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The next workshop is on Saturday 12th October, 2019 (the September one is now full) Email me at colinpantall@yahoo.co.uk with any question...

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

How not to Photograph: The Olivetti Hour

picture: Colin Pantall -From the Series, What People Don't Understand about Komodo: Over 3,ooo people live in Kampung Komodo, an increase of 2,000 on 1992 levels. Immigration due and reduced rainfall has produced pressure on Komodo's natural resources. Poaching of the island's deer by hunters from mainland Sumbawa together with unsustainable fishing practices and corruption amongst local officials has led to environmental degradation and a fall in the deer population of 37%. This together with encroachment on their natural habitat has caused a fall in the local Komodo dragon (Varanus Komodoensis population of 26% over the last 7 years, resulting in increased attacks on villagers including last months death of a foraging villager. It's all in the picture, look, kids' feet and everything.

In How not to Write a Novel (the book which, er, inspired this series), Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark mention The Kodak Moment where the writer describes a character through a photograph.

As he passed the mirror, Joe noticed the blond hair and square-jawed features that had always won him attention from the girls. Then he saw, wedged in the mirror's corner, a photo of Melinda. Her pretty face was lusciously framed by long straight cinnamon hair and medium-sized by perfectly shaped breasts.

The description is second-hand, devalued and unrealistic according to Newman and Mittelmark. We don't need to see a picture to describe a person and if we do, it's rare that the description will be that evocative.

In photography, the equivalent is the Kodak Moment's flipside, The Olivetti Hour. This is where the picture doesn't really do the work it is supposed to do so the photographer gets tip-tip-tapping away on the typewriter and hey-presto, the picture is transformed from an image of a sombre middle-aged man with a case of indigestion to an expose of the use of empty bed typologies in the torture of innocent terror suspects in North Africa.

Many of us do this kind of captioning, but few of us get away with it, our captions taking on an extravagance and length that enables us to make the leap of faith that is necessary tol persuade us that, yes, these are important pictures and they say everything that the words say underneath. And no, it's not just about the caption, it's about the picture which really does show what it says underneath and if it doesn't, then it doesn't matter because there has always been a strong relationship between writing and photography and this is an example of that.

But there is a massive difference between photographers (Bill Owens for example) whose captions nail the photographs and those who use words to fill in the gaps where the picture doesn't go, quoting facts, figures and factoids to make the point that is hopelessly missing from the picture. We can make all kinds of justifications for doing this (time, budgets, relationship between words, pictures etcetera etcetera) but we all know the real reason we do this - because we didn't get the pictures in the first place.

The solution to the Olivetti Hour?: Get the pictures in the first place.


simon anstey said...


Here is something from C.Killip writing about Goldblatt specifically, and ranting about photography generally.....

"Goldblatt's obsessive documentation serves to highlight the inadequacies of photography. The photograph's inane dumbness, as it is not a thought, not an idea, not an emotion, not an opinion......not even an abstraction.

No one else in photography in compelled, like him, to write 1500 word explanatory footnotes for their photographs. The inadequacies of this medium ridicule and mock.....

Photography is completely perverse as it so easy to do and yet so very hard to do well.

.....he forces us to reconsider the fraudulent nature of our relationship with photography. The deceit at the heart of the photograph as an object, when it is so blatantly not the thing it describes. A photograph is worse than the unreliable evidence for which it can no longer even qualify. Photography is the feeblest stab at verifying our existence, as it sometime amounts to nothing more than a suggestive glance, a fallen ambition like droppings on a golden plate. The shortcomings of photography are overwhelming".

Chris Killip in "Fifty-One Years"
ISBN 84-95273-78-0 (for those interested)

Hey Killip can write like hell, just as well as he can photograph.

Still, it seems to me that the footnote can be a fine thing, for example in Goldblatt's case because they ground and place the photographs in an historical context, without which they would be just above average photographs. If written well they impact the viewer and add to the value of the view. Recently, in a book about Killips work, I read a note about the skinhead boy sitting on the wall. The note explained that he was freezing cold and not, as I had assumed along with many other prejudiced viewers, that he was high on glue. Owens and Parr are master of the caption, and while their images may well stand without the words, the impact is compounded by them.

So if you want place the image in the ongoing time frame, caption it; if you want it to remain some sort of ongoing metaphor for a (vague) idea, leave it alone. And of course if you want people to look at it again and agian, make sure its good.


colin pantall said...

Thanks for that, Simon. That sums it up, as much as anything can - The power and weakness of the photograph.