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Documentary photography

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Original author: 
David Brittain

Photographic technology was born in Europe, but the art of photography as we know it, was invented in the USA during the 1950s and 60s, sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. John Szarkowski, MoMA’s powerful Director of Photography, declared that great British photographers belonged to a “documentary tradition” that included Bill Brandt (whose press pictures of Britain in the 1930s were exhibited at MoMA in 1969). David Moore’s work from 1987-88, which was first published in Creative Camera in 1988, and now published as a book, Pictures from the Real World, conforms to the expectation that British photographers should, like Brandt, be primarily social observers.

The notion of a “documentary tradition” does not stand up to scrutiny, however, because of the many disparities between Brandt’s generation and Moore’s. Unlike his forebears, Moore benefited from a cultural climate that recognized and rewarded his artistry (the state-funded Arts Council supported dedicated galleries and magazines). This made it possible for him to cultivate a personal style that did not yet conform to the demands of the mass media. Commentators of the 80s interpreted the rather shocking use of color photography, by Moore and others, as a rebellion against the old black-and-white school, but in fact color became simply an extension of a “documentary aesthetic” popularized by the American formalist, William Eggleston.

While Moore was at college (he studied with Martin Parr from 1985 to 1988 at the West Surrey College of Art) the first serious challenge arrived to those who championed documentary photography as both an art form and a tool for reform. In the US and Britain, the theories of French thinkers such as Roland Barthes, challenged claims that photographs were objects of artistic expression or transparent reproductions of “reality.” As these ideas took hold two things happened: the supposed truth of documentary photography became discredited, and it was “saved for art.”

There have been many claims for British documentary photography of the 1980s, including the claim that it was a social critique of the Thatcher years in Britain. This has yet to be demonstrated. Arguably, the most radical aspect of these pictures, is Moore’s refusal of the role of “neutral observer” — something he shares with others of his generation. To eyes accustomed to digitally enhanced photography, many of these pictures will seem familiar. This is because they were cleverly manipulated, both formally (using flash mixed with ambient light to invoke a heightened reality), and conceived, not as “records of life” but opinions. Did Moore just happen to pass by and “snap” the conjunction of the baby and the television image, or did he find the image on a video? Looking back, we can see that this “documentary-style” photography (a term coined by the great American photographer Walker Evans) marked an important stage in the unravelling of the sacred bond between photographer/witness and “reality” that forms the basis of the authority of photography in the press and in society. The relatively recent invention of Photoshop has taken the process much farther.

This is a welcome and important book that is part of a current reappraisal of the British photography of the 1970s and 80s.

Pictures From The Real World (2013) by David Moore is published by Here Press and Dewi Lewis Publishing.

David Moore is a London based photographer who has exhibited and published internationally. He has been working as a photographer and educator since graduating from West Surrey College of Art and Design, Farnham, in 1988.

David Brittain is a curator, critic, documentary maker, lecturer and was editor of the respected international magazine, Creative Camera, (1991-2001). In 2000, his anthology of writings, Creative Camera: Thirty Years of Writing, was published by Manchester University Press.

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Diana Markosian, a Reportage Emerging Talent, is presenting work at Photo Center NW in Seattle on Thursday, May 9, at 6:30. Click here for more details.

Photo Center NW is pleased to host documentary photographer and writer Diana Markosian for a lecture focused on developing a personal visual style as a documentary photographer and photojournalist. Markosian’s reporting has taken her from Russia’s North Caucasus mountains, to the ancient Silk Road in Tajikistan and overland to the remote Wakhan Corridor in northeastern Afghanistan.

Caption: Seda Makhagieva, 15, wraps a pastel-colored head and neck covering in Chechnya in 2012. Makhagieva fought to wear the hijab - a sharp break from her family’s traditions. See more work from this series, “Goodbye my Chechnya,” on the Reportage Web site. (Photo by Diana Markosian)

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Available on both YouTube and Vimeo, DEVELOP Tube is a video channel that offers resources for photographers. Each project featured on DEVELOP Tube is carefully curated from the photography-related selections of the two video services, with the goal of reflecting and informing some aspect of the photographic community. Thousands of videos are showcased there, from behind the scenes looks at the editing process to trailers for photography-related films. There’s a discussion with photographer Stephen Shore, who helped popularize color photography, about working with Andy Warhol, as well as a multimedia piece about the U.S. economy. Elsewhere, there’s an interview with war photographer Joao Silva, who was wounded in Afghanistan in 2010, about “the biggest fight of the photographer.”

DEVELOP Tube on Vimeo

DEVELOP Tube on Vimeo

But DEVELOP Tube is only a small part of a larger project.

DEVELOP’s founder, Erica McDonald, is an American photographer, curator and teacher, whose career has taken her into magazines, newspapers, galleries and schools around the world. But, she says, she had come to recognize that her geographic location and her connections were giving her a leg up on other photographers, those in isolated regions or just beginning their careers. She wanted to change that.

“I see people around the world who maybe don’t have the same foundation or connections or even opportunities or time or whatever it is, to know what’s what, what grants are available or where they could show their work,” she says. “I felt like I could do something to contribute to our community this way.”

That contribution is DEVELOP Photo, a website slated to launch as the next phase of McDonald’s project. Working as a “one-man band” except for back-end web engineering, she has also built the whole thing from scratch. She says DEVELOP Tube is just a teaser for the larger initiative. “Little did I realize it was going to be about two years later and I would’ve been working around the clock,” she says.

The project took on a life of its own and will, in its final iteration, include an online resource library, education workshops, a magazine aspect and more. Even now, the video channels are a rich source of photographic information. A few weeks ago, DEVELOP collaborated with other photography organizations (like Daylight Magazine and Slideluck Potshow) to host a “Women in Multimedia” night in Bologna, Italy, to showcase the work of many multimedia artists from around the world. Some participated as solo artists and some were part of a group multimedia piece. The event was the source of the works in the gallery shown above, and was part of a larger exhibit called Uncommon Intimacy, which was co-curated by McDonald and is on view now through March 15. And McDonald also is working on collaborating to produce a documentary photography workshop, to be held in New York City this coming June.

McDonald isn’t quite sure what the future holds once the full site launches. “I don’t want it to become a commercial endeavor per se, but I’m not sure I want it to become a non-profit,” she says, but the project continues to expand. “Whoever we work with, it should be in the collaborative spirit. It’s a really interesting, vibrant, alive confluence of pieces.”

Erica McDonald is an American photographer based in New York City. Find out more here.

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Zoniers, Porte de Choisy, 1913By Stephen Longmire, Afterimage, May 2001It has been 20 years, amazingly enough, since New York City's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) launched its landmark cycle of exhibitions of the work of French photographer Eugene Atget (1857-1927), who spent his last 30 years documenting the architectural record of Paris and its surroundings at the beginning of the last century.

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Features and Essays - Jessica Dimmock: A Mother’s Devotion (Starved for Attention: June 2010)

Interviews - Marcus Bleasdale (Starved for Attention: June 2010)

Interviews - Paolo Pellegrin (Nowness.com: June 2010)

Interviews - Phillip Toledano (New Yorker Photo Booth: June 2010)

Features and Essays – Paolo Pellegrin: The Eco Brigade (Nowness.com: June 2010)

News - VII Photo Announces New Network and Mentor Program Photographers (PDN: June 2010)

Exhibitions Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography since the Sixties : J. Paul Getty Museum : Los Angeles : June 29-November 14, 2010 : “In the decades following World War II, an independently minded and critically engaged form of photography began to gather momentum. Since then a host of photographers have combined their skills as reporters and artists, developing extended photographic essays that delve deeply into humanistic topics and present distinct personal visions of the world. Embracing the gray areas between objectivity and subjectivity, information and interpretation, journalism and art, they have created powerful visual reports that transcend the realm of traditional photojournalism. Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography since the Sixties looks in-depth at projects by photographers who have contributed to the development of this approach, including Leonard Freed, Lauren Greenfield, Philip Jones Griffiths, Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meiselas, James Nachtwey, Sebastião Salgado, W. Eugene Smith, and Larry Towell.”

Interviews Veronique de Viguerie (Daily Beast: 2010)

Features and Essays – Pierre Petit: Reflections of Paris (NYT Lens: June 2010)

Features and Essays - Newsha Tavakolian: A Quiet Song, With Feeling (NYT Lens: June 2010)

Interviews - Stephen Gill (Telegraph: June 2010)

TwitterDewi Lewis

Blogs - A Photo Student: Awesome Summer Quiz Photo ID Film Giveaway Bonanza Part 1 (APS: June 2010)

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