Photojournalism

Friday, September 25th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Merging Boundaries
Ian Teh/Panos Pictures

We seem to be awash in an ever-present pining for the glory days, when pictures had a moral authority and weight, and when lots and lots and lots of photographers were able to make a living shooting socially concerned black and white documentary work.

Unfortunately, those days are gone.  The economics of journalism in general have fundamentally changed in ways so well documented I won’t bother bringing them up here.  And the moral authority of images has been undermined by what I would consider a good thing: People’s increasing visual sophistication.  The average person is much less likely to look at a newspaper or magazine and expect to know the whole truth from one shocking picture.

Still, though, much photojournalism is caught in a self regarding loop, photographing the same subjects in a style that borrows heavily from Christian art of the renaissance – pietas, madonnas, crucifixions, moral stories of suffering and redemption, the whole deal.

Now none of what I just said is particularly new or original – it pops up again and again, but we seem to be having the same discussions over and over again.  Witness the latest flare-up in what seems to be an annual event – the arguments over World Press Photo.  This year it’s Stephen Mayes, the outgoing WPP Secretary, who’s provoked the firestorm (witness the comments!), as noted over on Colin Pantall‘s blog.

Colin goes through an interesting discussion of why we all photograph the same things.  His general point is that we seem to be photographing similarly because we are trying to shoot for others expectations of the world and not, to use the cliche, being true to our own vision:

If we do that, we might as well go and work in a call centre or flip burgers because there is more passion and feeling and depth in that than replicating someone else’s work and vision, than doing something we have no real involvement with.

The replication is the thing though. Why do we all replicate other people’s work? Perhaps one of the reasons is this is what we are told we should do – by newspapers, magazines, our professors and lecturers (they have to do something to keep their students minds of the fact that 90% of them aren’t going to make a penny from what they have studied for 3 years), the blogosphere and things like portfolio reviews.

I think some of this may be true, but a bigger question for me is why photographers seem to be so backwards looking in general – why does photojournalism seem to be such a redoubt of the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality? Why are art photographers so obsessed with replicating various styles of painting?  Why, as Stephen Mays points out and Colin Pantall widens, does photography “…investigate a very limited series of tropes in a very limited series of visual approaches, becoming a self replicating machine that churns of copies of itself in perpetual motion,” and, more to the point, why is asking Nan Goldin to speak, an artists who last contributed something original to photography 20 years ago, still considered a provocative act?

I dunno.  I’ve been reading about this stuff in a specifically photojournalism context for too long this afternoon.  Start sifting through the following list if you’re feeling like being bewildered…

The World Press Photo winners this year
Stephen Mayes speech excerpts
and full length audio
Foto8 World Press Photo report of the same event
Bromberg and Chanarin’s firestorm from last year and in pdf form. Look at the comments here, too.
Foto8 tries to deal with the criticism of that essay. And again, repetitively.
Tim Hetherington, a WPP winner and excellent photog, takes some of this on. It’s also where the 10-90 ratio comes from.
Concientious’ take in one and two and three parts, last year. I hate that Alec Soth can post his comment and no one else can.
Clearly fault for the current state of photojournalism is widely shared. There are structural problems too, duh.
Yeah, I know it’s not easy. But still.
Check out the discussions section on BURN magazine. Some interesting things there…
Some new directions? Here’s a great list of where to start.

Portraits

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

VideoMate
Still from VideoMate montage

Sorry – Another throwaway post before a longer one on Friday…

Anyways, AFC had a link, recently, to Ethereal Others, a web art project that I absolutely absolutely love, by Harm van den Dorpel.  Ethereal Others is the counterpart to Ethereal Self, a site that inputs an image from your webcam and outputs it as a weird, faceted kaleidoscope.  Little do the users know, but the webcam also captures an image which is then sent on to Ethereal Others and archived there.  The result is a huge survey of portraits.  More than all that, though, Ethereal Others is the internet version of people-watching – you can scroll while comparing faces, backgrounds, etc., checking out cute girls/boys, trying to figure out what this is an accurate sampling of: Internet users, art school students, AFC readers, those interested in net art?

The second link I’d like to direct you to is a phenomenal video on Ian Alexander Adam’s blog.  I won’t spoil it by describing it to you, but please go watch it.

Both Ethereal Others and the sources from which the video is taken are interesting takes on portraiture – One assumes that you can relate something essential about oneself through a screen and the other seems to assume that all that is relatable is one’s appearance, or, at most, socio-economic info gleaned from one’s clothes and background…

P.S.  Also, Hippolyte Bayard tracked down one of those Downfall videos, this one on Kodachrome.  I think it may be the best way of addressing that subject.

Web Design, etc…

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

A quick update on the previous post -

Things Magazine recently published a list taken from Blogs : Mad About Design of blogs with notable design.  Worth a look…

I’m not clicking through every link tonight, but I don’t see any of the photoblogs…  I wonder if that’s their omission, or would one really say that there aren’t any blogs dedicated to images worthy of inclusion in such a list?

UPDATE: Wait, except for Another Something, the new home of Joachim Baan’s Another Company…  Any others?

Looking at Pictures…

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Junior Bazaar
Junior Bazaar, January, 1947, with art direction from Alexei Brodovitch

Fred Ritchin writes frequently on how photography, and specifically concerned photojournalism, is and has changed on the web and in the era of digital.  A recent post caught my eye:

When one looks at great magazine design there is almost nothing like it on the Web. The era of mass picture magazines started with magazines like Vu in France where the covers were as graphic and stunning as posters. Inside pages for Vu and other early magazines like Regards and Picture Post were used to experiment with all kinds of juxtapositions of images, text and other graphic elements. But what we end up with in terms of design at the beginning of the Web era is much like what we have in desktop publishing — clean sites that look professional but are almost never transcendent.

Clearly, a lot of this has to do with the technology – In print, it’s one thing to, for example, overlay text and image, and in code it’s an entirely different and much more complicated thing.  Which is not to say the technology isn’t there, because it is, in Flash, which is an entirely different ballgame in terms of ease of use and loading times on a site.  As it is, Flash sites tend to be overdesigned, not underdesigned, frequently suffering from the seductiveness of whizzing, moving images and text, not an unwillingness to experiment with the medium.

Anyways, even within the limitations of technology, there are few people willing to push the limitations of text and image on the web.  I can think of one, off the top of my head – i heart photograph, with it’s seemingly endless list of photos of the day and willingness to ignore the conventions of blog interface in order to give the reader an endless way to explore it’s particular corner of the photography world.

Words Without Pictures site is one (recently back online with the publication of their book) even though it’s dialogue between text and photos is defined by a self-conscious absence of the latter. A commenter on Ritchin’s original post points to three other super-flashy sites: http://www.sobluesoblue.nl; http://www.go-no-go.nl; and the really, really excellent accompaniment to the book of the same name, http://www.whymisterwhy.org.

Who knows of any others that bear a special mention?

P.S. I wasn’t able to track down an decent images of Vu, but you can find a couple here and here and some more with a google search.

Paris Projects

Monday, September 7th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Georg Parthen
Georg Parthen
, from his project ‘Beaugrenelle‘ and submitted to the mus-mus ‘@Paris’ project.

The mus-mus@Paris project has debuted on their site – go have a look if you haven’t already.  The project has been fairly well reported around the photo-blogosphere, and the list of photographers contains some familiar names; Alec Soth, Stephen Shore, Sylvia Plachy, Bertien van Manen, Simon Roberts, Linus Bill, Richard Renaldi, Vincent Debanne, etc.  Closer to home (the internet), Hester Keijser and Norman Beierle (Mrs. Deane), Shane Lavalette, and yours truly all participated.

The @Paris project was, if you recall, a call for pictures of Paris from photographers from all parts of the world.  From the call for submissions:

It is fitting that Paris, lovingly called “The City of Light” should have been one of the first and most thoroughly photographic and photographed places on earth. The list of Paris’ photographers runs from Daguerre and Nadar to Brassai, Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson and from Atget to Man Ray, Kertez and Klein and many more, a remarkable number of photography’s greatest artists made their mark ‘a travers’ Paris. Their photographs and publications have fixed in our mind’s eye a vision of Paris that is beautiful, often as edgy as elegant, and always complex.

The results, as you can see for yourself, are impressive.  But as Marc Feustel, another expat based in Paris, writes on eyecurious:

I did find a lot of interesting material (Céline Clanet’s image above is a favourite), but overall I felt slightly frustrated. Paris has become a difficult city to photograph because of its past, but for me, as a group, these photographs did not sufficiently get under the skin of the city.

I certainly struggled with this when I first moved here (it took me about 6 months after arriving before I could even pick up a camera again in this city), but having resumed photographing again, I frequently ask myself how would one best depict this city?  Paris is a city of mythology, more so than New York.  New York is a lived-in myth whereas much of Paris’ mythology derives from the past or from a fantastical view of the city that never really existed (see Amelie Poulain).  Indeed, every year there are groups of tourists who so idealize the city that when confronted with the actual city they go into shock, a phenomenon known as Paris Syndrome.

I think one must be sly about shooting in this city: You have to acknowledge the history, but at the same time completely ignore it when actually working.  If you don’t, you run the risk of sliding right past what’s directly in front of you and instead capturing only the surface of metropolis as least as complex as any other.  Paris work should always be more than just an archaeology of objects, architecture, and types, more than the reflection of the allure of the city…

Taxidermy

Friday, September 4th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

Laurent Bouchet
Laurent Bochet, from ’1000°C’

Taxidermy seemed to pop up everywhere in visual art up until recently, a trend that used to irritate me to no end.  Still, though, I could never blame the photographers and artists that used taxidermied animals in their art because taxidermied animals are just so… cool.

Here in Paris, the best place to see taxidermy, until recently, was Deyrolle at 46 Rue de Bac. I say “until recently” because Deyrolle, a business begun in 1831, burned down in February 2008 (For more on this in English, see this NY Times article).  As you can imagine, gallons of preservative chemicals and ancient fur makes a pretty flammable mix. But fear not!  The store continues in a revised form after a brief break: It’s due to reopen this month. (You can see photos of the old store here.)

One of the coolest taxidermy projects I’ve seen is Laurent Bochet’s “1000°C.” It’s fairly simple – he just photographed the taxidermied animals after their slight… toasting in Deyrolle’s storerooms during the fire – but he gets some phenomenal results with this…  Check out this project and his other work here.