At the beginning of the fifth and last chapter of the course we are challenged with a series of questions regarding our photographic practice; Do you tend towards fact or fiction? How could you blend your approach? And, Where is your departure from wanting/needing to depict reality? The questions are not as binary as they might first appear, the authors having previously argued that “Things become something else when they are filtered through the camera. They are fictionalised and transformed, telling a story that somehow stems from a real place yet becomes other”. (1: p.94) The question becomes to what extent do we use the depiction of reality to express a fiction? Simplistically the answer might very well be always.
Photography’s relationship with reality is has always been much discussed and never more so than in the digital age; but Geoffrey Batchen argues that the advent of digital images has cast doubt on the veracity of the photograph not because they are more manipulated that their chemical-based predecessors but because “the much heralded advent of digital imaging simply means having to admit it” (2: p212) “it” being that photographs are by their very nature a manipulated medium; photographers, editors and publishers have always selectively rationed the reality represented within the frame or the page. However, if we push the digitised image, the constructed artificial photograph-like picture, to one side the chemical or digital image cannot avoid being evidential of something having existed. Batchen makes the point that “Reality may have been transcribed, manipulated, or enhanced, but photography doesn’t cast doubt on reality’s actual existence.” “As a footprint is to a foot, so is a photograph to its referent.” (2: p.212)
The original question remains far from being answered because if we accept that a photograph’s referent is reality or, as Berenice Abbott suggests photography “is at home and in its natural element: namely realism – real life – the now” (3: p.179) then we are actually discussing how realism is interpreted by the photographer and to what end. However, the photograph, even when it appears “straight”, is inherently ambiguous, a notoriously slippery medium that transforms itself as time passes and its context changes. John Berger argues that “all photographs have been taken out of a continuity.” (4: p.93) The continuity from which they are taken might be history in the case of a public event, or a life story if it is more personal, or in the case of a landscape light and weather; he concludes: “Discontinuity always produces ambiguity.” (4: p.93). I raise this point to highlight that we cannot be dogmatic regarding how a photograph was, is or will be interpreted, anchoring its meaning with text is, at best, a short term measure as we have seen with how easily Dorothea Lange’s so called Migrant Mother has slipped away from its original caption (here).
With all this in mind I will (at last) return to looking at my own practice. In over forty-five years of photography my motivations have varied immensely but on face value my work generally falls within the documentary style, with the occasional foray into reportage and more frequent explorations of landscape which, in any case, I closely associate with documentary. This might suggest that my intent is to record not to interpret, to present facts as opposed to expressing a fiction but I would argue that this far from the case.
The archive can be seperated into three groups; the family album and holiday pictures; explorations of place and course work.
Let’s start with the family album. Mine extends to thousands of photographs that record the family from my honeymoon in the seventies to my grandson playing football last Saturday. Ray Davies wrote “People take pictures of each other, Just to prove that they really existed” and there is an element of true in that idea, we seek confirmation of a loved one’s existence by fixing and keeping a representation of their appearance, an historical record, but it goes far deeper. My wife’s grandmother, when unable to express her love for a great grandchild would resort to wanting to “eat them all up”, a love so intense she had a desire to consume the subject of that love, gobble them up, fix them in that moment for ever. As an emotionally repressed male with far too many Yorkshire genes the camera has always been an important way of expressing my love for the family, gobbling them up, fixing them for ever in that moment when they were at their most perfect …. or seemingly so. Of course, the magical moment captured is selected from a less than perfect family life. The grumpy child bribed into sitting still, the winning smile coaxed from behind a tantrum, the happy couple acting the part at a boring party. The family album falls well short of a comprehensive or accurate document of life, it is not just selective but highly edited propaganda, it matters little that its audience might be restricted, it is a marketing device potentially referencing the model of the family promoted by advertising. Even as an album in a forgotten cupboard it was a book with a message; in the Facebook age it is even more an aspirational publication, the wider the audience the greater the need to editorialise the family memories into a projection of perfection. Not that any of the photographs are fictitious, all have reality as a referent, but the family photographer is selecting their images to such a degree that the overall archive is as fictional as a Mills and Boon bodice ripper, a record of momentous occasions and happy times extracted from the mundane, the stressful and the sad, a deception by exclusion.
Less easily analysed is my archive of travel photography, within which I include foreign places visited on vacations rather than places where I have lived abroad. From my earliest efforts in the Greek islands in the seventies to recent visits to Italy where we once lived, I recognise in my intent the desire to describe a place to an audience elsewhere. This suggests working in the documentary style with a pure, and by that I mean straight approach to recording and in this regard, as Graham Smith puts it, I saw my photographs “as passports to distant places” (5: p.10), sharing the experience of Hong Kong or Japan with the folks back home. This intent may now appear somewhat dated, harking back to the work of John Thomson who documented expeditions to Southeast Asia and China in the 1860s and 70s; his photographs that emphasise the exotic landscapes, architecture, people and even the fruits of the East now appear as historical documents but in their day satisfied the desire of the Victorian armchair traveller to explore the orient.
Mine was the first generation of ordinary working class people to travel abroad for pleasure and we became evangelical promoters of the foreign experience; poorly composed and often poorly exposed photographs of Greece, Italy and Spain were destined for the family and friends slide show; the “wine-dark seas” of the Aegean, the ruins of ancient temples and market stalls of, what then appeared to be, exotic produce described a world that seemed unreachable and exciting to the stay-at-homes whom we educated with our pictures and dreary, Alan Wicker inspired, commentaries. However those slide shows of the Greek Islands are far from a complete record of either the journey or the place. The fiction lies in selectivity of framing and editing, an intent to show places in the best possible light not just as unpaid representatives of the Greek tourist board but more to prove our sophistication in visiting an obscure Greek Island rather than the more accessible Costa Del Sol, a statement of one-upmanship, boastful and self-applauding. There are no photographs that I can recall of crowded ferries stinking of diesel and the fruits of sea-sickness, or the despair of searching for rooms on over-crowded islands, the bad food or the bed-sized hotel rooms.
In my mind there is a distinct separation between those early holiday photographs and the more considered explorations of places both home and abroad. There is, of course, some overlap as like many parents, much of my photography has been undertaken with an often bored family in tow. My adult son doesn’t own a camera and my daughter teaches photography so the experience of waiting for Dad to take yet another photograph appears to have had an inconsistent effect on my children.
My most interesting work was probably carried out in the 80s, a period when I lived in Hong Kong and the Philippines and travelled extensively around the Pacific rim. More recent studies in Italy have recaptured some of the spirit of that earlier work. The best of this work is exploratory, not in terms of style, but in the sense that the camera was a tool of investigation, part of the process of gaining an understanding of people and place. Photography of this kind is a virtuous circle as my understanding of a place developed the images improved. This intent behind these studies is at several levels; there is apparently a pictorial foundation to many of the individual photographs in the sense that there is an obvious search for the aesthetically pleasing and whilst the photographs sit within series many were destined to be stand-alone framed pieces which is an attribute more associated with painting and thereby Pictorial Photography than Contemporary Photography.
Jesse Alexander says that pictorialism “implies two things: firstly, that the thing might need to be appealing to look at (which much contemporary photography – in itself – is not) and secondly; that the thing is meant to stand alone, without the company of other photographs.” (6) Pictorialism with its connotations of artful manipulation and its emphasis on beauty, tonality and composition in the painterly tradition seems so far removed from both modern and contemporary photography that to classify one’s work anywhere within this definition feels like a confession. It seems that some Contemporary Photography, in a search of new forms of expression, has jettisoned many of the building blocks of historical photography which is not a problem in itself but in some circles the absence of these values has become a necessity if the work is to be taken seriously. In simple terms a view that there can be no message of any worth if the image is aesthetically pleasing or explores colour, form or light in, let’s call it, a traditional manner.
The work of dozens of acclaimed contemporary photographers quickly undermines this viewpoint; Joel Sternfeld or Alex Webb’s use of colour, Franco Fontana’s landscapes which are some of the most aesthetically pleasing photographs of the last twenty years or Stephen Shore’s carefully composed and structured investigations of our relationship with the landscape. In each case these practitioners have something important to communicate, they are using the medium to explore the major themes of humanity’s relationship with the world but they also exhibit their technical and artistic mastery of the medium. I cannot pretend to have been inspired by any of these men any earlier than in the last few years but I humbly believe we share certain values. Whenever I touch on this subject a quotation by Stuart Freedman comes to mind:
“I want to see a return to a storytelling in photography as rigorous in thought and research as it is beautiful in construction and execution. It should have self knowledge and a human centre but understand the tradition from whence it came.
Then and only then we will be judged not just on our photography but our humanity and approach.” (7)
I am always concerned in my own work if I sense that I am adopting a contemporary approach as an excuse for not striving for, albeit rarely achieving, a photograph that is beautiful in construction and execution. This concern extends to my view of other photographer’s work.
As an example my photographs of Asia are documentary in style and occasionally aesthetically pleasing but more importantly they explored a rapidly changing world where some of world’s most important trading and financial centres were creating a new class system of rich and poor and where colonial architecture that evoked images of the Raj, or in the case of the Philippines Spanish or American rule, cowered beneath the edifices of the new order. In this work I was not intentionally creating fictions although truth in photography is such a slippery subject that even our perceived truths are so selective as to be fictional. I was intent on capturing pieces of reality that communicated the juxtaposition of ancient and modern cultures, wealth and poverty, colonialism and rampant capitalism and the replacement of political empires with commercial and financial invasions that had created societies that were forming new and often westernised identities so quickly that the culture that had been their foundation was in retreat. Asia in the eighties was out of balance and I endeavoured to express these ideas.
More recently my practice has been influenced by a broad church of established photographers and I have become increasingly interested in finding fragments of reality that individually or when working with other elements express a wider idea of people or place.
To return to the original questions I can identify significant sections of my work that use reality to promote aspirational or purely fictitious concepts of perfect people and places and on the other hand can highlight work that uses reality to communicate my understanding or subjective view of those same subjects. How ever much we step back from our subject, create space between us to suggest objectivity or avoid formal manipulation to the same end photography remains subjective, the act of taking a photograph is a process of exclusion and inclusion which ultimately is only an opinion. Perhaps my whole archive uses reality to depict a fantasy of how I want to see the world.
(1) Boothroyd, Sharon and Wood, Keith (2015) Identity and Place. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts
(2) Bachen, Geoffrey (1997) Burning With Desire. Cambridge MA: MIT Press
(3) 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
(4) Berger, John & Mohr, Jean (1982) Another Way of Telling: A Possible Theory of Photography. London: Bloomsbury
(5) Smith, Graham (2012) Photography and Travel. London: Reaktion Books
(6) Alexander, Jesse (2014) A Question About Contemporary Photography (accessed on the writer’s website 13.9.16) – https://jessealexanderonphotography.com/2014/06/24/a-question-about-contemporary-photography/
(7) Freedman, Suart (2010) Ethics and Photojournalism (accessed at EPUK 13.9.16) – http://www.epuk.org/the-curve/ethics-and-photojournalism