I mapped out my approach to Context and Narrative before beginning the course, largely in an effort to achieve some consistency and cohesiveness, noted to be lacking in my EyV submissions. The plan included writing about Bill Brandt’s Northumbrian coal miner… for Assignment 4 as I had long regarded this as a striking and complex photograph. I also intended to create a response to the image for Assignment 5. When my tutor suggested producing a booklet (or zine), from my Assignment 3 output, this quickly grew into an extended piece about Brand and about my changing awareness of the subjectivity of documentary photography as the course progressed.
While I was prepared at any time to abandon the Brandt plan for C&N, a better, more fluent set of ideas never came to mind and when virus restrictions were imposed for most of the course, the plan served my purpose well.
That I am drawn to such an image can be readily explained by my working class Welsh upbringing and coming to maturity during the period of Margaret Thatcher’s closure of the mining industry. That conditioning triggers connoted associations for the image concerning the conditions endured by manual workers and their families in earlier times.
The specific denoted contents are numerous: the unwashed miner, the attentive partner, not eating; the hanging satchel; and the tilted picture whose subject peers round drying clothes. Most of these details can be contextualised, if not explained by: the poor provision of pit-head baths (Wright & Herrera, 2017); the size of homes in inter-war working class communities (GLA, 2011, p.13); and George Orwell’s comments on hygiene priorities in The Road to Wigan Pier (Delaney, 2004, p.134).
The 80 years that have passed since the photograph was taken have brought changes in the perceptions of the medium and the subject matter. On documentary photography in general, images of social significance going back to Lewis Hine in the early 1900’s are acknowledged to have played a part in bring about improvements in working conditions, nevertheless, it is described pejoratively as ‘propaganda, albeit of a beneficent variety’ (Neighbour, 2013). There are parallels between Hine’s work for the National Child Labour Committee and Dorothea Lange’s output for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s and, again, while some benefits arose from that project (Dupêcher, 2018) and Lange (1960) herself had fond memories of her work and specifically of the the iconic, Migrant Mother photograph, more recent studies have questioned Lange’s treatment (both aesthetic and moral) of the subject, Florence Owens Thompson, and her family (Stein, 2020).
Turning specifically to Brandt’s image, the miner’s appearance, once a signifier of workers’ oppression, would now raise alternative sensitivities regarding blackface
The portrayal of the secondary subject, presumably the miner’s wife, in a submissive role and without food would now be regarded as derogatory and an act of gender discrimination.
The role of even straightforward documentary and investigative photography is nowadays called into question, with subjective choices and judgments being recognised at every stage of the process from choice of subject, viewpoint, lighting, processing, picture selection and editing, titling and anchoring, display options, then the varying subjective perception of the viewing public. This is even more the case with Bill Brandt , who brought a performative approach to ostensibly documentary images (as noted in Assignment 4, he used ‘family and friends posing as characters in purportedly unmediated scenes of British social life’ (Blackburn, 2020)). Little has been written about his 1930s projects in Northern England (for example, they are barely mentioned in Delaney’s 336-page, 2005 biography), but it is assumed that the subject was a miner, not an actor.
I felt it appropriate when responding to Brandt’s coal miner to caricature or falsify every aspect of the image, beginning with the title, Northumbrian coal miner, which became Welsh photographer, both areas with mining associations, but in my case the job could not be denoted by personal physical appearance and so I replaced the meal with photographic paraphernalia. I then sought physical, photographically-themed equivalents for every item depicted in Brandt’s original: my wife sat beside me, holding a reflector which both balanced the harsh, direct lighting on my face and enshadowed hers; the picture on the rear wall is a vintage Ensign Cameras poster; the largest camera bag to hand replaces the leather satchel; “drying” 35mm film replaces the drying washing; the table is cluttered with mixed-format analogue equipment, emphasised by the landscape format and low angle of view, including the air-pressure cable release, controlled by my wife, thereby suggesting a partial rebalancing of the “relationship” and also a nod to other self portraits and questions of authorship raised in Assignment 3 .
The pastiche continued with the exaggerated post-processing, choosing a faux-vintage finish in Nik Silver Efex preset, Yellowed 2.
Assessment criteria and Reflection
Quality: The concept was suitably complex and challenging.
Creativity: It was implemented imaginatively and with some flair.
Technically the image fulfils the assignment brief and my stated intention. It is regrettable that there is no longer any imperative for physical prints.
Context: The analysis of the genre, the source image and of this response, especially in the rework, was thorough and to the point.
The project rounded off the course and consideration of Brandt quite effectively.
The assignment specification asks for a ‘a stand-alone image of your choice … work that has been controlled and directed by you for a specific purpose’ (p.122 ). The project meets those criteria and resulted in an image of reasonable merit that complements other output on the course.
Aesthetically it is a satisfying outcome, although if I were reshooting, I would lose the reflector as it is too distracting and use a larger developing tank to substitute for the ceramic artefact in Brandt’s.
Morally / ethically / politically when the photographs are juxtaposed, attention is drawn to two aspects within Brandt’s, the living conditions of working families and the relationship dynamic within the family: in those terms the photograph succeeds.
Blackburn, N. (2020) Assignment 4, Rework [online]. baphot.co.uk. Available from http://baphot.co.uk/pages_cn/asg_4_rework.php [Accessed 20 July 2020].
Delaney, P (2004) Bill Brandt, a life. London: Jonathan Cape.
Dupêcher, N. (2018) Dorothea Lange [online]. moma.org. Available from https://www.moma.org/artists/3373 [Accessed 20 July 2020].
Greater London Authority (2011) Crowded houses: Overcrowding in London’s social rented housing [online]. london.gov.uk. Available from https://www.london.gov.uk/moderngov/mgConvert2PDF.aspx?ID=3149 [Accessed 20 July 2020].
Lange, D. (1960) The Assignment I’ll Never Forget Popular Photography 46 (February, 1960).Reported in Dupêcher, N. (2018).
Neighbour, J. (2013) Photographer as Advocate: Lewis Hine’s America [online]. hyperallergic.com. Available from https://hyperallergic.com/98778/photographer-as-advocate-lewis-hines-america/ [Accessed 20 July 2020].
Stein, S. (2020) Migrant Mother. Los Angeles: MACK. Extract published as The Making of an Icon, RPS Journal. Vol. 160 no. 7, pp. 494-501.
Wright, M. and Herrera, D. (2017) The Pithead Baths of Great Britain [online]. modernisttourists.com. Available from https://modernisttourists.com/2017/01/01/the-pithead-baths-of-great-britain/ [Accessed 18 May 2020].