Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Documentary Research: Assignment 3

So in preparation for my shoot at the farm, I have been doing some reading which I need to post here about. I decided to do a documentary style shoot at the local farm (for Assignment 3), capturing both the staff and volunteers at work. I have been looking online for ideas but came back to my book collection. I want to make a cohesive study of people at work. There have been many examples of this kind of work, so it is not an original idea, but then few ideas are original any more! In order to think about what to capture, I note down what I think happens at the farm:

  • People work and volunteer in the plant nursery and in the farm proper
  • It is a community farm so there are always people around
  • There is a 'work for the dole' scheme (dole = unemployment benefits in Australia) active, and someone organised this and runs it day to day
  • A community lunch is put on a few days a week for the workers
  • There is often art and craft on (Bob Mud)
  • A mothers group sometimes meets on a Friday
  • There are education classes (on a Saturday), Farm Tours, and all the usual administration that occurs in a community organisation

The above is a big list, and too much to photograph for one project. On my first photographic outing for this project I captured people working in the nursery, and some people working in the garden on the 'work for the dole' scheme. I feel like I have a good narrative of images thus far, and I need to visit again to see if I can improve, and also whether I want to include any other images.

So, books. I chose Magnum Magnum (2009) as my starting point. My thinking was that for most of the history of Magnum, its members shot in Black and White. This would help me with getting 'thinking' in Black and White. And the stories are all 'documentary' style, which is perfect for my project. Some notes below after re-reading the book:

  • Get close
  • Fill the frame
  • Tell a story - what are you trying to say?
  • Don't worry about cropping (heads off!!) - it doesn't matter if the story is there
  • Shadows / Silhouettes / Blur / Out of Focus
  • Think about what is in the background
  • There is a photo to be made every where and in every situation. Look for the angle.
  • Windows are powerful - use the frame
  • Get low / Look high / look down / turn around - detail shots contribute to the series
  • Find out what is going on - religious event / demonstration - all are opportunities to tell a story
  • On the street - get closer, wide angle, discreet camera

In some ways this is all obvious, but it was quite powerful for me to read this book again and take my time over the pictures  I have also started another book by the group; Magnum Contact Sheets (2011), and it is proving to be another fascinating read, though more for getting 'in the head' of another photographer and seeing his/her thought process as they approach the scene.

What is documentary photography? I started a search online... Wikipedia of course came to the rescue. One question that is worth asking - why am I taking these photos? For this project I am interested in documenting the hard work that goes on at the farm, a place I know has it's ups and downs like any community organisation. I am interested in capturing a story and simply the process of what goes on there. Perhaps that is a bit simplistic, but I feel like I need to do some 'simple' documentary photography before diving into the heavy stuff (for example the politics underneath!!) I'm not ready to change the world just yet... I guess I'm also showing what goes on so that perhaps others will want to join in - perhaps a piece in a local newspaper advocating the volunteer organisation at the farm?

I also did some reading about 'New Documentary', and found an article by A. D. Coleman here, and some writings by Sean O'Hagan of The Guardian here. Winogrand, Arbus and Friedlander all worked in black and white with small hand-held cameras - perfect for documentary photography. But differently to 'news' photography  they were photographing everyday life in all it's wonder and diversity. Coleman (2000) mentions that their work was 'increasingly asymmetrical, unbalanced, fragmented, even messy'. This loose, quick style of documentary photography, not 'news' photography is what interests me - capturing people, living their lives, in their surroundings as I find them - not posing them, but just observing quietly and capturing a story. They photographed in the 'social landscape' (Coleman 2000). As Szarkowski says in his introduction to the 'New Documents' exhibition: 'Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it... the imperfections and frailties of society'. Interestingly, Coleman's (2000) article discusses the way each of these photographers almost refused to consider the social commentary that their pictures presented. They leave the photos to stand on their own, without comment. This is quite a dry, deadpan style of approach to documentary photography, not really making a stand. In some ways this is quite an easy position to hold - it can be hard to state your case and stick with it.

What is the difference between photojournalism and documentary photography? I like this statment from Wikipedia: 'Documentary photography generally relates to longer term projects with a more complex story line, while photojournalism concerns more breaking news stories. The two approaches often overlap.' (Wikipedia 2012). That sums it up quite nicely.

There is an infinite number of people working in this field so I can't possibly do reading on everyone! I will keep reading my books and doing some online searching and will update this blog post as I do so.


Coleman, A. (2000), MoCA Catalogue Essay: Arbus, Friedlander, Winogrand. [Online]. Available at http://www.nearbycafe.com/artandphoto/cspeed/essays/Coleman_MoCA.pdf [Accessed 12/12/12]

Lardinois, B (Ed). (2009), Magnum Magnum. London: Thames & Hudson

Lubben, K (Ed). (2011), Magnum Contact Sheets. London: Thames & Hudson

The Museum of Modern Art. (1967), New Documents. [Online]. Available at http://www.moma.org/docs/press_archives/3860/releases/MOMA_1967_Jan-June_0034_21.pdf?2010 [Accessed 12/12/12]

Northey St City Farm (2012), Website. [Online] Available at: http://www.nscf.org.au/. [Accessed 11/12/12]

O'Hagan, S. (2010), Sean O'Hagan On photography, The Guardian. [Online]. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/jul/20/john-szarkowski-photography-moma [Accessed 12/12/12]

Wikipedia (2012), Documentary Photography [Online]. Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Documentary_photography [Accessed 12/12/12]

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