Essential Reading: Photography – Stephen Bull

Despite the fact that I’ve not actually started this course yet (I’m still working on The Art of Photography), I have made a start on the Essential Reading List.

Bull has a very good writing style which is easily followed, unlike many academic text books on Critical Theory. The introduction instantly captured my interest and attention with its bullet point analysis of 7 photographs in 7 days of relatively recent events.  I found the book to be informative and topical, both widening my general knowledge of Photography Theory and informing opinion on debated ideas. As with all of the books I’ve read as part of my studies, I’ve made numerous notes. These have been made to reinforce the knowledge gained, and for future reference so that I can look back on them once the books are returned to the library!

Bull states that 2 viewpoints have informed critical approaches to photography:

  1. Modernism:
    • A concentration on what is “in” the frame.
    • The representation of the experience of modernity.
    • Styles emphasise:
      • Linearity.
      • Form.
      • The mechanical.
      • Embrace abstraction over realism.
    • It suggests that photography is a medium which has a unique and unchanging nature.
    • At its most extreme, modernism isolates photographs from their surrounding context entirely.
    • It is very aesthetic.
  2. Post modernism:
    • A concentration on what is “outside” the frame.
    • An approach that pays little or no attention to aesthetic content and focuses instead on the cultural context of photos.
    • Focuses on social issues.

I feel that there is far more to each viewpoint, but having had little understanding of either, these short bullet points help me to better understand the difference between the 2. In the book, photographs are also described as being:

  1. Transient:
    • This applies mainly to digital images which can be manipulated and transmitted at speed and with ease. I think that the context can often be as transient as the image, depending on how the image is viewed.
  2. Fixed:
    • Predominantly analogue images, viewed within limited or fixed contexts.

Given that transient images are more readily available, and constructed/manipulated, does this in fact make them purer? I dare say yes, as the context is limited by the screens on which they are displayed.

Bull refers to the writings of Roland Barthes regularly throughout the book. In trying to understand how text and image work together, Barthes suggests that text works in 2 ways:

  1. Anchorage:
    • Fixes the meaning of the image.
    • Tells the viewer with some precision what they are looking at.
    • The Who, What, Where, Why, When.
  2. Relay:
    • Picture and text work in tandem to create a meaning that neither could do individually.
    • e.g. captions that hint at the unseen or which help to invoke a sense of humour or feeling. e.g. Martin Parr’s Midsummer Madness.

I came across the term “Kodak Culture” during my reading which I found very interesting. On the face of it, it seems so obvious, but only because I’ve now been made aware of it. It is advertising over the years that has dictated what we take photographs of and why!

In recent history, the context of many documentary photographs has changed when the images have made their way into the gallery. This begs the question: What is the difference, if any, between documentary photography and art photography? Bull offers this answer:

  • Documentary = Images based on objective reality.
  • Art = Creations of an artists subjective sensibility.

Initially I thought “fair enough, that works for me”, but I’m not so sure. I’m still undecided on whether or not it’s possible to be truly objective when making a photograph. There are definitely some blurred lines here, and the founders of Magnum were renowned for their desire to be free of the objective constraints placed on them by picture editors. Their freelancing work demonstrates a shift to subjective documentary now referred to as the “Documentary Style”.

On the subject of “War and its Aftermath”, Bull writes about a shift in sensibilities and raises some ethical questions, such as – Is horror required to remind us of the atrocities or does it desensitise us?  Since the early 80’s there has been increased censorship, with reporters and photojournalists embedded with military units. This is something I have first hand experience of, having worked with the media in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have personal photographs which are far more graphic/horrific than anything published in the mainstream media in the last 30 years, due to the level of censorship, and changes in the discourse of war photography.  Now, instead of horror, we see a more aesthetic aftermath, or dots on screens. As for answering the question, I’m going to leave that one for now, as I believe Susan Sontag has lots to say on the issue in other books on the Essential Reading List!

The last part of the book that I really found of interest was on the topic of “Citizen Photojournalism”.  With a very good example from the 7/7 bombings taken on a mobile phone of people evacuating a tube train.

  • Sontag has said that “the public do not want the taint of artistry, but rather the weight of witnessing”. Pictures/events seem more authentic when not well composed, lit etc.
  • Graininess and poor quality connote authenticity where as images with a high technical quality and good composition appear staged/manipulated. This is partly due to mistrust in the mass media, making amateur images more convincing.

With this in mind, I couldn’t help but think back to an earlier chapter on the Snapshot. Snapshots account for the majority of photographs taken and in existence, but despite this, they are given very little credence in photography theory. Graham King is quoted as describing the recurring characteristics of Snapshots, which are often seen as mistakes. Reading the list made me smile as they all ring true, and we can all relate to having taken/seen hundreds of photos with these characteristics. Surely then, these characteristics can be used to create staged/manipulated photos that connote authenticity? How long before even the Snapshot isn’t trusted?

Lastly, throughout the book I have identified some areas for further research which hopefully I will get around to in due course:

  1. Subvertising.
    • Banksy.
    • Adbusters.
  2. Beyond the family album – Jo Spence & Rosy Martin
  3. Here is New York: A democracy of photographs.

Bibliography: Bull, S (2010). Photography. Routledge, USA.


One thought on “Essential Reading: Photography – Stephen Bull

  1. Pingback: Level 1 – Art of Photography – Assignment 5: Research – Subject ideas | My Learning Log – Art of Photography

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