C&N: Assignment 1, Essays
This page results from the following in the tutor feedback to Asg. 1,
I’ve given you several references on the theme of the male nude. Wrote a 500-word blog post on one that you think is particularly relevant for this assignment submission and upload this to your LL before we meet again …
You mention in your notes that you thought of documentary photography as perhaps ‘to me, factual and dispassionate’. Can I suggest you have a look at Chloe Dewe Matthew’s project Shot at Dawn – a project which is both a poetic but also factual exploration of her commissioned subject: http://www.chloedewemathews.com/shot-at-dawn/ †tutor feedback, Asg. 1
† There is additional information here: http://shotatdawn.photography/
That needs two essays, The Male Nude and Documentarianism.
The full list of photographers cited in the feedback is:
Nudes - John Coplans,
Craigie Horsfield, Robert Mapplethorpe, and I would add
Documentary - Chloe Dewe Matthews.
Churches - Anton Laub.
The concept of 'documentary', with reference to Chloe Dewe Matthews' project Shot at Dawn
Chloe Dewe Matthews
b: 1982 London
My tutor noted my stated approach to documentary photography as 'factual and dispassionate' and suggested that I should look at Chloe Dewe Matthews' project Shot at Dawn.
If I consider myself to be within any genre of photography it is mainly in documentary. It is therefore important that I clarify my own view on what that means and it may also be interesting to see how this changes as I progress through these courses.
I intend to contextualise my comment, examine several definitions of documentary photography and then relate them to Dewe Matthew’s work.
I used the phrase 'factual and dispassionate' in my initial thoughts on the assignment, and linked my approach to Terry Barrett's categories of explanatory and descriptive photographs (Barrett, 2000, p.66). This was in response to a phrase used in the assignment brief to, 'explore the convincing nature of documentary' (Boothroyd, 2017, p.45).
Historically, David Bate (2016, p.64), acknowledging Steinert, identifies two strands of documentary photography, the 'objective' style of Atget and Sander, and the 'subjective' of Cartier-Bresson, the latter developing into reportage, 'that aimed to tell stories through pictures'.
Bull (2010, pp.107-8) suggests that documentary photography is grounded in the socially concerned work of Riis and Hine.
There is nothing here to suggest that my notion of 'dispassionate' photography is valid, although 'factual' might still be so.
Michelle Bogre (2019, pp. 22-3) in seeking a definition spoke to numerous 'photographers, editors and industry professionals' and quotes many of them:
Jorge Ribalta (critic) mentions 'realism';
Misha Friedman (photographer) specifies 'seeking truth';
Shahida Alum (photographer and educator) declares 'anything nonfiction'.
Those are just the first three used in the book and the concept of 'truth' or its synonyms runs through many of the others.
In a later chapter (pp. 62-64) Bogre, lists some examples of photographers whose reputations have suffered from their forsaking truth:
Roger Fenton's c.1855 image Valley of the Shadow of Death with its arranged cannonballs (in this case, the deception did not become apparent during his lifetime);
Felice Beato's Interior of Secundra Begh After the Massacre (c. 1858) where he is thought to have obtained additional human remains to populate the scene;
Dorothy Lange 'directed' Migrant Mother (1936), only including three of the subject's seven children and instructing two to look away;
Bogre does not mention Bill Brandt whose family and friends enacted many of his images from the 1930s and 40s;
On more recent photojournalism, Brian Walski lost his job after combining two images from Basra, Iraq in 2003; Reuters removed all its images by freelance Adnan Haaj
when he was found to have added plumes of smoke to a 2006 image of a Israeli attack on Beirut; AP terminated Narciso Contreras' contract when he cloned-out a video camera from a photograph of a Syrian rebel in 2013.
Truth, then, is important and reputations and careers can be lost when it is not upheld.
I wondered whether there might be some relevance in the photographer's intention, in the sense that a photojournalist might set out to document a particular event or a architecturally-inclined photographer might set out to photograph a particular building, whereas Cartier-Bresson, for example might simply take a walk and see whether any images presented themselves. This notion does not have legs, though because Jeff Widener's 1989 image of Tank Man was opportunistic.
It may be concluded thus far that a documentary photograph must be truthful and that the photographer can be passionate about the subject, indeed some of those questioned by Bogre thought that emotional engagement was essential.
It is worth noting that the majority of the examples given are images of people. Let's turn to Dewe Matthews' work to examine some inanimate subjects. The description of Shot at Dawn ends,
The project comprises images of twenty-three locations at which individuals were shot or held in the period leading up to their executions and all were taken as close to the exact time of execution as possible and at approximately the same time of year.
Chloe Dewe Matthews (2013)
The specific subjects range from rudimentary cells and stark brick walls to (what are now) fields. Without information on the nature of the project, they are mostly anonymous and without obvious interconnection: having that information makes the images poignant and, of course, provides the link between them. Interestingly, there is the option on Dewe Matthews' web site to switch the image captions on and off and, personally, even knowing the subject of the series, I am more affected when the caption is there to read.
I have mentioned elsewhere on the site how a personal connection with a subject affects one's reaction, a good example in my case being the work of Tish Murtha: I am far more engaged by her series Newport Pub (1976/78) than her other work because I was born in the town, and sometimes ended an evening at the run-down pub she depicted, this at around the period when the images were taken.
Dewe Matthews' emotional engagement is clearer in some of her other projects where she has clearly established a sympathetic relationship with her subject. The delightful Hasidic Holiday (2008) in particularly notable in this regard.
In conclusion, then, my view of documentary photography was incorrect. It is generally thought that the photographer must engage with his or her subject but it must be depicted accurately. Perhaps what I was trying to express is that documentary photography should stop short of what Barrett (2000, p.76) describes as 'ethically evaluative'. Bogre, in her introduction (2019, p. 13) states that photographers 'present a truth, although never the truth'. Mary Warner Marion (2012, p.165) quotes William Stott's Documentary Expression and Thirties America in defining documentary as, 'the presentation or representation of actual fact in a way that makes it credible and vivid to people at the time' and goes on to say, that it does 'not have to be dispassionate; it could communicate emotion'.
It was also noted that titles are sometimes essential to convey the purpose or meaning of an image, as can be an overall explanation of a project.
The Male Nude
I intend to explore the occurrence of the male nude in art and in photography and then look at the three photographers suggested in the tutor feedback for Asg.1 (Coplans, Horsfield, Mapplethorpe) and also Hujar. That will exceed the suggested 500 words and so my initial approach will to allocate roughly 500 words to each part.
I stated some initial thoughts on 11th February while waiting for some books on the subject to arrive and for a visit to the Barbican's Masculinities show: I have the books but the show only opens today (20th Feb) and so that will be added later. My a priori thoughts with no research were,
While female nude photography is commonplace in daily life (although less so now in newsagents) and in art, I was not really aware of male nude photography until starting this course. It would be interesting to contrast the proportion of nude males to females in sculpture with that in art photography (I think statistics on the former are available but obtaining the latter might be more difficult).
I have a notion that photographers in this genre tend to be gay (Mapplethorpe, Hujar) but that might be unwitting prejudice or an unwarranted assumption. Explorations of the male and female gaze would require some triangulation (or perhaps quadrilateralisation) and are outside the scope of this essay.
The male nude in Western art and photography
A 2018 article in the Daily Telegraph (Furness, 2018) referred to an analysis of the Metropolitan Museum in New York which revealed that while 85% of the nudes on display were female, less than 5% of the work displayed in its modern art section was by women.
While male nudes (depicting athleticism) outnumber female nudes (celebrating fertility) in extant Greek classical statuary (Sorabella, 2008) this did not survive the classical era. The Council on Trent in 1563 forbade 'lascivious portrayals of unashamed beauty' and thereafter, 'representations of the naked male all but disappeared' (Cooper, 1995, p.8). Cooper goes on to report that there was some nude male photography 'for a relatively small audience' around the turn of the twentieth century, but then very little until the 1950s when it reappeared with 'genitals discreetly hidden' and was not until the 1980s that 'visibility of the male nude, fully exposed' became commonplace. (It must be supposed that explicit photographs of all forms of nudity and sexual activity have been available in particular markets since soon after the invention of the medium, however this summary concentrates on images intended for artistic rather than for erotic purposes, however those may be defined.)
The different treatments of male and female nudity is noted by Davis (1991, p.7) who cites two cases heard in 1971 where Huffman v. United States ruled that 'depictions of female genitalia are not obscene but in Levin v. Maryland it was decided that 'penile erections are obscene'.
Cooper (1995, pp.10-11) identifies various purposes for male nude photography. These include photographs used as the basis for painting and sculpture; medical and scientific (such as Muybridge); anthropological and colonial; naturism and nudism, including some overlap with fitness and bodybuilding (some aspects of which were 'taken over in the 1940s by an emerging homosexual subculture'); advertising (which used discrete images) and images for erotic purposes (which did not). Within the purely artistic arena, Cooper identifies three strands, images of youths (from the 1900s); from 'pictorialism' to 'new realism' exploring the use of the medium as much as the male body; and more recently its use in political works including the feminist. The second edition of Cooper's book adds a category of imagery surrounding the AIDS epidemic.
On Coplans, Horsfield, Mapplethorpe and Hujar
1 John Coplans: Coplans was interested in photographing the human body in macro and in black and white and often worked in a highly abstract way. He would then bring these pieces of information together in grid formations (see links below and here: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/coplans-self-portrait-frieze-no-2-four-panels-p78534/text-summaryhttps://www.theguardian.com/news/2003/sep/05/guardianobituaries.obituaries (‘A major element in the fascination was an obsession with one of our few remaining taboos: the process of ageing and physical decrepitude. And with the anonymity of identity: in Coplans's words, "To remove all references to my current identity, I leave out my head." The blow-ups of sagging flesh, creased folds, odd protuberances and body hair of an old man become the documentary tale of the decline of Everyman’).
2 Craigie Horsfield’s large scale monochromatic portraiture: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/craigie-horsfield-2318
3 Robert Mapplethorpe’s square format, black and white male nudes:http://www.mapplethorpe.org/portfolios/male-nudes/
I’ve given you several references on the theme of the male nude. [Write] a 500-word blog post on one that you think is particularly relevant for this assignment submission and upload this to your LL.
Back with Arms Above, 1984
I have always been drawn to Coplans' work since first encountering it early in my study of EyV. This was, perhaps, inevitable given that his work is unique, making intriguing abstracts with his own body (which was about the same age as mine).
The Guardian obituary (Hopkinson, 2003), which I had not previously read, quotes Coplans as saying,
The principal thing is the question of how our culture views age: that old is ugly ... Just think of Rodin, how he dealt with people of all ages. I have the feeling that I'm alive, I have a body ... I can make it extremely interesting. That keeps me alive and vital. It's a kind of process of energising myself by my belief that the classical tradition of art that we've inherited from the Greeks is a load of bullshit.
John Coplans, 2001, text for the, Self-Portraits, exhibition, quoted in his Guardian obituary
It is apposite, when considering my Asg.1 submission, that I paired my body with a Rodin sculpture. As if that were not enough, the obituary describes the instructions he left for dealing with his ashes, which bear a striking resemblance to the provisions in my own last will and testament, though in my case it was influenced by Dr. John Rebennack who carried the ashes of his friends with his mojo stick. [14May20 Coplans' instructions for his ashes are shown here.]
b: 1949, Cambridge:
Tate - Wikipedia
E. Horsfield, Well Street,
East London, March 1986
Regarding Horsfield, the Tate description states that '[his] approach to portraits and the nude is rooted in the traditions of painting' (Tate, n.d.), though the Guardian (Jones, 2012) when reviewing a National Gallery exhibition, Seduced By Art, which paired paintings with photographs, described an untitled Horsfield hung next to Degas' After the Bath (Woman Drying Herself), 1890-95 as 'Grimly ponderous' and 'an elephant among elegance'.
In my view, Jones' judgment is rather harsh. Horsfield's nudes can be rather ungainly, but given his stated intention to (as quoted by the Tate) 'describe … the human condition', they do fulfil their purpose: many of us are ungainly. I cannot say that his work resonates with me, certainly not to the extent of Coplans.
Ron Simms, 1980
Martineau (2014, p.14) states that Mapplethorpe 'tested the limits of the art form by staging a series of figure studies and hard-core sex pictures that destabilised the boundary between pornography and art', citing Dennis Speight, N.Y.C., 1980, a torso shot of the subject's erect penis. It should be borne in mind that this was a time of both the AIDS epidemic and some key victories for gay right movements and so Mapplethorpe's motivations were presumably political as well as artistic. He continued to court controversy in the late 1980s with the publication of his X portfolio, depicting gay sadomasochism, leading to obscenity charges against the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Centre (later acquitted). Davis (1991, p.75) suggests that Mapplethorpe's use of black models is patronising and ignores the racial prejudice that minorities have suffered in the US throughout its history: while this may be the case, I suspect that again, Mapplethorpe's intention was partly political and intended to reinforce the shock his work caused in some quarters.
As this essay assignment asks for my personal view on these works, my preference is for Mapplethorpe's images of flowers, his straightforward portraits and his less controversial nudes: I do not see Mapplethorpe's work as relevant to my work in general or my Asg.1 submission in particular.
Gary Schneider in Contortion (2), 1979
I have added Peter Hujar to this exercise as I have only recently discovered his work. One of his most famous pieces is Seated Nude, Bruce de Sainte Croix, 1976, in which the subject is brandishing an erection. As with Mapplethorpe above, Hujar was concerned with gay rights and was himself a victim of the AIDS epidemic, but my preference is for his other work, including his notable portrait of Sue Sontag.
[word count 633 + 369 = 1,002]
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