Documentary Photography ~ ‘Photographs about something rather than photographs of something’.
Examples of documenting a journey:
Paul Graham’s A1 Project
In 1981, Paul Graham began working his way up the A1 road, northwards, documenting his journey, through photographs as he went. The collection went on to be published in 1983 as the, ‘A1: The Great North Road’.
When I first saw the images (with no knowledge of Graham’s work or background), I thought they might be a series of photographs from America, but they did seem a little lack lustre, they didn’t have the gloss or neon signs of America.
I then found an article by Alastair Sooke, writing for The Telegraph Online, ‘Paul Graham retrospective, Whitechapel Gallery review’. What this article made plain for me was that these photographs were a British take or alternative of an American Idea. Photographers in America had been producing documentary style photographs, particularly featuring roads, diners, evoking the freedom of travel for decades. Graham’s work is ‘British’ in it’s approach to this style of photography, he captures English countryside, road-side cafe’s in the rain and lorry drivers drinking tea in tiered looking service stations.
I found a helpful video, put together by The Photobook Club on vimeo, ‘Paul Graham A1: The Great North Road, which is a video flicking through a photo book Graham created for the collection of images. They also left a handy link to the Whitechapel Gallery Retrospective of Paul Graham Educational Resource, which in turn gave further insight into the A1 Project.
The Whitechapel Gallery education resource makes clear the artistic context in which his work was received. The collection was one of the first large body’s of work produced in full colour at the time, and was considered controversial as a result. Apparently the subjects he chose to photograph were traditionally shot in black and white, a supposedly ‘serious’ format. His work demonstrated that colour photography could be used to tell a story, and could even be considered art.
It’s interesting to consider that today perhaps Black and white photography would stand out more than colour – we live in a world saturated by colour imagery.
Stephen Shore: American Surfaces
Shore was Graham’s predecessor in many ways. To understand more about this series of Photographs I read a few reviews/interviews with Shore. Firstly; Sean O’Hagan writing for The Observe in November 2005, That was then. Secondly; Sean O’Hagan writing for The Guardian Online in July 2015, Shady character:how Stephen Shore taught America to see in living colour. Thirdly I referred to the book, The Photograph As Contemporary Art third edition, 2014, by Charlotte Cotton
Quotes from That was then:
Phaidon Publishers book: Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces
According to O’Hagan (2005) ‘ American Surfaces, originally published in 1999’, then republished in 2005 ‘has just been repackaged and reissued by Phaidon in a fetching facsimile of an old Kodak film envelope’, it’s telling that there wasn’t a market for or interest in buying this work earlier.
The work itself was ‘distilled from Shore’s first road trip across America in 1972’, (O’Hagan, 2005). The American Surface was a series of ‘snapshots’ taken in a tourist like manner (albeit with more a more considered eye), whilst visiting Amarillo, Texas. Apparently many view the idea of referring to an art photographers work as ‘snapshot’s’ derogatory but Shore never saw it that way, commenting in an interview;
‘They were made to look like snapshots formally, but not in terms of the subject matter,’ he says. ‘I mean, people do not tend to take snapshots of their dinner. Or the toilet in their motel. Back then, I was more interested in getting that untutored feel that real snapshots have, but are they snapshots? No, not really.’
He said having left New York to travel that he “realised that I should simply keep a visual diary of my travels. I thought that would say just as much about America.”
American Surfaces, was not warmly received by critics in the Art world, quoted by O’Hagan;
‘When my pictures were first shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, people hated them,’ he says, smiling now at the memory. ‘The press coverage, what little there was of it, was uniformly terrible.’
Remarkably Shore was ‘the first living photographer to be exhibited at the Met’, and his arrangement of his photographs ‘unframed and arranged in a grid three layers high around the walls’ did little to enthuse or persuade critics of his works value. His work was in stark contrast to the painstaking work of dark room developed photographs, having been ‘made by a machine in the big Kodak processing plant in Fairlawn, New Jersey, and stuck to the wall with double sided tape’ (O’Hagan 2005). To me his work sounds like something more suited to today’s world, the documentation and production of quick images. It is telling that his work only received greater recognition in the 1990’s and today, ‘American Surfaces is regarded as one of the key works of modern American photograph’ (O’Hagan 2005).
From Shady Character:
Shore also considered the need for time as a tool to make his work more accessible;“I do think about why people are all of a sudden looking at my work,” he told me 10 years ago, “and it occurs to me that it may have needed a distance in time for people to see what I was actually looking at. People need time. It’s much easier to look at the past than to look at the present”, (O’Hagan 2015).
His work exposed the unconsidered, the everyday, and offered it a new vantage point, perhaps elevating it, but in an unassuming way.
Robert Frank: The Americans
The Americans by Robert Frank. Different Front Covers.
Robert Frank was a Swiss-born Photographer, his series The Americas 1955-1957 is considered ‘a ground breaking volume’ (Clarke 1997). A Photo Book containing 83 images, it was originally published in May 1958 by Robert Delpire as ‘Les Americains’.
It featured a photograph by Frank on the right hand page and a political/social commentary by Alan Bosquet, separated into text on each left hand page.
In January 1960, an American version of the book, ‘The Americans’ was published by Grove Press, New York. Instead of Alan Bosquet commentary the book featured an introduction by Author Jack Kerouac. The book was not initially well received by most Americans, many considered it ‘Un-American’ mostly because it depicted or drew attention to, racial divides, the prevalence of poverty, general anxiety and dis-ease post world war two. In an online article for The Photobook Club, John Edwin Mason, The Americas In Context, writes further about the context (politically and socially), that the book landed in.
The Americans Image 69; Drugstore – Detroit, 1955, Robert Frank. Held by: National Gallery of Art.
The Americans 1- Parade-Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955, Robert Frank. Held by: National Gallery of Art
The book has an interesting take on the subject or theme of time – the book does not order the photographs chronologically. Instead the photos were organised thematically. The book is divided into four sections, each beginning with an image of a flag and a picture of an aspect of American life.
The Americans 18 & 19 Contact Sheet, New Orleans 1955,Robert Frank. Part of Guggenheim Collection.
In the image right are the contact sheets, or film showing some of Frank’s selection process. You can see the red pencil or pen lines around some photographs, some cropping the images to produce a different framing. He is said to have taken around 2,000 photographs and then gone through a lengthy process of whittling them down to the 83 images we see in The Americans.
I’ve not included many images from The Americans, because I’m not sure about copyright use and don’t want to cause any problems or infringe on anyone. I find it hard to properly comment on the work without actually having seen it in its entirety. But what I will say is that I agree in part with the early observations of Franks work, it is a harsh, bleak look at America. But that doesn’t mean the images in shot were untrue, I think its a clear example of someone brining their mental context to their work. Robert Frank was not an American, perhaps that freed him from any sense of having to be patriotic or any sense of pressure to present an up and coming or wholesome America. He simply shot what his eyes and mind focussed on.
As a final bit of research I read Sean O’Hagan’s article in The Guardian Online, Robert Frank at 90: the photographer who revealed America won’t look back.
I also found a link to the First Draft of Jack Kerouac’s Introduction for The Americans.