[24Dec19, [2, p.31]] This opens with the statement,
The term ‘documentary’ has come to cover a variety of genres (news, journalism, art).
‘Reportage’ has an equally ambiguous definition within the wider documentary arena.
A few definitions:
Bate [16, p.65] notes that historian Eric Hobsbawm dates the term 'reportage' to 1929 in French and 1931 in English and quotes his definition, '[it] became an accepted genre of socially-critical literature and visual presentation'. Bate then offers his own,
[a]lthough reportage was partly derived from the idea of the snapshot value of photographs, already present in amateur photography … this type of picture seemed to imply a greater expressive quality. "Subjective" meant that it took a particular point of view on events, in both its mode of production and the visual connotations it produced.
Bate [16, p.65]
Bate goes on to state that ''"objective" photography', as a concept, predates reportage and documentary photography and that the approach was in some measure due to the need at the time for tripods and relatively long exposures, which brings us back to Fenton, above.
By contrast, Cartier-Bresson regards reportage as a series of photographs which make a 'picture story'. The fuller quote from the introduction to The Decisive Moment suggests (I think) that sometimes a single image captures the essence, but more often, several are needed,
The idea of making a photographic reportage, that is to say, of telling a story in a sequence of pictures, never entered my head at that time [he had just acquired his first Leica] … In fact, it was only in the process of working for [illustrated magazines] that I eventually learned, bit by bit, how to make a reportage with a camera, how to make a picture-story. …
What actually is a photographic reportage, a picture story? Sometimes there is one unique picture whose composition possesses such vigor and richness, and whose content so radiates outward from it, that this single picture is a whole story in itself. But this rarely happens.
Henri Cartier-Bresson 
The course material [2, p.31] broadly goes along with these views, documentary = objective; reportage = subjective, thought noting there is overlap. In reportage, the photographer takes a point of view which they want to share with the viewer. C-B is mentioned, with his 1945 image of a wartime collaborator, figs. F1-F3
The course material [2, p.31] only shows fig. F1, but Magnum Photos has two other images (which I had not seen before today's research) from the day which, particularly fig. F3, broaden the story and make more explicit what can only be surmised from fig. F1. The Magnum site describes the subject as, '[a] young Belgian woman and former Gestapo informer, being identified as she tried to hide in the crowd'. Fig. F1is described in C&N as 'symbolic of the Allied victory in Europe in 1945'.
Nan Goldin's work is cited as ' a very personal and subjective use of reportage photography' [2, p.32]. Bull [13, p.112] describes Goldin's work (and others') as, 'diaries in a loosely documentary form'.
Next, the introduction of colour images to the genre. When colour became generally available, it was associated with advertising. C-B, Eve Arnold, Robert Frank and Walker Evans ('amongst many others' [2, p.32]) in their use of reportage, achieved acceptance in (or should that be admittance to) the world of art. Later, in the 1970s and 80s, colour became acceptable too — I think of Eggleston in this context.
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.
• What difference does colour make to a genre that traditionally was predominantly
black and white?
• Can you spot the shift away from the influence of surrealism (as in Cartier-Bresson’s
• How is irony used to comment on British-ness or American values?
Make notes in your learning log.
C&N [2, p.32]
Levitt - MoMA[i] quotes the Wikipedia entry, (1913-2009) 'an American photographer … particularly noted for street photography around New York City, and has been called "the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time."'
Graham - though English, has lived in New York since 2002. There's an interesting piece in the Guardian[ii], describing his career that started in the UK with photobooks. His work was largely ignored at the time but is now 'much sought after by collectors and students alike'.
Sternfeld - the artist's web site[iii] states that he is, 'well known for large-format color photographs that extend the tradition of chronicling roadside America initiated by Walker Evans in the 1930s'.
Parr - began photographing the British at play, with tongue in cheek. As his fame has spread, so has his ironic eye. His entry in Pompidou,
yet to be documented, is a great image. His contribution to photographic history research, documenting the photobook is of significance.
Responses Levitt (there's a wide selection of her work on MoMA) - it seems to be standard observational street imagery in the Walker Evans (non-eye contact) tradition and also evoking (for me, the later) Tish Murtha with the number of images of children playing.
Graham - on my current knowledge of his oeuvre, I think his work story (as outlined in the Guardian[ii]) is more interesting than his work output. There's a fine quote that I have added to the blog.
Sternfeld - I recognised his work from Photo London 2019. He clearly identifies original and interesting subjects and photographs them well. The portrait above (fig. G6) is from a series showing participants in a climate conference. There are many great images from these two series and many others on his web site[iii].
Parr - I am not a great fan of Parr's work. I have always perceived him as being cruel rather than sympathetic to his subjects, taking pleasure in mocking them. This is, of course, a subjective judgment and it is significant that a lot of his work, especially his early series, featured British subjects and perhaps I am more sensitive to and more ready to take offence at that mockery rather than, say, depictions of US citizenry. That said, I have no problems with the work of Gawain Barnard or Simon Roberts, both of whom I interpret as being sensitive to their subjects.
The exception is fig. G7, though, Parr's entry in the Pompidou's Masterpieces of Photography. I love this picture because it precisely captures a way of (enduring) life still commonplace in holidaying coach parties and seems to do so sympathetically.
Black and White vs Colour
What difference does colour make to a genre that traditionally was predominantly
black and white?
I take the view that with B&W photographs, the subject needs to be intrinsically interesting for the viewer to take notice of a monochrome image, or, looked at another way, colour photography is in some ways easier. This might be age-related: I grew up with B&W photographs, B&W newspapers and B&W television (once my parents had been persuaded that TV might not be the devil's work - they took longer to accept my entering that den of iniquity, the cinema, but I digress). To me, monochrome is normal, but for anyone brought up in the 1980s or after, colour photography, newspapers and TV is normal and monochrome is an unnecessary limitation. I am still inclined to regard modern a B&W photograph as more serious than the same image in colour because the photographer has chosen this limitation and so the subject will speak for itself (in some way).
Bate [16, pp.74-5] takes the view that acceptance of colour came with its use in newspapers in the late 1980s. He refers to 'a newer, so-called "amateur" snapshot aesthetic' and 'the snapshot … offering a more authentic access to reality, due to its "naive realism".
Bull [13, p.112] cites Eggleston and Stephen Shore as key to the adoption of colour in the 1970s and in the 80s, 's British wave of subjective colour documentary photographers including Anna Fox, Paul Graham and Paul Reas were depicting their personal viewpoints on contemporary themes'. I have quoted Bull on Goldin above: the full list of those her describes as producing 'diaries in a loosely documentary form' is Goldin, Nobuyoshi Araki and Richard Billingham.
Cartier-Bresson and surrealism
Can you spot the shift away from the influence of surrealism (as in Cartier-Bresson’s
I have never regarded C-B's work as surrealist, although in a 2014 exhibition at the Pompidou Centre, described by Ellie Armon Azoulay [iv], that was one of the creative periods his life was divided into,
a potential draughtsman, as a Surrealist, as a communist in his worldview, as an activist, and even as a Zen Buddhist. Three main time periods frame these sections. The first, 1926–35, is mostly marked by early, Surrealist photographs made during his travels; the second, from 1936 to 1946, is distinguished by his return from the U.S.; and the third period begins with the foundation of Magnum Photos, in 1947, and ends in the early 1970s, when he retired from photography and re-embraced drawingBeyond the Decisive Moment
by Ellie Armon Azoulay [iv]
The Magnum web site[v]refers to the friendship and artistic interactions of Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Henri Cartier-Bresson, although the examples described involve Man Ray and Duchamp, the influence on C-B being the effect of the unconscious on the decisive moment.
In a 1971 recorded interview with Sheila Turner-Seed, C-B is quoted as saying [vi],
I’m not interested in documenting. Documenting is extremely dull and journalism…I’m a very bad reporter and a photojournalist. Capa told me when I had an exhibition at the museum of Modern Art in ’46, he said no, he’d be very careful. You mustn’t have a label of a surrealist photographer. All my training was surrealism. I still feel very close to a surrealist but he said if you were labelled as a surrealist photographer you won’t go any further you won’t have an assignment and you’re going to be like a hot house plant. Just forget it, do whatever you like but the label should be photojournalist. And Capa was extremely sound so I never mentioned surrealism, that’s my private affair. And what I want, what I’m looking for is my business. And I’m not a reporter. Its accidentally, it’s on the side. If I go to a place, its to try and have a picture which concretises a situation which wonder, glances everything and which has a strong relations of shapes which for me is essential for me its a visual pleasure.
Cartier-Bresson, interviewed by Sheila Turner-Seed [vi]
Nevertheless, I can detect little direct evidence of surrealism in his work. C-B found his métier in what has become know as street photography, a genre which he played a key role in defining and developing and with which his name has become synonymous.
[1Jan20] One last point on this, Paul Delany, in the introduction to his biography of Bill Brandt [19, p.9], writes of, 'the Surrealist fascination with the miniature dramas of street life', so perhaps the C-B ~ Surrealist relationship is more real than apparent and merits further consideration.
[2Jan20] This is still troubling me. This question, as stated, is ambiguous — it is not clear, even bearing in mind quotes above, whether it being suggested that C-B himself was influenced by the Surrealists and then became less so.
The V&A's web site has a page on
Surrealists [x] that states,
Surrealism embraced the absurd, the unconventional, and the shocking. …
Using a variety of processes and techniques such as photomontage (combining diverse photographic images to produce a new work), solarisation (exposing a partially developed photograph to light), and photograms (a cameraless photographic technique), photography soon emerged as a powerful medium for demonstrating Surrealist ideology. …
Trailblazers of this approach included canonical figures from the history of photography, such as Man Ray (1890 – 1976), who made photograms depicting household objects which looked more like creatures conjured from the future than simple domestic implements. But Surrealism did not always involve the strange and absurd. For example, the photography of Eugène Atget (1857 – 1927), which focussed on seemingly ordinary sights on the streets of Paris – a door knocker, a mannequin, a window rail – is seen as a forerunner of Surrealist and modern approaches to photography.
I conclude that (a) what C-B was doing was not Surrealist; (b) what Surrealists were doing, when they were doing what Atget and C-B did, was taking a break from fulfilling their Surrealist manifesto.
And now I can happily put this section to bed.
12 Jan 2019
How is irony used to comment on British-ness or American values?
Irony in its original sense is a literary device (Cambridge dictionary[vii]) where, for example, the audience knows more about an event than the
character being portrayed. In photography, an example might be a shot of the amount of plastic litter gathered after an environmental street protest. (To be fair, at the only comparable protest I have recently attended to photograph, an anti-Tory protest in Trafalgar Square, I used in EyV Asg. 3 [viii], the sticks used to support the official placards, handed out by the organisers and other bodies (trade unions, political parties, etc.) were gathered at the end, presumably for re-use next time, fig. H1.)
Tweet, 20 Nov 2014
In practice, irony might be more readily found in the eye of the viewer: as was noted above, Sontag wrote, 'photographs do not seem strongly bound by the intention of the photographer' [7, p.37], so whether or not the artist intends a piece to be ironic, that judgment will be determined by the viewing public. A relatively recent example of this is Emily Thornberry's Tweeted image of a house in Rochester with English flags and a white van (fig. I1). This was probably meant ironically but was widely interpreted as sneering superiority and resulted in her resignation from the Shadow Cabinet [ix]; the fallout from this continues and the tweet was mentioned repeatedly in the recent UK General Election (which Labour lost) and again in the current Labour Party leadership contest for which she has declared her candidacy.
Reportage, an image or series relating a story, has changed gradually over the last century as technology improvements (speed, then portability and discreteness, then colour) have allowed. Some may criticize the lack of discretion and the paucity of kindness or compassion in the genre as currently practiced.
The undoubted impact of recent digital technology and social media is not really covered. Several decades ago, the tendency for crowds to gather at the site of an accident was described by a government minister at the time using the phrase I have never forgotten, 'unfortunate ghouls'. Nowadays, the popular response to any event of significance is to video it with a mobile 'phone. The minister's phrase is now ubiquitous. (I have not succeeded in tracing the person or the date - I would guess it to be 40 years ago.) †
† It was Michael Heseltine in 1972 following the Staines Disaster. The JCI Staines Memorial web site [xi] states,
British European Airways Flight 548 …
crashed near the town of Staines …
on Sunday, 18 June 1972 …
killing all 118 persons on board.
[it] was the worst air disaster in Britain until the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.
… Sensation-seeking occupants of cars formed heavy traffic jams soon after, and were described by Minister of Aerospace Michael Heseltine on BBC Television that evening as “Ghouls, unfortunate ghouls”.
JCI Staines Memorial web site [xi]