Documentary in Dispute

Berenice Abbott knew my idol Eugène Atget in Paris (See: Eugène Atget and Berenice Abbott) and was instrumental in saving his work after his death and making it known more broadly . Atget spend considerable time photographing a Paris, which was rapidly disappearing. On her return to New York Abbott wanted to do the same for New York. Unfortunately things didn’t work out as planned.

The publishers summary describes the book as follows:

The recreation of a landmark in 1930s documentary photography.

The 1939 book Changing New York by Berenice Abbott, with text by Elizabeth McCausland, is a landmark of American documentary photography and the career-defining publication by one of modernism’s most prominent photographers. Yet no one has ever seen the book that Abbott and McCausland actually planned and wrote. In this book, art historian Sarah M. Miller recreates Abbott and McCausland’s original manuscript for Changing New York by sequencing Abbott’s one hundred photographs with McCausland’s astonishing caption texts. This reconstruction is accompanied by a selection of archival documents that illuminate how the project was developed, and how the original publisher drastically altered it.

Miller analyzes the manuscript and its revisions to unearth Abbott and McCausland’s critical engagement with New York City’s built environment and their unique theory of documentary photography. The battle over Changing New York, she argues, stemmed from disputes over how Abbott’s photographs—and photography more broadly—should shape urban experience on the eve of the futuristic 1939 World’s Fair. Ultimately it became a contest over the definition of documentary itself. Gary Van Zante and Julia Van Haaften contribute an essay on Abbott’s archive and the partnership with McCausland that shaped their creative collaboration.

In my opinion this is a very accurate summary of the book. Will be of interest to anyone interested in the work of great photographers. The machinations (on the part of the publisher and others), which prevented this book being published in its original form are a real eye opener. Wonderful book! I really enjoyed reading it.

A couple of new photobooks: Michael Kenna

From time to time I browse the internet looking for photographers whose work I might be interested in. On this particular occasion I came across Michael Kenna. I’d come across his work before, but had never looked closely at it. This time I did and found that I liked it. It was about time for me to get one of his photobooks to add to my collection. I ended up getting two and I love them both, but for different reasons.

Michael Kenna (born 1953) is an English photographer best known for his unusual black and white landscapes featuring ethereal light achieved by photographing at dawn or at night with exposures of up to 10 hours. His photos concentrate on the interaction between ephemeral atmospheric condition of the natural landscape, and human-made structures and sculptural mass.

Many books have been published of his work, the subjects of which range from The Rouge, in Dearborn Michigan, to the snow-covered island of Hokkaido, Japan. Kenna’s work is also held in permanent collections at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The first of the books I acquired was: “Le Nôtre‘s Gardens”. Most photobooks are quite expensive, but this one had a very reasonable price so my expectations were low. Imagine my surprise when the book arrived and I found it was close to my ideal photobook. The photos are wonderful and remind me of those of my photographic hero: Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget (who I know also inspired Kenna). There’s an interesting introductory essay. With 60 plates, it’s not too big, but not too small either. Thankfully it’s quite light too (I also have a copy of Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis, which has wonderful photographs but it’s so large and heavy that I find it difficult to even pick it up).

It also came with an inscription. I have my doubt’s about it’s authenticity though.

If the first book was inspired by Atget, this one was definitely influenced by the photography of Bill Brandt, an English photographer of German birth. I particularly liked this book because Kenna and myself are almost exact contemporaries. We grew up only about 30 miles apart in the North of England. The book depicts Northern England between 1983 and 1986. I’ve been to some of the places shown and even those I haven’t visited seem quite familiar. The Introduction is written by Kenna’s nephew, Dr. Ian B. Glover, himself also a photographer, writer and educator. His introduction ends with the following words:

These images show a Northern England that doesn’t exist any more, and they remind me of the proverb, time and tide wait for no man. Time has certainly not waited for Northern England. Please enjoy this collection and remember that no matter where my Uncle Michael happens to be living or working, he is and will always be, a Northern English lad.

I left the UK in 1974 and have not lived there since, but I suppose the same could be said of me.

Atget by John Szarkowski

Finally managed to get my hands on Atget by John Szarkowski.

Eugène Atget is my favorite photographer, arguably because I came across this book many years ago either on the internet, or in a library or somewhere I could not take away a copy of my own. It had a profound influence on me, as indeed did Atget on such luminaries as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott (who I believe took the picture above), Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and others. describes it as follows:

I have a broad collection of photographic books that have had an image or two of Atget’s photographs and I really wanted to have a dedicated resource to read and study to further understand Atget’s way of looking at his environment. There are a number of alternative hardcover book options for Atgets photographs but to have access a paring of Atget’s photographs with the insights of Szarkowski and the beautifully printing and binding by MOMA in Italy was just too hard to resist.

The images are all well displayed in the book with a Atget photograph on the right and on the opposite spread the commentary about the photograph by Szarkowski.

So I have now traveled throught this book many times. At first I had hoped for a little more analysis of the structure of the photograph from Szarkowski and then I realized that he was helping to frame the context of the photograph as much as describing the photographs attributes.

The book sequences Atget photographs chronologically taking you on a historical journey through the development of Atget’s body of work. You come to understand that even Bernice Abbott, who became the champion of Atget’s photographs, did not get that close to the photographer himself.

So in conclusion this a book that I can really recommend.

Me too.

Photo Work: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice

I recently picked up a copy of “Photo Work: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice“, Edited by Sasha Wolf.

The introductory blurb on describes the books as follows:

PhotoWork is a collection of interviews by forty photographers about their approach to making photographs and, more importantly, a sustained body of work. Curator and lecturer Sasha Wolf was inspired to seek out and assemble responses to these questions after hearing from countless young photographers about how they often feel adrift in their own practice, wondering if they are doing it the “right” way. The responses, from both established and newly emerging photographers, reveal there is no single path. Their advice is wildly divergent, generous, and delightful: Justine Kurland discusses the importance of allowing a narrative to unravel; Doug DuBois reflects on the process of growing into one’s own work; Dawoud Bey evokes musicians such as Miles Davis as his inspiration for never wanting to become “my own oldies show.” The book is structured through a Proust-like questionnaire, in which individuals are each asked the same set of questions, creating a typology of responses that allows for an intriguing compare and contrast.

I initially found the first few interviews to be somewhat boring, but after reading more I started to develop an interest in the way these photographers think and work.

Now I’m not much of a photographer. I’m passionate about photography and take quite a lot of photographs, most of them not particularly good. I’ve never exhibited (and probably never will) and have only produced a few photobooks, largely for myself and my family. I hope to do more, but so far…Other that that my primary mechanism for sharing my photographs is social media.

So I decided that it might help me if I tried to answer the questions myself.

First camera

For many years I would have said that it was a Minolta Hi-matic 7sII given to me by my wife many years ago. Then one day, while cleaning out some drawers, I came across a photograph of my father with our dog. I’d completely forgotten about this photograph and it reminded me that I had once had another camera: A Kodak Brownie Vecta. My friend had a camera and a dark room and I had to have one too (a camera that is not a dark room). I was about 11 years old and my interest soon waned. I think I only used it once.

First Meaningful Photobook

The earliest memories I have are of books in the Time Life photography series. Also “The Camera” by Ansel Adams. Even though these have lots of pictures, I’m not sure that they would be considered as “photobooks”. Probably the first real photobook was “Atget” by John Szarkowski. I’m fascinated by Atget to this day.

First meaningful exhibition

I grew up in a working class family in the North of England. Visiting exhibitions was not something that my parents would have found useful or necessary. When I went to university I was too busy studying other things to consider looking for exhibitions and to be honest in those days I was more interested in music and literature than in photography. Later I moved from the UK to New York, got married and had a family. Only some time later, when my interest in photography grew did I think about going to exhibitions. I recall going to exhibitions of Strand, Steichen and Stieglitz at the Metropolitan Museum; Garry Winogrand also at the Met, and Henri Cartier-Bresson and Sebastião Salgado at the International Center of Photography.

Personal Fact

For many years I was obsessed with time, waking up every 15 minutes or so for a second or two to check the time. I still am to some extent although much less so since I retired.

What comes first for you: the idea or a project, or individual photographs that suggest a concept?

Usually the individual photograph. I wander around taking photographs that interest me. Usually this results in a collection of individual photographs. Occasionally, however, it might occur to me that I’ve already taken some similar photographs and this can cause me to start to look for yet more similar photographs thus leading to a project. Rarely I’m reading something that suggests to me an idea for a project.

What are the key elements that must be present for you when you are creating a body of work?(Social commentary, strong form, personal connection, photographic reference…)?

The photograph must have a subject, which I find interesting. After that probably can I make a good composition out of it: Light, form, line, shapes, texture, patterns etc. If the photograph has some kind of personal connection then so much the better. Very occasionally I might take a photograph because it reminds me of a photographer that I admire. Social commentary never enters into it.

Is the idea of a body of work important to you? How does it function in relation to making a great individual photograph?

For a long time the idea of a body of work was not important to me, but I’ve since changed my mind and find the idea of a number of related images, structured in a way that makes the whole greater than the original photographs to be appealing. I like to tell stories. Ideally, of course, I’d like them all the photographs to be great individual images, but I’m willing to include lesser images if they further the overall story.

Do you have what you might call a “photographic style”?

I wish I did, but unfortunately I don’t feel that I do at the moment. I can’t imagine that any one would look at any of my photographs and recognize that it was by Howard Dale. I don’t have that talent – maybe never will.

Where would you say your style falls on a continuum between completely intuitive and intellectually formulated?

Initially completely intuitive when I take the pictures. If I”m later organizing them, say for a photobook then the more intellectual side kicks in.

Assuming you now shoot in what you would consider your natural voice, have you ever wished your voice was different?

I’m not sure that I have a “natural voice” at the moment. If so I don’t recognize what it is. This being the case I’ve never wished that my voice was different. However, if I did someday develop my “natural voice” I can’t imagine that I would wish it to be different. I am what I am and have no wish to be anything else.

How do you know when a body of work is finished?

Sometimes it’s obvious e.g. you a dealing with a finite number of pictures and you’ve taken as many as you can. I once took a series of pictures at a nearby air museum. I took all that I wanted to take and don’t imagine that I’d want to go back and take more. Sometimes a body of work never seems to end. There is always more to add. Sometimes I just run out of steam and call an end to the process.

Have you ever had a body of work that was created in the editing process?

Almost every time. Once I’ve started on a project I end of with a lot of images. Deciding what to include and what to leave out is to me possibly the most difficult part of a project. I have a general idea of what story I’m trying to tell so organizing the images so that they support this story is very important.

Do you associate your work with a particular genre of photography? If yes, how would you define that genre?

One of my weaknesses is that I have not yet managed to focus on a single genre. I bounce around from one to another. I do, however, have some idea of genres that don’t interest me all that much: commercial photography; portrait photography; wedding photography. You might see a thread here: I’m not comfortable with people and avoid genres that require a lot of contact with people. I admire street photographers, but tend to shy away from it because of the people issue. I suppose I’m some sort of documentary photographer (not social documentary however. I’m not trying to change the world). I have two main interests: photography and history. I’m happiest when I can combine the two.

Do you ever revisit a series that has already been exhibited or published to shoot more and add to it?

I have not so far exhibited or published (other than the odd self-produced photo book. However, with the photobooks that I have done I have often wanted to add more photographs.

Do you ever revisit a series that has already been exhibited or published and reedit it?

I haven’t but I can well imagine that I might.

Do you create with presentation in mind,be that a gallery show or a book?

Not really. At this point I time I mostly think in terms of photobooks and social media postings and I can usually make my photographs fit. I suppose that if I had an upcoming exhibition or a photobook to be published I might. But since none of these has so far occurred I don’t know for sure.