PART 2 – NARRATIVE EXERCISE 1
Part 2 of the Context and Narrative course introduces me to two photo essays. The first entitled ‘Country Doctor’ was produced in 1948 by W. Eugene Smith, an American photographer from Colorado, who followed a country doctor, Dr Ceriani, and recorded his life at work and relaxation. The second entitled ‘The Dad Project’ was produced in 2009 by British film maker and photographer Bryony Campbell which documents the death of her father from cancer. I had not seen either work before, although I had heard of The Dad Project, and so I came to them fresh. I am asked in Exercise 1 to compare the two projects and, further, to explain what I think Bryony Campbell means when she writes ‘an ending without an ending’.
Before comparing the two projects, I would like to say that I found both very engaging, powerful and moving, albeit in rather different ways. They left different impressions on me and I will discuss this and the likely reasons for it later in this post. Both were clearly shot with the agreement and co-operation of the subjects in the images and can therefore be considered as collaborative projects. Smith initially shot with no film in his camera in order to allow Dr Ceriani to get used to his presence and his method of working before using up expensive film. Campbell embarked on the project with the agreement of her father and mother, and her father clearly felt a part of the work and its creation as he would make suggestions about its form and progress. This factor adds to the sense of intimacy and engagement in both sets of work.
Country Doctor follows Dr. Ernest Ceriani for 23 days around his 200 square mile rural practice as he visits patients in their homes, or treats them in the outdoors or in his surgery. (*1) The high contrast black and white still photographs depict in an unromantic and documentary-style way the reality of the doctor’s work with his patients at all hours of the day and night and in all sorts of situations, warts and all. The images convey a real sense of the strength and caring humanity of the doctor and his determination to do all that he can for the community. The photographer had taken care over the composition and lighting of his subjects wherever possible whilst also retaining a sense of the immediacy of the situation. I do not know if Smith imposed on the doctor and his patients to the extent that any of the images were staged. They do often have the appearance of being stills from a drama film of the period and are very much ‘of that era’ in terms of their composition and impact. However, I find it hard to imagine that Smith would have jeopardised the smooth and successful outcome of the doctor’s work but would have rather worked around the subjects to ensure that the lighting and camera angles etc. gave the results that he was looking for without further interference.
The images do not flinch from showing the reality of the doctor’s work and the stresses and strains that it imposed on him. A particularly telling image shows the doctor looking tired and strained in a moment of relaxation after a late night operation. The series also shows Dr. Ceriani relaxing with his wife and children and taking a brief time out fishing a local river for trout, but the text states that even this was cut short after half an hour when he had to leave to deal with an emergency. The text further describes the impact of the doctor’s unpredictable work and lifestyle on his wife who found it hard to come to terms with it even after 4 years of marriage. These details add to the sense that the series deals with real people in real situations dealing with difficult events and emotions in the best way they can with the work and the community being the ultimate reason and reward. This depiction of humanity and tireless endeavour engenders a feeling of empathy, engagement and respect in the viewer for the doctor and his work.
The Dad Project on the other hand follows the decline in health of the photographer’s father, David, and the changing relationships between David, Bryony and their wife / mother following his diagnosis of terminal cancer and his ultimate death. (*2) In common with Country Doctor, this work also imparts a deep sense of engagement with the subjects through the laying bare of emotion and the focus on real and immediate situations. This sense of engagement and exposed emotion is heightened in The Dad Project by the presence of the photographer in a number of the shots in the series, a presence which enables the viewer to relate directly with the artist and her feelings and to feel less like a voyeur. Unlike the Country Doctor series, this project was shot in colour and employs a much more contemporary style using unconventional camera angles and with subjects sometimes chosen as metaphors and allusions rather than as direct statements of reality. The use of colour and soft tones creates an ambience of intimacy and warmth as does the domestic environment in which the photographs are taken.
Copyright Bryony Campbell
The aura of exposed emotion, quiet drama and loving connection is enhanced and deepened both by the use of unconventional camera angles and composition and also by the inclusion in the series of images not directly related to the action and the storyline. The former allows the focus of the viewer to be directed to certain aspects of the image and away from others in order to give them a different, and possibly transcendental, perspective on the scene portrayed. The inclusion of images whose subjects are not directly related to the main theme leads the viewer to explore wider thoughts, feelings and emotions and therefore to experience the work in a broader, and possibly more personal, context.
Copyright Bryony Campbell
So which of the two photo essays do I prefer? I like them both, but in different ways. I do not believe that either could have been shot in the style and format of the other.
The power and impact of Smith’s work on the Country Doctor comes from the black and white format and slightly stiff and formal shooting style. It is clearly documentary in nature, designed to portray the nuts and bolts of a country doctor’s life in all its complexity and challenges. The emotional connection with the series and with the doctor comes through the portrayal of other participants and the feelings they they impart, the inclusion of images of family life and relaxation as well as the work shots and the centrality of the doctor within the images which imparts a sense of loneliness and the weight of his personal responsibility. The text adds valuable detail to further enhance one’s connection with and understanding of the subject and his story.
After viewing this photo essay I was left with a sense of awe and respect for the doctor and his dedication to his work and community. It led me to reflect on the medical profession generally and the skilled and dedicated work that they do which is so often under-valued and leaves my own endeavours looking rather pale in comparison. Whilst the set of images told an on-going story in that it depicted elements in the life of the doctor over a number of days, the story had no beginning and end and there was no clear narrative element leading the viewer through the series from day to day. Each image therefore stood on its own telling its own mini-story, but with no connection to the preceding or the next except through the continuity of the principle subject, the doctor.
Campbell’s project on the other hand had a clear beginning, middle and end as one was taken through the story of David, the father, from diagnosis of the condition, through the decline in his health and abilities to his eventual death and the accompanying response to the changing situation by his family. This added to the power and impact of the series as the viewer could see each image as part of a progression, recalling the relatively healthy and capable individual when viewing the later stages and being made vividly aware of the changes that time and the disease had caused. The weak and drawn person that one saw at the end was still the centre of deep emotion and love for the family members, a reminder that real and meaningful love is based as much on shared history, memories, need and an element of dependency as it is on any other more romantic elements.
The Dad Project is more gentle and personal than Country Doctor. Having viewed the series of still images which make up the project I then viewed the accompanying video presentation of the project (*3) which added greatly to my appreciation of and engagement with the story and the characters involved. Whilst the still images can be lingered over with no time constraint in order to explore their content and meaning in greater depth, the video enables one to have the immediacy of seeing and hearing the subjects and observing the changing nuances of their voice and facial expressions. I was struck by David’s expressed sense of loss and his inadequacy when he realised that he was no longer able to fulfil his ‘role’ of being a ‘good dad’ as provider and responsible adult for the family. Bryony also struggled with her ability to live the role of ‘good daughter’ while her father was dying. The moving images also bring additional meaning to some of the imagery used in the work such as the moving curtains with sun pouring through which I found to be a surprisingly powerful metaphor. I found it valuable to then return to the still images and to bring the emotions and insights I experienced during the video to the photographic project.
I felt deeply moved after experiencing both the video and the photo essay. My emotions were a mixture of close connection with the story, deep sadness about the passing of a life and the deterioration of an individual in such a drawn out, debilitating and humiliating way and the grief over the void that is left behind. My engagement with the story is probably deepened by the fact that I share the father’s name and also, I suspect, many of his hopes, fears and views on life. My deep feelings brought it home to me that I have not fully, if at all, come to terms with the concept of my own death and that I do not know how I will be with it when the time comes.
The artist’s suggestion that the story had reached ‘an ending without an ending’ has quite clear meaning for me. Her father’s life as a living, breathing individual with whom she could share new experiences and physical contact had gone and would never be there again in that form. His death ended their history together and left a void. The realisation that, after the loved one has died, only the history and memories of what has already been will be left of them is one reason why it is so hard to let go. However, at the end of her photo essay Bryony included a photograph of herself entitled ‘Me as Dad 1986‘ taken early on in her life when she was dressed up in her father’s clothes and I take this as being a recognition that, through her genes and all that she has learnt from her Dad and his life, she is her father in part and will be carrying him and his influences on into the future. Additionally, the shared enterprise of the project will be a powerful link to him for her. She recognises in the video and the text that the use of photography in the realisation of this shared project helped her to deal with and come to terms with the reality of her father’ illness and death. The ending of her father’s physical presence as a person on the earth will lead on to his continued presence in a different form through his daughter and her children. This is at least one small comfort to take from one’s life when one wonders what it has all been about.
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