Category Archives: 1: Introducing documentary

Part 1:Exercise. A decisive moment ?


Part 1.

Read Simon Bainbridge’s article on the 2011 Hereford Photography Festival . Select one of the bodies of work in the article and write a 200 word reflective commentary in your learning log.

I have decided to look at the work of Vanessa Winship.

Georgia .Vanessa Winship

Winship is a British documentary photographer who travels and works with her husband , George Georgiou. Despite working in close proximity each has a distinct and differing approach. Using a large format camera , black and white film and available light I think her portrait images are sensuous, empathetic and considered. I love portraiture , this drew me to look further at her work. Although aware of her photography I have never really taken a good look or studied it carefully , having done so I like it very much.

This series of work combines landscape , some of which is quite abstract , alongside portraits of the lands inhabitants. The stories and histories of a land inevitably moulds and influences its residents and I think this is what she is trying to convey , a merging of people and place . I particularly like one image that exemplifies this fusion , a ‘happy accident’ when she inadvertantly double exposed a frame. The fading young dancers form an integral component of their environment .

See link below to look at the image

However its her portraiture that captivates me .These are unpretentious images of what many would consider unremarkable subjects but who more than justify her slow contemplative approach.They look directly out of the frame towards the viewer , intense ,sometimes solemn , but never unremarkable.


Bainbridge , S. 2013. The Long Road. British Journal of Photography , July 2013 Issue pp.48-73

Houghton, M . 2014. The Prose Of Photography. Black+White Photography , Issue 160 pp. 8–16

Part 2.

Next , listen to Jon Levy , founder of Foto8 , talking about documentary in the art gallery . Note down your reactions to Levy’s comments.

Levy discusses the function of the art galley to showcase photojournalism. By presenting documentary photography in an art based environment the images will attract a larger and more diverse audience. The difference between art and documentary photography has become less easy to define , the genres frequently overlap . Hence it is perfectly acceptable to present documentary work as art and vice versa. Additionally there may be financial benefits enabling the documentarist to pursue further projects.

However the personal intent of an individual photographer needs to be explicit , what  why and how ,  and should be declared  from the outset , not added as an afterthought . Furthermore if the images are to be specifically aimed at an elite audience this goes against the principle of photojournalism -the communication associated with documentary photography is lost.


The myth of objectivity


The following quote from Andre Bazin exemplifies a historical belief in the objective authority of the photographic image:

For the first time , between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the  instrumentality of a non-living agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically , without the creative intervention of man…in spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer , we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced , actually represented
(Andre Bazin ,’The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ in What is Cinema? 1945 p.7 ) 

“If we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship , then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image”
(Allan Sekula , ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’ , 1997, p.454 )

Write a 250 word reflective commentary on the above quotes by Andre Bazin and Allan Sekula. Briefly compare their reflective positions and record your own view on the issue of photographic objectivity.

Bazin states emphatically that photographic images cannot help but be inherently objective , with no input from the photographer, whilst Sekula declares that cultural influences consequently mean they are inevitably subjective. What initially struck me was that over fifty years separates the two quotes and time irrevocably influences theoretical thought , hence some consideration must be given to this.

By the mid1930’s world change caused by war and economic depression meant photographers “valued immediacy and looked continually for affecting pictures of man under stress” (Jeffrey, 1981,pg.186). I feel Bazin’s beliefs belong to a past era , when “social documentary photography was animated by the idea that images could precipitate social change”  (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 416) . In contrast Sekula was part of group of like-minded individuals (including Martha Rosler) , post-modernists who rejected established documentary methods. By the 1970’s there was a movement towards more individual , hence what are considered more subjective, interpretations.

I disagree with Bazin , even before the shutter is closed the photographer alone chooses the viewpoint , what to include/exclude. These are subjective not mechanical decisions , and influential to the final outcome.  Choice of lens ,processing , even what light to shoot in , are based on individual choices and preferences. Like Sekula I also feel cultural ,racial, and personal histories are predominant factors . Furthermore the aim of taking an image is generally to show something , the intent , especially true of documentary photography , will always influence how  something is recorded.

I am currently reading Isabel Allende’s book My Invented Country and this quote seems so relevant “Who can define reality? Isn’t everything subjective ? If you and I witness the same event , we will recall it and recount it differently” (Allende Isabel , 2014 p.g 179) . The same might be said of photography , each image conceptualised and influenced by personal mores.

Bibliography / References

Allende Isabel , (2014 ) My Invented Country ,EPub Edition, Harper Collins , London , UK

Jeffrey Ian , (1981) . Photography A Concise History , Thames & Hudson , London , UK

Warner Marien Mary . (2010 ) Photography:A Cultual History Third edition, Laurence King , London, UK



All photographs are ambiguous . All photographs have been taken out of a continuity . If this event is a public event , this continuity is history; if it is personal , the continuity , which has been broken , is a life story. Even a pure landscape breaks a continuity : that of light and the weather . Discontinuity always produces ambiguity
(Berger & Mohr , 1955, p.91) 

Make a selection of up to five photographs from your personal family collection. They can be as recent or as old as you wish. The only requirement is that they depict events that are relevant to you on a personal level and couldn’t belong to anyone else.

Ask OCA forums to provide short captions or explanations for your photographs. 
Summarise your findings and make them public in the same forums that you used for your research. 

I posted my five images onto the OCA Flickr group . As my scanner is out of action due to decorating etc I have re-photographed them.

Thanks to those who commented . See the link below for my response to comments made.

Although quite a lot of information can be obtained simply by looking at images the hidden personal histories behind collections such as these are disjointed and require additional documentation in order to understand the context fully . Rather like Jose’s photograph of his grandfather in an earlier exercise these belong to the family album , they record events personal to me. What I see and associate with each image is based on my personal knowledge, the casual observer cannot visualise , as I can , or understand the circumstances , as I do , simply by viewing the photograph.


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Mum was born and brought up in Northumberland. This was taken in 1939 just prior to the breakout of World War 2 when her family had moved to another new home in South Newsham near Blyth . My maternal granddad worked on farms around the Northumbria area and the family moved frequently. My Mum is on the right , the taller girl , aged 14. The other girl is Joan aged 6 , Mum’s niece and my cousin. Joan’s granddad , my Uncle George , who was a keen amateur photographer , took the photograph.
Mums sister Isabella is behind her and my maternal Grandmother is next to her behind Joan. Mum was due to start a new school in the September but never went due to the outbreak of war. Mum looks very young for a 14 year old , but that’s compared to teenagers now I suppose. Three years later she joined the army and never returned to live in Northumberland.


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This is my lovely dad in 1938 aged 23. Born and brought up in Marazion , Cornwall. This was a portrait taken at a professional photographers whilst he was on holiday with friends in the Isle of Man and passed to Mum after my paternal grandmothers death. He was 10 years older than Mum and he didn’t marry until he was 29, he died 34 years ago. I love this photo–I wish I had had the chance to ask him more about his life. My son and 2nd grandson are so much like him , when I look at them I see my dad as a young man again.


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This is me, 1954 aged 5 months. My Mum took me on the bus to a professional photography studio- Jerome- in Central Birmingham. The teddy in the picture is Rufus , I still have him but he is a bit the worse for wear now. His clothes are made from velvet and he is stuffed with silk stockings.


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This is me with my paternal grandparents 1963 aged 9.
Taken by my dad in my grandparents back garden that backed onto a railway embankment. My granddad was a gentle soul despite his rather stern appearance on the photo. My Nan was much more outright and forthright. This would be around Easter time as I am wearing my new “Easter” dress bought by my Nana each year & ankle socks. If you look closely my Nan has her arm around my waist , this would be the cause of my scowl and my arms wrapped defensively around my body ! I was not ( still not ) someone who is touch-feely , I need my own space , Nan had invaded it.


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This was taken in 1965 , I was 11 and my friends , Linda and Jackie who were 14 months older than me , were twins. Both sisters were born with heart defects. Taken in my back garden by my Dad. Later that year both Linda on my right and Jackie on my left had heart surgery. Sadly Linda died following her surgery , which these days is quite a routine procedure but major back then. I am still friends with Jackie , although we rarely meet we keep in regular contact by letter.

Historical developments in documentary photography.

Mission Heliographic
The French historic Monuments Commission was given the task of making an record of French medieval and Gothic buildings, many of which were in a state of disrepair following the French Revolution. The Commission chose to use the calotype process rather than the French invented daguerrotype as “ the calotype’s less sharply defined shapes and details and its evocative shadows more eloquently expressed nostalgia for the medieval past” (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 52). Furthermore negatives could be made enabling numerous copies to be produced. However Hippolyte Baynard one of the 5 French photographers involved in the task created glass negatives which sadly, unlike the paper ones , have not survived.

Roger Fenton
Fenton was a British photographer and could be considered the first official war photographer. Following two previous unsuccessful attempts by photography units he went to the Crimea in 1855. Advances in technology made it much easier for Fenton to work in the field.Using the wet collodion process exposures were reduced to seconds not minutes and negatives were easy to print , however the plate still needed to be exposed and developed whilst wet. He additionally needed a travelling darkroom.

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In 1854, the year before his arrival , the Light Brigade suffered huge losses and newspaper reports were distressing. Back home “there was an urgent need of good news”  (Barfield , 2006, pg.15) ,  propaganda and censorship inevitably influence how, and what , is recorded. Most of Fenton’s images are inoffensive  showing daily life around the camp and  port area ,his sensitivity “may have derived from the instructions to the first , failed , government-sponsered photographic party , which was to bring back visual evidence that newspaper accounts of the war exaggerated the disease and starvation endured by the troops” ( Warner Marien 2010 pg.102). Fenton faced further difficulties “ he was a reporter and his job , a new one in photography , involved him in new problems. Predecessors had shown just how place looked;Fenton had the additional problem of showing what went on” (Jeffrey, 1981, pg. 50). However despite these obstacles one powerful image provoked a strong reaction.

Fenton’s famous staged photograph , Valley of the Shadow of Death , was taken in 1855, months after the Charge of the Light Brigade. Cannon balls have been scattered across the road “perhaps by Fenton and his staff , to create the impression that the battle had recently taken place” (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 101) . Despite being manipulated and lacking any human subject the image symbolised the horror of war.

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Felice Beato 1860
Beato  documented the Crimean war , recording the fall of Sebastopol and the Indian Mutiny in 1857. He was the first Westerner to photograph in China , accompanying Anglo-French troops as he recorded the campaign by Western allies against the Chinese in the 2nd Opium War. Evidence suggests he staged scenes  , placing corpses in strategic positions, something he did in India. Following the murder of two British officers ,for which the attackers were beheaded , Beato re-created the execution scene. He continued to Japan recording both the land and its people as a commercial enterprise selling photographs to travellers.

Matthew Brady 1862
Brady was an Irish photographer who had built up a successful portrait studio in New York. Amongst his many famous clients was Abraham Lincoln, whose image he sold as prints. Along with a group of photographers he co-ordinated they documented the American Civil War. Using the collodion process action shots were not viable hence his images are static but do show the reality of war with bodies on the battlefield. He was the first photographer “to publish war images in sets and series” (Jeffrey, 1997 ,pg. 65).  Using temporary studios set up at the camps they produced Tintypes , or carte portraits, of soldiers to send home, in addition to producing more formal portraits of “the main protagonists , generals, and their associates” (Jeffrey, 1981,pg.54).

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Alexander Gardner 1863
Gardner , a former associate of Matthew Brady , used mis-en-scene to record Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter. The corpse was moved and his head adjusted to face the camera using a rifle as a prop  creating a poignant image. Interestingly “ the fact that Gardner did not  keep his arrangement of this scene a secret indicates that the public was willing to allow the photographer to construct a scene that was true in a larger sense than fidelity to visual fact” (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 110 )

1909 Albert Kahn
Kahn, a wealthy banker and philanthropist , funded a challenging project to photograph people of the world , optimistically believing it would promote greater understanding between cultures. The invention of the autochrome process by the Lumiere brothers in 1904 made colour photography possible and easily accessible. Using the new technology photographers created an extensive archive of images , the Archives of the Planet,  spanning  22 years and over 50 countries. The period from 1909 to 1933 was a time of colossal world change ,the images captured world changing events , documenting people and places that would be transformed irrevocably. In 1931 following the Wall Street Crash Kahn lost his vast fortune and the project ended.

References / Bibliography

Barfield Thomas (editor) , (2006) . War Photography Images of Conflict from Frontline Photographers, Parragon , Bath , UK.

Dickie Chris , (2009) . Photography The 50 most influential photographers in the world, A & C Black , London , UK

Jeffrey Ian , (1981) . Photography A Concise History , Thames & Hudson , London , UK

Jeffrey Ian , (1997 ) .The Photo Book , Phaidon Press , London , UK

Warner Marien Mary . (2010 ) Photography:A Cultual History Third edition, Laurence King , London, UK

Time & Context . Exercise What makes a document?

Read the post “What makes a document?” on the We/AreOCA, including all the replies to it, and write your own comment both on the blog page and in your own blog. Make sure that you visit all the links on the blog post.

Is it time or is it context that makes a document? Or is it something else?

A document  provides information and proof that something happened but does a photograph have to be understood to be actually considered a document?   I love old photographs and Jose’s photograph of his grandfather is an interesting one, a photograph from the family album. The image shows two men, an officer and a priest with their backs to a wall , but without context and additional supporting evidence the photograph becomes , as quite rightly pointed out by Anned ” much less reliable as a document” . Nevertheless as a record the image exists in its own right regardless of meaning and I agree with RobTM who observes it is still “inherently a document”. Jose comments “back in the family album this photograph becomes again what it was always meant to be : a family photograph”  but I feel this does not lessen it’s importance as a record with personal meaning. Family histories passed orally down the generations are rather like Chinese whispers distorting events at each re-telling, and as Jose remarks “the story changes , however subtly” , hence it is inevitable that the context will change over time. 

The image of Gaddafi is an intriguing one , taken before his death it now serves as a reminder to me of his ignoble end and fall from power ,  certainly not what it perhaps was intended to symbolise orignally . As succinctly said by Richard Down “history has expanded the context” altering how Jose’s image may be interpreted. Hence time modifies and  supplements our understanding but this is not needed to create a document. It does  enhance our knowledge but as noted by Mattjamesphotos   “any photograph is a document to somebody”.Additionally , as  Jim DN Smith, Pdog19 and Kerrieleeb  point out , our personal background, be it age , ethnicity , sex , religious or political belief,  will influence how a photograph is read and what is understood by it.

Kerrieleeb raises an interesting topic “ The way we have taken photographs has changed and many now will grow up without even seeing many prints possibly . Does that mean it is not a document , if there is no physical print?”  A on-line dictionary definition of document states it is a piece of written , printed , or electric matter that provides information  but ( being a dinosaur and of a certain age ! )  I find it strange to think of images on the Web as being considered documents , I like the physicality of prints.  Snapchat is an app that allows users to share their images but the recipient can only view for up to 10 seconds before the photograph is deleted , are these , albeit very short lived , documents too ?

Exercise:Transparent Pictures

Read the first three sections (pp.1-8) of the essay “Transparent Pictures: On theNature of Photographic Realism” by Kendall L Walton

The photographic image is the object itself
-Andre Bazin , “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”

Every photograph is a fake from start to finish.
-Edward Steichen , “Ye Fakers ”

Write a 200-word reflective commentary in your learning log outlining your views about Walton’s idea of photographic transparency.

Crime scenes , medical photography , police photographs of criminals are readily accepted as being accurate and truthful. A drawing  of a criminal, whilst it may be perfectly accurate , is only ever an artists’ representation.   Walton discusses the idea held by Bazin that photographs , unlike drawings and paintings etc , are realistic. The camera  records faithfully  what is in front of it , whilst a painting will always only ever be a portrayal , an impression , and hence subject to an individual artists’ interpretation. An illustrators’ visualisation of their subject is just an idea , an opinion , the subject within the picture or drawing never really existed.

Dissenters to this view argue that photographs too can be far removed from reality , but that is irrelevant .Regardless of whether an image has been manipulated , digitally , in the dark room , or by any other method , a photographic image is aways of something that actually existed. What was taken remains the same , regardless of how , accuracy is not the issue.

The You Tube clip below shows the work of Spanish artist Pedro Campos , its hard to believe the still life images are in fact oil paintings not photographs. One of the difficulties I found reading and understanding the essay was how do we actually know what is real and therefore transparent ? These certainly look real to me but the crux of the argument is that they never really existed and have been created by the artist.

The reality of photographs makes them transparent , we see through them, and look at “literally the scene that was photographed”. We are able perceive beyond the frame , ‘”a special kind of seeing” distinct from simply looking. Photographs alone tell us little , and can deceive , but we literally see dead people , we see through the picture and are able to see , not the present , but into the past.

The prison photo below shows a rather glum Mary Richards , she isn’t glum now , in the present sense ,  but the image does show us how she looked over 100 years ago.

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Images by Julia Margaret Cameron were on display at the MoMA  when I visited in June. They made an impact on at the time me but I gave little thought to the fact that I was able to see what Cameron saw all those years ago: I saw through the image into the past.


I have many old photos I treasure but this exercise has made me realise just how precious and unique they are.


Michelle Sank. Assignment 1 research

Michelle Sank is a documentary photographer whose portraiture records the uniqueness of what it means to be human. Originally from South Africa she now lives and works in the UK.

The groups she photographs all have something in common , they form a community , a group of people who individually may seem disparate but have a common bond that unites them.  I feel this makes her work very relevant when considering how to approach the criteria set for the 1st assignment.

Her work really interests me as I hope to combine my love of portraiture with the documentary assignments for this course . Her subjects range from children under 18 , in the series Young Carers , who provide the principle care for an ill family member to Wondrous , which celebrates the beauty of elderly women. She photographs her subjects in colour at a location , not against a blank background , in private and public spaces. 

Young Carers
These portraits were shot away from the carers’ home  .The interesting thing about these images is that without the accompanying text it is difficult to consider the context and what , apart from age, connects them.
With these portraits, I wanted to empower these young people with a sense of their own identity and normality. I wanted to remove them from their home environment and place them within ‘light’ and outside spaces. By getting them to dress in something they chose and to be themselves, I think for that moment in time they felt special, grounded and free.” Michelle Sank .

The images are excellent and a just celebration of womanliness in older women but I feel quite uneasy looking at them . I am unsure why but wonder if it is because of the way subjects are  posed and dressed , Sank comments she is “interested in the vulnerability of my subjects ‘
and I think this comes across in the studies she has made of the women. I wonder if she suggested the pose or if the women chose how they were portrayed?