Sunday, 27 November 2016

Research: Felice Beato

In the first section of this course we are invited to reflect on some of the names mentioned as early practitioners of documentary. Most of them I have heard of and researched on other OCA courses, such as as Timothy O'Sullivan and William Henry Jackson.

I was though drawn for no particular reason to the work of Felice Beato [1832 - 1909] who documented the Crimean War with James Robertson, following the departure of Roger Fenton, another photographer mention in the notes.

Beato, moved on to China in 1860 on his own, documenting the Opium War, arriving in Hong Kong in March of that year, before heading off north to Tailen Bay, Pehtang and Peking. The images taken were certainly some of the earliest of China, quite possibly the first.

The images are quite graphic and document the Opium War in traditional documentary style but also have an air of creativity about them. The images form a narrative recreation of the battles in which forts are breached with Chinese soldiers defeated lying strewn unceremoniously.

As so much time has passed these images play an important role in the preservation of history and a provoking medium as an insight to what may have happened.

Interior of Pehtang Fort 1860

The Entrance of North Fort 21st August 1860

An-Ting Gate of Pekin 1861 occupied by allied forces.

Exercise 1: Review of Miranda Gavin speaking about documentary

This exercise is to review Miranda Gavin's online video and give a reflective commentary giving our reactions of 200 words.

My initial thoughts to this interview are that of agreement. I have often struggled with the classification of photography, so much bleeds over between genres and Miranda has revealed probably the most complex of genres, that of documentary. The comparison was mainly between documentary and fine art, it could have easily also been between portraiture and documentary though. In the case of Steve McCurry, one of my favourite photo journalists, his work although strictly documentary, can also be viewed as fine art art, especially Boy in Mid Flight, a brilliant piece of work, that to me is certainly fine art.

Steve McCurry - Boy in mid flight
Miranda also comments about the changing face of photography. We know that the mediums are changing rapidly with more work being placed online, and she rightly questions that validity for this, especially for fine art. However the accompanying comments regarding more female students is quite astounding with up to 80/20 split in education favouring women.  This as Miranda points out will change and question past working methodologies, I suspect that this is down to women seeing and interpreting art differently. I have always greatly admired Diane Arbus for breaking the mould of documentary.

I liked Miranda's initial definition that Fine Art is commissioned, and documentary comes from the photographer's vision. This is a generalist view and to some extent is a good start but even she conceded that this rule is often broken,

Does it really matter that much then that we feel a need to place varying types of work into boxes? I see all great photography as creating something new that makes the viewer think, its just that documentary tends to be more provoking.

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