Category Archives: Part 1 The photograph as document

Exercise: The Real and the Digital

Read the section entitled ‘The real and the Digital’ in Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition). Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 73 – 75.

Does digital technology change how we see photography as truth? Consider both sides of the argument and make some notes in your learning log.

Photography from its inception has always involved manipulation of sorts, whether it is by excluding something from the frame, changing the angle of point of view, dodging and burning in the wet darkroom, double exposures, layering negatives on top of each other to create a print or applying enhancements in Photoshop as can be seen in this article by the New York Daily News and in Photo Tampering throughout History.

Truth is defined in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary as the true facts about something, rather than the things that have been invented or guessed; the quality or state of being based on fact‘.

Martin Lister states in Photography: A Critical Introduction (p. 316) that a deep concern about the value of photographic truth developed in the 1990’s when the first digital cameras came on to the market. Some of the issues that arose revolved around the differences between chemical and digital photography and the simulation of photographic images by computer generated images. Fred Ritchen, professor at New York University, argued that there would be a radical increase in the manipulation of photographic images with the advent of the digital camera. I think this has proven to be true as more hobbyists have access to software such as Photoshop, Gimp and not to mention the hundreds of apps that are out there like Instagram. But has this affected the way we see the truth?

I believe it has.  The general public has become very aware of photographic manipulation thanks to the fashion industry where models’ cellulite, fine lines and moles are cloned away or airbrushed, their bodies are liquified to make them slimmer. Such perfection really does not exist in real life, so in a sense we almost expect the manipulation when we look at fashion photography. What is a little more difficult for the public to discern are the manipulated documentary, reportage and photojournalistic images. This is where we encounter ethical lines.

But first we should differentiate between ‘processing’ and ‘manipulation’. According to David Campbell (1) every digital image ever made has been processed. A RAW file consists solely of data: 1’s and 0’s. In order to be able to ‘see’ the data the file has to be processed (and this occurs in camera) and  we then see the image on the back of our camera in JPEG format, and we haven’t even come close to a computer or Photoshop software yet. This type of processing is acceptable and obviously very necessary.

Manipulation, however, involves the moving of pixels i.e. cloning out the pole behind someone’s head, duplicating portions of an image to cover something up, substituting something from another photo in order to create a better composition and so on.  It is here where ethics come into play.  Just how far should documentary and journalist photographers be allowed to go in processing their images in the digital darkroom?  How far can they push the limits before public trust is lost? Various agencies have set up boundary guidelines regarding these issues: the National Press Photographers Association’s Code of Ethics, which I referenced in detail in my Eyewitnesses posting, Associated Press, Reuter’s, World Press Photo, Getty Images – details of which can be seen in the Processing the News: Retouching in Photojournalism article.

But as Derrick Price (2) states:

Roland Barthes’ influential conception of the nature of the photograph, is that it is the result of an event in the world, evidence of the passing of a moment of time that once was and is no more, which left a kind of trace of the event on the photograph.

Photography: A Critical Introduction (p. 74)

It is this trace that creates the connection to the ‘real’.  These photographs act as indexical signs (signs which can be inferred). It is these signs that subconsciously translate the image world for us. If there is a radical change in the photograph by means of manipulation, the viewer will be distrustful, or wary.

I think this explains the reaction I had when viewing Angela Grossman’s Models of Resistance exhibition. Her body of work was a series of collages depicting gender identity. Clearly this type of work is not meant to be documentary, but falls totally into the ‘art’ category. Obviously a distortion of the truth was taking place, but because the images fell into this category, I really didn’t care whether they were truthful or not.  If we apply the Oxford Advanced Learner’s definition of truth as stated above to this body of work, it is clear that it is ‘invented’.

Technology has progressed so far that images can be totally created from scratch on a computer and are really quite hard to distinguish with the naked eye from a real photograph, if possible, making the distinction between the ‘real’ and the ‘digital’ even more difficult. The borders between photography and digital art have become very blurred indeed. Personally I don’t regard computer generated digital art as photography. I think for me the deciding criteria is that the shutter button has to be pressed and a viewfinder has to be involved somewhere in the process. A photo collage or montage would be an example of this. In the making of a collage or montage the shutter would have been pressed at least once in the making of the composite, most probably during the making of a photograph which was used in the actual collage or montage.

Technology is always changing and who knows how photographs will be made in fifty or one hundred years time. Whatever new method evolves, I believe we will still be asking the same question and coming up with similar answers because at the end of the day truth is not an absolute concrete concept even though we would like it to be. It is subjective, fluid, depending on one’s stance, point of view, cultural background and beliefs.

Reference List

(1) Alexander, Scott (2014). Processing the News: Retouching in Photojournalism [online]. American Photo. Available from: http://www.americanphotomag.com/processing-news-retouching-photojournalism [Accessed 18 June, 2015]

Historic Photos that have been altered [online] New York Daily News. Available from: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/historic-photos-altered-gallery-1.1092420 [Accessed 19 June, 2015]

Lister, Martin. (2009) ‘Photography in the age of electronic imaging.’ in Photography: A Critical Introduction (2nd edition) ed. by Wells, L. New York, Routledge.

Photo tampering throughout history [online]. Four and Six. Available from: http://www.fourandsix.com/photo-tampering-history/ [Accessed 19 June, 2015]

(2) Price, Derrick. (2009) ‘Surveyors and Surveyed.’ in Photography: A Critical Introduction (2nd edition) ed. by Wells, L. New York, Routledge, 74 – 75

Truth. Oxford Dictionaries [online]. Available from: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/learner/truth [Accessed 18 June, 2015]

Bibliography

Brandon, Matt (2012) Photography: What’s real, what’s not and does it matter? [online] The Digital Trekker. Available from: http://thedigitaltrekker.com/2012/04/photography-whats-real-whats-not-and-does-it-matter/ [Accessed 18 June, 2015]

Farid, Hany (n.d.) Digital Doctoring: How to tell the real from the fake [online]. Available from: http://www.cs.dartmouth.edu/farid/downloads/publications/significance06.pdf [Accessed 18 June, 2015]

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Planning for Assignment 1

One thing I learnt from TAOP is to keep track of all my ideas that crop up. So I have become a little more structured in this regard and have a little notebook, small enough to fit in my handbag, which I keep with me and where ideas for assignments, exercises or random inspirations can be jotted down. This has been quite beneficial as I’ve come up with a few ideas and after jotting them down, I’ve begun to flesh them out.

I’m going to do the two sides of Capilano Road in North Vancouver. On the upper part of the 6.8 km road is an upper middle class suburb, surrounded by a greenbelt, lake and mountain. At the bottom of this road is an Indian reservation squeezed in between a bridge and industrial area.

Capilano Road
Map of Capilano Road

There are a few themes buzzing around in my head at the moment, the majority of them have overlapping tendencies which could apply to this project, like affluence/ marginalized society, difference in leisure activities, habitation – all are really interlinked here, but I do know that I will not be going down the racism route. I’ll see where my lens leads me.

My tutor has suggested looking at Bruce Davidson (110th Street), Gary Winogrand, Jacob Holdt (American Pictures), Ed Rushca (On the Sunset Strip) for some inspiration and I had a very quick look at these suggestions during my lunch hour today and feel rather drawn to the way Ed Rushca depicted the Sunset Strip. I think subconsciously I had that type of approach in mind so I’m quite pleased with that. My work is leaning more towards a landscape documentary approach than that of portraiture documentary. Now for the research …

Exercise: The Manipulated Image

For this exercise we are asked to create a composite image which appears to be a documentary photograph, but isn’t.

I have just taken two photographs for this exercise, both taken during my various shoots while doing assignment 5 for The Art of Photography. For this exercise I mainly used the quick selection tool to select the man on his bike, created a separate layer and copied the selection to the new layer. I then used the transform tool to scale the figure to what I think is the correct size. The layers were then merged and exported in jpg format.

Manipulated image
Fig 1 Manipulated image

The two original images are:

Man on bike
Fig 2 Man on reclining bike
The drawbridge at Finn Slough
Fig 3 The drawbridge at Finn Slough

Exercise: Sarah Pickering

Look at some more images from Sarah Pickering’s series, Public Order on her website.

  • How do Pickering’s images make you feel?
  • Is Public Order an effective use of documentary or is it misleading?

Just as with Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murders, I find that Pickering’s photographs in her Public Order series evoke a sense of uneasiness in me. The scenes in the photos are off-kilter, in some of the images almost sterile. No human activity is present at all. Windows are boarded up and eerily the traffic light is devoid of any colour signal – there are just three black holes visible. In other photographs debris litters the street, burnt out cars form barricades across streets and shopping trolleys and car tyres block the entrance to a road. This sign of past activity (or is it a future activity – it is up to the viewer to decide) juxtaposes with those images which are more sterile, with deserted clean streets and boarded up windows. There is a surreal sense in at the photograph entitled Semi-Detached 2004 as the viewer looks through the open door of the house only to see a grassy verge in the distance. As we look deeper into the images, more layers are peeled away. We notice the sooty evidence of fires against walls, a burnt out phone booth, and false wall facades. We then realise that we are looking at something completely different to what we originally imagined. The scene is staged, in a similar fashion to a Hollywood movie set of a little town in the Wild West.

Although Pickering’s work can be construed as being misleading, I don’t believe it is. What she focuses on are simulations. In her Public Order series she is documenting a place where police undergo their riot training. The set is a specifically built little village for the sole purpose of training police officers in how to deal with various riot scenarios. Her other bodies of work, Explosion and Fire Scene also deal with simulations. The balance she achieves between fake and real is very fine. She shoots after practices have taken place so she is showing the viewer the aftermath. As Pickering states on the Lannan Foundation website:

My work explores the idea of imagined threat and response, and looks at fear and planning for the unexpected, merging fact and fiction, fantasy and reality.

Sarah Pickering and Susan Bright: Introduction and Public Order series 1/5

References

Pickering, Sarah (online) Available from: http://www.sarahpickering.co.uk/Works/Pulic-Order/workpg-01.html [Accessed 9 June 2015]

Sarah Pickering and Susan Bright: Introduction and Public Order Series 1/5 [online]. Aperture Foundation.  25/05/2010. 16 mins 8 secs. Available from: https://vimeo.com/11904198 (accessed 9 June, 2015)

Sarah Pickering: Explosions, Fires, and Public Order Lannan Foundation. Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College, Chicago. Available from: http://www.lannan.org/art/art-grants/sarah-pickering-explosions-fires-and-public-order1/ [Accessed 9 June, 2015]

Research Point – Documentary as Art

For this research point we are asked to look at Paul Seawright’s work, Sectarian Murders which were made in 1988.

How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art?

Seawright’s work revolves around visiting sites around Belfast where sectarian murders took place in the 1970’s. The text under each photograph stems from actual newspaper captions about each attack where innocent people lost their lives because of their religious persuasion. However, any mention of religion was removed from the texts. I don’t believe this body of work is something that would fall under the ‘late photography’ category as Seawright photographed these locations about fifteen years after the incidents took place. David Campany describes late photography as ‘not so much the trace of an event as the trace of the trace of an event.’ In this case ‘the trace of the trace of the event’ has long since vanished.

This body of work makes me feel very uneasy.  The photographs – all landscapes – seem to be taken in locations that are fairly remote. Only two photographs feature some houses, but they are in the far distance and similarly only two feature people. The lighting ranges from moody and heavily overcast to very bright and saturated, back to overcast and dark and ending with bright colours again. This pacing of the different lighting conditions helps to create an ambiguity that runs central to this body of work. It also creates a sense of expectancy.

The photographer has taken quite a subjective point of view with this body of work as it almost feels as if he is lurking in each photograph. In the first one it feels as if he is hiding behind something close to the caravan. In the second he is down flat in the grass; in the third he is crouching on the roundabout watching the man and boy at the swings; in the fourth he is observing someone from among the bushes; in the fifth he has crept up to the dump at nightfall and in the final image he is at the top of the slide. The viewer is thus also drawn into the frame in a similar fashion.

All the subjects in the photographs are just off centre which reinforces the idea of ‘something is not right’. When we look at the text, devoid of any religious references, we conclude that these are various crime scenes. Without knowing the context, they could be photographs and stories of almost any place in the world, after all crime is something that is understood universally. By stripping the religious context from the captions and depoliticizing the images, I think Seawright has created more of an immediacy with this body of work. Not too many non-British people can relate to the religious war that happened in Northern Ireland. It was something terrible that “happened across the pond” or “in another country”. In a way it is quite similar to the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. We see it on TV, acknowledge the atrocities and give thanks that we are not in that situation.  We have become desensitized by all the images of dead bodies that we see on the news or in movies. By removing the context from the captions, Seawright has found a way to engage the viewer more directly. He has provided the space where the viewer can imagine the violence taking place without witnessing the horror of the murdering of innocent people, thereby taking more of a forensic approach.

Unlike the journalistic documentary photograph that one finds in a newspaper or magazine that require a minimal response from the viewer, Seawright’s work requires a bit more work. Instead of presenting the viewer with a photograph of a dead body (documentary style) which is read very quickly, he presents the viewer with scenes where dead bodies once were. The viewer then has to “work the scene” to uncover the various layers of meaning.

What is the core of his argument? Do you agree with him?

The core argument with his work lies in the fact that he tries to create work that has some ambiguity, but not too much otherwise the work would be meaningless. On the other side of the coin the work should not be too explicit either because then it borders on being journalistic. Good photographic art gives up its meaning slowly and engages and draws the viewer in, encouraging the viewer to create his/her own meaning to the work.

If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning?

Fundamentally I don’t believe the meaning does change. As the documentary photograph is meant to be read and understood quickly, its interpretation must be grasped almost instantaneously and be more explicit. The art documentary photograph might contain the same meaning, but it will be layered differently, thereby allowing for a variety of deductions or connotations to be drawn by the viewer, going in a more round about way to come to the same meaning. The art documentary photograph will probably generate more questions.

I came across a lecture by Paul Seawright on fellow student, Steve Middlehurst’s blog (thanks Steve) in which Seawright explains in more detail aspects of his work, reading images and constructing meaning in images.

References

Campany, David, (2003). Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’. [online] Available from: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ [Accessed 17 April, 2015]

Catalyst: Paul Seawright (online). Imperial War Museums. 1 min 59 secs. Available from: https://vimeo.com/76940827 (Accessed 8 June, 2015)

Seawright, Paul (2010). Voice Our Concern. Dir. Joe Lee. Irish Museum of Modern Art and Amnesty International Ireland. 32 mins 40 secs. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHT0gtbrV4s (Accessed 8 June 2015).

Bibliography

Bull, Stephen (2010). Photography. Oxon: Routledge

Exercise: Street Photography

Find a street that particularly interests you – it may be local or further afield. Shoot 30 colour images and 30 black and white images in a street photography style.

In your learning log, comment on the differences between the two formats.

What difference does colour make? Which set do you prefer and why?

I feel like I’m spinning my wheels on this exercise as I have not been able to get out and explore the streets as I would like. I have knee surgery looming on the horizon and it has been rather painful to walk long stretches. So I’m going to come back to this exercise periodically and add to it until I have the required number of images.

Black & White

Stripping colour from a photo removes a bit of reality from the image. We do not normally see in black and white so the photograph becomes more abstract. With a black and white photograph we concentrate more on light, textures, lines and form.  The distraction that colour can lend a photograph is removed. Some would say black and white images are more artistic in nature.

Black-White 01

Black-White 02

Black-White 03

Black-White 04

Black-White 05

Black-White 06

Black-White 07

Black-White 08

Black-White 09

Black-White 10

Colour

Colour brings emotion and reality to the photograph. Colour is symbolic: each colour is said to have its own significance, which in turns gives way to different expressions. It is also immediate, something we know and can relate to on various levels.

Colour 01

Colour 02

Colour 03

Colour-05(2)

Colour-06

Colour-07

Colour 08

Colour 09

Colour 10

Colour 11

Colour 12

 

Bibliography

Elliott, E.C., 1958. On the Understanding of Color in Painting. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 16(4), pp. 453–470.

Research Point – Colour and the Street

Do some research into contemporary street photography. Helen Levitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Paul Graham, Joel Sternfeld and Martin Parr are some good names to start with, but you may be able to find further examples for yourself.

I decided to first have a look at some of the Masters of street photography, namely Joel Meyerowitz, Helen Levitt, Joel Sternfeld and Martin Parr.  I then looked at a few contemporary street photographers: Nils Jorgensen, Todd Gross and Matt Stuart. Some examples of their work is listed below.

What differences does colour make to a genre that traditionally was predominantly black and white?

Although these photographers all started off shooting in black and white they now prefer to shoot in colour. Black and white represents an abstract form. The human eye does not see in black and white. Colour describes more than black in white as it conveys emotion, feelings, radiance and sensation to the images. Colour is representative of real life. A photograph of a woman in a red dress in black and white is just a photograph of a woman in a dress, but in colour the red dress can convey sexiness, lust and passion. Certain colours in images can trigger memories of past years which would not be possible in black and white. Colour also lends spontaneity to images. If one compares two of Helen Levitt’s photographs of children playing in street, we can clearly see that the colour photo conveys a sense of spontaneity and fun while the black and white photo just concentrates on the shapes.

Can you spot the shift away from the influence of surrealism (as in Cartier-Bresson’s work)?

Surrealism is defined in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary as ‘a 20th-century movement in art and literature that tries to express what is in the subconscious mind by showing objects and events as seen in dreams’.  According to Liz Wells (2009, p. 282) this is an oversimplification of the artists’ intents. The aim of Surrealism is ‘to disorient the spectator; to push towards the destruction of conventional ways of seeing; and to challenge rationalist frameworks.’  Early surrealist photographers such as Man Ray and Maurice Tabard use methods such as montage, double exposure, rotation, distortion and solarization to disorient the viewer and to achieve a sense of dreamlikness. According to The Art Story website, Surrealism began in 1924 and ended in 1966. Looking at Cartier-Bresson’s work featured on the Magnum website it would seem that there was a shift away from surrealism after World War II although I can’t be certain of this. Notwithstanding, I do think surrealism is still quite prevalent today. A short lecture on surrealism in photography can be seen below.

How is irony used to comment on British-ness or American values?

Dr Biljana Scott in her paper entitled ‘Picturing Irony: the subversive power of photography’ states that there are two kinds of irony that can be encountered in photography. The easiest one to spot or read is the word based visual irony.  One example of this is can be seen in two American FSA photographers’ work. In Margaret Bourke-White’s series of ads for the ‘American Way of Life the photograph shows a huge billboard featuring a car and the typical American family of four together with their driving in their car. Text on the right side of the billboard states that ‘there’s no way like the American way’, and the title text at the top of the billboard states ‘world’s highest standard of living’, while beneath the large billboard is a long queue of black Americans standing in an unemployment line. The irony in this photo depends on the juxtapositioning of the white-black social classes and also the have’s and have-not’s. Similar statements can be made for Dorothea Lange’s ‘Toward Los Angeles, California’. The two men traveling on foot are urged to try the train next so that they can relax. Obviously they do not have money for the train.

Toward Los Angeles, California  by Dorothea Lange
Toward Los Angeles, California by Dorothea Lange

Scott lists some of the defining properties of irony as:

  • a dual perspective, one which reveals the dominant representation, while the other offers a subversive alternative
  • an ideological component: which sets two orders of reality and associated belief systems into conflict with each other
  • a dissembling component, or at least an element of differential awareness, between the ironist-cum-audience and the unwitting victim of irony
  • an incongruity, which alerts the viewer to either the intention or the potential for irony.

The other type of irony Scott references is the “Echoic Mention Theory of Irony”. This is a more subtle form of irony which employs specific criteria to evaluate the presence of irony. This type of irony involves the ‘mention’ rather than the outright ‘use’ of the proposition. It also involves a critical attitude. An example that Scott cites of the echoic mention irony is Robert Doisneau’s Rue Jacques Pervert, Paris 1955 photograph. She states:

… an arrogant looking man in hat, tie and pinstripe suit, cigarette in mouth, dog at his heals, stands in front of a shop. Judging from the awning, the shop is called ‘Merode’, but because the man’s head obscures the letter ‘O’ from the name on the shop front, the remaining letters spell out ‘merde’ (‘shit’ in French). Doisneau uses this coincidence in order to pass an ironical judgment on the man: he may think he’s hot, but we see him in another light, and unbeknown to him, he has been labelled as such. In the terms of echoic mention theory, the man’s body language is a genuine statement about himself (use). This same body language is signalled as a pose (mention) by the photographer, whose critical (echoic) attitude is reflected in the text of the shop name.

So it is fairly clear that where words are involved with images, it is easier to detect the irony in the visual message. Where the image is wordless the image must allude to a common understanding or view, but knock it flat at the same time.

Todd Gross makes use of signs in his photographs to convey irony to illustrate the much sort after New York Life as well as cultural hand signs and street signs to convey a sense of arrogance. American Richard Bram plays on politics, engaging in our knowledge of the Iraq war to convey irony in this photograph of an American soldier crouching behind an art installation which is in front of a middle-eastern food truck selling halaal food. He also plays on patriotism in this photograph of a girl sleeping on the street. British photographer, Matt Stuart uses playfulness and colour to draw attention to lawlessness and status symbols and of course, British photographer, Martin Parr uses irony to poke fun at tourists and the way they behave when on holiday.

Joel Meyerowitz

http://www.in-public.com/JoelMeyerowitz/image/1188

http://www.in-public.com/JoelMeyerowitz/image/1190

http://www.in-public.com/JoelMeyerowitz/image/1200

http://www.in-public.com/JoelMeyerowitz/image/1199

Helen Levitt

https://www.lensculture.com/articles/helen-levitt-helen-levitt-new-york-streets-1938-to-1990s#slide-8

https://www.lensculture.com/articles/helen-levitt-helen-levitt-new-york-streets-1938-to-1990s#slide-9

Joel Sternfeld

http://www.luhringaugustine.com/artists/joel-sternfeld#/images/1/

http://www.luhringaugustine.com/artists/joel-sternfeld#/images/11/

Martin Parr

http://www.martinparr.com/recent-work/

Nils Jorgensen

http://www.in-public.com/NilsJorgensen/image/2439

http://www.in-public.com/NilsJorgensen/image/2153

http://www.in-public.com/NilsJorgensen/image/2151

http://www.in-public.com/NilsJorgensen/image/2162

Todd Gross

http://www.in-public.com/ToddGross/image/4273

http://www.in-public.com/ToddGross/image/4275

http://www.in-public.com/ToddGross/image/4278

Matt Stuart

http://www.in-public.com/MattStuart/image/4247

http://www.in-public.com/MattStuart/image/3384

http://www.in-public.com/MattStuart/image/3387

Richard Bram

http://www.in-public.com/RichardBram/image/3964

References

Blake Gopnik on Art, (2011)  (online) Available from: http://blakegopnik.com/post/8870502454 [Accessed 6 June, 2015]

In-Public (online). Available from: http://www.in-public.com/ [Accessed 6 June, 2015]

Lange, Dorothea (March 1937). Toward Los Angeles, California. [negative: nitrate]. [online image]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA [LC-USF34- 016317-E]. Available from:  http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa2000000962/PP/ [Accessed 6 June 2015]

Photography and Surrealism (online). The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/phsr/hd_phsr.htm [Accessed 6 June, 2015]

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (1989). 4th ed.  Oxford University Press: Oxford

Scott, Biljana (n.d.). PICTURING IRONY: the subversive power of photography. University of Oxford.

Surrealism (online). The Art Story: Modern Art Insight. Available from: http://www.theartstory.org/movement-surrealism.htm [Accessed 6 June, 2015]

The Surrealists [vidcast, online] The Adventure of Photography. Dir. Philippe Azoulay, Rosebud Productions, France, 25/01/2013. 25 mins 10 secs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSKHW-7FssY (accessed 6 June, 2015)