Did Capa really take a conscious decision to make an artistic use of blur in his D-Day photographs? Capa was reportedly scornful of any pretensions in photography towards art: “I’m not a photographer, I’m a journalist” (quoted by Whelan & Capa, 1985, page 3). Would he therefore really make such an ‘artistic’ choice? Is it not more likely that simply that he was moving, and his subjects were moving, under fire? Is it not that he was there, in the thick of things, getting shot at, as the invasion actually took place that lends authenticity, weight and significance to these pictures rather than any artistic qualities of their superficial grainy and blurry appearance?
Let me look at another photographer, who has similarly produced work that has taken on an iconic character: Josef Koudelka and his images of the Russian invasion of Prague in 1968. Significantly, Koudelka won a Capa Award for these pictures.
I should declare a personal interest, or at least significance and resonance for me, in connection with Koudelka’s work. My wife was born born in Prague to expat American parents and had left the country as a child for exile in the UK just months before the invasion took place – they could see that ‘the writing was on the wall’. Family friends remained, particularly those who were journalists and worked for Radio Prague, and were involved at much personal risk in getting news of what was happening out to the wider world. That said I am drawn back to these pictures again and again simply because they are so good and represent documentary photography at the very highest level.
There are not so many examples of the sort of blur that we see in Capa on Omaha Beach on the Magnum website but Koudelka’s book, Invasion Prague 68, has many more. Most striking is the spread at pages 38 and 39. These have much in common with Capa in that they do not betray any sense of an artistic choice. Rather, Koudelka was in the midst of a melee and when confronted by soldiers toting Kalashnikovs, most of whom were conscripts, who did not know where they really were (many had apparently been told they were in West Germany rather than a Warsaw Pact country), and were quite possibly more scared than the protesters on the streets, I am sure he was more concerned with capturing the image, without being captured himself. Artistic considerations, I am sure, could not have been further from his mind.
Robert Frank – The Americans
I have been aware of the work of Robert Frank for some time but have not before now really ‘looked’ at his work so inspired by the Geoff Dyer quote in the course book I got hold of a copy of “The Americans”. I am not so sure about the comment that Frank made an artistic choice to include blur in ‘Elevator – Miami Beach’. My reading of the picture is that he wanted to capture the elevator girl rather than the people leaving the elevator, who turn out to be blurred because they are moving, and to emphasise her separateness from them – clearly well to do judging from the stole worn by the woman on the left. That said, the book as a whole is at one level about movement, the recording of a road trip, and the image and idea of an elevator connote movement in microcosm. What the blur helps to identify here is the paradox that the subject who is not moving, the elevator girl, is constantly in motion but never really goes anywhere, either physically, or perhaps more importantly, socially. As well as being a record of a road trip the book is also a commentary on class, social and racial differences across the country and the relative immobility of those differences. I think Dyer gets it right to see the elevator door as a sort of shutter. For the elevator girl the door opens vistas onto physical and social spaces she cannot enter, just watch as if through a viewfinder. As Jack Kerouac says at the end of his introduction: “That little ole lonely elevator girl looking up and sighing in a elevator full of blurred demons…”
I know it is often said that these qualities lend a sense of authenticity to the shot but is that really the case here? The grain and blur are the result of him having been there on the ground in the midst of traumatic events. As with Capa they are authentic because he was there.
I think we have to wary about grain necessarily connoting authenticity. Certainly it can, as Capa and Koudelka demonstrate. Equally though it can just new an artistic choice. A couple off photographers come to mind in this regard. One is Vito Accoci and his Jump series (Campany, 2012, page 90). Whilst they are ‘authentic’ in the sense that they record his jumps I do not think there is any further ‘truth’ that comes from the blur itself. Another is Richard Price and his Cowboy pictures (Campany, 2012, page 194) photographs of advertising hoardings depicting a largely mythical western cowboy, history, culture and heritage.
I think difficult questions of authenticity are also raised by Francesca Woodman’s work. Whilst it can be said that her use of blur and grain say something about her psychological state, as Badger argues with some force, are they really authentic in so far as they also seek to hide her personality, or at least appearance, in her photos? In a previous project, inspired partly by her work but also by the paintings of Gerhardt Richter, particularly those based on newspaper photos of members of the Baader-Meinhof gang, (Godfrey & Serota, 2011, pages178-187) I played with the idea of using blur and grain in a self-portrait in order to obscure as much as to reveal.
This is not ‘authentic’ but a deliberate attempt to distort.
Returning to Robert Capa, questions of authenticity have dogged his work, not least his iconic picture of a Loyalist soldier caught in the moment of having been shot. I do not know the current state of this controversy, and do not find the issue to be now particularly important or relevant, but there are those who have said that this was staged. Was it? If it was then the blur and grain do not make it any more authentic
For my part, if I have a view on the authenticity of this image, it is that I cannot imagine a photographer of Capa’s calibre and integrity resorting to fakery.
I first came across the work of Sugimoto, specifically his seascapes, at a gallery in Edinburgh a few years ago. One thing that immediately appealed about these large format, long exposure images, where the horizon, the line between sea and sky, was often indistinct was their ambiguous but also inclusive feeling, a little like some of Anselm Adams’s work. Just what was was being looked at, and to what extent was it real? I have also been intrigued by his architectural work where he has deliberately failed to focus sharply, creating an enigmatic and somewhat unreal place instead of the concrete and real.
The movie theatre series though was new to me. This work though seems to me to be more about catching some sense of the passage of time rather than using blur or lack of focus for artistic effect.
This is an artist completely new to me, taking the depiction of the passage of time to extremes. Unfortunately I have not been able to look at a lot of his work online the link in the course material is bad and his own website appears to be under construction – let us hope it does not take as long as the redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz to be completed!
I had not seen this film for a long time and had forgotten about the opening sequence (I had to seek out a Youtube video as the link on the cited website does not work either on an iMac nor iPad). It was good to see it again but I am left at a bit of loss to see its direct relevance from a purely photographic point of view, though I can see it is an interesting example of how perceptions of the passage of time can be distorted by manipulating the presentation of a visual image. As such I suppose the artist choices that were made have something in common with the choices made by some of the artists mentioned above (I wonder if Sugimoto ever photographed this film?), apart from Capa and Koudelka.
The practical exercises and the various artists I have looked at show that there are a variety of approaches that can be adopted to creating blur in damages and a variety of reasons for doing so. While some of these techniques are interesting, if sometimes a bit fiddly, I am at the moment not sure that I find them particularly appealing from the point of view of what I would like to achieve with a photograph. What I find most attractive is the natural blur that comes from being physically there in the scene itself, the blur being the result of the movement of subject and observer/the camera. I just do not want to get shot or run over by a tank in the process!
Frank, R (2016). The Americans. Göttingen: Steidl
Godfrey, M & Serota, N (2011). Gerhard Richter: Panorama. London: Tate
Koudelka, J (2008). Invasion Pragure 68. London: Thames & Hudson
Whelan, R & Capa, C (eds) (1985). Robert Capa: Photographs. London: Faber & Faber