BA Phot

C&N Part 2: Narrative

Page 1


Project 1 Telling a story - Project 2 - Image and text - Exc. 2.1 - Exc. 2.2 - Exc. 2.3 - Project 3 - Photographing the unseen - Exc. 2.4 - Upsum

Dewald Botha - Sophie Calle - Bryony Campbell - Kaylynn Deveney - David Hurn - Karen Knorr - Peter Mansell - Duane Michals - Sophy Rickett - W. Eugene Smith - Jodie Taylor - Postmodern narrative - Selecting a subject - Conclusion

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

[spellchecked ]

We hold these truths to be self evident.

[15Jan20] I noted the following quote from EyV when starting C&N and I'll note it again.

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. EyV [1, p. 101]

And there is another to add from Sue Sontag ,

photographs do not seem strongly bound by the intention of the photographer Sontag, On Photography, quoted in La Grange, Basic critical theory for photographers, [3, p.37]

And one from Alec Soth,

If photography were a true narrative art like filmmaking or fiction-writing, you'd have certain narrative conventions like the feature-length film, the television program, the novel, the short story, etc. But photography functions more like poetry and, like contemporary poetry, is usually free-verse in nature. There are no standards for beginning, middle and end. It's up to each photographer to create her own structure. Alec Soth, quoted in Sasha Wolf, Photo Work: forty photographers on process and practice, [4, pp.240-1]


We are reminded that narrative is what's inside the frame. This section covers 1. linear narrative, 2. postmodern non-linear narrative, 3. the combination of image and text and 4. narratives that may be outside our frame of reference (e.g. disability).

Project 1 - Telling a story

W. Eugene Smith
b: 1918 Wichita
d: 1978, Tucson
Magnum - Wikipedia

[24Jan20, [2, p.49]] An example of the linear narrative is W. Eugene Smith's Country Doctor series for LIFE mag, see [i]. The linked article is brief and the navigation through the images not working as at 24th Jan 2020. There is an alternative source at Magnum [ii].

The series was published in 1948 and illustrates the varied, sometimes stressful and sometimes exhausting working life of Dr. Ernest Ceriani, a rural G.P., serving a population of 2,000 spread over 400 square miles. LIFE's short online introduction describes the work as, 'an instant classic when first published, establishing Smith as a master of the uniquely commanding young art form of the photo essay' [i].

W. Eugene Smith, Country Doctor W. Eugene Smith, Country Doctor W. Eugene Smith, Country Doctor W. Eugene Smith, Country Doctor
Box A
1. Dr. Ceriani on the way to visit his patients in their remote villages. Kremmling, Colorado, USA. 1948
2. Dr Ceriani operating on Lee Marie Wheatly, a two and a half year old child who needed emergency surgery after having been kicked in the head by a horse. Kremmling, Colorado, USA. 1948
3. Dr Ceriani visiting Joe Jesmer, an 82 year old man who was having a heart attack. Kremmling, Colorado, USA. 1948.
4. Dr Ceriani resting on an operating table. Kremmling, Colorado, USA. 1948.
1-4 from the Country Doctor series published in LIFE magazine.
© the estate of W. Eugene Smith

Abel-Hirsch's piece for Magnum (Smith was a member from 1955-58) is far more detailed. It describes the work as, 'a definitive moment in the history of photojournalism' [ii]. Ceriani said of the way Smith worked, 'He would always be present. He would always be in the shadows. I would make the introduction and then go about my business as if he were just a door knob.' [ii]
Abel-Hirsch notes that Smith often argued with the LIFE editors over how his work was presented in the magazine and that eventually led to his resignation,

Smith selected two hundred images to send to Life but was infuriated by the way the magazine chose to lay out the story. Like many of his other seminal photoessays, The Country Doctor works in series: the arrangement of images providing viewers with a carefully crafted snapshot of Ceriani’s existence. With the order of his photographs being as important as each individual frame, falling into disagreement with publications over their edits was a common occurrence for Smith. Hannah Abel-Hirsch, Magnum (online) [ii]

[28Jan20, [2, p.50]] Next to Bryony Campbell’s The Dad Project (2009) which documents chronologically her father’s death from cancer.

Here's the link - [iii]

Bryony Campbell
b: c.1980

The terminal diagnosis coincided with Campbell starting an MAPhot and while she was reluctant for a long time to use such an event for a photo series, stating that previously she regarded 'self-referential photography as embodying a level of narcissism that I’m not comfortable with' [iii, p.3], she gradually began to do so.

Campbell spoke to Leonie Hampton (who photographed her mother’s mental illness) for feedback and that was positive and reassuring [iii, p.7]. Campbell asks, 'am I postponing my grief?' [iii, p.11] and concludes that she is not, but rather 'spreading it' (one assumes) over time and perhaps by sharing it with others.

Campbell had commented earlier in the piece that 'telling another’s story truthfully is essentially impossible' [iii, p.4].

It appears to have been cathartic for Campbell; it might have been welcomed by others who had parallel experience; but for me, it is intruding upon private grief and I choose not to show the images.

Exercise 2.1

• How does Bryony Campbell’s The Dad Project compare with Country Doctor?
• What do you think she means by ‘an ending without an ending’?
Make some notes in your learning log.

The essential and glaring difference between the two projects is that while Smith, as the photographer was anonymous ('always … in the shadows', said Dr. Ceriani, the subject, see the full quote above), Campbell’s project was, in comparison, performative, with her father in the lead role and the photographer as 'supporting actress' often appearing in the images. Smith was an outsider, doing a job (however much he might have cared about his subjects, in this and other projects). Campbell, by contrast, was (to some extent) using the project as a means of confronting and dealing with her father's death and it allowed them to share the experience and collaborate on an expression of that experience: it might also have provided a welcome distraction for them both at times. (In addition, of course, Campbell had an MA to complete and her father's prolonged condition probably meant that she could not have been expected to work on anything else.)

As regards ‘an ending without an ending’, Campbell's project allowed her to spend a lot more time with her father than would otherwise have been the case and the output provided a substantial and lasting memento. Campbell’s comment about spreading the grief concludes, ' it has become a continuous presence, but never a heavy one' [iii, p.11].

The matter of intrusion and whether it is better (or less worse) done by a stranger (or outsider) or a participant of some kind (and, indeed whether it should be done at all) applies to both these projects and to many others where the lives of private citizens are brought to the attention of the general public. As has been noted already (Part1, Project 3), in the last decade, the popularity of reality TV and the widespread use of social media has changed attitudes in some areas of society to the reporting of personal stories.
Intrusion is discussed at length in Bear and Palmer Albers' Before-and-After Photography [5] , in an interview of Frank Gohlke by Rebecca Senf, dealing with his photographing his town of birth (Wichita Falls, Texas) after it had been damaged by a tornado. He describes his uneasiness in depicting the bleak circumstances of the families he grew up around, but made the story a positive one by returning a year later to show how the community had repaired itself (he notes the normal news cycle of showing an undamaged before and a devastated after, which he has reversed to show a positive outcome) [5, pp. 79-82]. Gohlke felt that his personal connection allowed him to depict these events and also prompted him to 'report' it as a good news event rather than a disaster.
And this also relates back to Abigail Solomon-Godeau essay on the differences of approach between insiders and outsiders (Part 1, Project 2).


Using pictures to tell a story

David Hurn
b: 1934, Redhill, Surrey
Magnum - Wikipedia

[31Jan20, [2, p.52]] The first mention of a picture being worth a thousand words and let’s not forget that this is the subject of (perhaps ironically) a 1,000 word essay for Asg.4. There's a long quote from David Hurn of Magnum, taken from On being a photographer [6], a book I bought and read many years ago, prompted by the fact that Hurn founded The Documentary course at Newport Art College § (see Tish Murtha). Anyway, the point of the quote is to nuance the distinction between a picture essay and a picture story.

I cannot think of a good term which defines a series or sequence of pictures where the whole, the group, is stronger, visually and emotionally, than any of the individual images. I agree [with Jay] that a set of pictures is never narrative in the usual meaning of the word. For this reason, I think the word essay is slightly better than story.
When I talk about the picture or photographic essay I mean a group of images in which each picture is supporting and strengthening all the others; not that the sequencing of the pictures can be read like a string of words.
Take Robert Frank’s The Americans, for example. It is a superb photographic essay – but it is not narrative in the visual sense. The sequencing of the pictures might have a visual logic but that is very different from a narrative/ idea logic… David Hurn [6] p. 41?
AmPhot 8Feb20 p.6
AmPhot 8Feb20 p.6

§ Coincidentally, there was a piece in Amateur Photographer on 8th Feb headed, Last chance to see David Hurn [v, p.6],

Renowned photojournalist David Hurn is set to give his last public appearance on 15 February at Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Culture.
The Welsh photographer began his career in 1955 as an assistant at the Reflex Agency, gaining international recognition for his reportage of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. He became an associate member of Magnum in 1965, and a full member in 1967.
He also set up the famous school of documentary photography in Newport, South Wales in 1973. He resigned from the school in 1989, but has since been in constant demand to lecture and give workshops worldwide.
At the event, David will reflect on the key decisions in his life and career, and the wide-ranging impact of his work. Speakers from the journalism school, Magnum Photos, the National Museum of Wales and Royal Photographic Society will also discuss the role of key publications in 20th-century photojournalism. AmPhot 8Feb20, p.d

The cmat cites p.41, but in my edition there's a chapter called The Picture Essay on pages 51-61 and I cannot find this section of the interview there or on p.41.

So, according to Hurn a photo essay is not narrative (see Soth at the top of the page) but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts (coherence) and (he says elsewhere) it should reflect the photographer's experience of the subject .

He gives the example of photographing a protest march which was mostly peaceful and orderly but on which a few people were 'in unusual clothes' and (separately) a minor brief scuffle occurred. The temptation is for the photographer and for newspapers to select images of the strangely-clad and the fight, but that would not reflect the true nature of the march or the photographer's experience of it. There is another, more detailed example of planning a photo essay on a night club [6 pp.56-7, 3rd edn.].

The book is full of good material and I will return to plunder it in the future. Just one more item for now, on page 32, he quotes Edward Weston as referring to photographs being about 'the thing itself' rather than about the photographer and or their response to the subject [6 p.32 3rd edn.]. There's an internet page here of 23 Quotes By Photographer Edward Weston (v) that includes,

The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh. Edward Weston

That's a phrase Szarkowski uses in defining the photograph.

Hurn goes on to deprecate the 'interminable, self-indulgent, almost incomprehensible photo-critiques I have been obliged to attend' [6 p.32 3rd edn.].

The cmat states that 'Linear picture narratives like those discussed above guide us from a beginning point to an end point which is in line with classical ways of forming narrative' [2, p.53]. But Soth and Hurn have argued that they cannot.
Smith's Country Doctor series appears as much episodic as linear; Campbell’s The Dad Project is by its nature more linear because its end is intrinsic in its beginning.

The cmat continues, comparing the photographic narrative to literature: the latter forces the reader to follow a narrative, whereas with photographs, even in book form, the viewer is not constrained to a particular sequence, and viewers take different information from a given image [2, p.53]. When a linear narrative is intended, the cmat recommends the following considerations:
• Do the pictures have a consistent theme?
• What elements back up your central theme?
• What disrupts it?
• Are there good reasons for this disruption?
• Do the images have a visual consistency that holds them together as a recognisable set?


Postmodern narrative

[31Jan20, [2, p.54]] In literature the the beginning-middle-end narrative arc has been subverted by postmodern techniques that include 'the incorporation of fragments of other texts, the use of ambiguous or open-ended plots and unresolved endings, and reduced use of descriptive language … and … stream of consciousness [2, p.54]. Roland Barthes (in The Death of the Author, 1967) and Michel Foucault called for the audience to be less passive in their consumption of literature and other art forms. Butler states, 'authorial (or historical) intention should be no more trusted than realism' [7, p.23] and this ties in to our opening quote from Sontag,

photographs do not seem strongly bound by the intention of the photographer Sontag, On Photography, quoted in La Grange, Basic critical theory for photographers, [3, p.37]

It should be borne in mind that television and particularly cinema have been using non-linear narratives in the form of the flashback or  analepsis (which D.W. Griffiths, arguably the inventor of the notion, called switchbacks) at least since the 1930s and, indeed the cmat mentions Virginia Woolf (writing in the same era) as using postmodernist techniques [2, p.54].

The cmat ends this section by suggesting that postmodernism has become discredited because it 'wrongly interpreted as suggesting that technique didn’t matter' [2, p.54].

[1Feb20] It is possible that postmodernism, particularly as regards photography, was a rather patronising intellectual conceit because (as I have been banging on about since early EyV - see EyV Part 1, ) the viewer's reaction to a photograph is as much (and possibly more) conditioned and mediated by their personal subjective reality than what the photogapher intended to depict. This is dealt with at length in a new page on Subjectivity and gun theory.


While older and more traditional photographic series tended to be linear (subject to the limitations of the medium which have always freed the viewer from the photographers' intentions) the arrival of the postmodernist approach in other art forms influenced the methods of modern photographers (1960s onwards) to move away from observational storytelling.

Project 1 - Local References

(i) Cosgrave, B. (2012) W. Eugene Smith's Landmark Portrait: 'Country Doctor' [online]. Available from [Accessed 24 January 2020].

(ii) Abel-Hirsch, H. (2017) Country Doctor [online]. Available from [Accessed 24 January 2020].

(iii) Campbell, B. (2011) The Dad Project [online]. Available from [Accessed 28 January 2020].

(iv) author (year) 23 Quotes By Photographer Edward Weston [online]. Available from [Accessed 31 January 2020].

(v) Amateur Photographer (2020) Last chance to see David Hurn. Amateur Photographer. 8 Feb. p. 6.

(n) author (year) title [online]. website. Available from url [Accessed nn January 2020].

(rn) author (year) title [online]. website. Available from url [Accessed nn January 2020].

Part 2 References

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

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

5. Bear, J. & Palmer Albers, K. (eds.) (2017) Before-and-After Photography, histories and contexts. London: Bloomsbury.

6. Jay, B. & Hurn, D. (2001) On being a photographer: a practical guide (3rd edn.). Anacortes WA.: Lens Work Publishing.

7. Butler, C. (2002) Postmodernism: a very short introduction. Oxford: OUP.

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

9. Bright, S. & van Erp, H (2019) Photography decoded. London: Ilex.

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 15-Jan-2020 | Page updated 27-Apr-2021