Rephotographing Bruce Davidson : an OCA student exhibits in Sheffield

The College had another study day arranged for photographers; a visit to an exhibition of photographs in Sheffield which have been made by an OCA student living in New York. In the end, I found myself unable to attend so here is a link to an excellent account of the day by fellow student Eileen Rafferty ..

An image from Tanya Ahmed’s East 100’th Street

We are treated to a video interview with the photographer, Tanya Ahmed, a British sounding woman who has been living in New York and rephotographing East 100’th Street 40 years after Bruce Davidson was there. In his time, it was a very run down area, a ghetto for drug takers and no-hopers; although the buildings remain and the similar kinds of people? live there, the area is no longer run down. Tanya’s images attempt to capture the place as it is today beyond the popular preceptions of gentrification. More images can be seen here …

According to Ahmed, the area is now inhabited by regular folk living in a rehabilitated area. She lives there and set out to give an up to date view of the place in which people are pictured in their own homes. Her neighbours did not know much if anything about the history of the street or the photographer Bruce Davidson. Ahmed wanted to photograph the present day community, “us”, and explained to them her motive as a student of the OCA. She was not only interested in portraying the place but also the people who inhabit it; her exhibition is composed entirely of interior views! Ahmed has been in touch with Bruce Davidson who has been supportive of her work and interested too. He did return to 100’th Street but has not visited for sometime. Ahmed has been a working photographer for sometime and enjoyed the collaboration with others while making this body of work. Her comment on the OCA website was … “This whole experience has been amazing and it has been wonderful to meet everyone involved, they have all done a brilliant job and been exceptionally nice. Thank you also to all the students taking the time to follow and comment on the various posts of my work, I feel like I have a new set of best friends”

My own comment of the website ruuns thus … “What interests me about re-photography is the contrasts that exist between the two times pictured. There seems to be no deliberate attempt on Tanya’s part to emphasise this by, for instance, rephotographing the same places from the same point of view, rather it is about the general atmosphere of the place which appears to have changed for the better.”

To see some of the photos by Bruce Daidson …

For a peek at the book …

He was interviewed by The Guardian about this body of work …

Another interesting read is …

Ahmed’s approach is not as different as might at first appear to be the case. Her photographs are setup, arranged beforehand, while Davidson’s photographs that appear to rely on the spontaneity of the moment were often made with a tripod mounted camera. Davidson however, was working with a political brief, showing the way people there were suffering from poor living conditions. Ahmed on the other hand sets out to present the place as it is today, a place she is happy to live in; there is no stigma to what she is doing.

Ahmed has also had her work commented on by Maggy Milner, an OCA tutor, who was struck by the quality of her photographs. She describes them as extraordinary, well made prints, with thorough attention to detail. Ahmed does not give much mention of technique rather the concept behind the photographs and her research. She lets the families choose where they want to be photographed unlike Davidson who approached as a photojournalist yet worked on the project for a couple of years and ended up getting to know his subjects. Her submission to the OCA was not just the prints but also her comments on images via post-cards.

One student, Dewald who lives in China, comments “There is constant discussions going on everywhere, OCA, Flickr and on here, where students are told NOT to produce material specifically for the approval of the assessors.” This makes good sense since I do not think I shall be making the kind of work that the assessors want to see. For instance, photos of the outskirts of Delhi with quotes from the Bhagavad Gita; the assessors won’t know the place and probably find the quotes incomprehensible.

Dewald also says, “This work of Tanya seems to be a combination of an immense amount of research into a photographer and work that has a connection to where she herself is right at this time, not only as a person, but as an artist. The fact that she then went out and got involved with people who live around her, and built that kinds of relationships with them, is admirable in an age where I think very few people bother to even acknowledge other people living in the same building.”

Tanya comments on her submission … “I don’t want to speak for the assessors, but IMHO I think it is more than just the final collection of images that they considered. Obviously they had much more information than just the images about the concept and the way I progressed through the project. The basic premise of which was that I wanted to see if being an insider made a difference to the images produced. I used Davidson’s book as a stepping stone and considered his images against mine to see if what I was doing was different and why. On the face of things we were doing the same thing but in reality we were not. Each time I found something different I looked into it- One example I analyzed how people were looking at his camera, how they looked at mine, with some book suggestions from my tutor I looked back through history at portraits and justified the approach I used. Obviously you and any other audience will only have the final images to judge. The question is will you see the behind the scenes work in the images? Will you see a thread or an approach tying them together? Will you notice a different mood or different focus than in Davidson’s work and is there a difference in the work of an insider compared to an outsider? I hope this little bit of explanation is helpful.”

Tanya emphasises the collaboration that took place between her and her subjects.

Interestingly, a MOMA press release made at the time of Davidson’s exhibition, states …”The antithesis of candid photography, these pictures are the product of a conscious collaboration between photographer and subject”.

John Szarowski who was at that time the Director of MOMA photography said, “he (Davidson) has shown us true and specific people, photographed in those private moments of suspended action in which the complexity and ambiguity of individual lives triumphs over abstraction.”

For me, the parallels between the two photographers approach is striking. The most obvious of these is the use of black and white.

There is more comment on We Are OCA;  I write …

“As someone just beginning the PWDP module and hence occupied with photographing his locality, a rural street, I found this video helpful as well as being a good introduction for tomorrow’s visit.

What interests me about re-photography is the contrasts that exist between the two times pictured. There seems to be no deliberate attempt on Tanya’s part to emphasise this by, for instance by rephotographing the same places from the same point of view, rather it is about the general atmosphere of the place which appears to have changed for the better.”

Tanya Ahmed replies …

“I wrote about rephotography for my level 3 essay. I did take one photo, a street view, that later I realized was in Davidson’s foot steps, it gave me a thrill when I realized it. However, I really didn’t want to go round looking for Davidson’s footprints, I was more interested in my own. I wanted to see whether time and my insider status made a difference to the subject matter and the resulting photographs despite being in a very tiny geographical area. If I had limited myself to trying to restage Davidson’s images I might have got a superb lesson in understanding his subject and technical choices and yes we would have seen easily observable changes but I don’t think my voice would have been there at all. The way I did it was to try to understand his work through comparison with my own. For example, how and in what numbers were children portrayed by both of us- this is one of the biggest differences between us and relates to both our gender, our age and experience in the street. I hope you are enjoying photographically discovering your street”

I then commented again …

“Perhaps re-photography is not the right word to use for describing your work. I can understand you not wanting to “follow” Bruce Davidson since although it might be a learning experience, it could easily result in something second hand.”

In the end, I do not make it to the exhibition and OCA day as the cost of my train fare has more than doubled but am grateful for Tanya Ahmed in responding to my comments.

For her books see …

Magnum Contact Sheets

outside Thye London College of Communication

The alarm went off at 4.30 a.m. as I needed to leave the house by 5 to catch a train before 5.30; there was then the wait at another station for the connecting train. Before this journey started, I could not help but wonder what it was that took me to London for the day! I wanted to not just further my knowledge of photography rather try and refine my understanding of the medium. There were a number of eminent people i the world of UK photography due to speak so there was the chance to hear what people are saying now rather than what they said sometime ago as tends to be the case with much published criticism.


We were told by Sophie Wright, the cultural director of Magnum photos, that the symposium was the alternative to a major exhibition that might have been rather text heavy and for which no funding was available.

The first discussion is a history and overview of the book Magnum Contact Sheets and the first of three speakers is the Magnum photographer Peter Marlow; he joined the agency on the recommendation of Philip Jones-Griffiths. He considers the contact sheet as a vital part of the working process of a photographer and very helpful in seeing the way a photographer works. There is the view that showing one’s contact sheets is a bit like showing one’s dirty linen to the public and yet, as Geoff Dyer points out, the contact sheet is like the 90% of the iceberg. Early in his career, Marlow learnt a lot by editing the work of George Rodger which was obviously done by looking at his contact sheets.

Has the Contact Sheet gone? Is it a past practice that has no place in today’s world. There are of course still some film users at work! I consider the contact sheet, as with other analogue practices, to have being carried into the digital medium. Software exists to allow us to view images on screen in a similar way; in Lightroom for instance, there is a Contact Sheet template in the Print module. However, printing contact sheets may no longer be practical.

So what is that makes one choose a particular image over others? Context, the way an image relates to the world, is important here; Marlow shows a photograph of Maggie Thatcher that me made during the famous “this lady is not for turning” speech. The choice of the actual image from a contact sheet of some 42 images, all of Maggie Thatcher giving this speech, was chosen using particular considerations notably showing the import of her stature that seemed to corraborate with the speech’s meaning.

(from the left) Stuart Smith, Peter Marlow, Andrew Sanigar.

The next speaker was Stuart Smith who worked on the design of the book. He finds working with photographers not an easy task as they tend to be very particular; publishers have a more definite approach. Design can be overdone – simplicity is important.

In this book, photographers were asked to write a text which turned out to be more difficult than actually choosing the photographs.

The book does not only contain contact sheets, it also includes artifacts such as sketches of photographs.

Editing is one of the hardest things for a photographer to do! Yes? No? Maybe!

Once a photograph has been selected then there is a tendency to keep to that photograph although another selection process might well turn up a different selection.

Photographs can be compromised when they are reproduced such as when cropping to fit on a particular page; for instance, a square composition becomes a vertical one.

One can get an idea of a photographer from some of the marks made on or around a contact sheet.

What makes one image better than another?

Designing the jacket of a book involves showing the publisher various ideas; old ideas are saved for later reference. The cover of Magnum Contact Sheets went through various stages involving at one time photographs on the front. The end result is minimalist making the book look like a box of printed sheets.

Sophie Wright pointed out that some photographers chuck out their unselected images and so were unable to contribute to this book. The book itself gives many insights into the way photographers work.

Selecting images can take time .. one needs to leave the selection awhile and then go back to it. Editing is also necessary while one is shooting or soon after otherwise one gets an unenjoyable back log of images to search through. For the photographer, there is no longer any hanging out at the end of the day in the bar as metadata needs to be added.

The next talk is by David Campany and called “The One, The Many, The One : Photography and Editing

David Campany - "The One, The Many, The One"

There is an interesting quote from Walter Benjamin (1931) that Sanders (German early twentieth century photographer) is not so much a picture book but more a training manual. I remember this because someone recently referred to some photos I had done as a bit like a training manual for navigating around a supermarket which made me reflect on their practical nature as photographs of something rather than about it.

Campany talks about the legendary French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose photographs have become iconic. What to say of his contact sheets? H.C-B tended to leave his editing to others being more interested in what was happening inside the frame at the time the images were made; his editors were forbidden from cropping his images! H.C-B drew much inspiration from artists.

Susan Mieselas is another magnum photographer who did not even get the chance to edit her images as it was done on film and sent back to the States for processing and later printing.

It has been said that the photographer is a proletarian in the process and may become a pawn in the game if they do not manage to exercise some degree of editorial input. However, photographers are not very good at editing (maybe because they have invested so much in making a picture!?) Magnum Photo agency was set up to give photographers more editorial control.

Campany has coined a new term, “tradigital”; digital cameras still use analog devices.

The gap between photographs is important; part of the narrative Photographs tend to work in groups and there is a need to be wary of the singular image, of a photograph becoming iconic.

Jeff Wall is an example of a photographer who does work towards the singular image. Is he really more of an artist? No, he’s a photographer!

Some photographs make you think – may even hurt the brain!!

William Klein is an example of a photographer whose work peaked in the 1960’s yet is now being shown a lot; has an upcoming exhibition at the Tate Modern …

Contemporary photography has become somewhat elitist, arrogant.

Photography has become serial; the pressures of the archive. Mostly photography is concerned with a succession of images rather then one although this may not be the case i advertising.

A lot of photographerrs have been left out of the standard photographic canon of history such as those from Asia and South America.

What exactly is a Photo-Essay? There is not really a default definition, a fixed editorial idea, and yet a standardised form has tended to dominate photography. Magazine editors think differently.

A website to check out …

However, it seems Campany has not checked out this website recently since although it is still there, it is no longer really active. There is however a book …

Another book mentioned is Beaumont Newhall’s The History of Photography …

There is some mention of DSLR video. Some cameras can produce video images good enough for still presentation; the interpenetration of video and still photography is not a new phenomenon.

The next talk is another group discussion about “The Importance of the Archive: photography and posterity” and involves Hilary Roberts (photographic curator at The Imperial War Museum, Antony Penrose director of the Lee Millar archive, Nick Galvin a freelance archivist and is chaired by Sophie Wright cultural director of Magnum Photos.

Hilary Roberts (photographic curator at The Imperial War Museum, Antony Penrose director of the Lee Millar archive, Nick Galvin a freelance archivist and is chaired by Sophie Wright cultural director of Magnum Photos

i listened to this talk but did not make many notes except for the discussion of the Magnum Archive in which every image is meant to have a long number that is unique to it. The magnum archive is really an amalgam of archives, about 15,000 in fact, and there are an estimated 11 million images.

Antony Penrose related how Conde Nast tried to claim ownership of The Lee Millar Archive but this was not upheld in the courts.

There is not much to eat at The London College of Communication so I go across the road to find something in a large cafeteria there.

cafe at the Elephant and Castle

leaves on the subway entrance outside The London College of Communication

The first talk of the afternoon is perhaps the best of the day since it is by David Hurn, a Magnum photographer and teacher who set up documentary studies at The University of Gwent in Newport. He says that we have a lot to learn from contact sheets and looking at those of accomplished photographers is one way we can progress as photographers and keep learning. Photographers can get better! (David Hurn has sold me the book though this is not his intention, he passionately cares about photography).

David Hurn photographer

David Hurn has been a professional photographer since 1955 but has kept up with photographic developments; one has to!

In the mid 1960’s, there were no real photographic galleries in the UK and not a museum that collected photographs as art objects (what about the V+A?) and no Arts Council grants for photographers.However, every week-end there were lots of pages of photographs appearing in newspapers. Photographers including many well known ones were not well paid as a rule which is one reason so many found refuge in David Hurn’s flat in London.

Photographic education hardly went beyond the manual!

1963 – one photographic M.A. in the U.S.
1967 – 13 photographic M.A. in the U.S.
nowadays there are about 500 photographic M.A. in the U.S.

1963 – MOMA had a photographic print collection based entirely on prints from Beaumont Newhall

1955 – no such thing as an art photographer

there were standard professional lines including portraiture,pornography,science record,landscape,weddings,photo-journalism – professional photo-artists came later!

David Hurn has in his house a photographic print of a man wrapped up in bandages by Philip Jones-Grifiths; quite often, this print reduces people to tears – surely this reveals that photography can be art!

There are different ways through which the photographer can learn, one being trial and error. Competitions do help one to excel while chatting with friends is another way.

“Buying a good pair of shoes!” is another piece of advice David Hurn has to offer. One often has to walk a lot as a photographer.

The contact sheet can help to prove a photograph’s authenticity.

Doing an MA can be a distraction; the ability to produce work is what matters.

David Hurn claims to have the largest photographic archive of Wales in the world.

For him, “the world is interesting – I want to record it and show it to you!”

He mentions Koudelka’s book “Gypsies”

To do something well, one needs to do it a lot. Take a lot of photos and look at a lot of photos.

Diane Arbus never had a solo exhibition while alive.

Talk to other photographers about the way they work.

DH has loved his life in photography … bliss is the word he uses to describe it. Enabled him to travel to places he wanted to visit and meet people he would otherwise never have met.

One needs 5 seconds to evaluate/consider an image!

The next talk is a discussion “A lost generation: the effects of the disappearance of contact sheets and the editorial market.”

(from left to right) Sean O'Hagan (Guardian),Colin Jacobson, Francis Hodgson,David Hurn (Magnum photographer),Chris Steele-Perkins (Magnum photographer)

The Contact Sheet is a lost item, a former working practice; reading them is a skill!

CJ – editing is messy – takes place too fast in the hurly-burly of working life. Editing works down from many to one.

The photographer can only go so far; after that, up to those who do the lay-out, art directors etc

Chris S-P – one can do own edit and do not have to show contact sheets; contact sheets are like a photographer’s underpants.

FH – photographers now selling themselves as a brand rather than just their photographs.

DH – some colleges lead their photographers to believe they can make a living doing books – books are useful as a marketing device but not for real income. Prints make even less!

S O’H – photography has become much more market driven – way of working still a craft skill.

CJ – need to also shoot in vertical format; magazines need these kind of images.
What is photographic story-telling today? A series of photographs linked by text rather than a group of good photographs; text tends to dominate photos.
A group of pessimistic old men discussing photography?

FH – photography is a major form of communication yet tends to be considered marginal. Cultural nervousness about photography.

DH – more staged directed photography rather than the world as it is

Chris S-P – iPhone makes work that much easier and possible; one does not stand out as a photographer. Chris tends to keep all his RAW images rather than throw away those that are no good.

DH – the iPhone has revolutionised photography along with the internet; the iPhone can go almost anywhere incognito!
“Old fogeys like me could not care a bugger!” says DH of new technology.

FH – there is a digital soup of culture; the medium does not matter.
Where is the contact sheet today in slid form!?

CJ – where are the stories today among the mass of images? What has replaced the photo-story?

S O’H – can newspapers compete with the internet’s messaging of news?

FH – newspapers can give a more in-depth analysis but often this comes too late!?!

Mitch Epstein is successful; Jim Goldberg has also responded to present day market needs

Chris S-P – basic 6 image photo for magazine seems dead!

FH – great waste of good imagery today.
The convictions over Sunday Bloody Sunday relied on the contact sheets of Giles Peress

CJ – BBC and CNN ready to use unauthorised, unverified images about an unreported event

FH – can a photographer still get his story out there?

DH – possibility of selling ebooks! via Kindle for instance. Could generate income.
Motivation of photographer to disseminate – also joy of making good photographs
Editor’s view – crop them down and blow them up!
Might Magnum have sold magnum Contact Sheets as an ebook?

Commissioned work superceeded by the internet revolution rather than in-depth coverage.

Print journalism has lost out to internet journalism

extraordinary photographic work not being taken by the mainstream

no great conclusions about what is happening today

The final discussion is concerned with “the contact sheet in art photography”

Simon Baker (Tate), David Campany, Zelda Cheatle and Martin Barnes (V+A)

The “Dismissive Moment” when one has to reject photographs in view of others

Examining the contact sheets of a photographer can help when exhibiting that photographer’s work

Contact sheets allow physical, visceral contact

The patron saint of photography is Saint Veronica !!?

Simon Baker

diaristic mode of the Contact Sheet

early iraqi photobooks suggest that photography is anything you can do with the medium

the contact sheet can be a work of art in itself (John Hilliard)

is the magnum Contact Sheets book an elegy to a lost age?

Martine Franck is one photographer who did not wish to share her contact sheets considering them too private; she did however since it was part of a general project.

The V+A has a new gallery; not THE chronology of photographic history but a slightly different one that will be changed from time to time.

Photography can still help to show people the world that exists about them

Tate Britain has a Don Mac Cullin room next to that of Turner
Tate Modern is showing photographs in their restaurant

David Campany – pleased that Magnum Contact Sheets is a book and not an exhibition
A contact sheet can give the experience of being there

What replaces the contact sheet? Likely to be onscreen rather than a physical object

The internet is the museum of the invisible; it can be policed but not controlled.

Its’ been an interesting day with quite a lot of pragmatic consideration of the contact sheet and the photographic medium as a whole …

Anna Gormley - selling copies of the Magnum Contact Sheets book