Context and Narrative by Maria Short – Chapter 4

Right at the start of Chapter 4 – ‘Narrative’, I liked the description Short uses for the question what is narrative in photography. Here Short describes the techniques used to provide narrative in photography to be ‘seen as a kind of visual punctuation.’ – (Short, 2011). From this I gathered certain techniques provide the framework from which a photographer could structure their vision, much like the commas and full stops in this written sentence.(!)

The chapter starts properly by identifying what narrative is and I reconfirmed in my head it is essentially a story. However, because the medium is photography the format can be linear or in other ways too because it is a visual medium. I saw this as the ‘visual punctuation’ informing the visual word order and meaning of the sentence.

The first half of the chapter is dedicated to narrative within a series or set of photographs and while this may be less applicable to me for Assignment 2 of documentary, where I have to produce single-image narratives, it will no doubt prove of use beyond the assignment. Some techniques key to providing a strong narrative within a series or set of photographs Short outlined consisted of aesthetic continuity, so a theme is formed, size of the images in relation to each other as they appear and juxtaposition of the images in the series. I felt the latter of these techniques (juxtaposition) could also be assigned to the components of a single image in order to provide narrative there as well.

This led me onto the second half of the chapter ‘Narrative’ dealing with single-image narratives. Short initially poses the question: ‘what exactly is narrative within a single image and how does a photographer work to convey or create it?’ – (Short, 2011). I was left slightly frustrated after reading the page she poses the question on because she seems at first to not answer the latter part to the question directly or at least not as I had expected. I would have expected the answer to be solely the juxtaposition of compositional elements within the single-image. Reading this page and beyond again however, she does indeed hint at the juxtapositional element of not only composition but light and colour too when she asks: ‘What is the relevance of the empty space/dark sky/colour of the carpet?’ – (Short, 2011). She then additionally goes on to add in the next few pages ,methods for creating meaning in single-images – some of which I want thought of before. For example, she states that it is important to have clear preconceptions about the aim of the project. At the same time she suggests how ‘being open to unexpected elements contributing to the photograph’ can add extra, unforeseen meaning. This is later backed up at the end of the chapter with the case study. I had begun to understand that experimentation with photographs as they are being taken and after they are taken improve on concepts, which is very important. It is good practice to have a clear reason for taking the photographs in the first place though.

Another aspect I discerned from the single-image narrative part of the chapter was about immersing yourself in a project to the point that you are absorbed by your practice and are not thinking about creating art. This approach can yield work which is art once it has been selected from the larger body produced form the documentary practice. Short used the example of Cartier-Bresson’s lesser known photojournalistic bodies of work like his coverage of Mahatma Ghandi’s funeral to illustrate this concept. Perhaps I had been taking a wrong or at least starkly contrasting approach to that of Cartier-Bresson’s practice. Whereas I had tried to produce documentary images which could be considered as art, Cartier-Bresson produced large volumes of work where he was completely absorbed in producing images before selecting images he felt were art. Ironically, I had been heavily influenced by Cartier-Bresson’s art photographs in the first place as they seemed to exist as single decisive moments in time and I had only observed them singularly previously. Therefore it was a bit of a revelation at least some of them weren’t taken with art in mind particularly, like with Short’s example of Cartier-Bresson’s coverage of Mahatma Ghandi’s funeral. This reminded me of an article I had recently been reading by Eric Kim about forgetting composition when shooting photographs, entitled: Don’t Think About Composition When Shooting Street Photography. I had been browsing the internet, looking for inspiration for my assignment when I came across this fairly provocatively titled article with regards to street photography. I found it useful however in a similar way to Short’s example of of Cartier-Bresson’s coverage of Mahatma Ghandi’s funeral. The emphasis was to take photographs first and worry about (composition in this case) later. Kim still gives a list of basic compositional techniques to bear in mind before going on a shoot but argues: ‘use composition as a tool after you’ve taken a bunch of photos, in order to know which photo to keep (and which to ditch).’ – (Kim, n.d.). He then backs this up with a quote: ‘I would rather choose an emotional photo with soul (with poor composition), rather than a soul-less photo (with a great composition)’ – (Kim, n.d.) which resonates with some of what I had been thinking. Short is of the opinion that ‘total immersion in the process enables the photographer to be highly tuned into the vital aspects of the photograph’, so much so that as an experienced photographer absorbed in the process you can anticipate ‘At what angle and place in the frame movement will be frozen’ and ‘How and where light is falling’ – (Short, 2011). This implies once the photographer is absorbed in the project completely, composition becomes natural. It seems that with ‘total immersion’ in a project the photographer gets the best of both worlds – soulful photos (as there is now a more meaningful interaction with the subject) and good composition. If the composition isn’t exactly right the photographer could presumably select another photograph to use from the many they’d taken. One of these photographs is more likely to be ‘art’ than shooting sporadically and without absorption into the process.

References:

Cartier-Bresson, H. (1948). Mahatma Gandhi’s last days and funeral procession, 1948. [online] Magnum Photos. Available at: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2K7O3R96EH_T [Accessed 23 Mar. 2017].

Kim, E. (n.d.). Don’t Think About Composition When Shooting Street Photography. [online] Eric Kim Photography. Available at: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/no-composition/ [Accessed 23 Mar. 2017].

Short, M. (2011). Context and Narrative. 1st ed. Lausanne: AVA Publishing SA, pp.96-119.

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Research into Henri Cartier-Bresson and Lewis Hine

Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of my favourite photographers before starting documentary and I had recently come across Lewis Hine, where I appreciated his connection with the subjects of the environmental portraits and admired his dedication to photographing the children working. Because I could foresee myself attempting to capture decisive moments at the brewery, Henri Cartier-bresson’s work became of more interest to me. Also, because I could see a connection with some of the children’s environmental portraits in Lewis Hine’s work, I felt this could help me show my connection to the brewery workers for Assignment 1 as part of the brief was to show my engagement with the people and their context.

 

The reason I felt the decisive moment would be important in the brewery was that it was quite a confined space. I would have to choose the right backgrounds and wait for a decisive moment or else work quickly and efficiently in finding a good composition for my photographs with the people in or outside the brewery. Henri Cartier-Bresson in my eyes was the master of the former of these two options and although I didn’t feel I would capture such charming decisive moments as he did, I could at least take the more literal sense of the phrase and press the shutter at the exact moment I felt the decisive moment was occurring. Also, I could move my feet especially seeing as I was using a prime lens to get a more decisive moment. While he worked exclusively in black and white (presumably to bring out the compositional elements, I was fairly adamant I would be working in colour. This was so the vibrancy of the brewery was evident which was the case in the times I had visited before.

 

‘Cartier-Bresson clearly saw photography containing a capability to document everyday life, where even mundane scenes can be defined through their decisive moments’ – (Errington, R. 2014) found at: http://the-artifice.com/history-within-photographic-concept/ accessed on 18/11/2016). This quote for me typified what the decisive moment stands for in my head. This concept would also be useful to me in regards to the assignment because although the brewery and its people were special to me, they wouldn’t seem special to the viewer in any way without the addition of a decisive moment for the photography. My documentary photography would be improved by the decisive moment because it was me who pressed the shutter at that particular time and so my interpretation the scene. Therefore, it would potentially show some of my engagement with my surroundings, in this case my community.

 

Another quote form the same article I found interesting: ‘photography illustrates the capability of documenting decisive moments in any scenario, due to its universal quality’ – (Errington, R. 2014) found at: http://the-artifice.com/history-within-photographic-concept/ accessed on 18/11/2016). This is in relation to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s concept of it and makes the decisive moment a powerful tool unique to photography in my eyes because it can capture a split-second unlike painting for example. I would try to utilise photography’s capabilities of the decisive moment by applying it to my local brewery in order to record moments not possible by other media. In doing so I could elevate what to others may well be everyday activity to instead offer an insight into my community and my engagement with it.

 

I had discovered the work of Lewis Hine when looking for documentary photographers. His photographs stood out to me as him having a very strong connection to the subjects, where a bond was palpable especially where eye contact with the subject was present. This was true even though most of the photographs I looked at were environmental portraits and as I envisaged taking photographs of this kind, I felt this was something I could learn from.

 

I found at: https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/hine-photos (accessed on 18/11/2016) a fascinating article by National Archives (n.d.) entitled Teaching With Documents: Photographs of Lewis Hine: Documentation of Child Labor concerning Lewis Hine’s reasoning when taking the child labor photographs and his thought process while taking them. I ascertained he realised context was crucial for his photographs to become useful documents, therefore: ‘To obtain captions for his pictures, he interviewed the children on some pretext and then scribbled his notes with his hand hidden inside his pocket.’ – (National Archives, n.d.). Also insightful for me was that ‘Hine defined a good photograph as “a reproduction of impressions made upon the photographer which he desires to repeat to others.”’ – (National Archives – n.d.). I found this insightful because the photographer’s work is then subjective rather than objective and by offering an insight into the world of the photographer’s subjects, the viewer is given an opportunity to gain an understanding of not only that world but something of the photographer too.

 

By combining both Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ and Lewis Hine’s ‘photo-interpretation’ – (‘Because [Lewis Hine] realized his photographs were subjective, he described his work as “photo-interpretation.”’ – (National Archives n.d.)), I could perhaps begin to create my decisive moments with my own style in the photos I would be taking for the brewery. Therefore I might give insight for the viewer into my interpretation of the brewery.