Exercise 1.4

This should have linked to 1.1 but because I chose to sneak up on my subjects from behind I’m not in a position to solicit their cooperation in this exercise.  So having shot myself in the foot there, I will have to start afresh with a different subject – one that reflects the direction of the brief:

  1. One subject, photographed by themselves, edited by them
  2. Same but then edited by me
  3. One subject photographed by me, edited by me
  4. Same, but edited by the subject.

Resulting in ‘four views’.  I get the thrust of c) but not of a).  Is the subject, in making a number of ‘hour of life’ pictures, photographing themselves?  Or just what catches their attention during the hour?  The first set would look pretty weird, a load of arms-length selfies.  The second would just be pictures of their kitchen, with nobody in shot. How is this supposed to relate to my original pictures of them?

“How do [would] the four views compare?”  They would look very different, possibly like they had been taken by different people under different circumstances.

“”Do any tell a complete story?”  I wouldn’t expect so.  Every photograph, every series is partial.

I guess it would work best in a social setting – maybe in a pub.  I could photograph them first, then they could take their turn.  Maybe they could include me, as well as their mates….    It doesn’t seem to make any sense.  I tried to look at other students’ work but couldn’t find any.

It occurs to me that a photograph itself does not disclose the characteristics of its maker.  I don’t think I could correctly identify, for example,  the gender of a photographer from their work alone.  If I conduct an image search for a neutral term like ‘dog’ I don’t think I’d pick out the female artists from the male.  I might have better than chance odds if I said ‘female’ every time because more dog pictures may be taken by women.  Maybe.  I’d be on much safer ground with pictures of female nudes if I said ‘male’ every time, just because.

But what about a photograph of a mountain, a sunset or the sea?  The picture gives no clue. My success with guessing, above, has nothing to do with the photograph content, it’s just stats.

Maybe it’s different when the photograph includes people?  Is it possible to detect the signs of a male authored picture as opposed to a female one? If there is any evidence to support this I haven’t encountered it.

Perhaps some more subtle characteristics of the photographer can be deduced from the content; her prejudices, social standing, attitudes and suchlike?  I don’t believe so.  I think knowledge of the photographer, the circumstances of the taking, can influence the viewer’s perception of the picture but not that such information can be gleaned solely from the photograph itself.

My take on the inside/outside debate is that you simply can’t tell.  Once you know, of course, that’s different – the work then becomes suffused with all kinds of projections, based on our life experiences and learning.

The basic assumption appears to be that photographs taken by an ‘outsider’ will be different, in some recognisable way, from those taken by an ‘insider’.  I think it would be very difficult to test that assumption from an evidential standpoint.  All the nebulous confounding factors such as time, place, age, ability, weather would make comparisons impossible.  Since we cannot make much progress in proving it one way or another, the subject is perfect for wild speculation; say anything you like on the matter, make any pronouncement, draw the most obscure conclusions – you can’t be proven wrong.

The course text refers to Humphrey Spender and his ‘Worktown story’, claiming that his ‘class’ placed him on the ‘outside’.  Certainly Spender came from a different background to his subjects in Bolton, but the suggestion seems to be that he would, as a result, make photographs which bore the traces of this disparity, a posh bloke takes photos in a slum with predictable results.  I’m not so sure.  I worked on a BFI film called “Return Journey” [Worktown Productions] which featured Spender and he presented as a humble man who would have no difficulty in establishing an equable relationship with Northerners.  Elsewhere the course text quotes John Bulmer:

At The Narrator’s Gaze conference (2010) on documentary photography at the National Coal Mining Museum for England, Hereford born and Oxbridge educated photographer John Bulmer likened venturing to the North of England (thirty years after Spender) for commissions as ‘going somewhere exotic’ on a ‘colonial expedition’.

I used to work for John and that didn’t sound like the bloke I knew so I emailed him to ask his views on othering and how his background might have affected his work.  He responded [my emphasis]:

Re my photos in the North.  I think I always had problems with boredom threshold! I preferred going to a new place and seeing new things, and that’s what excited me photographically. As far as my background was concerned, I always wanted to be classless and fit in anywhere. I was working as a news photographer on the Daily Express, and one of the things I loved is that you turned up to work, and could end up anywhere. One needed to be able to gatecrash a gangster’s funeral or take a society portrait.

I always felt alien to people like Snowden who used their status to push subjects into the mould of their choice. My hero was Cartier Bresson, who wanted to be a fly on the wall.

I really liked the subjects in the North. They seemed touched that a young lad would be bothered to come all the way up from the South to see them.

I did find the North exotic but I don’t like the idea of a “colonial expedition” -I don’t know where that idea came from as I would never have said it.  

I hope that my photographs come across as by someone who liked the people of the North, it was my intention.

I wanted to observe, and record what appealed to me.

From <https://mail.google.com/mail/u/1/#inbox/KtbxLxgKHKTHtqzlpfqpswXwvcDKJMhcvq>

So I’m not sure where to place my trust now.  Anyway that’s enough name-dropping for one module.

This is where I am at the moment

  • Photographs taken by different people of the same subject will always differ
  • The differences will not be axiomatically noticeable despite a circumstance-gap between subject and photographer

Going back to the exercise, I think I will devise something myself.  Every Sunday, not far from me,  there’s a gathering of motorcyclists.  They congregate around the tea-and-burger kiosks at West Bay, Dorset and spend an amiable hour or two eyeing up each other’s bikes, drinking tea and chatting.  They are certainly ‘other’ to me – at first glance – and of quite distinctive appearance.  This time I will get some actual faces.