Assignment 4 – Documentary – Critical Review

Does the type of aesthetic approach employed by the photographer affect the accessibility of the work to an audience?

 

Aesthetics are a key attribute of a photograph. They affect the reader’s gaze and so photographers are faced with the question of whether to make their photographs aesthetically-pleasing or gritty and true-to-life. What constitutes ‘aesthetically-pleasing’ or ‘gritty and true-to-life’ is a very subjective topic though, due to the fact that each viewer’s taste for pleasing aesthetics varies. ‘Judging beauty and other aesthetic qualities of photographs is a highly subjective task.’ – (Datta, Joshi, Li, Wang, 2006). Although this is a subjective task, by using a computational approach it has been possible to see ‘there exist certain visual properties which make photographs, in general, more aesthetically beautiful.’ – (Datta, Joshi, Li, Wang, 2006). Therefore although aesthetics are subjective, they do conform somewhat to a standard. It is our natural inclination to make aesthetically-pleasing photographs too: ‘Except for those situations in which the camera is used to document, or to mark social rites, what moves people to take photographs is finding something beautiful.’ – (Sontag, 1977). The intended usage of the photograph is one factor to take into account because it can dictate whether a photograph is used to document or to find something beautiful.

Certain photographers combine these two disciplines (documenting and finding something beautiful) to express powerfully their vision and one such photographer is Sebastião Salgado. ‘In their strong formal design, Salgado’s pictures revive photographic modernism with its emphasis on geometry and visual contrast. Beauty is pressed into the service of an old-fashioned humanism…’ – (Stallabrass, 1997). This description of his photographic approach shows Salgado’s strong aesthetics but also hints at his moral code when taking these photographs. Although he has been very successful in his projects, he has also been criticised by some for the beauty inherent in even his most haunting photojournalistic photographs. One prominent critic of Salgado’s ‘aestheticisation’ of suffering was Ingrid Sischy. She argued that ‘this beautification of tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity toward the experience they reveal.’ – (Sischy, 1991). By combining documenting something factual with the aestheticising of these facts, Salgado is in fact detracting from the photographs’ message in terms of their power to portray the truth of what they depict.

 

Fig. 1. © Sebastião Salgado (1983) Children playing with animals bones, Brazil
Fig. 1. © Sebastião Salgado (1983) Children playing with animals bones, Brazil

 

I would agree on a base level that the viewer of such photographs (Salgado’s beautiful documents) is more likely to be distracted from the message because of the aesthetics than had the photographs simply aimed to portray ‘the truth’. For example with Fig. 1, (Mraz, 2002) makes the point that: ‘The photo’s psychological tone is set by the solemn expressions on the children’s faces and their prostration on the floor’. In my eyes though the ethereal lighting from solely the open doorway with the strong tones of light and dark created from this (especially on the bones themselves) capture and divert my attention for far longer. However, I would also then suggest the critic of such an argument – that Salgado’s aesthetics distract from the message – is missing a vital point. Salgado’s projects clearly reach a great audience and in this regard at least he has been successful. If his works’ aesthetics were not so powerful and beautiful would his work have reached so massive an audience? Therefore perhaps Salgado is looking at the wider picture in so far as getting a message across, even if it means aestheticising the facts.

So far I have only been concerned with superficial aesthetics of photography as this is the foremost feature people get to when looking at photographs. Photographs can also be regarded as beautiful beneath their outward appearance and I would assert that this gives such photographs more liability to possess deeper meaning once the message has been uncovered. A photographer I have recently been to an exhibition of: Thomas Ruff springs to mind as an example where the work is not immediately beautiful (at least to my eye) but instead the viewer has to read into the work to find beautiful meanings within the work. One of his most famous projects: Portraits 1986-1991 (see Fig. 2) employs several strategies to enable the viewer to find meaning within the work which I myself found beautiful. Showing Fig. 2 in this size on my blog felt like I was doing a disservice to the impact the enormous print has on the viewer when looking at it in a gallery. On the other hand the superficial aesthetics were not particularly pleasing to the eye; the photographs depicting the blank expressions of people Ruff knew from those years. However, this is part of the ruse where Ruff produces these massive prints of vacant faces, enticing the viewer to wonder why they are printed so monumentally big when they are just like passport pictures. Unearthing the message beneath – for me it was that the passport style pictures allow the viewer their own interpretation of the sitter which is ultimately a contrived one – was a rewarding experience.

 

Fig. 2. © Thomas Ruff (1988) Porträt (P. Stadtbäumer)
Fig. 2. © Thomas Ruff (1988) Porträt (P. Stadtbäumer)

 

Although I picked up on this meaning somewhat by myself I still had to back up my assertions from another source – ‘a portrait by Ruff looks like a very large passport photograph. … Any personality a sitter may have is there because you, the viewer, have projected your own feelings and prejudices on to the image.’ – (Dorment, 2003). In my opinion this gaining of understanding, while rewarding, is also less immediate and has less widespread ‘appeal’ than the superficially beautiful work of, for example Salgado. Because the reader has to search for the beauty embedded inside rather than on the surface, more casual readers may not bother gaining understanding from work like Ruff’s, where the aesthetics are imbued within. Looking at this from an aesthetic point of view it would be possible to argue that both draw from the vernacular: Ruff playing upon it intentionally by taking all the ‘accidental’ elements out of the traditional vernacular and using them to his advantage like with his Portraits 1986-1991 project (see Fig. 2). On the other hand, Salgado employs telling juxtapositions (like the children juxtaposed with the bones in Fig. 1) and combines this with selective framing and often dramatic, otherworldly lighting. All of this becomes unified because Salgado continues to utilise the black and white medium. Although this might seem like the opposite of traditional vernacular imagery – where colourful, seemingly accidental snapshots are prevalent, looking closer it seems Salgado has culminated the ingredients of the vernacular into a more sophisticated version.

 

Fig. 3. Photograph 4 - Assignment 3 - Documentary
Fig. 3. Photograph 4 – Assignment 3 – Documentary

 

I have until recently always given slight precedence to the superficial aesthetics attribute of my photography and in part it has defined the images I’ve produced for my projects. In hindsight this was perhaps an attempt to move it away from the vernacular type imagery pervading social media. With Assignment 3 – Documentary (see Fig. 3) I turned my attention away from my inward battle between superficial aesthetics and meaning. Instead I put my efforts into telling a convincing story; letting meaning come first and putting aesthetics to the side. Interestingly I found they were still linked as the aesthetics when consistent, combined to tell a more immersive story. However, I noticed certain photographers disregarded superficial aesthetics altogether or even deliberately to make them gritty such as Daido Moriyama. 

 

Fig. 4. © Daido Moriyama (1969) Eros
Fig. 4. © Daido Moriyama (1969) Eros

 

Moriyama at the time he was taking photos on the streets of Tokyo (in the 1960s) prescribed like the group of left-wing photographers he joined to a style developed to break away from aesthetic conventions of a ‘good’ photograph found in European and American photography. They instead employed an aesthetic that ‘was identified with the expression ‘are, bure, boke’ – grainy, blurry and out of focus, in reference to the three main characteristics that distinguished the group’s images’ – (Scaldaferri , 2017). Moriyama’s reasoning for using such gritty aesthetics (see Fig. 4) was that he was ‘Refusing the idea that the photographic medium could only be used to produce archival documents,’ instead ‘putting an accent on its image-making capability’ – (Scaldaferri , 2017). He thereby used the aesthetics of as a conduit to express his emotions about the state of Tokyo’s dark streets at that time. Moriyama was and remains very popular, influencing other photographers and young people especially in Japan: ‘The older generation appreciates a lot of Daido’s work, but right now he is very, very popular among young people’ – (Uematsu, 2012). However, the appeal of his work is not as widespread (outside of Japan) as say Salgado and I would argue this is because it does not conform to (a Western at least) standard taste for the beautiful which has been more popular. An important note this brings up is the subjectivity of aesthetics because the emotion Moriyama’s work evokes clearly affects certain viewers more than others. What I could see influencing me from Moriyama’s work would be the understanding that the process of making an image can be far more important in terms of emotion conveyed in this process than the aesthetic. Having said this, Moriyama clearly intends to go consistently for the ‘are, bure, boke’ look. For me this deliberation could be because his work transcends the traditional vernacular with the choice of black and white medium and emotion caught in the frames.

 

Conclusion:

While it may be true that photographs with gritty superficial aesthetics are not as accessible as work which conforms to our standard taste for the beautiful, often there is a space for deeper meaning to be accessed by the viewer in the work. This could be whether it is intended by the photographer – by playing upon the vernacular – or not. As long as the work is consistent too the viewer may gain more from a set of photographs than a singular, glorified image. Also it may well be important to the photographer to display emotion in their photographs which in itself could be considered beautiful. In a funny kind of way photographic projects with aesthetics that don’t conform to a standard taste for the beautiful have more art value than work which doesn’t play on the vernacular or is less emotional. All of this depends on what kind of impact the photographer wishes to make and to what type of audience.

‘something considered beautiful conforms to a standard taste, whereas something considered as ugly may confront our present sensibility and bring out a new one.’ – (Fontcuberta and Feustel, 2010). While this quote by Joan Fontcuberta when talking about beauty shows that a deeper meaning or even new sensibilities may be brought out when we are faced with work that is not superficially beautiful, I would suggest it tends to lose the widespread appeal that comes from conforming to our (natural) taste for the beautiful. Yet I would also make the point that confronting our current sensibility and potentially bringing out a new sensibility may be more important to many photographers/artists. This would be especially true considering the current climate of image making where social media platforms are over saturated with similar images that conform to our standard taste for the beautiful.

Word count: 1,860

References:

Datta R., Joshi D., Li J., Wang J.Z. (2006). Studying Aesthetics in Photographic Images Using a Computational Approach. In: Leonardis A., Bischof H., Pinz A. (eds) Computer Vision – ECCV 2006. ECCV 2006. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 3953. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg

Dorment, R. (2003). PHOTOGRAPHY IN FOCUS The deadpan images created by Thomas Ruff – of nameless individuals and equally anonymous places – are masterpieces of austere neutrality. By Richard Dorment Now for something completely indifferent. [online] Telegraph.co.uk. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3595514/PHOTOGRAPHY-IN-FOCUS-The-deadpan-images-created-by-Thomas-Ruff-of-nameless-individuals-and-equally-anonymous-places-are-masterpieces-of-austere-neutrality.-By-Richard-Dorment-Now-for-something-completely-indifferent.html [Accessed 27 Nov. 2017].

Fontcuberta, J. and Feustel, M. (2010). Interview: Joan Fontcuberta, Landscapes without memory. [online] Marc Feustel. Available at: http://www.marcfeustel.com/eyecurious/interview-joan-fontcuberta-landscapes-without-memory [Accessed 27 Nov. 2017].

Moriyama, D. (1969). Eros. [Photograph] Retrieved from: https://theculturetrip.com/asia/japan/articles/daido-moriyama-the-father-of-street-photography-in-japan/ [Accessed 3 Jan. 2018].

Ruff, T. (1988). Porträt (P. Stadtbäumer). [Photograph] Retrieved from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/12/theory-gil-blank-with-thomas-ruff-2004.html [Accessed 12 Dec. 2017].

Salgado, S. (1983). Children playing with animals bones, Brazil. [Photograph] Retrieved from: https://i.pinimg.com/736x/1f/db/12/1fdb126466ae7252c7345014cc4e0438–brazil-children-games.jpg [Accessed 12 Dec. 2017].

Scaldaferri, G. (2017). Discover The Captivating Work Of Acclaimed Japanese Photographer, Daido Moriyama. [online] Culture Trip. Available at: https://theculturetrip.com/asia/japan/articles/daido-moriyama-the-father-of-street-photography-in-japan/ [Accessed 3 Jan. 2018].

Sischy, I. (1991). ‘Good Intentions’. In The New Yorker (9th Sep. 1991) [Online] Available at: https://paulturounetblog.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/good-intentions-by-ingrid-sischy.pdf [Accessed on 23 Nov. 2017].

Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography, 1st ed. [ebook], Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London, WC2R ORL, England, Chapter 4, pp. 62.

Stallabrass, J. (1997). ‘Sebastião Salgado and Fine Art Journalism’. In Mraz, J. (2002). Sebastião Salgado: Ways of Seeing Latin America [Online] Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/mraz_salgado.pdf [Accessed 12 Dec. 2017].

Uematsu, E. (n.d.). In. Birmingham, L. (2012). “Labyrinth” by Daido Moriyama: Contacting the Urban Jungle. [online] Lucybirmingham.com. Available at: http://lucybirmingham.com/?p=1502 [Accessed 7 Jan. 2018].

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Study Hangout 10/12/2017

On 10/12 2017 Bryn, Anne and myself attended a study hangout.

We talked in detail about our respective critical reviews. Anne was quite pleased with her feedback for hers as it was quite positive with some changes necessary, thankfully not as many as she’d feared.

I admitted I was partly stuck with my essay but was awaiting a response from my tutor regarding some questions I’d come to realise were bugging me about my writing and investigation into aesthetics in photography.

Amendment (22/12/2017):

I have since received an email from my tutor regarding my questions about my critical review which I found very helpful and have commenced writing the critical review, while taking into account suggestions based upon my questions my tutor had made.

Bryn communicated that he had read up quite a bit some of the primary resources from the course which was helping to inform his critical review and was starting to look at secondary sources to further back up these readings. Also he discussed how he might include in his essay something about how it was desirable to have a larger project to work on and have continuation with instead of having to constantly reinvent the wheel for each project. Hiroshi Sugimoto has this large project continuation in his Seascapes project which he works on in combination with shorter projects which Bryn admired.

Bryn asked Anne whether she might go back to the Gloucester Docks again for Assignment 5 so that her projects had a continued theme and she said may consider it. Also Anne described her interactive exhibition for the Somerset exhibition of OCA students which sounded very interesting. Here she asked exhibition-goers to reorder a set of photographs into the ‘right’ order that she had in mind and take a photograph of their perceived ‘right’ order and put that photograph in a guest book to document their participation.

Bryn asked Anne if she might consider doing something interactive in the Gloucester Docks similar to this and she said it was a possibility.

Lastly I talked about my ideas for Assignment 5 with Bryn which concern tourism in the city I live in of London. Here I would basically be taking a spoof tourist role, documenting my experience in the city from the perspective of a tourist in London, with myself falling for the usual tourist traps and hotspots/landmarks that a usual tourist would but with twists in the photos used to document this act. The twists would be present in order for the viewer to be able to discern it was a spoof tourist role I was taking.

Study Hangout 19/11/2017

Today I attended a study hangout with Anne, Bryn and Michael. We talked about very in depth subjects surrounding the ethics of photography including authentication of photographs as documents, subjectivity in photography related to the myth of objectivity, the death of the author and manipulation of the message. We related these in depth subjects with photography artists; the most prominent of these artists being Sebastião Salgado, closely followed by Don McCullin and then Martin Parr. Michael introduced us to the work of Simon Norfolk briefly who I aim to look at more closely as his work at first glance looked very interesting. I was not sure why our conversation was so theoretical but it may have been something to do with 75% of us having commenced work on the critical review or having just submitted it!

Balloon Vendor in Kabul - 2001 - From the Series: "Forensic Traces of War" © Simon Norfolk
Balloon Vendor in Kabul – 2001 – From the Series: “Forensic Traces of War” © Simon Norfolk

My opinions on the listed subjects were that it is very difficult to authenticate documents like photographs 100% as the viewer can usually interpret the evidence of photography being an indexical medium differently. This is even if supporting documents like text or (to a lesser degree) geotagging are included. I felt objectivity is a myth yet it is still possible to shoot in an objective style. Ultimately all photography is subjective (as even objective photography has its own aesthetic) but I would suggest some photography is more subjective than others. Relating to the death of the author, my stance was that this is true nowadays much more with the proliferation of images and ways of sharing them. Now it is not about who took the photograph but what the photograph depicts. The message of any photograph can be manipulated by means of supporting documents and other context like the photographer’s oeuvre.

We talked about the contrast in transparency of message between Salgado and McCullin where McCullin was very decisive in why he took photographs of war while Salgado’s reasoning seems more layered and less clear. We touched upon how my own critical review was going and I divulged that maybe the topic I’d chosen was proving to be too broad and therefore lacking direction. Finding relevant quotes and supporting work or photographs to back up my particular argument seemed like a way of tackling this.

How to Photograph an Abstract Concept

As I have been studying documentary I have become increasingly aware of the need for a clear brief. This enables more incisive photography in my experience. The reverse I’ve found can also be true – in my recent Assignment 3 – Gentrification in Deptford I was struggling for a clear brief and started using post-conceptualisation as a strategy so that I could just start taking pictures and see what developed from there. However, for my upcoming Assignment 5 – A Personal Project, one of the requirements for the assignment is ‘a methodical approach’. Therefore I could either use post-conceptualisation as a method or do the opposite and produce a clear brief but not somewhere in between.

One area I’ve realised could be improved in my work would be the inclusion of an abstract concept rather than literal concepts in producing a clear brief. With the exception of Assignment 2 – Ephemerality of the Image where I developed the idea of an abstract concept, I have not explored abstract concepts. One essay that really inspired me with regards to abstract concepts particularly for Assignment 2 was Maartje van den Heuvel’s Mirror of Visual Culture. Here I eventually discovered a way of photographing an abstract concept – ephemerality of the image but the process of developing the ideas was quite drawn out.

I decided on a whim to make a search on the internet: “How to photograph an abstract concept” without much hope for inspiring results but was pleasantly surprised a few search results down to find something other than a list of ’20 ways to instantly improve my abstract photography’, which was what the rest of the results seemed to consist of! The search result in question linked to an essay by John Suler called Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche relating to conceptual photography. I found Suler’s essay to be accessible and practical and here were some of the observations I came away with after reading the essay:

I had been thinking about photography in the ‘wrong’ order in my mind at least; writing loose briefs and hoping for something creative to come out of my observations on research conducted. Instead I learned it was preferable to think of a concept in conceptual photography first and think about how this might best be represented as a photograph or set of photographs afterwards. In particular, ‘Photographs also offer a seemingly more real, tangible depiction of concepts that otherwise seem abstract or elusive.’ – (Suler, 2013). Many of my previous projects had been literal concepts so learning that one of photography’s strengths lay in depicting abstract concepts was interesting for me.

One part of Suler’s essay that I had an opinion on was: ‘[conceptual artists] are free to use an idea as the guide in creating a work, rather than being restrained by aesthetic standards about how things are supposed to done. – (Suler, 2013). Although I agreed with this statement on the most part (as opposed to creating just aesthetically-pleasing photographs like in non-conceptual photography), I felt there was an additional side to conceptual photography often being minimalistic and perfunctory in style. As the idea behind the photograph or set of photographs becomes more complex (the conceptual art I’ve come across often is quite complicated in concept), the execution of the photograph almost needs to be simple. This is in order to get across the message as lucidly as possible for a complicated idea. Suler (2013) touches upon this when he remarks ‘The process might be very challenging and creative, especially when dealing with complex or elusive concepts.’ when talking about creating artistic photographs for conceptual art. My response would be the perfunctory approach for the resultant photographs is kind of like a style for complicated concepts, not only to get across the message of the art but also also a deliberate attempt by the artist to signify the art is more important than the photograph.

A photograph’s concept can be translated into an image either specifically or ambiguously. When it is translated ambiguously, viewers tend to project their own meaning or understanding of the concept onto the photo which is what some photographers want according to Suler (2013): ‘The photo presents the container of a general concept or idea, but then people fill that container with their own personal meanings.’ When creating abstract concepts in photographs I would prefer for the viewer to infer meaning but for it to be not too ambiguous so somewhere in the middle. Suler (2013) is of the opinion that for the more specific of these approaches a clear understanding of the concept is desirable before visual communication commences.

As I was more interested in creating images for abstract concepts, it was useful to note from Suler’s essay that he recommended the use of a dictionary, thesaurus and online image search engine to aid the sender of the concept (the photographer) in acquiring a better understanding of the ins and outs of their abstract concept. He also states that ‘Symbols, metaphors, and similes are very useful when designing conceptual photographs.’ – (Suler, 2013) whereby the receiver of the concept (the viewer) could associate signs a photograph may possess in order to gain the sender’s meaning. Therefore if I wanted to create a photograph symbolising entropy of meaning in social media imagery, I could look up the definitions and synonyms for entropy and social media. Then I could see how other people represent entropy or social media in their photographs/images and also think about symbols, metaphors and similes that would be appropriate once I had a more lucid idea of what the concepts entailed.

Lastly, Suler touched upon post-conceptualisation (which I used for Assignment 3 – Gentrification in Deptford) although he used the term ‘reverse engineering’ of the conceptual photograph. Here he basically describes the process I went through with Assignment 3 where I took photographs first and then ‘apply an idea to it’ – (Suler, 2013). While both approaches can be effective I felt the more appropriate strategy of conceptualisation of an idea beforehand would perhaps be better for Assignment 5 where ‘a methodical approach’ was desirable.

References:

Suler, J. (2013). Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche. [online] Truecenterpublishing.com. Available at: http://truecenterpublishing.com/photopsy/conceptual.htm [Accessed 23 Oct. 2017].

Van Den Heuvel (2005). Mirror of Visual Culture. Documentary Now! [online] Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/heuvel_discussingdocumentary.pdf [Accessed 23 Oct. 2017].

Study Hangout 22/10/2017

Today I attended a study hangout with Miriam and Leonie.

The Hell of Sierra Pelada mines, 1980s - © Sebastiaou Salgado
The Hell of Sierra Pelada mines, 1980s – © Sebastiaou Salgado

It was good to hear their progress and we were at similar stages in the course although Leonie had almost finished Assignment 5. Miriam and I were starting the critical review for Assignment 4. I discussed my ideas for Assignment 4 with the group – the idea of beauty in documentary and whether a really aesthetically-pleasing photograph takes away from the meaning a photograph may be trying to convey. The responses from Leonie and Miriam were very interesting for me, with Leonie comparing the work of Tim Hetherington and Don McCullin’s American soldiers photographs saying that one was rendered completely differently from the other in regards to beauty. Looking at the two photographs side by side I could definitely relate to this observation.

Korengal Valley, Afghanistan - © Tim Hetherington - 2007
Korengal Valley, Afghanistan – © Tim Hetherington – 2007
'The Thousand Yard Stare' - © Don McCullin - 1968
‘The Thousand Yard Stare’ – © Don McCullin – 1968

I used the work of Sebastiaou Salgado as an example of aesthetic beauty with the potential for displacing meaning because his photographs have been typically so beautiful. Miriam countered this point by saying one of Sebastiaou Salgado’s photographs – that of a gold mine (The hell of Serra Pelada mines, 1980s, was the photograph I think she was referring to) means she no longer buys gold but only fair-trade; the photo by Sebastiaou Salgado had made such an impression on her. This could make the case that beauty captures the viewer’s attention with the possibility for meaning to be discovered afterwards in the same image, which should be something to consider when writing my critical review.

Lastly we discussed juggling things like work with the course and how it affects the flow of our studying. Also what our plans were after competing the documentary module and how often it would be helpful to liaise with our tutors in order to improve assignments.

Overall I found the study hangout to be very helpful as always but in particular it did give me some more points of consideration for my critical review.