Style, Social Class and The Moment as Motivators In Documentary Photography

A very difficult set of issues to confront as an academic exercise as they inevitably raise issues about the photographer rather than the subject.

Style is something that each photographer develops for themselves and if they’re lucky it is distinctive enough for a viewer to recognise who the photographer was from that alone, for instance Robert Capa.  But the style displayed  in images outside the photographers normal genre sometimes results in images with the style that the photographer is best known for, which may not be appropriate to the current image.  For instance, Capa’s style was for movement, action and being close to it, and naturally he’s most famous for his images of war, conflict and perhaps the aftermath.  He also made images that weren’t of war, but would he have been the first choice of any picture editor to make images of the famous of the day?  Probably not, there were many other photographers more gifted in this area and would be a more natural choice than Capa.  The same goes the other way; for instance there is a notion that Capa’s close friend Chim was attempting to emulate Capa in some way when he was killed in Egypt covering a conflict.  Whilst Chim was a well established photographer of conflict, he wasn’t a front-line photographer like Capa and his talents were very definitely best suited to showing the effects of conflict on the societies they’d damaged.  The style a photographer develops is most certainly a derivative of their character, and when you consider the two photographers mentioned, Capa was an extrovert, gambler, womaniser and heavy drinker.  Chim on the other hand was a much quieter , intellectual, scholarly personality, so it can probably be deduced that their styles reflect their character.

The social class an individual comes from doesn’t prevent them from being able to make good images of higher or lower classes than that from which they came, but it does help when it comes to understanding what motivates the class you come from and help when deciding how the thinking of a subject works and makes predicting outcomes that much easier.  However, I don’t think that this is the basis of the question posed.  Does class have any effect on the way an image is made?  I’m sure it does, as the ideas of class thinking being behind the motivation to set an assignment and the class awareness and attitude to class of the photographer will always impact the slant that is placed on images made to fulfill the assignment, which can lead to the charge of propaganda being levelled at a piece of work.  This idea of class can be summed up in ‘assumption’.  Everyone has their own assumptions of what different classes do, say, act and live and taking these assumptions with you to an assignment will modify the way the photographer looks for opportunities and makes images of what they find.  This theory can fall apart when one  takes into account that photographers from upper classes have made extremely good advocates for the lowest classes, usually because they’ve discovered or developed left-wing tendencies, such as Cartier-Bresson, Chim and Capa.  I also wonder if this has ever happened in reverse, where a well know photographer from the lowest classes has turned on the society level they came from?

I really do wonder if ‘The Moment’ is a motivator or is it something we strive to achieve, or in a lot of cases is it pure happenstance we take credit for?  In my mind it would be difficult to go out making images with only ‘The Moment’ as the objective as if this is the motivator it occurs with each and every image, and it is the skill developed over time by the photographer that will help to predict when this moment is likely to occur and be able to capture it, unless you’re like Cartier-Bresson who seems to have had this instinct in spades and brought it to its peak with his image making.  There’s no doubt that if you always miss ‘The Moment’ then it’s not very likely that your images will ever stand out and will undoubtedly lead to self-doubt and probable disinclination to continue with documentary photography.

4 Responses to Style, Social Class and The Moment as Motivators In Documentary Photography

  1. Catherine says:

    The effect of social class is an interesting one. Your question in the last sentence of the next to last paragraph is an interesting thought. I know of a writer – have always thought that Richard Hoggart had a very condescending/patronising attitude towards the working class from which he grew. Can’t think of a photographer though.

    • Eddy Lerp says:

      I have to wonder just how ‘working class’ Hoggart actually was. My father was of his generation and came from a ‘working class’ background and passed his exams twice to be able to go to grammar school but couldn’t because of the cost of doing so. Uniforms,books, games clothes etc were mandatory purchases for parents back then, so he couldn’t go, but Hoggart did, so if there was sufficient money around for that, how ‘working class’ was he really? The same as Harold Wilson, Maggie Thatcher?

      • Catherine says:

        He was very working class – father died when he was two; family lived in a stone cottage with outside toilet etc. His mother died when he was 8 and family dispersed amongst relatives. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/feb/07/politics . They write of him as being a champion of the working class but I still find his writing condescending. Maybe it’s to do with his age and writing style (like Berger). When I read ‘Uses of Literacy’ I realised why my next door neighbour thought that everyone from the north wore a cloth cap and went off all the time on day trips to the seaside in a charabanc – I only ever went twice! They must be different in Leeds.

        Hoggart actually lived in Farnham for a while. I’ve got a book he wrote about his time there “Townscape with Figures” – keep meaning to do something with it. He writes about the middle class this time “In their decencies, their limitations and their inhibitions Farnham people are much like Yorkshire’s and the lives of ‘the common people’ were for centuries very hard indeed in both places. Middle-class Yorkshire accents sound odd down here, as though being uttered by social interlopers. But sit in one of Harrogate’s grand hotels, and you will hear, in those unexpectedly blunt Yorkshire accents, the same kinds of snobberies of tones and attitudes as in similar places down here”.

      • Eddy Lerp says:

        It would seem that he got a very lucky break with the National Assistance, they weren’t known for any generosity. His grandmother was also very good to him, on the amount of money they got to live off from NA meant the increase would have been tempting to keep to improve living conditions.

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