Chris-Steele Perkins on documentary photography
I recently interviewed Magnum photographer Chris Steele-Perkins, asking him for his thoughts about documentary photography.
I began by asking Chris if the rise of digital photographic technology had changed his approach to his photographic practice.
Does the instantaneous nature of digital mean you think “I’ve got the shot I wanted, I can stop now”? Is there a change to your working methods?
For me, personally, no. There’s been practical changes, but philosophically no. I’m not interested in rushing stuff out. There are people who want to put their stuff out there on an Instagram feed, that’s fine — I use Instagram, but for some people that might be the best way for them to share the work that they’re doing. I’m not critical of it in a negative way, but does it change my way of doing things? I don’t think it does.
I use Instagram to put up pictures from projects that I’m working on, but they’re not the finished product. I’m not sure that I would be interested in using Instagram to display a finished project, but it’s an interesting way of putting up things that I’m working on, or ideas that I’m trying to improve.
There are, obviously, now, a whole lot of different ways of putting things out there, from websites, to Instagram, to YouTube, to whatever, and they’re very interesting. But for me, the work that I’m really kind of interested in is slow, and the book is still the most interesting vehicle for me to put the work out there. I’m very happy for magazines and publications to give me work, and have people do online edits of it, if that’s what they want to do, but I don’t think it really changes how I go about making the work in the first instance.
So when you’re approaching a long-term project, a personal project, do you have something in mind for the end result? Or do you start by taking pictures and see what comes from that?
Both! The thing is you’ll obviously have something in mind, otherwise you wouldn’t start on anything. But the problem, for some people, I think, is that they stick with what they had in mind in the first instance and ignore the reality that’s in front of them, because they this notion of they think it ought to be. And that’s a disaster. You start off from place A, but the whole point of going somewhere is to get somewhere different. So, I would expect to come back with something pretty different from what I set out to get.
So, it’s not a case of, say you were doing a magazine assignment and the editor gives you a list of shots that the magazine wants? When you’re doing a personal project you don’t start out by thinking “I want a shot of a person doing this and I want a shot of a person doing that”? For you the work is evolving as you’re doing it.
Yes, from day to day, literally, the work is evolving. You think, let’s follow that. You’ve got to be flexible. Part of the problem with some magazine assignments is exactly that. You’ve got an editor who hasn’t got a clue, sat at their desk, talking to you about somewhere they’ve never been in their life, about what they think should come back. You have to do what you do. That’s the whole point in a way: look at the world through your own eyes, not those of some dumb-arse who sits at a desk.
Is it a matter of being very open minded and seeing where your curiosity takes you? Seeing what comes out of the work that you’re doing?
Yes. You can create some sort of overarching framework, maybe, “the work will be done in a year”, say. But, then what comes out of that year’s work, from when you start it, to when you finish it, how can you ever predict what’s going to happen there? Unless you’ve got a very rigid framework which you want to stick to, but I can’t see any reason for wanting to stick to a really rigid framework.
I read somewhere that you studied psychology at university.
Yeah, but psychology has nothing to do with anything really, I don’t think. Photography’s about a curiosity about the world, and common sense, composition and understanding people, and psychology at its best is about formulating and analysing some fairly common-sense notions. If anything it was a relatively easy course, more than, say, nuclear physics, that gave me plenty of time to take photographs.
I was just wondering how the way that person photographs, and the pictures that they choose from the one’s they taken, how they construct a story using pictures, is a reflection of their psychology, their inner life?
That is exactly what ought to happen. You’re talking about the process of authorship, which is the filtering of experience through your understanding of the world. It’s nothing more and nothing less than that. You can be open to that, or you can apply a bunch of formulae to that.
There a bunch of photographers, who may be technically quite good, but they are essentially service photographers. They’re delivering what somebody else wants them to deliver, and that’s fine, that’s a living. But it’s certainly not what interests me as a photographer, and I don’t find the products of it interesting either. I want to see work by people that engages me, because they’ve been engaged in certain ways, and it’s communicated to me through the work.
All the most interesting photographers have got a very curious outlook, or a very engaged outlook, and you can identify specific photographers, I find. You can look at a certain photograph and say “oh yeah, that’s William Klein” because of whatever it is that they are bringing to that photograph, and someone else using the same equipment wouldn’t have got the same photograph. I find that fascinating, that something as mechanical as photography can still be so personal in the way that it communicates.
That’s a fallacy, in a sense, that photography is mechanical. Obviously you’re using a machine to do it, but you can argue that a pencil is a machine, and somebody draws with that. It has its own limitations, and photography has its expressive limitations, for sure, but it shouldn’t be surprising that x and y asked to photograph the same thing will have different reactions to it, and different ways of doing it.
In Stuart Franklin’s book The Documentary Impulse he talks about how documentary combines realism, it’s a record of something that actually happened in the world, but there’s also an aesthetic, or moral, realism in a photograph, or any work of art, that captures something deeper than just the image of what’s happening in front of you.
That’s saying essentially the same thing: you the individual are filtering that experience, and each individual is going to filter it in a different way.
How closely is documentary photography related to other ways of exploring the world, such as written journalism, or filmmaking? Is it completely separate from those? Or is there a way of combining them?
Text and photography have a long history of working in parallel, either from the journalistic point of view, or from the more aesthetic point of view where photographers work with writers. The Teds book that I did, I worked with a writer, but the text is quite separate. It’s two pieces of work. One is the photographs, and the other is the writing. Walker Evans did the same. It’s a very successful combination, or it potentially can be a very successful combination. Photography has it limits; it’s a two-dimensional representation of something, but painting is that too. People who want to study photography ought to study painting as well. They should look at cartoons, they should look at all the different ways that people represent the world in two dimensions. There’s a lot to be learned from that.
One final question. In the book, England, My England, there’s a photograph in Newcastle, inside a Sikh temple, and there’s a row of Sikhs sitting along a wall, sitting behind a white guy playing an organ, with what looks like a tea towel balanced on his head. What’s happening in that photograph?
He’s the musician for the temple.
I couldn’t work out if he was supposed to be there.
I’ve forgotten the name of the instrument, it’s a type of keyboard. He’s got a towel on his head for a turban, and he’s playing the music for the temple service.
There was something about that photograph I couldn’t understand, an ambiguity, because he had the towel on his head.
Well, I enjoy that about photographs — that they are open to interpretation. An interesting photograph quite often has various ways of being seen by other people.
Which comes back to the point we were discussing about interpreting the world, and how we bring our own interpretation to things. There’s the interpretation the photographer’s brought, and then there’s the interpretation that the viewer has brought at a later stage.
It’s all layers on top of layers.
That’s something I’m trying to find in the project that I’m working on at the moment. I’m not looking for the most straightforward images.
It’s an elusive thing. I think a lot of people don’t realise how much work goes into a photographic project, to get it to the kind of standard that it needs to be at. Photography at one level is too easy.
Because you can just take a photograph, it can be a fairly decent photograph, and most people will think “right, that’s it. I got the photograph that I wanted” and then stop at point, instead of going further and searching for connections.
Exactly. They’re not struggling for something, they’re just scratching the surface. And, yeah, that’s easy to do, and it can be very enjoyable. But a serious piece of work takes a long time to put together, and there’s no reason why it should be quicker with photography that it is with writing, for example, or any other medium.
Which is something I’m discovering at the moment. I need ten photographs for my project, and I’ve taken several hundred. Not all of those are worth bothering with, but I still have 50 or 60 which could be used. And I need to edit those down in order to find a narrative, some sort of coherence, across the whole project.