“Ward 64, Precinct 11, Philadelphia, Pa., 2008,” by Michael Mergen (via The Halls of Democracy: Places of Civic Responsibility - LightBox)
After combing through thousands of polling sites on Excel spreadsheets, the photographer then chose stations located in private homes or unusual businesses; his journeys have taken him to pizza parlors, living rooms, garages, funeral homes and other eccentric spots scattered across Philadelphia. His eight years of work have yielded three revealing yet non-partisan series aptly titled, Vote, Deliberate and Naturalization, which collectively seek to underscore the importance of citizen-driven governance.
These are lovely series. They convey an absurdity inherent in our civic processes: momentous decisions made under circumstances that are banal or bizarre or both. But they don’t triviliaze them. They seem to me both solemn and reservedly hopeful. Also quite lovely.
I’m always interested (and/or exasperated) when photographic questions come to my attention through non-photography-specific channels. In this case, a tweet from Annalee Newitz pointed me to a post at the blog Crates and Ribbons titled “The Kissing Sailor, or ‘The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture.’”
The post concerns the Eisenstaedt V-J day photo, which has been in the news lately because of a recent book offering evidence for George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer Friedman as the two subjects of the photo. (Quite a few people have been identified as the sailor and nurse over the years.)
The Crates and Ribbons post points out that the mainstream news coverage demonstrates (without recognizing) that the kiss in question might in contemporary terms be considered a sexual assault:
The articles even give us Greta’s own words:
It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed!
I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in this vice grip.
You dont forget this guy grabbing you.
That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.
It seems pretty clear, then, that what George had committed was sexual assault. Yet, in an amazing feat of willful blindness, none of the articles comment on this, even as they reproduce Greta’s words for us. Without a single acknowledgement of the problematic nature of the photo that her comments reveal, they continue to talk about the picture in a whimsical, reverent manner, still mesmerized by his timeless kiss. George’s actions are romanticized and glorified; it is almost as if Greta had never spoken.
For some additional context, I did a quick search, figuring that the wonderful Iconic Photos blog probably had a post about the V-J Day photo, and of course it does, including some contact sheetage
and quotation from Eisenstaedt:
I was walking through the crowds on V-J Day, looking for pictures. I noticed a sailor coming my way. He was grabbing every female he could find and kissing them all — young girls and old ladies alike. Then I noticed the nurse, standing in that enormous crowd. I focused on her, and just as I’d hoped, the sailor came along, grabbed the nurse, and bent down to kiss her. Now if this girl hadn’t been a nurse, if she’d been dressed dark clothes, I wouldn’t have had a picture. The contrast between her white dress and the sailor’s dark uniform gives the photograph its extra impact.
So, if we define a nonconsensual kiss as a sexual assault, this photo is not a charming document of romantic celebration, but a visually striking slice out of a minor crime spree. (Also, note that Eisenstaedt is both observing the sailor’s kissing progress through the crowd but “hoping” and preparing for him to get to the unsuspecting nurse.)
Reactions to the Crates and Ribbons post are about what you’d think — some folks are disenchanted with the image, some dispute the use of the term “sexual assault”, some reject the idea of applying the term across generations, and of course some fall into the “feminism is dumb” camp. The comments thread is pretty interesting reading (both for good and bad reasons, depending on the comment), and I’d recommend perusing it, especially if you’re interested in splitting hairs over what is and isn’t sexual assault.
To phrase it in a less jargon-y way, the point is that what we’re looking it is not two people enthusiastically celebrating victory and the prospect of peace, but one person forcibly celebrating on another person. This is true if Friedman is in fact the woman in the photo; it is also true just going by Eisenstaedt’s account, regardless of who the woman was. And, as @Vossbrink points out, it is clear from inspection of the contact sheet: “The photo we know is the only one where it’s not obvious she’s fighting him.”
Friedman’s own interpretation of the photograph is very interesting. There’s a transcript of a 2005 interview with her at the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project, which some of the commenters at Crates and Ribbons pointed to — it’s short and you should just read it, but I’ll excerpt some of the relevant bits. (Note: I cleaned up the formatting and fixed a couple of errors for the sake of readability.)
Patricia Redmond: When he grabbed you and gave you a kiss, what did you feel like?
Greta Friedman: I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight. I’m not sure about the kiss… it was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event. It was just an event of ‘thank god the war is over’ … it was right in front of the sign.
Patricia Redmond: Did he say anything to you when he kissed you?
Greta Friedman: No, it was an act of silence.
Patricia Redmond: What did you do the rest of the day, when you were off and celebrating?…
Greta Friedman: I went home!
Patricia Redmond: Did you think about “the kiss”…
Greta Friedman: Not until years later when I saw the picture.
Greta Friedman: …It wasn’t my choice to be kissed… (in 1945). The guy just came over and grabbed! (in 1980 for the reenactment of the kiss) I told him I didn’t want to redo that pose! We have the picture here, and it is kind of a reenactment of the pose and the sign on Time’s Square says, ‘It had to be you!’
Patricia Redmond: So Alfred Eisenstaedt has said that you two were indeed the kissing couple?
Greta Friedman: I don’t know if he really had such a great view of our faces. I think he was attracted more by the pose. It was a black and white shot, and as a photographer, he just knew that he had a good picture. It was an opportunity and that’s the job of a good photographer…to recognize a good opportunity.
Patricia Redmond: In the Frederick newspaper article, that told about the photograph and I quote: “It was an enduring symbol of the joy and relief felt by a nation at the end of the war.”
Greta Friedman: Right. Everyone was very happy; people on the street were friendly and smiled at each other. It was a day that everyone celebrated, because everybody had somebody in the war, and they were coming home. The women were happy, their boyfriends and husbands would come home. It was a wonderful gift finally, to end this war. It was a long war, and it cost a lot.
Patricia Redmond: How does it feel to be so famous?
Greta Friedman: It’s kind of fun, because it’s very accidental. Fame for just being there…being dressed right. Actually, the fame belongs to the photographer. He provided an art… I can’t call it a skill. He was an artist. I just happened to be there…and so did George.
Greta Friedman: …I think [George] was the one who made me famous, because he took the action. I was just the bystander. So, I think he deserves a lot of credit. Actually, by the photographer creating something that was very symbolic at the end of a bad period…it was a wonderful coincidence, a man in a sailor’s uniform and a woman in a white dress… and a great photographer at the right time.
I’m fascinated by how conscious and specific Friedman is in apportioning agency and intention between the parties involved, and differentiating between her experience of the kiss itself and the meaning and value of the photograph. It seems clear that her experience at that moment was sharply unpleasant but also fairly trivial and — until Friedman saw Eisenstaedt’s photograph and recognized herself — forgettable. It also seems clear that she values the symbolic worth of the photograph, which she treats as distinct from the circumstances of its creation and which she attributes entirely to happenstance plus Eisenstaedt’s ability to recognize an opportunity. (As opposed to the customary function of photographs for non-photographers — memorialization of a personally important experience.)
This is in contrast to the way Crates and Ribbons reads the photo — more or less as a transparent and instant window on the deed, the meaning of which is what matters and is under scrutiny. Eisenstaedt isn’t mentioned at all in the body of the post (although the photo is attributed and the post is tagged with his name), and there’s no speculation there about his intentions or actions before or after the photo. Just, “For so long, this photograph has come to represent that unbridled elation, capturing the hearts of war veterans and their families alike.”
And it is maybe worth thinking about how else the photographer could have proceeded, and with what results. Was Eisenstaedt aware of or concerned with the experience of the women of the sailor was grabbing? Is it reasonable (in that situation at that time) to expect that he should have been? Could he or his editors have selected a different frame from the sheet, or by framing, captioning, or other means should they have better indicated the nature of the scene? If so, would the result have been better photography? Would it have sold more or fewer magazines? And in a similar situation today, would or should a photographer be expected to do anything differently?
(Not to mention the question of what viewers can or should be expected to deduce, or suspect, or (hah) research when they view a photograph.)
Wayne Ford has an interesting post up today on Max Pam’s Ramadan in Yemen:
His latest book, or journal, Ramadan in Yemen — which is beautifully designed be Titus Nemeth — draws from a body of work made in 1993; a period marked by the countries first national election, and during what Pam describes as a ‘hot, spare and beautiful Ramadan May.’ Working exclusively in black and white, and with the square format, Pam exposed 60 rolls of medium-format film as he explored the country; translating his experiences into a series of images and diary entries. ‘What could I say about Yemen that did it justice,’ he says, as he travelled across the country, sharing the everyday lives of its people from from the capital Sanaa, through Shibam, Taizz, and Al Mukallah; and over the desert, along its coast and up into its mountain regions.
I found the photographs and the design of the pages shown in Ford’s post to be strangely compelling. Normally, travel-based documentary photography doesn’t do much for me. I have a strong (and I think reasonably well-founded) distrust of documents produced via short-term exploration of surface realities. I don’t know whether or not Pam’s travelogue defies that bias of mine — I’d have to go through the book itself to decide that. But it does do something that I know travel photography as a genre generally is supposed to do but usually fails to do in my case — it conveys a sense of the romance of travel, an air of discovery and adventure.
I’m not sure what it is that imparts that sense here. It might be Pam’s approach to black and white, which is decidedly old school. It might be his compositional style, which eschews the formality of journalism. It puts me in mind of another nice post today, by way of LPV, which quotes Robert Adams: “Only pictures that look as if they had been easily made can convincingly suggest that beauty is commonplace.” Or it might just be the Indiana Jones of it all.
It should be noted that “the Indiana Jones of it all” is probably a terrible reason to like a set of photographs. In fact, I’m not at all sure of the virtue of being convinced that beauty is commonplace, for that matter.
The PhotoBook had a post last April about the book’s publisher, Pierre Bessard, and the printing and proofing process for it.
The Photobook just put up a proper review of the book. Definitely do read it. This paragraph struck me particularly:
From his writings, the reader becomes aware of Pam’s flagrant and obnoxious violation of local customs, continuing to photograph where the cultural customs prohibit and the social customs of people who do not want to be photographed. It is not his social taboo, thus blithely continuing to photograph while creating a tear in the social fabric of which has little personal consequence to Pam. It is a crude lesson of a voyeur in pursuit to capture a forbidden prize, to obtain what is not allowed and that might reveal some mysterious secret that is cloaked away behind socially closed doors. Pam is present for only a brief time in this place, thus limited in his time to build a meaningful relationship of trust, so instead he chooses to violate a public trust and poison the social well that probably results in this societies increased wariness of the next outsider with professional camera equipment.
Interesting in relation to my ambivalence about the images — and also a bit of synchronicity with Vossbrink today.
From Roy DeCarava’s The Sound I Saw:
why the present is a crutch of
bottles drowning a derelict past
confusions that ride the future on
and plywood boxes with cast iron wheels
impersonal and impervious to everything
hot and cold
knowing a special ignorance
wealth can buy and arrogance sustain
petrified abstractions and ambivalent
to human equations that temporize and
while money makes money iron
plaster crumbles and chromium
(Note: once again, sorry for the poor reproduction quality. I still don’t have a suitable book-photographing workflow worked out.)
Roy DeCarava’s The Sound I Saw was composed in the 60’s, but not published until 2001. It consists of photographs and verse on a jazz theme. DeCarava writes, “Everything a jazzman feels, sees, hears, everything he was and is becomes the source and object of his music. It is a music purchased with dues of hardship, suffering and pain, optimism and love.” His book has this aspect about it. It is an inclusive, intimate, and comprehensive exploration of life lived in the context of the time and place and society in which it was made.
It is a kind of phenomenological document on race and class in America. By “phenomenological document,” I mean it is a record of an experience. There must be a better way to put this, but so far I cannot think of one. The value of the photographs in The Sound I Saw is not in objective disclosure of facts, but it is also not in internal exploration, or in the artistic arrangement of documentary “style” photographs to serve an interior vision. These are photographs that, more than any others I can think of, approximate a shared experience of the human gaze.
The eye is not an isolated organ, and it is not a technical instrument. My eye gives me a view that is informed by my knowledge, my experience, my personality, my feelings. The typical Western mindset is to perceive this subjective aspect of experience, which is inextricable even at the base level of sensorium, as a weakness, or at least a potential vulnerability. This assumption is always problematic, but it is an absolute land mine when it comes to understanding issues like race and class, or any other area where society is split up along divisions of power which are also divisions of perceptibility.
So, for those who do not have their own direct experience of the kinds of scene DeCarava is photographing, it is important to approach these photographs in the correct way: not just as historical documents (although many of them are), and not just as artistic works (although all of them are), but also for their truth-disclosing function as regards the subjective experience of race and class, which is not to be confused with opinion or other epistemologically defused modes of communication. There is testimony here, and the reader should be reading for it.
So, that being said, what’s the book actually like? It consists of black and white photographs interspersed with verse. The verse is a single continuous poem (and possibly a continuous sentence) about 2,000 words in length, and it appears to the viewer in chunks and fragments. No fragment stands on its own. Each extends from the last and points to the next, while also relating to the photographs it frames, and so binding the whole book together.
Similarly, the photographs are tied one to the next by composition or content — the angles of a fire escape to the angles of a quartet’s instruments, one pair of clasped hands to another, gazes intersecting across the book’s gutter, gestures, reflections, patterns of light and dark. The images and the text keep time with each other, and together flow through the stage, the street, the hallway, the home, and spiral back and on again.
DeCarava’s arsenal of technique is diverse — style, angle of view, perspective, content — all are flexible and changeable. Soft focus and motion blur are used alongside crisp, perfect detail, each advancing a different visual strategy, each serving the same overall narrative. Strongly stylized and allusive images and utterly straight documentary views support each other seamlessly. The result is organic, contiguous, encompassing work and play, family life and the public space, high and low art, and above all, music and the landscape of race and class.
The Sound I Saw is the best example I have encountered of a photographic sequence. Most sequences fail at either establishing solid photo-to-photo connections, or at producing a satisfying unified work in the sequence as a whole. And text, when provided, usually either serves to cover some gap in the photos’ ability to depict and explain, or else establishes a tenuous bridge between the photographs and some theoretical justification for the sequence — which is more often than not absurd, patronizing, or pandering. The Sound I Saw avoids all these traps.
Part of the reason it is able to do so is that, as I mentioned, it presents to the viewer a record of experience. When looking at the photos that show work, and reading the text that describes work, one feels work — its cost in fatigue, the weight of its necessity, its exertion, its sweat. This experience of work is contiguous across manual labor and the work of musicians performing on stage. DeCarava pays the same kind and degree of attention to the laborer’s tool and the musician’s instrument. And sweat — in The Sound I Saw, sweat takes on a spiritual or religious dimension, almost like a communion:
to rest and drop the two shovels
must use back to back
and in his place of something
good enough to breathe bittersweet
and the drag gigs that never end
(DeCarava’s depictions of play are equally profound, but I think less singular. Many photographers have done an excellent job of recording children at play, adults caught up in dance, etc. It is less common to see work presented in a way that cuts past our tendency to objectify and to distance ourselves from our experiences of strain and pain.)
Corollary to work is an awareness of the class and racial context in which work takes place, which DeCarava conveys in images of subtle severity. The hand of a man glimpsed in the backseat of a car is minimal, indeed not far from the very edge of recognizability, but elegant and eloquent in the reality it expresses, of the distance between the rich and the rest of us. Equally eloquent are the pale faces of well-dressed men who avoid the camera’s gaze — and the photographer’s gaze, and all that implies.
These things are part of what builds the experience of race into the photographs themselves, and invites the viewer to share in the seeing and the being seen of being a black man in the 60’s. Which is very different from just providing a record of a race-related event or personage, but is no less a true document.
DeCarava’s depictions of the places in which people live and work are just as elegantly and profoundly made. It is difficult to strike a balance between clearly and directly portraying the ruinous situations in which poor people often live and respecting the reality and specificity and dignity of the lives they live. DeCarava does this better than pretty much anyone else. (cf. The Ruinpornomicon)
He also finds the balance between an honest record of the alienation, loathing, and oppression that come with a racist society, and the desire for a more equitable future (“…the hope / light hands in trains will be / hands / dark faces on buses just / faces…”) and also images of people in the present who come together across the color line. In accounting for race — especially race in the 60’s, although unfortunately it is not so different today — it is very easy to wind up with a partial narrative — one defined by anger and bitterness, or by hope. It is harder to simultaneously affirm the reality of both, which is what DeCarava does.
The Sound I Saw is a beautiful and moving and important book. It is a book that I think everyone in America should be expected to read. Certainly it is a book that should be much more prominent than it is within the discourse of documentary and street photography. I find it especially bothersome that we give so much attention to The Americans (a book that is, by comparison, a travelogue: a skimming of the surface of American life) when we could be talking about this instead.
It may not be in print (grr), but you may be able to find it on the remainder table of your local bookstore (grr), and you can certainly find it used online. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you do so.
From Being Gay in Uganda, by Tadej Žnidarčič. Via Daylight Magazine.
Before you read our post, I recommend reading the interview at Daylight — it is informative, insightful, and direct. Discussions of work like this often get bogged down either in heavy theory or in a whole-hearted devotion to the documentary value that takes the nature of the photographs and the choices that shaped them as a given; neither is the case here.
In Being Gay in Uganda, Žnidarčič photographs gays and lesbians in Uganda. All of the photographs are posed in the same way, with the subjects facing away from the camera and toward walls, visible from around mid-thigh or knee up.
The photographer explains the choice of posing:
All the people I talked to wanted to remain anonymous so I portrayed them without compromising their safety. I didn’t want to ‘reduce’ them to only their feet, hands or clothing, or hide their faces in one way or another. In this case, I think showing only their hands or clothing wouldn’t say much about them and the situation they face every day. Since we see the ‘complete’ person, but the person is not facing us, the question arises: why can’t they show their face? Why can’t they face us? That’s what I would like people to think about when they see these images.
Another element is that they stand in front of ugly, crumbling walls. These walls symbolize the obstacles they face and their exclusion from society. That, and since the bill proposes the death penalty for homosexuals, a wall is something people get executed in front of. As a series, the portraits work as a group—unified by exact framing—in which each person is an individual, with his or her own posture, clothing, and accessories.
It is an interesting set of choices, addressing the strictly practical need to preserve subjects’ safety, the portraitist’s need to depict whole persons, rather than just parts that elude to a person, and also a symbolic function that the casual viewer might miss: the background as place of execution. (I confess, I did not initially make this connection when viewing the images.)
There are other consequences for these choices, which may or may not also be intended. The posing and framing are profoundly isolating, for example; the subject is cut off from the viewer by the pose and from the context by the framing. This is consistent with what the photographer is trying to communicate about the place of the homosexual in Uganda, but it does not hint at personal bonds, social networks, and organizations within the gay community (which exist and are referenced repeatedly in the interview); each subject stands alone.
I think this approach encourages a more typological and less personal viewing. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but I wonder if the choice to represent one person against each wall, rather than two or several, was conscious and what governed it.
Some photographs are hard to read, and this is one of them. I believe this is principally, although not solely, a consequence of its jarring and strange composition. Elements appear discrete, unrelated, brought together in an arbitrary fashion. The lines dividing the elements are extremely sharp, and they all have discrete textures, and all are exposed to the light in different ways. The gazes of the subjects are in different directions, and the subjects do not appear to be telegraphing any awareness of one another with their body language.
The net effect of these facts is not peculiar to contemporary photography, but it is peculiar to contemporary viewers of photography: this image looks photoshopped.
I am not suggesting it is photoshopped, mind you — only pointing out that it shares a number of features with blatant photoshop jobs — and not just any digital composites, but the sort of heavy-handed combination that is almost always used for purposes of parody. Indeed, when I look at the head of the man in the left corner, I cannot help but think of it rising from behind the wall in the manner of a Terry Gilliam animation. The result is surreal, jarring, and disconcerting. And, after some deliberation, I think it is also extremely effective.
Disconcertingly, this pseudo-artificiality predisposes me to view this photograph as funny. Clearly it is not, although it does have about it some bitter amusement mixed in with strong moral indignation, which is perhaps hinted at in the text provided:
Only partially exposing her face, Momo Juma begs from men as they leave Friday morning prayers at Jamay Mosque in Khoja Bahauddin in northern Afghanistan. Internally-displaced women have little opportunity to work and simply hope for men’s generosity in the war-ravaged country. Afghanistan is an oppressive place for women, especially those who do not have menfolk to support and protect them. I was once told while traveling there that a woman who does not cover her face in public is like a prostitute offering herself to men. As a woman, and a non-Muslim, I was as good as a dog in the eyes of Afghan men. I wanted to interview Momo Juma, but my translator, a male, thought it would not be respectful for him to speak with her. We were stuck in the country’s logic-defying contradictions.
This note of bitter amusement, while not always the dominant theme in the photographs in this series, is a thread that runs through all of them and ties them together and holds them up. It gives them a coherence and a bite that most contemporary documentary sequences lack. It also gives them a strongly personal quality, which telegraphs the photographer’s presence as a perceiving, thinking, judging agent in the landscape, which I find by turns refreshing and off-putting.
Meyer’s views on the war — and its political and economic ramifications, and its gendered consequences — are clearly very strong; if that wasn’t apparent from the photographs themselves, it would be spelled out rather bluntly in the text slides that end the series.
I’m not sure how I feel about those slides…on the one hand, I don’t really object to or disagree with what they say; on the other hand, something about their role in the series bothers me. Perhaps it is that they appear at the end as a sort of conclusion to an argument, the avowed result of a process of photographic reasoning. I do not think photographs really work that way; they are not a substitute for explanation, evidence, or argument. Or perhaps it is that they feel like the answer key to a test, as opposed to a tool for enabling the viewer to better understand what they are seeing.
I’d be interested in any thoughts you may have on this photographer — please, let me know in the comments section. Also, if anyone has any thoughts on why this series is sepia-toned, and what influence that toning either has or is intended to have on the viewer, I’d be interested; I cannot quite make heads or tails of it.
“Potato Processing Plant, WA 2007,” by Christopher Churchill. From the series, American Faith.
I found this series via Conscientious. It’s quite impressive — both for its photography, most of which is excellent, and for its very successful incorporation of audio alongside the images.
Multimedia presentations are of course quite common, and growing more so especially as photographers perceive themselves to be competing for attention with video content. I usually find such inclusion of audio alongside photographs to be at best distracting, and at worst to significantly undermine the impact of the photography.
This is one of the few really notable exceptions. The short segments of spiritual music and interviews are well-edited, and despite being straightforward in content, seem to share a certain allusive quality with Churchill’s photographs, which are very straight in style and mostly head-on in composition but which — when taken as a sequence — seem to be gently circumnavigating the question of faith rather than confronting it.
I come away from it feeling that I understand a little more, instead of knowing a little more, which I think is a hallmark of the best contemporary documentary photography. (After all, most Americans today can choose to know as much or as little about each other as they like, with fairly minimal effort.)
I find the subject matter particularly appealing, since religion has always been a source of fascination for me. And I think Churchill’s approach to it, which is very diverse without having anything of platitude or generalization about it, is quite fitting to the subject.
But at the same time, because it is oriented toward the cultural experience of religion in America, as opposed to the theological or sociological aspects of faith, I think it should appeal to anyone with a photographic interest in America and Americana.
“Mexico, 1934,” by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Via O SÉCULO PRODIGIOSO.
I stopped by SFMOMA last night to see Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century and Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870. I’ll follow up on “Exposed” later, but I wanted to jot down some of my thoughts on Bresson now.
The main thing on my mind as I walked through the exhibit was how very, very diverse Bresson’s body of work is. It would be easy to edit and sequence the photographs on display five or ten different ways to make Bresson’s work appear profoundly similar to five or ten entirely different photographers.
The second thing — which, to some extent, is an extension of the first — was a persistent ambivalence in regard to the work I was seeing.
Previously, I would have said that I agreed with Robert Frank’s statement that Bresson “traveled all over the goddamned world, and you never felt that he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it, or just the composition.” (Note: I wouldn’t necessarily consider that a condemnation.) But now I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that.
With Frank, the social criticism always floats to the surface, and Frank’s humor and artistry work in harmonious subordination to it. (Note: I wouldn’t necessarily consider that praise.)
With Bresson, it is hard to tell sometimes whether a subject is supposed to have mainly social/documentarian content, mainly humorous content, or mainly formal/abstract content. And I definitely do not think the three are working in balance or harmony, as they do in the work of, say, Roy DeCarava.
I think that in Bresson’s best photographs, one of these qualities is in ascendence at the cost of the others, while in other photographs (like the one above) the three are stuck in an uneasy or discordant association. And I think that makes those photographs — while not Bresson’s best — the ones that come closest to typifying his work as whole, and thus illustrating (and perhaps excusing) my mixed feelings regarding him.
Again, I don’t think this is necessarily a condemnation. It certainly doesn’t make Bresson’s photography uninteresting or unimportant, and if I drew that conclusion from my observations here, I would be perilously close to asserting consistency as a measure of worth in photography, which would be an awful idea. But I do find it helpful in understanding how I respond to his photography.
Apart from working that out, the main area of interest for me in the exhibit was the ability to examine both old prints (made by Bresson in a lower-contrast style typical of the 1930’s) and later prints (made by expert printers in the higher-contrast style that modern viewers generally expect). As you might expect if you read my post on albumen landscape prints, I tended to gravitate toward the lower contrast prints.
We’ve posted previously on work we found via Verve Photo. It’s a great blog, and anyone who enjoys documentary photography should certainly be following it.
Every now and again, though, they post what strikes me as a straight-up bad photograph, which is the case here. What purpose does this awkward composition serve? Why the heavy-handed use of what is presumably either a lensbaby or digital emulation of a lensbaby? In fact, why place the woman in the foreground out of focus at all?
Based on the commentary McElroy provided to Verve, I don’t see how these choices serve the story. Indeed, quite the contrary. Consider this:
For the women in India’s rural area’s getting a bucket of drinking water is a daily struggle in which most cases women walk an average of 2.5 kms to reach a source of water that is often contaminated with high levels of fluoride or is to saline to drink.
Nothing about the photograph conveys a sense of distance. Because of the perspective, camera position, and framing, the women seem to be coming from nowhere and going to nowhere — a problem that is magnified by the way in which the defocused areas separate them from their context.
Of course, it’s quite likely that McElroy has other photographs which establish the situation more clearly, and it’s also possible that he had good reasons for approaching this photograph in the way he did — but certainly, the combination of this photograph with this narrative does not work.
Of course, we are talking about photojournalism, and in that case, there is an extent to which one can say, “It does not matter if the photograph is good, so long as it is a photograph of something which is sufficiently newsworthy.”
I think that’s a reasonable stance to take, and I think it excuses a wide range of photographic sins, but it doesn’t cover a case where the photographer appears to going out of his way to eschew simple reportage in favor of what can only be described as an “artistic” or “creative” approach.
I took a look at McElroy’s site, and it’s something of a mixed bag. There are a handful of photographs with the same sort of lensbaby effects, which mostly strike me as annoying. The portraits strike me as being neither technically very impressive nor very interesting as portraits. But probably half or two thirds are simply straight documentary photographs, and some of those are quite good.
I wonder whether photographs like this one have been added to McElroy’s portfolio because a market exists now specifically for this kind of nonsense, even within a journalistic context. I sure hope not, but it’s entirely possible that that’s the case.
Maisie Crow’s “Love Me” is a series depicting a teenager living in Southeast Ohio. It is undeniably intimate and gripping, but there is something about it that makes me uneasy. (Something other than the baseline unease that can be expected whenever one is viewing depictions of people who experience poverty-induced despair.)
I think partly it’s to do with the way the photographs are captioned; there is a mix of matter-of-fact description, trite socio-economic commentary (“As she comes of age in this environment, Autumn struggles to find her way,”), and terse, sinister fragments, such as, “What? I didn’t hurt him,” below a photograph of the girl pulling a small dog off the ground by the leash, or “Autumn sits between a relative’s legs.” These comments seem to be leading the viewer in different directions, to different judgments. Together, do they suggest a complex understanding of the subject, or just a confused one?
I’m also not sure what to make of the photographic style Crow employs. The presence of the photographer in the scenes seems always half-acknowledged; it feels like the subjects were told not to look at the camera the moment before each release of the shutter. The camera often appears to be in the corner of Autumn’s eye.
As a result, the “documentary” feeling — of having an interloper’s perspective — is very strong. I’m not sure whether the result is more honest or more dishonest because of that.
I should make clear that I’m not sure that these things which make me uneasy about “Love Me” add up to criticism of the work or not. I wish I knew more about the work, and more about the people involved — because I have the feeling that I’m missing the piece that would enable me to know where I stand relative to these photographs.