Whether through digital channels, print or on exhibit, the impact, influence and reach of the still image has never been greater. But with so many images fighting for our attention, how do photographers make work that most effectively stands out and connects with an audience. In this seven-part series, TIME looks back over the past 12 months to identify some of the ways of seeing—whether conceptually, aesthetically or through dissemination—that have grabbed our attention and been influential in maintaining photography's relevance in an ever shifting environment, media landscape, and culture now ruled by images.
The Contemporary Photo Essay
We live in an age where the volume of photographic output has never been greater. Yet the propensity is for images to be conceived, received digested and regurgitated in an isolated, singular form—and without further context. Against this backdrop, a generation of committed photographers are working passionately to iterate on, and further develop the traditions for long form story telling, and in so doing, draw attention to their subject matter through new powerful, innovative and resourceful ways.
On Aug. 31 this year, the New York Times Magazine published a photo essay that interweaved the images of two Magnum photographers working on each side of the Israeli, Palestinian conflict—Paolo Pellegrin (in Gaza) and Peter van Agtmael (in Israel). The essay was not only a creative and effective way of balancing a delicate and sensitive story, it was also, as Editor-in-Chief Jake Silverstein explained in a note about the project, conceived in part as a reaction to “the prevalence of cellphone cameras and social media [that had] led to many more images of Gaza than in previous iterations of this long-running conflict."
"As powerful as these photos were," he wrote, “the speed and fervor of their dissemination tended to bring them to us isolated from context.” The Times Magazine story was a considered attempt to have Pellegrin and van Agtmael slow things down and in Silversteins words “try to capture a deeper and more narrative sense of the texture of life on the ground." The resultant essay, that intentionally combines two aesthetically different bodies of work emphasizes “that the fates of average Israelis and Palestinians are intertwined.”
Photographer Matt Black has subverted the prevalent philosophy of Instagram for his project The Geography of Poverty. Although using Instagram as one of the primary platforms for the work, Black has maintained a thematic and aesthetic cohesion to produce a dedicated feed—devoid of distraction or interference—that builds image by image, to deliver an investigation on poverty that is essayistic and closer to that of a traditional photo essay. On the website—exclusively dedicated to the project—Black explores the potential of geo-tagging to extend the project and map the images (for this project, Black was selected as TIME's Instagram Photographer of the Year in 2014)
Photographers such as Diana Markosian with her work made in Beslan, Russia and Carolyn Drake in Turkistan have embraced different types of media and photographic approaches--including still life, documentary, portraiture as well as writing and drawing. They have also actively encouraged their subjects to contribute to the artistic process and tell their own stories through notated recollections narratives and artwork, which is at times directly applied to the photographic print. As Drake says of her project Wild Pigeon that documents the lives of the Uyghur people: “I started looking for meaning at the intersection of our views, and find ways to bring the people I was meeting into the creative process. Traveling with a box of prints, a pair of scissors, a container of glue, colored pencils, and a sketchbook, I asked willing collaborators to draw on, re-assemble, and use their own tools on my photographs. I hoped that the new images would bring Uyghur perspectives into the work and facilitate a new kind of dialogue with the people I met, one that was face-to-face and tactile, if mostly without words.”
In Ukraine a generation of young, predominantly European, freelance photographers including Maria Turchenkova, Ross McDonnell and Capucine Granier-Deferre committed themselves to documenting the searing violence and the disquieting consequences of the year-long conflict—building long-term photo essays that contextualize news events through more in-depth and nuanced perspectives.
One of the most important and powerful bodies of work was produced by Daniel Berehulak, who spent more than 14 weeks covering the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. His work, made on assignment for The New York Times, shows that long-term commitment to a story can reap astounding returns. And a powerful continuum of work, can raise awareness and deeply affect its audience.
In an age when we're saturated with an omnivorous barrage of distracting and singular imagery, there is still a role for subtleties embodied within the traditions of long form storytelling. Through innovative, full screen photo-centric web designs and effective digital dissemination, these photo essays are drawing our attention—in different and often more meaningful ways—to important issues that we otherwise would ignore or at best feel we had seen too many times before.
Read Part 1 - Direct to Audience.
Read Part 2 - Documentary Still Life.
Read Part 3 - The Portrait Series.
Read Part 5 - From Stills to Motion.
Phil Bicker is a Senior Photo Editor at TIME
Interviewer / Malin Fabbri
Photography / Anthony Mournian
Anthony Mournian is the newsletter editor for the Photographers’ Formulary, he is also a granddad and took his grandson to China.
What is it that you do?
Tony: Like all of us, I do a number of things, but one of the most interesting is interviewing and videotaping photographers. From the interviews I write a monthly story for the Photographers’ Formulary in Condon, Montana.
Because I write the newsletter for the Formulary, I am introduced and given access to photographers of all different kinds in many different places. But for the newsletter I would have had no occasion or opportunity to meet them.
At the moment I am working on a story of an emerging photographer in China. This means working long distance via email, and working through an interpreter. The internet makes this possible; without it I would not be able to communicate effectively in the time periods between issues of the newsletter.
By the way, I live in San Diego, California, about 1500 miles from the Formulary. I often speak with Lynn and Bud Wilson, owners of the Formulary and look forward each year to a visit to videotape one of their summer workshops.
What is the Photographers’ Formulary?
Tony: The Formulary is dedicated to preserving and promoting the early photographic processes, and to adapting those same processes to the 21st century. I write about the people who use the old alternative processes, or who develop new processes, such as Karl Koenig’s Gumoil, Dan Burkholder’s digital negatives, and Theresa Airey’s use of the iPhone as a camera, then adapt the 19th century processes to work with them.
Each summer the Formulary offers a series of week long workshops. Each workshop focuses on a different photographic process or technique. The lineup of workshops changes every summer. Workshops begin Sunday evening with one of Lynn Wilson’s famous Welcome dinners and a “get acquainted” hour with the workshop instructor. The days to follow are filled with classroom sessions and 24 hour access to the three Formulary darkrooms.
There’s a conventional “wet” darkroom with ten 4×5 enlargers and two other “darkrooms” used for Alternative Processes. The Formulary workspaces are a photographer’s paradise.
How did you get into this sort of work?
Tony: It’s not really work. I write the newsletter as a volunteer, and for the enjoyment and contact with the photographers whom I showcase each month. I’ve written articles for many years and enjoy putting a “face” on photographers whose work might otherwise never get beyond the door of their darkroom.
I became aware of the Formulary in 2002 when a friend, Karl Koenig, invited me to his workshop on “Gumoil,” the process he had invented in the 1990’s. At the end of the workshop I filled out a course critique and in the Suggestions section offered to create a monthly newsletter. Lynn Wilson accepted my offer and I’ve been writing it ever since.
What is the most challenging part of what you do?
Tony: The challenge is to find a story each month. I am always looking. For example, I walk several miles each morning and often carry a camera. One morning I was trying out a new Fuji medium format folding camera that, believe it or not, still uses film. Another walker, whom I did not know, asked what I was doing, then suggested I should photograph some spider webs he had just seen further down the path. I thanked him and asked if he was a photographer. Yes, he was, so I asked if I could do a story about him. It’s in the works now.
We are so surrounded by images it’s impossible to go more than a few feet in any direction without being confronted by a photograph, a painting or some other form of visual expression. What I’d like to think I can do is make my readers aware of how many different kinds of photography there are, and how each photographer’s work can have meaning and value. Let’s face it, few of us have the vision, talent, or tenacity of an Ansel Adams, but all of us can enjoy taking a photograph of a mountain stream or a fiery sunset.
What is the most fun experience you’ve had?
Tony: I have a grandson, Paul. In 2009 he was eight years old. I wanted to go to Shanghai, China to observe the total eclipse of the sun in July 2009. When Paul heard me say, “China,” he piped up, “China! The Great Wall! Can I go?”
I said, “Sure, if your parents give you permission, but how do you know about the Great Wall?” He said, “The Olympics, Grandpa!,” as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.
So we went. Grandpa and his little boy. We spent two days walking on different sections of the Great Wall, then flew to Xian to see the Terra Cotta Warriors at the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang.
I photographed at the Great Wall, and interviewed Chen Changfen, a man who has made it his life’s work to document The Wall, and to turn photographs of it into an art form.
We had a great time. In Wu Zhen, a “water town” akin to a miniature Venice, Paul bought a tiny remote control helicopter. He ended up flying it around above his bed, inside his mosquito net. At least there it couldn’t bang into the walls or get lost behind the bureau.
As for my watching the eclipse? It got rained out. The skies of Shanghai were completely clouded over. It rained as the sky went as black as midnight. Still, to experience midnight at noon is a thrilling event, one which neither Paul nor I will soon forget!
How do you find a story?
Tony: Several months ago I read of Tim Mantoani, a sports, commercial and portrait photographer in San Diego, California where I live. Tim was in the process of taking a book to press containing photographs of photographers holding one of their works. The book, “Behind Photographs,” was published just before Christmas 2011.
The remarkable thing about Tim’s book is the manner in which it came about. In 2006 Tim was in San Francisco and learned one of the six Polaroid 20×24″ “instant” cameras was available for rent. He had some time on his hands and decided to take the portraits of two photographer friends, Jim Marshall and Michael Zagaris.
Polaroid was still making the giant rolls of “peel apart” film for the giant cameras. Each roll of film contained forty frames, and each frame then cost $75.00. Tim would take about three frames of each photographer. You can see this was an expensive undertaking.
From his experience photographing Jim and Michael, Tim’s project grew like mushrooms. One photographer led him to another, and the path led back and forth across the United States. Before Tim knew it nearly five years had passed and he had 160 20×24″ portraits.
Do the math. 160 photographers later Tim decided it was time to publish a book. At the Comic Con Convention he ran into a publisher who expressed interest in his project. By then Tim had maxed out his credit cards and mortgaged his home to pay for film, travel and camera rentals. It was time to go to press.
2,650 copies were printed. 2,500 are hard backs; the remaining 150 copies are a special edition signed by Tim,encased in a clamshell cover, with a special set of nine prints from which a large image can be created. A specific requirement of Tim’s is the books be priced at a level affordable to the interested audience. Because of its short print run “Behind Photographs” won’t ever make it to the New York Times best seller list, but anyone lucky enough to buy one will own something special.
As I paged through Tim’s 11×14″ book and read what each photographer had written in their own hand at the bottom of the photograph Tim had just taken, I was in awe. The challenge for me was to distill Tim’s work into a three or four page article which would hold the interest of my readers, and recognize the talent and effort that went into producing such a remarkable piece of work. You can read the article in the January issue of the Photographers’ Formulary newsletter.
In September 2011 I videotaped portions of Tim Rudman’s “Lith Printing” workshop. Then I wrote a story for the following issue of the newsletter.
You can also watch two short movies of Tim Rudman as he explains his “Two Golden Rules of Lith Printing,” and the concept and theory of “Bleach and Redevelopment.” Just click on the movie title.
The Formulary newsletter stories highlight the work of photographers, and they serve as a means of keeping the Alternative Processes in the mind’s eye of photographers worldwide.
Do you have any advice for photographers?
Tony: If you mean advice for people who want to become photographers you are asking the wrong guy. As someone told me not long ago, with the advent and availability of digital cameras at affordable prices, everyone is a photographer. It’s the next step beyond taking photographs that separates the sheep from the goats.
Few photographers support themselves with their work. Not all of them enjoy what they do. But of those who do enjoy their work, and who make a living doing it, we can take note of what they do, and support them by buying one of their prints to hang on our wall.