. According to The Jack Lowe Studio, who helped with its production when Mack Books published the second edition of  For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness at the Paris Photo Fair in 2011 it was only outsold by William Eggleston’s Chromes. That second edition is now long sold out.

(ii) Which interestingly is a thought echoed by Bill Jay and David Hurn (12) who have commented that it is rare for a photography student to use their college or university as the basis for a project. If the people with the greatest unfettered access to educational facilities don’t see them as a subject what hope is there for outsiders to recognise their photographic potential. 

(iii) Although to accept this point we need to recognise the casual dress of sixth formers at an English High School and the sorts shirts and baseball caps in Brazil as a form of uniformity to cultural trends.

(iv) In Camera Lucida Barthes was searching for logical rules that explain why we like or dislike a photograph. He recognises that many photographs are generally interesting and have, what he calls “an average effect” when we look at them in the context of what else we already know. He calls this the studium of a photograph, the photograph is of value, the viewer will have some enthusiasm for it because it documents a subject in way that seems “all right” and communicates, or provides an insight into the intent of the photographer. Beyond that it passes information, we learn something we didn’t know and in that we see that studium is related to study. He points out, that in journalism, the photograph can be interesting without any specific detail interrupting our reading. In effect the studium of a photograph provides a background, in many cases there is only this background but in some cases there is the punctum. The punctum is the sharp point that pricks our attention and lifts a photograph to another level above just interesting. Barthes describes many examples of photographs that include a punctum and from this analysis we can readily see that, for him, it is a very personal response. In Barthes’ view the photographer cannot insert a punctum, if he or she does he rejects it. “I refuse to inherit something from another eye than my own”. This idea challenges the photographer to capture a subject with enough studium to hold the viewer’s initial interest and to unintentionally include a punctum, not an easy rule to follow. If we believe that the punctum is only ever a highly personal point of detail we, the photographer, will probably search for it in vain. If we believe that it is a point of detail that lifts the photograph to another level and that will be identified and recognised by most viewers we will fail his test but might have succeeded in creating a better or more exciting photograph that stands out from the crowd. (Originally included in a critical appraisal of Camera Lucida that I wrote in 2014 here)

Sources

Books

(1) Germain, Julian (2005) For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness. (third edition 2014) MACK Books

(5) Shore, Stephen. (2004) Uncommon Places: The Complete Works: 2013 reprint, London, Thames and Hudson.

(7) Abbott, Berenice (1951) Photography at the Crossroads (first published in the Universal Photo Almanac) – From Classic Essays on Photography edited by Alan Trachtenberg (1980). Sedwick: Leete’s Island Books

(9) Germain, Julian (2012) Classroom Portraits 2004 – 2012. London: Prestel Publishing

(12) Hurn, David & Jay, Bill (1997) On Being a Photographer: A Practical Guide. (Kindle Edition 2010) Anacortes: LensWork Publishing.

(13) Barthes, Roland. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books

Internet

(2) Malone, Theresa. (2013) Julian Germain’s best photograph: Charlie in his kitchen stirring the gravy: ‘I didn’t see Charlie as a project – sometimes I wouldn’t even take photos, just have a cup of tea and a Mr Kipling cake’  (accessed at the Guardian 08.14) http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/oct/02/julian-germain-best-photograph

(3) Germain, Julian. Official Website http://www.juliangermain.com

(4) Germain, Julian. (2008) War Memorial – http://juliangermain.blogspot.co.uk/2008/09/war-memorial.html

(6) Lowe, Jack (2011) Julian Germain: For Every Minute (accessed at Jack Lowe Studio 29.02.16) – http://jacklowestudio.co.uk/blog/julian-germain-for-every-minute/

(8) Freedman, Stuart. (2010) Ethics and Photojournalism (accessed at EPUK – 15.11.14) http://www.epuk.org/the-curve/ethics-and-photojournalism

(10) Waters, Lowenna (2015) Julian Germain photographed classrooms in 19 countries all over the world (accessed at British Journal of Photography 01.03.16) – http://www.bjp-online.com/2015/09/julian-germain-photographed-classrooms-in-19-countries-all-over-the-world/

(11) Coppelman, Alyssa (2012) Classroom Portraits Give a Glimpse of Students’ Lives Around the World (accessed at Behold 01.03.16) – http://www.slate.com/blogs/behold/2012/11/28/julian_germain_photographs_of_classroom_portraits_around_the_world.html

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