When thinking about how to present this assignment I was aware that the brief included you can create as many pictures as you like …. the set should be concise and not include repetitive or unnecessary images. This means thinking about how to reduce a large number of images into a manageable piece of work that tells a story about the group of people I have chosen to work with.
In Short’s book Context and Narrative (summarised in Context and Narrative – Maria Short) she discusses the narrative that one might read in an image and points out that while it might be linear (beginning, middle and end) it does not have to be. The story should hang together, this might be because of use of similar tonal ranges, lighting or format – but might be because of the topic and that you need to be clear about your intention. Exploring the subject over time can end with you changing what you want to say and how you say it. The story may also depend on what order the images are shown in – so do you have control over that if it is important. (Short,2018).
With his information in mind I went and looked over my collection of photobooks to see which ones told a (fairly) concise story. Many that tell a story are long (book length) and involve many more images than I want to use, although this project could easily lengthen to a full book. However, some of the books were shorter and told a relatively clear story.
In this I have summarised the stories I read – concentrating on the ways the books and series were presented rather than on the whole import of each book. This is no attempt to do them justice – simply to pull out some information about how and why they were produced in a particular format, and the effect that’s those choices have had.
Julia Borissova – white blonde – is telling a story of a place and a time, using a combination of archival images and altered self portraits. On her website it is also shown as single images and a slideshow. The order of the images varies though the sites (book versus slideshow) as does the format. In this case the series depends on the totality of the images, their tones and the feeling they evoke rather than the order in which they are viewed. (Borissova, 2018) See Julia Borissova – white blonde for more detail.
Margaret Lansink – Borders of Nothingness-On the Mend – tells about the emotions that were linked with her loss of contact with her daughter and subsequent re-engagement. The book is physically small. The paper is rough and the images low key, black and white with occasional flashes of gold. Little is clear. The order is important as it moves from despair through nothingness to repair and hope. The feel of the book is also important as it is very tactile, rough, and evokes the feelings described (Lansink, 2020). See Borders of Nothingness – On the Mend for more detail.
Bettina von Zwehl – Made Up Love Song – consists of a series of portraits done of the same person over 6 months, set in the same place and with similar light. The variations are minimal, her hair and clothing show subtle changes. The images are shown against a black background opposite a simple statement of the day and time. This is a very simple presentation where you gain from the repeated images showing the gradually increasing intimacy. While a single image is effective, the story gains by the repetition (Chandler and von Zwehl, 2014). See Bettina von Zwehl for more detail.
Robin Gillanders – A Lover’s Complaint – takes the short Fragments written by Barthes, has them translated in haiku by Henry Gough-Cooper and then interspersed these with still life images, mainly of glass and material, shown as fragments against a dense black background. The haiku are presented 12 to a page, organised alphabetically, other than a final short poem about silence and love. There is no immediate obvious connection between the haiku and the images. The viewer/ reader needs to make their own links. However, each group of images is linked, variations on a theme. As a whole, they start minimalistically, become more complex, then fade away – following a pattern. The words and the images give equal weight to the story (Gillanders and Gough-Cooper, 2016).
Dayanita Singh – Go Away Closer – is a series of 40 images in a small book. They are all square, and all black and white, and, other than the fact that they all tell about India, those are the only linking factors. Singh says she deliberately does not try to make a narrative but puts images together intuitively. In her work she collects her images into ‘museums’ – which she them changes around for different displays, even with the same exhibition. The work is about a feeling, rather than a story Singh, 2007), See Dayanita Singh – Go Away Closer for more detail.
All these photobooks are really about emotions rather than facts. They may be based around a story, such as the Lansink’s Borders of Nothingness – On the Mend, or actively avoid a narrative like Singh’s Go Away Closer. In spite of this they all have a clarity about the way they have been put together, an internal consistency. The tonal values are similar, the feeling derived from the images are similar. They are clearly carefully considered. In two, Go Away Closer and white blonde, the order of the images is not crucial, while it has been, inevitably, fixed within the books, it is changed in other formats (a slideshow and an exhibition). These are all fairly short books, although longer than the series I am planning, but they taught me a lot about the type of consistency required to make a book hold together, and, even more importantly, to make the reader/viewer return to it.
I then decided to look at some of my photobooks that do tell an active story, that is about groups of people and what they are doing. These all seemed to be rather longer, and often physically larger – I am not sure about the reasoning for that.
Mark Steinmetz – Summer Camp – is a collection of images taken at American summer camps between 1986 and 1997. They were collected into book format in 2019. The book is a gentle reminiscence of a past time, although he comments there has been little change in that environment over years. The images are shown in black and white, are varying sizes and formats. However, the overall feel is remarkably consistent. There is a mixture of images that concentrate on the activities and other that concentrate on portraits of the children. See Mark Steinmetz for more detail.
J.A. Mortram –Small Town Inertia – this is a collection of images and paired stories about people that struggle with their lives in a small town in Britain. It could be (and has been) described as poverty porn – but what makes it stand out is that Mortram lives within the community, has his own personal struggles and is clearly both sympathetic with and understanding of those he photographs, never patronising. The images are all black and white, often harshly lit with marked contrast and shadow. Some are close up portraits, some show the environment, but all concentrate on the people. The book is laid out with an almost full-page image on the right page and the corresponding information including the name and usually a short explanatory passage on the bottom of the left page. This has the effect of concentrating the eye initially on the portrait and only secondarily looking at the words (Mortram, 2017).
Nan Goldin –The Ballad of Sexual Dependency –probably the most famous of all the lifestyle stories, taken very much from an internal position. The book is a small part of the whole work which also includes film, large scale exhibition works and talks. Goldin calls it as ‘the diary I let people read’ in the beginning essay and virtually at the end of the copy I have ‘a volume of loss, while still a ballad of love’ (Goldin, 2012). The images are harsh with often an odd colour cast. They are not all in focus and are presented with a short title, usually of who and where. Every time I look through it I notice different details. It holds the eye without any pretence at conventional beauty.
I also looked at a variety of short series online, picking them from the links that regularly pop up on my tablet, including Lenscratch, Aperture, BJP, Photographic Museum of Humanity and FOAM. This exercise could actually fill an entire book – so I have just picked out four that really caught my eye!
B. Proud – Transcending Love – is the latest series by the American photographer B. (Belinda) Proud. It is about Transgender and Gender Non-conforming Couples in America, who are a mainly forgotten and mistreated group of people. The portraits she shows are of families and couples who are clearly proud to be together. The portraits are formal, in colour, deliberately chosen to represent the full spectrum of the relationships she is describing, and she says ‘This project is about the validity and fluidity of gender expression. The location for each portrait, chosen by the couple in discussion with the artist, is significant and provides the viewer with another level of understanding into the relationship’ (Smithson, 2020a). The portraits are shown with a simple title, some tell the gender/status of the people, others do not. From the website it is difficult to tell if the order is important – overall I suspect not. Each image could be first or last. The importance is in the group as a whole.
Mulugeta Ayene – Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 Crash Site – World Press Photo Story of the Year Nominee, – this is not the same as many of the series/stories talked about above as it is a very factual piece of documentary work. However, it shows many of the points I have been thinking about. It is in colour, the images are factual but varied, from wide area shots, to details of the objects collected, to harrowing images of the people involved and those who lost friends and relatives. They are shown with dates and brief explanatory notes. Oddly, the images are not shown in date order, I think this may be to concentrate on the story – but it is then distracting to know the dates. (www.worldpressphoto.org, 2020).
Bowei Yang – Soft Thorn – is a dream or an illusion that tells the story of a gay boy/man growing up in a Christian community in China. ‘A journey of nostalgia’. It contains a mixture of staged portraits of his friends and slices of the environment, together with still life images. Some are portrait, some landscape but they are all linked by the muted tones and subdued and at times sad atmosphere that pervades the series. It gives a clear feeling of how difficult his teenage years must have been. I will watch for more work from him – or hopefully an extension of this (Yang, 2020).
Cathy Spence – Crooked Eye – shows a very personal project about a young man, Wesley, her son, who has albinism and visual problems. It consists of a series of heartbreaking portraits which mainly show him facing away from the camera or covering his eyes with his hair. They are high key, in keeping with the subject. At some points they are almost burnt out – but this just emphasises the story. Some are blurred, reflecting on Wesley’s poor vision. Several formats are used but this does not distract from the consistency of the series. The series is highly effective at showing the difficulties of growing up with an obvious difference that few people probably understand (Smithson, 2020b).
What have I learned from all this?
- You need to know what you want to say
- You need to be passionate about it
- You need to be internally consistent to hold the story together, either in colour or size or format or feeling
- There are as many formats for storytelling as there are photographers
- The order of the images may depend on the place they are being shown (book/exhibition/slide show online)
- Black and white is still widely used – especially when the point of the story is about emotions – but not always
- Precise focus and lighting are not always important (but possibly less so the more famous you are) – but this does depend on what you are showing – Goldin’s Ballad versus Ayene’s work on an air disaster.
Borissova, J. (2018) White blonde. (s.l.): Bessard.
Chandler, D. and Von Zwehl, B. (2014). Made up love song. London: V & A Publishing.
Gillanders, R. and Gough-Cooper, H. (2016) A Lover’s Complaint. Edinburgh, Scotland: Dingle Press.
Goldin, N. (2012) The ballad of sexual dependency. New York, N.Y.: Aperture Foundation.
Lansink, M. (2020). Borders of Nothingness – On the Mend. Belgium: Ibasho
Mortram, J. (2017) Small Town Inertia. (s.l.): Bluecoat Press.
Mulugeta Ayene SOY-DJ | World Press Photo (2020) At: https://www.worldpressphoto.org/collection/photo/2020/39610/4/Mulugeta-Ayene-SOY-DJ (Accessed on 29 April 2020)
Short, M. (2018) Context and narrative. London ; New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts.
Singh, D. (2007). Go Away Closer. Göttingen, Germany: Steidl.
Smithson, A. (2020a) B. Proud: Transcending Love: Portraits of Transgender and Gender Non-conforming Couples. At: http://lenscratch.com/2020/04/b-proud-transcending-love/ (Accessed on 28 April 2020)
Smithson, A. (2020b) Cathy Spence: Crooked Eye. At: http://lenscratch.com/2020/04/cathy-spence/ (Accessed on 2 May 2020)
Steinmetz, M. (2019) Summer Camp. China: Nazraeli Press.
Yang, B. (20AD) SOFT THORN. At: https://phmuseum.com/Boway_Yang/story/soft-thorn-ecea0f8693 (Accessed on 2 May 2020)