Definitions are generally quite boring, unless you are able to find some chink which can be used to call them into question. We’ve seen a number of interesting photobooks that came out recently, together with some which were published in 2015 (yes, it’s Christmas time and we obviously have to compile a list of some sort). All of the images you can find in these books were shot in London, and that’s the reason we’ve chosen them: putting them next to each other makes it much easier for us to address certain issues.
The books are:
- "Adventures in the Lea Valley" by Polly Braden
- "London Ends" by Philipp Ebeling
- "Minor Collisions" by David Wilson
- "Up West" by David Solomons
- "All that life can afford" by Matt Stuart
Some of them clearly fall into the documentary category, while others apparently don’t. On the basis of the definitions we mentioned at the beginning, one might think that they belong to completely different worlds. At first we tended to agree, but on looking more closely we’re no longer sure.
The key factors here are intentions and chance, the divide between approaching something with a specific idea in mind, as opposed to the inclination to trust to chance, which is the determining factor in a certain approach to photography. The idea seems pretty clear in theory, but it’s probably not while you’re actually out shooting.
Intentions and chances are two things which are very difficult to stay away from. I wonder how many of the so-called documentary works which we’ve seen so far are completely faithful to the original idea, and haven’t been changed on the fly, because of some unforeseen event, or because something unexpected suddenly came up.
The first two books on the list, despite being very different in nature, definitely have one thing in common: they are the result of an exploration. And while they show a different “level of familiarity” with the chosen area, perhaps, they are still an exploration, which by design requires a level of awareness which makes it possible to recognize unknown situations that might occur at some time.
“… we began to spend all our spare time in the Lea Valley. We explored mostly by bicycle with one camera and one light meter between us. We followed the seasons. David liked landscapes where unusual "incidents" would take place. I was a portraitist. We both admired the best street photography. Somehow we combined all those elements, responding to light, space, colour and chance encounters.”
“We just kept shooting, knowing that one day we would sift through the mountain of photographs and make some sense of them.”
“The Olympic Games came and went, and the lower Lea Valley began to come to terms with its legacy. Inevitably, we were lured back to see what had happened. Instead of a neglected wilderness there were now landscaped parks, manicured greens, and the continuous sprouting of what property developers like to call ‘luxury apartments’. In the shadow of the looming stadium, the little blue bridge remains, but the graffiti have long been erased.”
Polly Braden on “Adventures in the Valley”
images © Polly Braden
These words in themselves sum up the whole point of all this. They show how those very different approaches blend together so easily, regardless of the will of the photographer, and permeate the whole process.
Another excellent example is Philipp Ebeling’s book, “London ends”. The process looks a little different here: while Polly Braden clearly states she was already familiar with the Lea Valley area, Ebeling says he wanted to know more, which somehow implies he was willing to encounter the unexpected, and his final aim was to document a place:
“Coming to London from a small village in Germany, I was both overwhelmed and enchanted", he writes. "I felt compelled to examine every last corner of the place, to understand it as fully as I could. For years I crisscrossed the city on my bike, finding new routes to places, exploring new neighbourhoods, getting lost, but soaking up every detail. One afternoon I returned to my home in Whitechapel during a freak snowstorm. I rushed into the house to get my camera and started to photograph the local market on my doorstep. These pictures of Whitechapel in the snow started a process of documenting the city.”
Philippe Ebeling on “London Ends”
images © Philipp Ebeling
David Wilson’s “Minor Collisions” probably falls somewhere between the previous books, and the two that we will discuss later on:
“… London is both the starting point and the finishing line. It is the epitome of a metropolis, the archetypal city, and it is thus the perfect, absolute theatre for human life. At the same time, I knew that I would be unable to escape the peculiar nature of the city, so I made no effort to cancel out the identity that emerges from it.The entire project is infused by the awareness that neither of these questions can find answers in or from the depiction of the images, unless one places an arbitrary limit establishing that the question has more relevance than the answer.”
David Wilson on “Minor Collisions”
images © David Wilson
Like Ebeling, he’s a foreigner willing to explore the place, and like Polly Braden, there’s the awareness that some documentary value might emerge from the body of work later, while editing it. But that is not the aspect that guides the project, even if most of it was shot in East London, eventually creating a portrait of that specific area. It’s a spurious approach, one which keeps in mind that chance is a critical factor, but without forgetting that every image is a “fact”, and that a multitude of “facts” might come together in a story, whether we like it or not.
On a slightly different level, it would be interesting to know what was the real degree of awareness of the flaneur, the street photographer who went out shooting apparently with no specific agenda, but who surely had to decide where to go first. Did he throw dice to decide which direction to take, or was there some underlying strategy behind his choice? And mightn’t that choice itself be both the cause and the consequence of an expectation?
And if this last assumption is true, then our expectations are strictly related to our choices, and the simple act of choosing becomes the basic step in the documenting process. As a consequence, documenting becomes unavoidable, irrespective of the approach, even when one is not limited to a specific place or typology.
One might assert that proper documentation, even when judging from the finished work only, gives every single image a specific meaning which becomes part of the narrative, while according to the second school of thought this is not essential. If that is true, it’s also true that in a complex piece of work any individual image responds to a certain logic, even if it might apparently have a less clearly-defined form.
Matt Stuart’s “All that life can afford” and David Solomons' "Up West" illustrate this idea to perfection. Yes, they are part of the tradition of being open to pretty much everything and observing what’s happening in the streets, but there’s clearly more to it than just that.
“London was too large a city to really do justice in a set of 60 or so pictures. Then in 2001, I realized the West End was usually my first port of call when taking pictures, and the phrase ‘up west’ came to mind and a project was born. Over 12 years I wandered the busy shopping areas of Oxford Street and Covent Garden, drank in almost every pub in Soho, and stumbled across dozens of demonstrations, events, street parties and cultural festivals.”
David Solomons on “Up West”
images © David Solomons
This was a different process, something that didn’t start as a well-defined project, but didn’t take that form at the end of the shooting part either. It took shape at some point between the two, and from that moment on it was developed in a way that perfectly blends all of these different approaches into one.
Matt Stuart’s book is a good one to end with. We don’t even need to search for a quote from him, actually, because the title is self-explanatory: “All That Life Can Afford”. The subject is pretty clear here, it's "life".
images © Matt Stuart
Is it too broad in scope to be considered as a proper documentary work? We are not sure whether “broadness” can be seen as a guideline, just as the difficulty of climbing Everest shouldn’t lead to any judgement on the feasibility of the endeavour itself. It’s not a matter of scale, but of content.
And then, when does a theme, an idea, become too abstract to be considered as such? Couldn’t it be that “documenting” starts from a sensation, a subtle feeling or a certain mood, or might it perhaps succeed in describing these sensations by means of a number of apparently disconnected images?
It’s the unit of measure per se, not the actual measurement that you might get from it, because searching for it at all costs wouldn’t eliminate uncertainty in any case. Or rather, it’s the “context”, which in this case, too, is defined by the work itself, because a single standard that could be applied to everything would open and close like an accordion, which would be meaningless.
Approximation for approximation, it might be more useful to determine the nature of the playing-field, where everything becomes a shade of the same colour, without feeling the need to find the smallest fraction, but being perfectly satisfied with a round number which makes it far easier to find a direction of sorts. At the same time, those boundaries need to be re-examined as our sight expands towards the outside.
We need to apply this reasoning, even if it's based on a paradox, if we are to understand how hard it is to draw a clear line, and as a consequence to prove the futility of most definitions and of the constant need to categorize everything. It might be useful in simplifying a concept, but it could very well turn into an cage if taken too seriously. Thus a reasonable degree of approximation is a resource rather than a limit – which it would become only if we were looking for some reassuring shortcut.
In the end we are not talking about different worlds, we’re talking about the opposite ends of the same playing-field. That line we are trying to draw, no matter how hard we try, will always remain blurred, and the urge to define can be fulfilled – though even then not completely – only by going back to the purest theory: street photography, by a process of elimination and by getting rid of choices, intentions, expectations, and anything that takes it in another direction, is all about the thing we saw on the day we didn’t have a camera with us. It’s an abstract concept when you finally find some definition, or a deliberate imprecision when you apply it to reality. It’s all and nothing, this and that, to the point that its very existence is irrelevant, once you realize that it’s no more than a combination of different quantities of the very same elements.
“Friends would ask what I was doing and I would tell them that I was working on a project with several thousand prints. They would laugh but I would be dead serious. At least I had found a friend in that title, … , that would look over me. It was not much different from Cartier-Bresson bringing the whole world from America to China to The Decisive Moment.” - Alex Webb
“This book is not about a place, or a specific subject, or even a theme. It is about a way of seeing in color.” - William Eggleston
(hmmm... we might have made a bit of confusion with these two last quotes. Sorry about that…)