Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Kratochvil, Pellegrin, Uimonen and the new photojournalism

In contemporary photojournalism there are a few practitioners who are testing the boundaries of the forms that traditional journalistic images have adopted. These are photographers who now embrace blur, rough impressionistic description and what I have referred to before as visual gymnastics into their images. This is perhaps an attempt to slap the viewer into paying attention. The combination of these characteristics has created what amounts to be what I see as a new formalism among some contemporary photojournalism.

When Gilles Peress traveled to Iran in 1980 to see the reality of the Islamic revolution first hand, he brought back a new form of personal journalism. His choice of the implied road trip narrative to covering current news events paved the way for younger journalists seek out new ways of describing the events they were covering. It has created a form of impressionistic photo story where facts are described in ways that favor the general mood and emotion of the situation. It is essentially a subjective journalism infused with the personal reactions of the photographer.

What creates this sense of personal reaction is obviously directly linked to how photographers adopt and hone their individual instincts in making pictures. While honing these instincts the photographer (all photographers) often learn by example. For instance, in photojournalism, the adoption of the 28mm wide angle lens and the in-close, low to the ground vantage point was an attempt to bring the viewer into the realm of the action (and vicarious danger) and thus became a standard descriptive tool. Many photographers used this new language, applying it to their subjects in an attempt to fit in with the newly perceived dynamism that was being seen in the work of others.

It is one thing to adopt and force a form onto your subject and yet another to react using your instincts to find the form of the picture. This is what Garry Winogrand was so adamant in attempting to maintain in his own work. “If I see a photograph that I know, I do my best to change it somehow.”

Now I do see the vast difference of not only the intent but situation in which a journalist works and how Winogrand worked. There was little chance that Winogrand might be harmed within the arena that he was engaging the world. A journalist has it much different as death is, at times, a constant possibility. For these photographers to work in that mode of stress is fascinating enough. But if one is able to set that aside for one moment, what I am calling into question is the transition from instinctive response to a subject, to the moments when force of habit takes over.

While looking through the De-Mo book WAR from the photo agency VII, I found an interesting moment in a photographer’s work where it seems that force of habit has overwhelmed other instincts. I am speaking of the work of Antonin Kratochvil and his work in this book in particular.

Of the 29 images that make up his contribution to this book, 25 of which are remarkably similar in the approach to their construction. From the tilt of the camera to the arrangement of the subject matter, they all follow a very similar form. It is as if Antonin is following a formula into which he is crow-barring his subject. Take the following examples from WAR.

This seems to be a trend in his work that has established itself over the past decade or so. If one looks through Vanishing, his last book effort, they will see much of the same force of habit on display.

This is not to say that the work fails on all fronts as sometimes the world cooperates with this formal application but if you look over the course of much of the recent work it is undeniably seen. One has to go back as far as Broken Dream to see the photographer free from the handcuffs of his own constraint. In that title Kratochvil is at the top of his game in that he hasn’t thrown out all convention but is pushing at its edges with good result.

As a book, Vanishing is an interesting exercise in design and tone. This is something that a few De-Mo designed titles have done to good effect. I think Vanishing feels great as an object and pushes against conventions as you orient the book in your hands differently. It is a horizontal book that is bound at the top edge, which forces a somewhat uncomfortable way of reading. I like that, in essence, it makes you pay attention in a different manner than you might otherwise.

Broken Dream follows the conventional route although like the best of books, it is the photographs that make that title worth while. Made over twenty years, the work in Broken Dream examines the communist countries of Eastern Europe. In Kratochvil’s own words, “All I wanted to do was record how all those poor people adapted to lies and suffering, how they got used to it, how in fact they were bound to miss it when it was over.”

Paolo Pellegrin is another photographer working in what I perceive as the new journalistic vein. His book Kosovo 1999-2000: The Flight of Reason uses some of the same language that I’ve been speaking about. Like Kratochvil, Pellegrin often pushes his subjects to the edges of the frame while imposing his order. Although unlike Kratochvil, he doesn’t seem to be locked into his own rules of design but experiments freely with a combination of examples set and his own instincts. On a superficial level this provides at least a variance of imagery so the story doesn’t seem to follow a pre-prescribed formalism.

Flight of Reason is mostly about the displacement of people caused by the conflict in Kosovo. Paolo plays both sides of the conflict showing in equal measure Serbs and Kosovar Albanians. As it was with the war in the Balkans over a decade ago the lines are blurred as to telling one side from the other and in this book one feels that same sense of the unknown.

The book is interesting in its design in its pages are entirely black so all of the imagery has an added ominous tone. The only thing I don’t like is that the paper stock is a touch too glossy. I would have liked to see how a matte paper would have treated the content. Most all of the images run across the gutter and are shifted to one side or the other but luckily the book opens relatively flat so there is minimal disruption to the photos. Be careful though as the binding does not seem to be the strongest and after a while the signatures shake loose from their glue.

Ilkka Uimonen is another of the Magnum set that is utilizing impressionistic imagery to present his stories. Uimonen is slightly different as his images often seem to be descriptions of a point of panic among the subjects. The blur and on-the-run feel of his images is their strength as it puts us momentarily in the midst of the perceived chaos.

Cycles is a book about the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. It documents suffering on both peoples and instead of taking sides seems to be more concerned with the obvious reoccurrance of history and human behavior. The book is mostly black and white but does include a few images in color. This is a bit confusing as it reminded me at least of his other responsibility which is fulfilling magazine assignments. In terms of the work as a whole it seems less realized because of this mix.

The book is appropriately simple in its design with bright white covers that get smudged and dirty in just a few readings. There might be a metaphor there somewhere. The book opens right into the photos until it ends with a small quote from Jung, a caption list and acknowledgements page. The book was designed by Ilkka and holds onto a handmade maquette feel to the whole production down to the strip of binders tape on the spine.

Book Available Here (War VII)

Book Available Here (Vanishing)

Book Available Here (Broken Dream)

Book Available Here (Torst)

Book Available Here (Flight of Reason)

Book Available Here (Cycles)


Anonymous said...

The different approach to framing and making a journalistic image which Jeff talks about is something I too have been thinking about for some time.

In reference to Kratochvil's "tilt of the camera," I feel it really is his style - not just a template. It's related to how in writing journalists like Jack Kerouac, Jon Lee Anderson and Hunter Thompson, for example, chose certain words, phrases and structure they felt they had to use to make their statements.

When Gilles Peress was in Iran late 1979 into 1980 for five weeks he did not know that much about the Iranian people, their history and why they had taken the americans hostage. The resulting images show how much of an outsider he was and how unsure he was of what happening and the meanings. Also he wanted (like Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander) to remind the viewer that he was there with his camera - like showing us he had to make his photo from inside a car - which happens with photojournalists - but they usually don't want us to know. It's like an actor in a Jean-Luc Godard film turning to the camera to address the viewers to remind them they are just watching a film. They are not there.

This group of young photojournalists who not only include Kratochvil, Uimonen and Pellegrin but also Stanley Greene, Antoine d'Agata, Alex Majoli, Philip Blenkinsop and Pep Bonet and others, record moments that are more about the feeling, the sounds, the smells - as Jeff says, their impressions of the event. They also do not frame their photos like how photography, for years, imitated western painting, pre 20th century. These photographers look for things at the edge. They look for many things besides the climatic or dramatic moment - since so much about an event, place or people, is not just what is in front of the TV news cameras. These photogaphers like anything but the crescendo of the event which can mislead one from real sense of its meaning . They also try to express in each image the notion that time does not just have to be a 1/500 of a second but can, somehow show more than that - like the photographers of Tendance Floiue - who's central belief is expanding single images beyond frozen instants.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the comments. I didn't think of this before, but perhaps one major example of this sensory type of approach to photojournalism is the D-Day photos made by Robert Capa. Albeit unintentional due to the ruining of the film by the lab tech.


Anonymous said...

For a photographic reaction to the "new photojournalism" see DL 07 by Jens Liebchen

Anonymous said...

Re. Robert Capa's D-Day photos. I think the photos might look like some of the Impressionistic photographers of today but I think Capa had no choice with a once-in-a-lifetime event but to use the shutter speed that capture the event - that ended up being farily slow. I don't believe the blur had anything to do with the emulsion getting damaged in drying closet - I think either some of them survied or didn't.

Stan B. said...

Winogrand was among the first to be criticized for his "slanted horizon line" which as you point out has become part of photography's visual grammar, and definitely a tad overdone by Mr. Kratochvil of late.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comment. Please keep reading and posting.

Yes...but Winogrand was a photographer who continuously took risks in order to find the form of his photographs. He was more interested in his own progression in understanding and discovering different approaches to photographic problems. He didn't want to make the same picture over and over again. After all, what is the point of that?

Stan B. said...

No argument there...

Anonymous said...

i do agree. sometimes i got the impression that some photographers act like some singers who got famous and feels they deserve it after years of struggles (and most of the time it's true) and that now it's time to enjoy it, so they won't take any risk (photographically speaking) because now they do have something to loose in opposite of the "early years" where they where just anybody and looking for new ways was the only way.

but quoting: "After all, what is the point of that?"

Anonymous said...

Garry Winogrand said that he learned to tilt the camera from Robert Frank's pictures. He also said if you look carefully there is always something in his (Winogrand's) image that lines up with one of the edges of the frame.

Anonymous said...

A bit late I know.... .but, I once heard (or read, and please correct me if anyone knows better), that Winogrand explained his camera tilt was to keep his vertical lines straight instead of going askew (when the camera is held horizontal to the ground)..... yay/nay?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your eloquently written insights.

At the beginning of this post you write: "These are photographers who now embrace blur, rough impressionistic description and what I have referred to before as visual gymnastics into their images. This is perhaps an attempt to slap the viewer into paying attention. The combination of these characteristics has created what amounts to be what I see as a new formalism among some contemporary photojournalism."

I have noticed this too and believe it is at least partially related to a postmodern sensibility in the arts generally. The tilted frame and other formal techniques, like using a composition that does not distinguish an important element from an unimportant one, to me serves to emphasize the photo's constructed nature and implies that there is not just one correct narrative, no grand truth to be discovered -- only subjective points of view. In this way I see Giles Peress' Telex Iran book as very important since he suggests visually that he really did not understand what he was seeing, he couldn't take traditional modernist photos, which claim to reveal the truth about a subject or to explain events. By admitting photography, at least in his hands, was inadequate to describing the Iranian revolution he opened the door to other photographers to be more self-reflexive at a moment when postmodernism was questioning all sorts of received wisdom and modes of representation within architecture, anthropology, literature, etc. I do wonder about this new formalism (new since the '80s at least) and its effects on how viewers read journalistic or documentary photographs.

Anonymous said...


Excellent comments and thanks for them.

I agree. I think Gilles is someone who would be very curious about how photography worked so your comments about him understanding the inabilities of the medium are well put. He came from more the Robert Frank side of photography than the Philip Jones Griffiths side and would be questioning photography in those ways.

Please keep commenting.

Anonymous said...


Garry did do that occasionally but what you are describing would be considered too much of a "formal pattern" for him.

I am not saying the following because of your comment but Winogrand, I think, is one of the most misunderstood of photographers. Although we only have what is given to us through his books and exhibitions, he really seemed concerned with a 'new picture' everytime. Yes many of his images follow a similar approach (it is an edit after all) but I think he in may ways was probably the most free working artist in photography. Meaning free from a fear of failure. His curiosity was beyond making good pictures but into finding new ones.

Doug Rickard said...

You are right on the stylistic aspects of Pellegrin and Kratochvil... the "tilt style" seems to be a dominant look in modern street and war photography.

Certainly, it is not a new visual technique in photojournalism but it seems to have become a "norm" in our era.