Elliott Erwitt's new book, Sequentially Yours, raises some interesting questions about documentary photography - both in the past and now. The world has changed so much. Not least in terms of how photographs are produced and consumed, and attitudes towards photography in public spaces. The book also reminds us that documentary photography is broader than photojournalism alone.
The other side of human life
Documentary photography has an image problem. Among the general public today it often evokes connotations of the grimmer side of life: misery in Africa, war in Afghanistan, poverty in Latin American slums, substance addiction in Western cities, degradation of the environment at each turn - injustice and inhumanity everywhere. That, sadly, is what news outlets want. It is what photojournalists must provide.
These things are important. Of course they are. But they aren’t the sum total of human existence and experience. There is also love and laughter and dignity and achievement and problem solving and the simple act of just being.
Elliott Erwitt has built a career around this other side of life. For that reason alone, Sequentially Yours is worth a look, even if it isn’t his strongest book.
In it, a family tussles with an obstinate parasol. A group of filmmakers jostle and joke ahead of a formal group photograph. A man watches a steamroller flatten a freshly laid stretch of path. A man drinks coffee. A girl adjusts her bikini. Protestors shout. Children play. People laugh.
This side of life rarely makes it into the newspapers. Consequently, we're almost conditioned to think that it is unworthy of our attention. But it isn't. A point made in the foreword of the book, written by Marshall Brickman, a former collaborator of Woody Allen's.
Documentary photography is about telling a story. It should be a genuine story - one grounded in actual events. In Sequentially Yours, however, Elliott Erwitt sometimes juxtapositions photographs with the clear intention of distorting real life.
For instance, the combination of the photographs on the front cover suggests the occupants of the deckchairs were flung out of their seats. We interpret it that way, and I don't think anyone could doubt that is the photographer's intention. It is very funny, after all.
The same goes for a sequence where a man throws a stick into water for his dog to fetch. In the final picture, the dog stares at circular ripples in the water, but the man is gone. Did he fall in? Doubtful. As a three-part slice of comedy, the sequence is a gem. As a true reflection of what happened, less so.
Does it matter?
No. Erwitt's intention is clear. We marvel at the joke and at his ingenuity and skill as a visual storyteller. We know we're being manipulated - and we love it.
While some sequences in the book intentionally distort reality, others illuminate it beautifully. One of my favourite sequences shows cast members from The Misfits, including Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable (for whom the film was their last completed work) being corralled together for a group shot. They joke and mess about in a way the final, rather sullen, formal group photograph wouldn't suggest.
This particular sequence, together with one showing an attractive topless girl on a beach, made me wonder whether these photographs could be taken today.
Unless you are Jeff Bridges, getting on to a movie set to produce documentary photographs of the production is difficult. Movies stars, or at the very least their publicists, are so protective of their image that allowing unguarded access wouldn't be allowed. Or would it? Let me know if I'm wrong. And by the way, I'm preparing a top ten list of dream assignments. Photographing behind the scenes of a motion picture production is on there. Just in case you know someone.
Equally, you have to wonder how well you'd be received if you were taking photographs on a beach of a topless girl adjusting her bikini briefs these days. Or taking any photographs of children. Or of people in general as they go about their daily business.
In the West, any road, you could run in to trouble. Even though we live in a society in which people are eager to publish the minutiae of their lives online, we don't feel comfortable that someone might take our photograph in a public place. In fact, I get the sense that if it were possible, it would be banned. Particularly when it comes to children. Oddly, we think nothing of photographs being taken of children in, say, Africa. That's fine. But photographing children in the West? Clearly, you must be a sexual deviant.
It would be tempting to say that today's restrictive attitudes towards photography will result in a poorer visual archive for future historians to draw from.
That is doubtful.
In fact, it is likely that the opposite will be true. So much photography and video is being uploaded to sharing platforms that, as long as the platforms remain intact, historians in the decades and centuries to come will have too much rather than too little material to work with. That's really where the problem lies. By restricting photographers today, future generations won't have the benefit of the unique filter that they bring to the world. There will be fewer editors like Elliott Erwitt for them to enjoy. Quirkly, insightful and, importantly, contemporary interpretation will vanish.
That would be a real shame.
Fortunately for everyone, Elliott Erwitt has been able to practice his craft mostly before attitudes towards photography hardened. We should all be grateful for that.