Week 3 - Hunters and Farmers

There is an idea that photographers are either “hunters” or “farmers”, as postulated by Jeff Wall (in Horne, 2012)[i], this is not only interesting but does make me think about how I create my work.

The “hunter” being someone who sets out to track down a moment to photograph, to record the world as it is, the “decisive moment” of the Cartier Bresson school of thought.

The “farmer” being someone who cultivates their image, who uses technology and creativity to generate a photograph.

I have always thought of myself as a hunter rather than a farmer, as someone trying to show a moment of reality from the world as it is. I don’t create the subject matter or stage my work in a studio so I wouldn’t have thought that I belong in the “farmer” group of photographers. However in thinking further about these terms I am not sure the line is so clearly drawn, for example some photographers create work that appears to be a staged moment, i.e. they would be considered farmers in this situation. However the work is also a record of the world and invites the viewer to read the image in the context of their cultural knowledge – so the work could also be read from a “hunter” perspective.

For example, Gregory Crewdson’s work at first glance can appears to be documentary photographs of everyday lives, but are actually carefully staged scenes - reminiscent of movie stills or paintings. They still show a single moment, but the moment was a crafted one, and the indexical nature of the photographs means they show something that, for many people, is familiar or indicative of something they are already aware of – either first hand or through contextual cultural knowledge. For example this image, “The Motel” from his Cathedral of the Pines series[ii]:

Gregory Crewdson - The Motel    From the series Cathedral of the Pines (2013-2014)    https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/oct/09/gregory-crewdson-photography-cathedral-of-the-pines

Gregory Crewdson - The Motel

From the series Cathedral of the Pines (2013-2014)

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/oct/09/gregory-crewdson-photography-cathedral-of-the-pines

This appears to be a simple shot of a house in winter, but as before is a “farmed” scene. This will be familiar to those who live in similar locales, but for me it reminds of me the movie Fargo (1996), and therefore has quite an unsettling feel to it.

This may also be true for others who have seen the movie, and this intertextual relationship between the two affects the reading of the image. If someone hasn’t seen Fargo I don’t know whether they would also react in the same way to the image, whether it was intended to be read in that context, or indeed whether it matters. Even though this image was made rather than just taken, it is still a record of the world, and says something about the world and other cultural influences surrounding the subject matter.

It is debatable whether “hunted” photographs, documentary photos capturing a snap shot of time, can even really show the whole situation surrounding the photograph/subject(s) of the photograph. A photograph turns a three dimensional world into two dimensions[iii], turns one moment of time into a longer lasting image that can be read in a multitude of different ways, that (like farmed images) can be read differently depending on the viewers own cultural contextual knowledge. A photograph showing a person looking angry could be because the photograph was of an argument, or the person was telling a story about an argument, or was just pulling a silly face for the camera.

For example this well-known image by Diane Arbus of a little boy holding a toy grenade[iv], was an un-staged documentary style photo, which if read with no other knowledge of the situation the photograph was taken in, could be read as a photograph of a slightly odd or perhaps even mentally unstable child.

However as the contact sheet and article show (the contact sheet is further down in the article linked above), this was not the full story of how the photograph was taken, or of who the child was or what he was doing. So is it possible to tell the “truth” of the situation from that one image alone? When I first saw this photograph many months ago, I knew that Arbus was renowned for images of the marginalized and “bizarre”. So I read this image in the context of her other work and did not think the photograph of that little boy was anything different. I could not see, from that one image, the whole 'true' situation.

By only working in purely one method; hunting or farming, may not necessarily mean the resulting image will be read as intended or that it shows a “true” reality.

Shizuka Yokomizo’s “Stranger” series is, for me, a great example of constructed photographs that blur the line between hunter and farmer, and show a snapshot of a reality[v].

Shizuka Yokomizo - Stranger series (1998-2000)     http://theharlow.net/shizuka-yokomizo-dear-stranger/#

Shizuka Yokomizo - Stranger series (1998-2000) 

http://theharlow.net/shizuka-yokomizo-dear-stranger/#

Between 1998-2000 Yokomizo posted letters through individual letter boxes in London, asking the occupants to stand in their homes, look out of their window at the camera set up on the street, on an appointed day and time so she could take their photograph, they would never meet, and if they didn’t want to take part they just needed to keep their curtains closed[vi]. She farmed the set-up for these photographs, and constructed the process for them to be taken. But in not interacting with the subjects face-to-face, and not constructing the scene (what the subjects would be wearing, what they would look like, or what would be visible in the photograph etc.), I feel Yokomizo did capture an authentic moment of their lives. And by providing parameters for the work, i.e. the letter, the date and time the photograph would be taken, the passive acceptance of partaking by the subjects, we as viewers are given more than if it were a documentary street photograph, we know that this moment in time is not a fleeting millisecond but more of a genuine insight into their lives, into their homes. I do not think that there is a contextual cultural knowledge required to read these images as the concept of the work is more of a focus than the aesthetic reading.

I stated above that I always felt my work to be in the “hunter” group of photography. However reviewing this concept and the works of Crewdson, Arbus, and Yokomizo, I feel my work is currently conceptually somewhere more in the middle of hunter and farmer. Whilst I am still “hunting” in the sense that I am trying to show a reality, and not a fictional world, and I am trying to show authentic moments in the lives of female surfers in the UK, I am also “farming” these photographs as I pre-arrange to meet the women I am photographing, and whilst I’m not staging the scene I do occasionally provide direction in terms of where I want them to look during portrait photographs. I am also relying on the viewer having a contextual understanding of what is the normality for photographs, particularly in advertising, of female surfers, and therefore what I am showing is not normal in this context.

Aesthetically it is more in the realm of hunter rather than farmer, and I think this is appropriate to the message that I am trying to convey; that the photographs show a reality, and not a fictional world. I don’t want viewers to read the project as something that isn’t “real”, I want them to think about how different they are to the photographs they normally see of female surfers, and why that is, and what the “normal” photographs are really showing and what they mean. This week I have thought more about how the images would be read if there is no existing contextual knowledge of the portrayal of female surfers. As I wrote above, I’m not sure that it would matter. There may be no link by the viewer between the way I am showing female surfers and how female surfers are normally portrayed. But I am also trying to show the strength of female surfers that surf year round in the cold and in wetsuits, and that female surfers are not all one size and shape. I believe this does come across regardless of whether the viewer has any experience or knowledge of female surfer photography or not.

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[i] HORNE, R. 2012. Holly Andres: “Farmer” of Photographs in the Wall Street Journal (03Feb2012). Available at: https://blogs.wsj.com/photojournal/2012/02/03/holly-andres-farmer-of-photographs/

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/oct/09/gregory-crewdson-photography-cathedral-of-the-pines

[iii] BATCHEN, G. 2002. Each Wild Idea. Massachusetts: MIT Press

[iv] https://www.lomography.com/magazine/255096-influential-photographs-child-with-toy-hand-grenade-in-central-park-1962-by-diane-arbus

[v] http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/what-are-you-looking

[vi] http://theharlow.net/shizuka-yokomizo-dear-stranger/#