BA Phot

C&N Part 1: The photograph as document

Page 1 - Project 1 -


Preamble - Project 1, Eyewitness - Exc. 1 - Project 2, Photojournalism - Project 3, Reportage - Exc. 2 - Project 4, The gallery wall – documentary as art - Exc. 3 - Project 5, The manipulated image - Exc. 4 - Exc. 5 - Upsum

C-B and surrealism - irony - Late photography - objectivity in citizen journalism - Pickering - Rosler - Sanguinetti - Seawright - street photography

See the blog, 1st December for consideration of the referencing used on this page.
And further comments on local referencing here.


[spellchecked ]

[9Nov19] There is a lot of preliminary material before the actual course begins which is summarised as Preamble.

Let us remember an important quote from the end of EyV,

At OCA we believe that your position or viewpoint is absolutely as valuable as the position of any author that you read; the only difference is that you probably won’t have fully discovered, or at least articulated, it yet. Your viewpoint is the source of your imagination and ideas but it can be quite a long journey to bring it into the light. [1] EyV p. 101

[26Nov, [2, p.22] The five parts of this course are concerned with the issues surrounding contexts in various genres of photography. Perception of the narrative within a picture is influenced by the presentation context (the examples given are a book cover and within a newspaper). This is, of course the external context — for a reminder of Barrett’s three contexts, see the Preamble.

Part 1 considers documentary photography — can it provide a true depiction of an event (whatever true is)? We will examine definitions of the genre and its place within art. I'm guessing this includes how the social documentation of Lange and the others working for the FSA ended up on gallery walls.

Part 2 looks at narratives and "storylines" and combining images and text.

Part 3 concerns self portraiture.

Part 4 is about the analysis and description of photographs and the assignment is an essay.

and finally for Part 5, we are required to construct a reality, two of the examples being Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall.

Project 1 - Eyewitnesses?

[28Nov, [2, p.23] While photographs may superficially seem to provide an accurate image of a scene or event, it is the result of a number of decisions, from the photographer (or the person who commissioned the photograph) and a possible multiplicity of editing processes through intermediaries.

Barthes (in The Photographic Message (1961), included in Sontag's reader [3] and neatly summarised in Modrak's Reframing Photography [4, p.351]) refers to a news photograph as a message comprising three parts, "a source of emission, a channel of transmission and a point of reception" [3, p.194]:
the source is the photographer and the photo editor who selects the image and perhaps gives it a title;
the channel (in this example) is the newspaper itself, including any text associated accompanying the photograph, but also the nature of the newspaper (Barthes gives examples of "the very conservative L'Aurore [and] the Communist L'Humanité");
the point of reception is the public that read the paper.
And, as Modrak puts it, 'the "meaning" of the same photograph can vary widely depending on how and where it is seen and by whom' [4, p.355]. More on Barthes and semiotics in Part 4.

Historically, news has been conveyed by photographs (black and white until the 1980s?) and text in newspapers. Nowadays with the ubiquity of the mobile telephone and the channels of transmission provided by social media, news comes in colour videos broadcast in portrait format on social media and picked up by television channels. As I write this on 29th November, a few hours ago, two people were killed by an alleged terrorist with a large knife: the first everyone saw of it was on mobile videos, one taken on London Bridge and one from the upper deck of a passing bus.

As news is consumed online, newspaper circulation falls and reporting staff are lost: newspapers rely on citizen journalists to provide stories and illustrations. [5] reported in April 2013 that The Guardian had launched an app for reader contributions, "videos, photos and stories" and that CNN had already set up a similar system.

Exercise 1

is shown on another page.

Summary text and an image

Documentary and social reform

This looks at the photographic output of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), 1935–44. While some memorable images were produced by Lange (figs. A1-A2) and Walker Evans (figs. A3-A4) , amongst others, and many of those images now command high prices and hang on gallery and museum walls, the very basis on which the FSA photographers were setup undermines its product. Roy Stryker issued strict instructions to the photographers on what to target. The course quotes Dyer's The ongoing moment for an extract of the instructions and there are more extensive quotes in Modrak [4].

Dorothea Lange Dorothea Lange Walker Evans Evans
Box A
1. Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936
2. Lange, Family walking on highway - five children. Started from Idabel, Oklahoma, bound for Krebs, Oklahoma, June 1938
3. Allie Mae Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama, 1936
4. Burroughs' Fireplace, Hale County, Alabama, 1936
© the estates of Lange and Evans

[And there's more Rosler below.]

We then look at Martha Rosler’s essay In, Around and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography), 1981 [6] which is available here.

Rosler first considers the history of documentary photography (docphot) and offers a strong early quote

Documentary photography has come to represent the social conscience of liberal sensibility presented in visual imagery Martha Rosler, In, Around and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography)

It peaked in early C20th and withered, 'along with the New Deal consensus' after WW2. Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine and their efforts to publicise the nature and effects of poverty in US are specifically mentioned, although Rosler suggests that public ignorance was feigned and deliberate and that poverty was inherent in the socio-economic structure of the time.
At the time of Rosler's essay, 1981, there is, she suggests, little official interest in relieving poverty and that photographing it is self indulgent and patronising (it might now be termed poverty porn). Yet, she asserts, "documentary still exists" in glossy magazines, less so in newspapers and, with rising prices, in galleries, in which milieu the depiction of deprivation reassures the prosperous of their superiority [Rosler's cynicism is, by this point, (half way through page 2 of 10 , 4 of which are notes) beginning to grate].

Rosler names the main offences and offenders of the time,

War photography, slum photography, "subculture" or cult photography, photography of the foreign poor, photography of "deviance," photography from the past W. Eugene Smith, David Douglas Duncan, Larry Burrows, Diane Arbus, Larry Clark, Danny Lyon, Bruce Davidson, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Walker Evans, Robert Capa, Don McCullin, . . . Martha Rosler, In, Around and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography)

She picks out W. Eugene Smith's project documenting the effects of chemical pollution on a Japanese fishing community (see Minimata) and demeans this because of the editorial approach of Camera 35, the magazine that published the images.

[p.3] Another strand selected for criticism, this time with greater justification is the use (or recycling) of an ostensibly documentary subject for advertising, citing Elliott Erwitt and then glib pieces on risk-taking news photographers using pieces about David Burnett which concentrate on the photographer rather than the events and individuals he was photographing.

[p.4] Of direct relevance to the course, Rosler mentions Lange's Migrant Mother the subject was Florence Thompson, still alive and age 75 in 1978, and trying to get some reward for the worldwide distribution and acclaim of her image. Rosler explains and objects to the 'the well-entrenched paradigm' that two functions of DocPhot are (1) as witness, depicting contemporary events and (2) as archive, where the most aesthetically pleasing documentary images become art and lose their context.

We then move on to Agee and Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Guardian), and the irony and hypocrisy of a 1980 NY Times piece that criticised how the authors benefited from exploiting the poverty of their subjects, which then goes on to sell column inches be seeking out and publishing the stories of those subjects in later life.

[p.5] Rosler asserts that both the Left and Right exploit historic and contemporary docphot in different ways.

Now John Szarkowski is criticised for his support of Garry Winogrand. Rosler describes Winogrand's attitude to his photographs as 'den[ying] any relation between them and shared or public human meaning' and 'all meaning in photography applies only to what resides within the "four walls" of the framing edges' . Rosler quotes at length from Szarkowski's notes for the 1967 New Documents exhibition,

Most of those who were called documentary photographers a generation ago . . . made their pictures in the service of a social cause. . . . to show what was wrong with the world, and to persuade their fellows to take action and make it right. . . . [A] new generation of photographers has directed the documentary approach toward more personal ends. Their aim has not been to reform life, but to know it. Their work betrays a sympathy (almost an affection) for the imperfections and the frailties of society. They like the real world, in spite of its terrors, as the source of all wonder and fascination and value(no less precious for being irrational. . . . What they hold in common is the belief that the commonplace is really worth looking at, and the courage to look at it with a minimum of theorizing. John Szarkowski, New Documents exhibition, 1967, quoted by Martha Rosler, In, Around and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography), 1981

Rosler accuses Szarkowski of 'connoisseurship of the tawdry'

[6] It is only in reading the last page of the essay that I realise that Rosler is reviewing something in this essay, probably an exhibition of photographs of the Bowery (a location mentioned throughout). She describes it as 'radical metonymy , with a setting implying the condition itself' and goes on to say that the exhibition is using a 1930s approach to a modern subject, this particular subject (the Bowery) having changed little since the approach was originally applied.

In her final paragraph, Rosler states that the higher the prices docphot achieves in art sales, the less it can be taken seriously as an objective depiction of real lives: it is merely patronising.

Rosler is quick in terms of decisiveness, though slow as regards words expended, to dismiss several generations of photographers who are highly respected by many (this writer included). I hold the view that Riis, Hine, Lange, Evans and Smith were all well intentioned in their work and that these and many others mentioned were skilled craftspersons who produced photographs of admirable quality when judged both aesthetically and ethically. She seems to regard them all as cynical, manipulative exploiters of various strata of society worldwide.
She is entitled to her point of view and I agree to the extent that Stryker's approach at the FSA was cynical and that some newspaper editors are more concerned with sales than highlighting injustices.

It should be noted that this writer largely concurs with Winogrand' s alleged attitude. Having concluded in the 1970s that reality is a function of perception, it therefore follows that any individual's reaction to and analysis of a photograph (or any document or any piece of art) is that individual's responsibility and likely to derive from their life to that point in time.
metonymy — a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated (such as "crown" in "lands belonging to the crown")
in contrast with,
synecdoche — a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole (such as fifty sail for fifty ships), the whole for a part (such as society for high society), the species for the genus (such as cutthroat for assassin), the genus for the species (such as a creature for a man), or the name of the material for the thing made (such as boards for stage)

[12Dec19] My used copy of La Grange [7] arrived a few days after I finished this section. The book summarises the Rosler piece and more than a dozen other books and essays (by Berger, Szarkowski, Stephen Shore, Sontag, Barthes, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Clive Scott, Andy Grunberg, Raghubir Singh, Bertrand Russell (!), Italo Calvino and others).
La Grange quotes a later essay by Rosler in which she states (in a footnote),

Although an essay of mine on the institutionalization of documentary photography … has been taken to support the idea that "documentary is dead," I believe, on the contrary, that documentary is alive - if those who do it exercise responsibility in their decisions relating to the production, dissemination, and marketing of their images. Not that voluntarism is the answer, but I don't think we are will-less creatures, either. Martha Rosler, in a footnote to her essay Image simulations, computer manipulations: some considerations, quoted in La Grange [7]

And for future use - La Grange [7] also looks at Raghubir Singh's River of Colour.

To finish this section of the course material [2], after looking at Lange, Stryker and the FSA and Rosler's essay, Lewis Hine is mentioned. His photographs of child factory workers in the early C20th were influential in achieving improvements in working conditions: the importance of the combination of the images and Hine's captions is noted.

Preamble - Project 1, Eyewitness - Exc. 1 - Project 2, Photojournalism - Project 3, Reportage - Exc. 2 - Project 4, The gallery wall – documentary as art - Exc. 3 - Project 5, The manipulated image - Exc. 4 - Exc. 5 - Upsum

C-B and surrealism - irony - Late photography - objectivity in citizen journalism - Pickering - Rosler - Sanguinetti - Seawright - street photography


Documentary photography is not and never has been objective, as it is always mediated by and filtered through a variety of processes as images make their way from photographer through to audience. Those processes have changed technologically, politically and sociologically over time.


1. Bloomfield, R (2017) Expressing your vision. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

2. Boothroyd, S (2017) Context and narrative. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

3. Sontag, S. (1983) Barthes: selected writings. London: Fontana.

4. Modrak, R. & Anthes, B (2011) Reframing photography: theory and practice. Oxford: Routledge.

5. Indvic, L. (2013) 'The Guardian' Calls for Citizen Journalists Via App [online]. Available from: [Accessed 1 December 2019].

6. Rosler, M. (1981) In, Around and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography) [online]. Available from: [Accessed 8 December 2019].

7. La Grange, A. (2005) Basic critical theory for photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press.

8. Campbell-Johnston, R. (2018) Exhibition review: Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery, WC2. The Times [online] 17 October. Available from:  [accessed 14 December 2019]

9. Collings, M. (2018) Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2018 review: More that just faces in the crowd. Evening Standard [online] 17 October. Available from:  [accessed 14 December 2019]

10. Barrett, T. (2000) Criticising photographs, an introduction to understanding images. 3rd ed. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing.

11. Campany, D. (2003) Safety in numbness: Some remarks on the problems of “Late Photography” [online]. Available from: [Accessed 19 December 2019]
(originally published in Green, D. (ed.) (2003) Where is the Photograph?, Photoworks, regrettably out of print with s/h copies selling for ridiculous sums. )

12. Blackburn, N. (i.e. me) (2018) The Decisive Moment [online]. Available from [Accessed 20 December 2019]

13. Bull, S. (2010) Photography. Abingdon,Oxon: Routledge.

14. Weiss, M (2018) Making it up: photographic fictions. London: Thames & Hudson.

15. Dunlap, D.W. (2009) Behind the Scenes:Digital Manipulation [online]. Available from: [Accessed 24 December 2019]

16. Bate, D. (2016) Photography, the key concepts. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

17. Cartier-Bresson, HThe decisive moment. New York: Simon and Schuster. Cited in Hsu, L. (2015) The Decisive Moment. Fraction Issue 81, December 2015. [Online]. Available from [Accessed 24 December 2019].

18. Amao, D. (2010) 100 Masterpieces of photography. Paris: Editions du Centre Pompidou

19. Delaney, P (2004) Bill Brandt, a life. London: Jonathan Cape.

20. Thompson, J.L. (2016) Why photography matters. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

21. Green, D. (ed.) (2003) Where is the photograph? Brighton: Photoworks.

22. Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a critical introduction . (4th edn.). Abingdon: Routledge.

n. author, init (year) Title. Location: Publisher.

Traub, C., Heller, S., & Bell, A.B. and (eds.) (2006) The education of a photographer. New York: Allworth Press

Durden, M. (2013) Fifty key writers on photography. Oxford: Routledge.

Wolf, S. (2019) Photo Work: forty photographers on process and practice. New York: Aperture Foundation

Where is the Photograph? 
Box X
Where is the Photograph?  V&A listing

[20Dec19] On the web page containing Campany's essay Safety in numbness, he states,

Author’s note: although it’s quite old now, I still see this essay cited frequently. Perhaps this is because the notion of photography as an ‘eclipsed’ or ‘secondary’ medium of traces, remnants and echoes now seems to be common currency. The book Where is the Photograph? is a fine collection of essays by, among others, Geoffrey Batchen, Peter Osborne, Laura Mulvey, Pavel Buchler, Olivier Richon and Richard Shiff. It is long out of print so I republish my essay here. David Campany, Safety in numbness

There are three s/h copies today on Amazon (20Dec), two priced just pence short of £100 and one at an optimistic £685.52 (with free delivery). I'll try to track down the other essays and assemble the book:

Geoffrey Batchen, 'Fearful ghost of former bloom': What Photography Is
Pavel Buchler, The Blind Train-spotter: A Delirium of Doubt
David Campany (of course) Safety in numbness: Some remarks on the problems of “Late Photography”
Steve Edwards, A 'pariah in the world of art': Richter in Reverse Gear
David Green and Joanna Lowry, From Presence to the Performative: Rethinking Photographic Indexicality 
Laura Mulvey, The 'pensive spectator' Revisited: Time and its Passing in the Still and Moving Image
Peter Osborne, Photography in an Expanding Field: Distributive Unity and Dominant Form
Olivier Richon, Thinking Things 
Richard Shiff, Photographic Soul

Links - Google Books, there's a copy at the V&A and their listing shows the contents, now added above.

The full OCA C&N references are specified at the end of the course material [2] and are repeated here for ease of access.

Page created 08-Nov-2019 | Page updated 28-Mar-2020