Cruel and Tender has been one of the key compilations of work that has supported and continually inspired my project, From The Bottom Up. Featuring works by a range of acclaimed practitioners, from Diane Arbus and William Eggleston to Robert Frank and Martin Parr, the photobook embodies the idea of reflecting on and challenging social norms. This is emphasised further in the Sponsor’s Foreword:
‘This is an intriguing set of images from the last hundred years. These photographers recorded life in the twentieth century with a disengagement which suggested the title of the exhibition. Seeing these photographs together, I think we can determine universal values and aspirations, despite the decades, continents and beliefs which divide them. In our own challenging times, perhaps this is a reassuring reminder’
Ospel, in Dexter & Weski, 2003: 7
Inelegance in Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces (1972)
I came to particularly appreciate Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces (1972) for its ‘chaos, its absurdity and its endlessness’ (Dexter, in Dexter & Weski, 2003: 17). His documentation of American life in such an inelegant, honest way evokes something of banality, yet represents a world that is incredibly recognisable (to me, at least). Furthermore, the peculiar angles Shore uses throughout the home, particularly those of head height, brings the viewer into the same domain and further exacerbates this ‘world we all share and recognise’ (ibid), despite the project being acutely ‘American’ and over 40 years old. William Eggleston’s Memphis also encapsulates something of this affect.
I tried to evoke some of this same feeling in my own work, experimenting with flash photography to add this kind of raw inelegance. This was far more challenging that I had anticipated; I have found that public toilets are much more subtle in their exertion of power and the banality of such spaces is both easy and incredibly difficult to capture all at once. Despite excluding this image in From The Bottom Up, I was intrigued by the potential for experimentation in such small, unforgiving spaces and how the use of flash can be used tactically to create a new depth to an image.
Shared Experience in Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring 1986
Graham’s work also caught my attention in Cruel and Tender and continues to resonate with me for his exploration of public spaces and the assumption of a shared experience. This series positions 1980s Britain in a way that is understandable; as a time of significant unemployment, there is a notable feeling of depression and social isolation which could be said to be emblematic of the time period. Waiting rooms, single mothers with children, and neglected rooms housing interview cubicles contribute to this understanding. Regardless of the reality, the imagination of a Job Centre is arguably what Graham evokes in Beyond Caring. The latter, Interview Cubicles, Hackney DHSS, East London particularly stuck with me. Trying to photograph something in a similar vein with my own project, I admire how Graham has captured the publicness of such ‘private’ booths using a certain angle to hide faces whilst revealing feet. If I were to have included people in my own work, I would’ve liked it to have resembled this frame by Graham in Brighton & Hove’s public toilets.
‘The documentary theme is continued in the structure of the photographic collection as a whole. The reader is presented with a sequence of images that are almost Identical. Unnamed individuals sit slumped in chairs, chins resting upon hands, some heads bowed in newspapers and other heads resting on chests. Babies are strapped, static, into pushchairs. Lights blaze, signage peels, rubbish lingers. These images are repeated throughout the entire collection of pictures to the point that the viewer is overwhelmed with its repetitiveness to the degree that its veracity cannot help but be accepted’
I also like how Graham captions his images with the locations of the photographs. This lends itself to a kind of legitimacy; I have embodied in my own photobook using an index at the back to reference the locations where the final images were taken.
As Emma Dexter outlines in Cruel and Tender:
‘By concentrating on the real, the photography in Cruel and Tender opposes itself to any idealising tendency – a tendency that contains a range of inflections and trajectories from romanticism and sentimentality to redemptive qualities such as humour or pathos…it concentrates on the kind of realism that avoids romanticism, sentimentality or nostalgia, in favour of a clear-eyed and dispassionate view’
Dexter, in Dexter & Weski, 2003: 15
I really enjoy this summary of the photobook as I feel I have tried to achieve a similar goal in my own work. Favouring a ‘clear-eyed and dispassionate view’ seems to be an unfamiliar approach in photography, but I believe it is a necessary one. It would have been incredibly easy for me to capture fantastic images of public toilets had I wanted to romanticise them. However, by adopting the kind of approach that Dexter discusses, I feel I have unearthed something far more interesting when you look beyond the images themselves into wider society. This is what I hope to achieve in my future practice and I feel my background in Human Geography gives me a unique perspective to enable me to do so.
Cole, M. 2013. ‘A Reflection on “Beyond Caring” – a photobook by Paul Graham’. [essay online] Available at: http://m-cole.co.uk/essay-reflection-beyond-caring-photo-book-paul-graham/ [Last accessed 13 May 2018]
Dexter, E & Weski, T (eds). 2003. Cruel and Tender: The Real in the Twentieth-Century Photograph. London: Tate Publishing.