Time & Motion Studies: New documentary photography beyond the decisive moment
Curated by Simon Bainbridge
Saturday 22nd October – Saturday 26th November
Tuesday to Friday 10am – 5pm; Saturday 10am – 4pm
Hereford Museum & Art Gallery, Broad Street, Hereford, HR4 9AU
Time & Motion Studies presents the works of five photographers, each the result of deliberate and sustained observation. But more than that, each employs a carefully thought-out strategy for their study, a methodology by which to transcribe and communicate ideas about the world, tackling subjects that aren’t always obviously photogenic. For the photographers in the exhibition, the ideas they are trying to communicate take prescience over aesthetic concerns, although these remain important, both in terms of engaging viewers and in contributing to the development of a wider photographic language.
The festival gives me an opportunity to show these works, five excellent examples of the diversity of contemporary documentary practice, and all of which have appeared inBritish Journal of Photograph, some in the recent past, which I hope the photography crowd will enjoy seeing in the flesh, some of it exhibited for the first time anywhere. But the festival attracts a wider public than just the photography crowd, particularly at the Hereford Museum & Art Gallery, and for these visitors I hope to give a flavour of what photography can be and what it can say, beyond the traditional idea of the artist photographer as someone wandering the earth communing with nature. And by showing five very different approaches, I hope to expose the photographers behind the images, to get viewers thinking about how they position themselves – both physically, embedding themselves into situations, and in terms of negotiating themselves into spaces – to make their pictures.
In the case of Donald Weber, that’s a very uncomfortable space. Having befriended a Ukrainian policeman whose career was on the rise, he spent years negotiating access to the interrogation room the officer spent much of his time, gaining confessions from mostly petty criminals. Waiting for the moment of confession, the results are a terrifying insight into the justice system, but also, a defining point of departure for the subjects – a cathartic experience sometimes – after which life may never be the same again.
Robbie Cooper exemplifies the increasing convergence between still and moving images, using the first digital camera that truly delivers both, in high resolution. Technology is also at the heart of his subject matter, which is concerned with how our identities are becoming wrapped up in new virtual territories – in this case, capturing animated faces close up through as his subjects engage with computer games and other screen-based worlds. Manuel Vasquez also touches on technology, particularly surveillance culture, in his montages that splice together different moments in time. Captured in largely anonymous public places, they capture the anxiety as well as a sense of spectacle within the spotlight of this constant observation.
George Georgiou is also working with sequential imagery. He is interested in the continued influence Russia plays on its former Soviet neighbours, and how this is manifested in the daily lives of ordinary people, capturing them in sequences shot from the same vantage point. His installation at this year’s festival is his most ambitious realisation of this approach, and is the first time he has presented a work on such a scale. His partner and travelling companion Vanessa Winship takes an altogether different approach. Where as Georgiou remains largely hidden to his subjects, she places her camera in such a way as to invite her subjects to present themselves. She seeks a direct connection, and somehow manages to capture the complexity of this dialogue in the directness and vulnerability of their gazes. Putting them together in the same show, I aim to demonstrate that a photograph is not so much the result of what’s in front of the camera, rather than the motives, instincts and ideas of the person behind it.
Time & Motion Studies also refers to this year’s festival theme of motion, a concept I struggled with at first (after all, photography is all about distilling moments into single frames), until I thought about this idea of the photographer waiting, quiet and still, capturing what before his or her camera. It also got me thinking about one of the most enduring concepts in photography, now nearly 60 years old – “The Decisive Moment”, as termed by Henri Cartier-Bresson. In it’s most simple form, the idea was that every image of a “stolen moment” had it’s own decisive moment, a split-second capture in which “simultaneously and instantaneously the recognition of a fact and the rigorous organisation of visually perceived forms [expressed and signified] that fact”.
It’s not a very fashionable concept anymore (especially when you think about the Becher School photographers who have dominated in the past 25 years, with their monumental images, largely of scenes that denote no single important moment of time). But a sense of the right moment pervades in photography nonetheless, along with photography’s pictorial visual language. Cooper has to decide where to pull the stills from his motion, Weber looks for a moment of confession, and even Georgiou, who presents multiple takes on a time and place, edits from hundreds more moments.
The Decisive Moment was a product of a particular time, when newspapers and magazines were the primary outlet for photographers’ work, a medium through which they could speak to hundreds of thousands of readers. And up until relatively recently that remained the case for anyone with documentary concerns; photographers making their names on smaller titles before hopefully working their way up to bigger commissions on bigger and more prestigious publications.
But there are no big commissions these days, and few photographers can earn a proper living making interesting work for newspapers and magazines anymore. There simply isn’t the budget; a situation that would seem to point to more straightened times, were it for the fact that they are still prepared to pay huge sums for images of celebrity. You can blame it on dumbing down, or the deep conservatism of publishers, or the internet, which has helped drive down the price of professional photography to unsustainable levels through the digital distribution of cheap images.
For photographers the end of print is a reality, at least regards to newspapers and magazines. (On the festival’s opening weekend, Self Publish Be Happy will present a flourishing counter-trend, showcasing the work of independent book publishers who still find vital express in printed matter.) But these publications never really gave them real freedoms to express their points of view, and in their absence, photographers are searching for news ways to communicate with audiences, free from the editorial confines of newspaper dictat.
Although they operate in uncertain times, these five photographers present us with clear and articulate takes on the world. And if such different voices and approaches can sit side-by-side so easily, isn’t that a sign that photography is maturing, rather than a medium in peril?
Vanessa Winship: Georgia, 2009-10
Donald Weber Interrogations: Big Zone, Small Zone
Manuel Vasquez: Traces
Robbie Cooper Immersion
George Georgiou The Shadow of The Bear, 2009-10
George Georgiou The Shadow of The Bear, 2009-10: installation detail