Show and Tell : The Image in Research

Berenice Abbott Loaded Swinging Wrench 1958

Berenice Abbott. An Asymmetrical Object Behaves Symmetrically. Loaded Swinging Wrench, 1958

Berenice Abbott Wave Reflection 1950s

Berenice Abbott.  Reflection of Waves, 1950s

We’re told – and it seems very likely – that the third age of the internet will be the visual age.  At a recent edition of the annual LDV Summit, Evan Nisselson confidently said “Ninety percent of the data Artificial Intelligence needs to succeed, I believe, is going to be visual”. Nisselson’s a booster. As the founder of LDV, a venture capital firm investing in visually-driven new technology, he plainly has interest all over statements like that. Seen from where most of us stand today, the ‘internet of things’ is fairly restricted. Fridges might have cameras to read the sell-by dates on milk cartons and doorbells might be connected to apps to allow you to see your visitors when you aren’t at home – but we don’t for the most part yet see far beyond those fairly trivial gadgetty developments.  Yet Nisselson most assuredly has a point: we’re heading to a visually driven internet, and it’s been coming a long time.  Big data is a thing; and it’s here.  We’re getting to the place where seeing things displayed intelligibly is going to be the only way to have any understanding of them at all.  Have a look even at some of the simple tools of graphical display; look at the tools on Gapminder.com, for example. If you haven’t checked in with this stuff for a few years, you’ll be amazed at what is now routine. At the other end of the process, computers are acquiring the facility to make use of more and more information gathered visually.  Quite soon – if we haven’t got there already – more pictures will be generated by machines to be read by machines, with only occasional human inspection or audit, than are made by people for people. Computers deal in numbers so huge we can’t really see what they’re up to.

 

The one thing you can say with certainty about a computer is that it doesn’t understand what it tells.  Garbage in; garbage out used to be the litany but you could write a parallel one: big numbers in; big numbers out.  No need for the computer to make metaphors, use allegory or innuendo. Computers don’t allude or suggest or imply or remind.  They just puke out the numbers.  For the humans among us, with slower mathematical processors but far more complex and complete systems all the same, there has always had to be a more satisfactory interface between the data and our understanding.  Since the first story from the Bible was stained into glass and positioned to catch the sun high on a cathedral wall – long before that, in truth – that interface has as often as not been visual. What we like to do, when we don’t understand something completely, is make a picture of it.  It seems clearer that way. We can see obvious flaws in a picture that we can’t in a stream of numbers, a syllogism, or a few pages of code.  Computers fast enough to process huge volumes of data (just-in-time supply chains; facial recognition; fly-by-wire systems; virtual reality; global positioning and geo-tagging…) will do things that we can’t.  But we’ll keep in touch with those things in pictures because that’s the only way we can understand or hope to keep up.  The visual, in other words, is expanding.

We think of research as an occupation which finds its expression in writing (classically in the Research Paper published in an Academic Journal) but it can take many other forms.  Think of an old map with its large patches marked Terra Incognita or – better – Here be Dragons.  By marking what wasn’t known, that made a clear statement of where previous research had stopped – as well as an invitation to go in the future to find out what might be there.  A university such as the University of Brighton, where I work, is filled with people using imagery in their research and using it in all sorts of different ways.  A pie chart clumps numbers of instances of something in conveniently legible form.  An organigram might well be the first expression at a time of corporate change: it shows a complex set of relationships in a single sheet, graphically rendering something invisible visible.  A moving pointer shows sound levels  – or any of one thousands of other variables.

We can simplify and say there are two kinds of images in research.  There are those that show things which the researcher intends to address.  We can think of those as input imagery.  A collection of still photographs of broken turbine blades, for example, might be a very valuable beginning of an enquiry.  Different in kind are the charts and graphs and myriad other expressive ways of showing the results of research: this number did that; another number did something else.  This behaviour was expected; this actually resulted. A given group of variables can be grouped this way; another that other way. We might think of those as output imagery, helpful to transmitting the research process or results with clarity and speed.

But a simple taxonomy of this kind doesn’t begin to address the range and scope of possible visual expressions that come into research or come out of it.  That’s why we have brought together a few examples of colleagues’ work just to begin to suggest the scope of a vast subject.  How research comes to be visualised will be at the core of the new dependence on the visual ­– and we can expect a new literacy in the visual to make sense of it.  We’re putting on a little exhibition of current images to show how central is the role taken by images and imagination in the research processes.

It started a long time ago.  Our contemporary researchers are advancing habits of thought which already exist; are already old. You’ve heard of Florence Nightingale?  Remember her, the Lady with the Lamp, patiently ministering to wounded soldiers in the Crimea?  The convenient (but essentially sexist) view is that she was a nurse; she tended to men far from their loved ones who had been hurt or fallen sick in service.  Buried beneath that Ladybird view is another.  Florence Nightingale made herself a most remarkable statistician, and used her mastery of data to campaign for change – with success.  Florence Nightingale invented the rose chart, a strong representation of data by area, and she used it to devastating effect. One example among very many of the ways in which visualisation wins the challenges of understanding.

Chart Prepared for WEB Du Bois to Exhibit at Paris 1900

‘Assessed Valuation of Taxable Property Owned by Georgia Negroes’. Chart Prepared for W.E.B. Du Bois to Exhibit at Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900. Library of Congress.

Chart prepared for WEB Du Bois to Paris 1900

‘Occupations of Negroes And Whites in Georgia’. Chart prepared for W.E.B. Du Bois to display at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, 1900. Library of Congress

A similar one a few years later comes from another great social reformer, W.E.B. Du Bois, who prepared elaborate charts to express the economic condition of the black population of the United States for the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900. It’s tempting to push the point: the famous pump in Broad Street in Soho whose handle was removed in 1854 by John Snow once he’d plotted the occurrences of cholera round about it was an actual pump with an actual handle.  Stopping it from working was a physical way of stopping the dirty water from being consumed, and it certainly slowed the spread of the epidemic.  But it was also a strongly graphical representation of the results of his research: Snow the meticulous data-cruncher found the perfect illustration to make his point.  Stop the pumping and you stop the disease.  A pump: cholera.  A pump amputated of its handle: cholera diminished.

Many specialists can do you a history of infographics more complete than I can,  and many other universities have assembled groups of research pictures.  There is a well-travelled formal history of this stuff, of course.  A lot of what is called by the portmanteau word infographics ( information graphics ) derives from sources perfectly known.

Playfair

‘Linear Chronology Exhibiting the Revenues, Expenditure, Debt, Price of Stocks and Bread from 1770 to 1824’ by William Playfair.

The English political economist William Playfair invented or perfected in the late eighteenth century many of the familiar charts we use still today.  A Playfair chart had perfectly recognizable elements : named regular values along an x- and a y-axis for example; careful use of colour; the certainty (as he put it) that ‘whatever can be expressed in numbers, may be expressed in lines’ .  Playfair was a far more colourful figure than many researchers: so much so that he would make a tremendous subject for a racy filmed Life.  He was at one time apprenticed to Boulton and Watt, the refiners of the steam engine, and at another so active in Paris that he was rumoured among those who stormed the Bastille.  More certainly he ran a business making gun-carriages and was also convicted of fraud.  Playfair’s important; but he did not invent it all.

Priestley-Chart-of-History-1769_lowres-3000x1957

Joseph Priestley. A New Chart of History. Published April 1769. This copy via ‘Boston Rare Maps’.

Some of his chart work derived from some by Joseph Priestley, the greatest of all British enlightenment savants: Dissenter, Member of the Birmingham Society of Lunar Men, friend of Benjamin Franklin, discoverer (or co-discoverer with Lavoisier), of dephlogisticated air – what we now call oxygen.  For people trying to offer ready grasp of exponentially more data than had been normally dealt with even a generation before, it seems natural that late eighteenth century scholars would devise versions of charts.  As in our own generation, there was then such a quantum jump in the information calling to be processed, that a heavier reliance on picturing seems a reasonable and – if you can overlook a momentary historicist elision ­– almost an inevitable outcome.

Again and again, we see the forms of visualisation become more influential in each specific area than might have been predicted. I am told by an ophthalmologist that photography (my own area) had at one time been a useful possible form of note-taking in her work, as in many others.  But the sweep of inference rapidly to be drawn from the pictures had pushed the role of photography ever deeper into the field.  Now, I understand, photography is the primary diagnostic tool for ophthalmologists – and far from furnishing a simple aide-memoire, it is central. That is a familiar history in photography.  Imagery helps to make things clear to the specialists; imagery becomes the prime way to make things clear to the non-specialists. What I hadn’t realised is that the same expansion has been familiar in so many other fields, too.

Minard - mouvement commercial du Canal du centre 1844

Charles Minard – Mouvement Commercial du Canal du centre 1844 (Traffic movement on the Canal du Centre in 1844). In the same way that French schoolchildren are convinced the potato was brought into regular use by Antoine Parmentier whereas British children think of Raleigh in that context, so Minard (rather than Playfair) is the father of chart data in France. Parmentier, by the way, was a contemporary and correspondent of Voltaire. Raleigh died more than a century before Parmentier was born, although as usual in these national claims to priority, each can be credited with part of the story.

Economic growth versus deforest

A ( to me ) wonderfully unreadable contemporary chart of Economic Growth plotted against Deforestation. It gives lovely order; but perhaps rather less understanding. Many images in research contexts do the same – or the opposite.

Agassiz

The Crust of the Earth as Related to Zoology. Louis Agassiz and A. A. Gould, 1870. This lovely anti-Darwinian arrangement shown simply as a page reproduction from Animal Vegetable Mineral: Organising Nature, A Picture Album: Tim Dee, Anna Faherty, Wellcome Collection, 2016

Much of the inventiveness to date has been in fields we know.  Playfair worked a lot on economic data, and we all know the familiar figure of the newsreader airily guiding us around charts of the economic news (unemployment figures; inflation; foreign exchange rates…). I mentioned maps, and there have been generations of new types of maps, all seeking to present a particular kind of clarity.  The very idea of a map projection, flattening the globe, is an attempt to visualise research data; different projections have different uses.  Harry Beck’s famous map of the London Underground from the 1930s does the same thing: it strives to make sense of the wiggly complexity of a system too big by then to be readily held in the head of a traveller.

Booth's poverty Map, 1898

One Section (of a dozen) of Charles Booth’s ‘Poverty Maps’ of London, 1898. London School of Economics

Florence Kelley - Hull House Map of Poverty in Chicago - brothels on clark Street

Florence Kelley – Hull House Map of Poverty in Chicago – showing brothels on Clark Street, published in 1895. This work was indebted to the Booth maps.

original_517a647f77c578f086594b981700037e

Metropolitan Town Planning Commission Map of Melbourne Time Zones, c.1910.

Map of locations of record covers in Greenwich Village and East Village

Map of Locations of Record Cover Photography in Greenwich Village and in the East Village from popspotnyc.com

humboldt1805-chimborazo

Alexander von Humboldt. Chart of the Flora and Fauna Found at Different Altitudes on Chimborazo. 1805.

Plan of Routes BEA and BOAC

Schema of Operation of Routes by the British Overseas Airways Corporation shortly after the War and Corporate Mergers, 1946. Via Paul Jarvis, Mapping The Airways, Amberley Publishing, 2016

Charles W Baker 1924 artwork camden

Charles W Baker. The Underground railway junction at Camden Town, drawn in 1924 as ‘London’s Newest Wonder’ for a poster – to boast 160 trains per hour.

Is it too much of a generalisation to say that mapping is the area where experimentation to make the visual expression of the widest range of variables has been most developed? It may be so.  A map of the Melbourne suburbs shows travel time as more important than distance, always true for commuters. The great Alexander von Humboldt makes a famous combination of a map and a table as he climbs laboriously up Chimborazo, then thought the highest mountain in the world, a truly momentous announcement of the ecological relationship between altitude and latitude.

16th C copy of an illustration of Avicenna -11th C- of the muscular system

Sixteenth century copy of an illustration by Avicenna (eleventh century) of the muscular system. Wellcome Collection.

Modern cutaway drawing by Bruno Betil of 1936 Topolino

Modern cutaway drawing by Bruno Betil of the 1936 Fiat Topolino. I have never seen a history of the cutaway drawing although I’m sure there are many good ones. It was once a highly original and remains now a very effective way of depicting that which you can’t see.

 

Touch Maps Hazard & Willian v Burnley

Touch Maps of the Chelsea players Eden Hazard (L) and Willian Borges da Silva (R) in the Premier League match vs Burnley in September 2016. Charts via the Premier League

 

Rank15

Rank of the riders on successive stages of the Tour de France cycle race, showing the difference between relatively uneventful days and those with more movement in the field.

But there has been plenty of this work in other fields, too. In some areas, data has become almost a parallel to the main activity.  Medicine of all sorts relies on data: think of the chart at the end of a patient’s hospital bed – the completing of which sometimes feels more important to the staff than any interaction with the patient.

Stephen Jay Gould wrote a famous essay on statistics and baseball, and many discussions about sport start and end with the stats.  The advances are not just in display, but in data collection: Premier League soccer players are routinely tracked around the field as they play, and remarkable statistics evolved (and made available for sale) about their movement.  This in a sport famous – unlike cricket, for example – for the simplicity of its scoring system and therefore its apparent resistance to statistical overload.  Cricket has been at it longer: the elegant formulae of the cricket score-book have passed into the language, with the ‘dot-ball’ moving from the stats to the sport, rather than the other way as is more usual.  In a piece on the new possibilities for football managers to monitor increasingly complex data from the players while the game is actually in process, my colleague Peter Lloyd quoted the philosopher Julian Baggini in talking of the quantified self, ‘an approach to living which encourages the relentless gathering of data about everything related to our wellbeing, from health and fitness indicators like heart rate and cholesterol levels, to time spent on social media or learning new skills. All this data is supposedly used to make us leaner, fitter, happier, more efficient.’  We all know at least one person who chooses to suspend their free will in such matters as what to eat (or when) in favour of the unknown designer of the app they look to for guidance in that area. Everybody with an Apple Watch knows what it means to live as much in the graphs as in real life.

Beethoven, another page from o. Sonata 111, op.32

A page from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 111, op. 32.

Beethoven, a page from o. Sonata 111, op.32

Another page from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 111, op. 32. With a few more such illustrations, we could easily begin to see how Thomas Mann might have described (he put the words into the mouth of Wendell Kretszchmar in the eighth chapter of Dr. Faustus) this great sonata as the one which killed off the sonata altogether.

90 secs of Dance Notated by Rudolf Laban

Ninety Seconds of Dance, annotated by Rudolf Laban

Some visualisations, it has to be said, are more successful than others.  Western musical notation is a graceful and readily understood transcription of the mathematics of pitch and rhythm.  To watch a fluent sight-reader making music from an unknown score is to be readily convinced of the precision of the ideas conveyed. Musical notation is a little less successful at transcribing tone, perhaps. The sight-reader knows the tone because of his or her own instrument; the notation has little to say about the colour or voice of the music to one who might not know the instrument intended.  Still, it’s precise compared to dance notation, say, which seems to leave room for interpretation in the very fundamentals of the art: gesture, movement, and expression.

Visualisation is always metaphorical, allusive.  Any way of visualising complex effects will have slippages.  The question is which ones are built in to the research and which are not. I’m reminded of the oft-quoted tag attributed to Laszlo Moholy-Nagy who is supposed to have said “The illiterate of the future will not be he who is ignorant of the pen but he who is ignorant of photography”. Walter Benjamin gave this phrase its impetus, and his version was this “Nicht der Schrift-, sondern der Photographieunkundige wird, so hat man gesagt, der Analphabet der Zukunft sein.”

The researchers of today are furiously accumulating the data, as we know. With the help of computers on steroids, they are accumulating it in such quantities that we cannot easily process the results.  So at the same time, they are inventing the new visual grammar of the future.  And it’s fair to notice that neither their Dr. Johnson nor their Noam Chomsky has yet appeared.  We simply don’t yet know the codes by which we, the visual generation of the new machine age, will analyse and make sense of the pictures which will have such an important part in controlling us.

Historically, much of that work has been done in photography.  People have always read pictures; but photography is the place where we learnt to read pictures at high speed, across cultures, for usable relevant information urgently needed.  It may well be that other vocabularies and syntaxes are going to be developed; but they will stand on the piles of photographs we have already tried to make sense of. It is in photography that we learnt to process visual information in bulk – and it may well be that we need to look to the habits of mind we acquired there to help us make sense of the new mountains of information we are heaping (we already have heaped) up around ourselves.  Those mountains of data, like the dust heaps in Our Mutual Friend, are the potential source of both great prosperity and great menace.  So it is urgent that we know how to make use of them.

We need to develop new and revelatory ways to picture data; and that seems to be happening at a great rate.  But we also need to develop new and reliable ways for humans to read those pictures, and that may not be happening quite so quickly.

Xavi Bou 2

Ornitography_38

Xavi Bou

Three photographs of the tracks of birds, by Xavi Bou, from his series ‘Ornithologies’ (seen via http://www.laboiteverte.fr/ – to whom thanks). Even the familiar world does not look familiar when its images take a less than usual relationship between time and place.

original_395437220d7f15495f86f73fd1340fbf

An ‘outsider’ graphic by George Widener, known as a ‘lightning calendar calculator’. Widener is widely held in art galleries and there are films about his work. Is his seeming incomprehensibility different in kind from that of many makers of graphics we recognise more formally as ‘researchers’ ?

 

Ulises Carrion

Another disruptive graph, this time by the great ( and weird ) maker of artist’s books, Ulises Carrión. This one, from about 1972, is Untitled (Margins). It is perhaps a graph whose inhuman regularity has been interrupted to leave some room for the human.

 

Circos Genome Software

Circos is software for visualising a whole genome: “Displays large volumes of genomic rearrangement data. Circos is a visualization tool that applies a circular ideogram layout to display relationships between genomic intervals. The software provides a scalable means to illustrate relationships between genomic positions and is designed to allow flexible and easy rearrangement of elements in the image.” Brayton Orchard, The Ohio State University.  As often happens, this image implies a lot that was simply unthinkable a few years ago. Good or bad? We don’t yet know. But if only researchers can read it properly, how can the ethics that apply to it and the social adjustments that derive from it be adequately sorted out?

 

A small estuary seahorse- Hippocampus kuda- drifts in the polluted waters near Sumbawa Besar- Sumbara Island- Indonesia. Justin Hofman

A small estuary seahorse – Hippocampus kuda – drifts in the polluted waters near Sumbawa Besar- Sumbara Island- Indonesia. Photograph by Justin Hofman. tThis kind of imagery goes back to an older version of visualisation of data. Knowing about plastic pollution and seeing a picture like this are different things. For pictures of this weight – hard not to see something is badly wrong here – we know how to extrapolate the thousand words the single view is supposedly worth.

 

Show and Tell – the Image in Research.    29 April – 10 May 2019

Under the auspices of the Creative Futures of the University of Brighton

At the Edward Street Gallery in

the School of Media of

the University of Brighton: BN2 0JG – UK.

Open Monday – Friday, 10am – 6pm; and 10am – 4pm on Saturday

There is a not-at-all-Private View on 26th April 2019 in the evening, 5:30pm – 7:30pm.  Anybody who is interested and within reach of Brighton is welcome.

 

Padlock the Pump Handle : Clarence A. Bach and the Habits of Photojournalism

<b>Caption from LIFE.</b> "Three dead Americans on the beach at Buna."

“Three dead Americans on the beach at Buna.” A famous and an important picture by George Strock. Often cited as the first picture to show American dead after Pearl Harbor, it was taken either in late December 1942 or in early January 1943, but not published until September 1943, after LIFE had exercised considerable effort in overcoming censorship. In an editorial accompanying publication, LIFE described the three bodies on the beach (in New Guinea) as “three units of freedom”.

 

I was doing a little research (of the familiar Google-drifting kind) on something else when I came across a remarkable man of whom no British reader of these lines will ever have heard. So allow me to introduce you to Clarence A. Bach, founder and principal teacher of what seems to have been the first vocational course in photography in any American high school, the idiosyncratic — and wildly successful — course at John C. Fremont High School, Los Angeles.

“Clarence Bach was a short asthmatic man who sent his graduates out to photograph the world and everything in it as no group of kids from one high school has ever done before – or since. Almost every newspaper in the West has Bach’s boys. All the big screen and movie magazines of the heyday ’30s and ’40s had them. Now they are in TV and motion pictures. Major magazines throughout the country staff [sic] Fremont graduates – LIFE has had eight staff photographers from Bach.”   Those are the words of Mark Kauffman (himself a photographer for LIFE and then a distinguished picture editor at Sports Illustrated), from a generous tribute to Bach [i].

“When Bach, then a second cameraman at Twentieth Century Fox, first went to the Los Angeles Board of Education with his idea for a photography course, the Board was completely skeptical. “Photography is expensive,” they said, “and there’s no assurance in the world that a single student will learn enough to get a job by it….”

“Finally, after going the rounds of all the high schools, Bach went to see William L. Richer, the principal at Fremont High. In 1925, Bach was allowed to start his course on a part-time basis, with a caution that ‘it hadn’t better cost too much money.’ Bach installed a tiny lab in an old dressing room off the high school auditorium, and his first class began rambling up and down the iron staircase with cameras and exposed negatives. [ii]

It took a while, but the first graduate got a job in 1933: Eddie Stone, hired that year at International News. By the end of the war, there were 146 Bach graduates working either as photographers or as lab men in the various armed forces, and many more working in studios or on papers up and down the West Coast.

christie-brinkley-sports-illustrated-cover-1981-jgz

John G. Zimmerman, Christie Brinkley on the cover of Sports Illustrated, 1981. It is something of a professional honour to be asked to do the cover of the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated, and Zimmerman made several. But it is hard to admire this sort of thing, beyond a grudging admission that it is well enough done – for lighting, in particular. It would be very interesting to know what Clarence Bach would have made of pictures like this.

These are striking figures: it’s an astonishing record. That figure : eight photographer-disciples on the staff of LIFE, we’re told. Here are more than eight :

John Dominis;

John Florea;

Mark Kauffman;

Bob Landry;

Dick Pollard;

George Strock;

Harold Trudeau;

Hank Walker;

Jack Wilkes;

John G. Zimmerman

Not all of these are specially well-known today, but many are. They are still a formidably distinguished crew, to say the least. As LIFE Magazine once quite officially put it, “they learnt their trade from Clarence A. Bach, whose photography course is a curricular adornment of Fremont High [iii].

There is not much doubt that Bach’s course was trusted and admired.   As John Morris, himself a picture editor at LIFE, among a host of other distinguished roles in photojournalism, remembered it:

“This Los Angeles public school, whose alumni I took to calling “Group FHS” as an echo of San Francisco’s Group f/64, owed its success to the inspiration of one devoted schoolteacher, Clarence A. Bach. I have no idea how he taught, but his results were impressive. Our association with FHS began when Dick Pollard, needing an extra photographer for a sudden LIFE assignment, remembered a talented Los Angeles Times photographer whom he had seen covering a Pomona College track meet. It was George Strock, a recent Fremont graduate. Not only did Strock begin getting Life assignments he introduced a second Fremonter, Bob Landry, who introduced a third, Johnny Florea, who introduced a fourth, Mark Kauffman, who introduced a fifth, John Dominis, who introduced a sixth, Jack Wilkes, who introduced a seventh. Hank Walker. A few Fremont alumni got away to other magazines, but I have the same high regard for the members of the Fremont High Society that I do for the members of the Royal Photographic Society. [iv]

That networking seems to have been a deliberate part of the Bach recipe. “Our graduates have gone out and done well for themselves, and by their success have bred jobs for countless other kids. It’s not a union…but a lot better than a union. Our boys have mushroomed all over the field of photography by reaching down and helping another guy up. [v]

Another element in Bach’s system was a solid grounding in the physics, mechanics, and chemistry of the camera and the darkroom, including lighting. “Bach considers lab work rightly as important a part of a photographer’s training as correct exposure and focus, and each student must know the basic formulas of every developer that he might encounter on a job before he goes into the advanced class[vi] .”

There was a constant flow of assignments, in which the student-mock seems to have overlapped constantly with the professional. “The most exciting part was a Bach ‘assignment’ to cover a big game. Friday afternoon would find us fanning out in the damnedest assortment of jalopies ­— Essexes, Marmons, Moons, Pierce Arrows — anything with wheels and a couple of gallons of gas. Ah, the sweet glory of seeing our labors on the printed page ! Not only that, but you made five bucks. [vii]

ginger-rogers-landry

Ginger Rogers by Bob Landry. Cover of LIFE, March 1942. Is this a portrait of a successful and self-confident woman at ease, or is it sophisticated cheesecake?

The final element seems to have been a constant habit of critique. Bach himself reviewed portfolios, even when much of the teaching was delegated to his assistant Holger Wilkstrom. Students were expected to edit assignments down to a realistic number of usable pictures, and usable they had to be. “While working on a project, Bach gives close attention to each individual photographer’s idea after he or she has chosen his approach to the subject. Clear, well-composed shots are a must. [viii]

dominis-steve-mcqueen-and-his-wife-neile-take-a-sulphur-bath-at-big-sur-1963

John Dominis. Steve McQueen and his wife Neile take a sulphur bath at Big Sur, 1963. Clear, well-composed shots are a must. But it certainly also helps if you can persuade famous actors to let you follow them into the bathroom.

“Bach was soft on discipline but very hard on idlers. ‘Either get out and take pictures, ‘ he would shout,’ or get in the darkroom and work.’ We used to play tricks on him, like putting flashbulbs in his desklamp. I think he secretly enjoyed the resulting bedlam. Every day, after one hour in photography class, we had three full hours in which to shoot pictures or work in the darkroom. Bach put tremendous emphasis on our shooting on the playing fields. We sharpened our reflexes covering the action and also had to work our imaginations to do still lifes of sporting equipment, outdoor portraits and set up publicity-type pictures. We practiced composition and architectural photography on the buildings. Never has one school been so worked over by the camera.

California Angels Nolan Ryan

Characteristically adventurous technical study by John G. Zimmerman. Nolan Ryan of the California Angels, photographed on the day he threw his fourth career no-hitter during a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Anaheim Stadium in 1975.

The slightest whiff of smoke set us scrambling for our homemade wooden cases containing old Speed Graphic cameras, and created mass exodus. In those days in L.A., we could get the police car radio reports on our own radios. This was our greatest source for news tips. In my junior year at Fremont, Bach’s students had over 500 pictures published in the four major Los Angeles newspapers. There was even a cover on LIFE…. We really loved photography with a passion, and though we had strange ways of showing it, we loved and respected C.A. Bach. There was a feeling that every day would bring something new and exciting and Bach was leading us to greater and greater things in and through photography. [ix]

bach-from-a-retirement-tribute-in-si-june-1959

Clarence A. Bach, photographed by Bill Bridges. From a retirement tribute in Sports Illustrated, 1959. The stars behind him do not represent the states of the Union. They represent the photographers he had placed at the service of the nation in the course of the war.

 

So there you have some kind of a sketch of a great teacher. It’s no surprise that sport became one of the great fields of American photography, and that Bach students like John G. Zimmerman did so very well at Sports Illustrated, for example. Bach was clearly a man of vast charisma, a believer in solid technical grounding, and fiercely loyal to his network. Much of his system is still the norm in photography courses today. When he retired in 1959, Sports Illustrated ran a column in his honour in which he was called “chatty and ceaselessly curious. [x]

It makes me wonder quite how one can trace the influence of that one man on one of the most famous picture magazines in the world. I haven’t done it, and it may be too late to do it as thoroughly as might have been – because a lot of his pupils no longer survive — but somebody should. Right there is major research project. That he had influence is clear enough from the passages I’ve cited here. But we need to know a great deal more. What sort of taste Bach had, what he thought about photography, his politics, his attitude to women, to abroad, to America, his intended legacy…. Because I expect we would find something quite exciting.

It used to be that people talked and wrote more about the zeitgeist than they do now. Zeitgeist has fallen a bit from fashion, and high time, too. It was always a suspect notion, I felt, replacing the clear tracing of influences from person to person (or person to institution) with a sloppier assumption that ideas just existed in the air. They rarely do. People may not always be scholars, and they may not always accurately track their own ideas back to their sources. Some people, it’s true, hold a lot of the ideas of their time with no thought of critiquing those ideas. But I don’t think professional people in the pursuit of their professions do that. Or at least, they do — and should be called out when they do.

Many years ago the architectural historian Mark Girouard wrote a book[xi] on a group of Elizabethan country houses, Longleat, Wollaton, Hardwick and so on.   Before Girouard, these had been more-or-less presumed to be anonymous, and assumed to demonstrate the ‘spirit of the age’. They shared a number of characteristics such as the relatively vast areas of glass they used, their high compact design around light-wells and courtyards, and the turning of the hall through ninety degrees compared to what had gone before. Girouard in effect rejected the idea that the zeitgeist alone could have designed those wonderful houses: there must be a person involved. And there was. He found that although the term architect was not yet in general use, a particular craftsman, Robert Smythson, was always associated with these houses, although referred to sometimes as mason, sometimes as contractor and so on. Girouard built the case that Smythson had designed the great houses, and actually found the papers relating to Smythson which proved it; not only the surviving designs (called platts at the time) but the account books and so on showing the payments Smythson had received. It’s a fine reminder that sometimes we don’t even recognize our woolly thinking as woolly. It’s just … in the air.

We used to think that the cholera was spread by the miasma until in 1854 a doctor called John Snow, not satisfied by that, carefully mapped the incidence of one outbreak of the disease and put a padlock on a pump handle in Soho [xii].

In photography, for a number of reasons, we have a shortage of really good scholarship and consequently a higher proportion than is justified of airy (or miasmic) assumptions; as well as the persistent survival of numbers of untruths. Research goes on all the time, and some of it scratches away sometimes quite effectively at age-old assumptions. In that context, I admire the single-minded way the critic A.D. Coleman goes after his subjects. He has spent a good deal of energy pursuing the untruths told (and the assumptions made) about Robert Capa’s D-Day pictures [xiii]. One of his targets in that affair has been the same John Morris mentioned earlier.

But an awful lot more goes by unchallenged.

There is a passage in Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty [xiv] in which she discusses the pictures that came out of Abu Ghraib. “It isn’t that this photograph played no role in the unfolding of human events — clearly, it did. But after nearly 200 years of photography, it may be that we are closer than ever to understanding that an image — be it circulated in a newspaper, on You Tube, or in an art gallery — is an exceptionally poor platform on which to place the unending, arduous, multifaceted and circuitous process of ‘changing the world’ “.

I am pretty certain that Henry Luce and his various employees at LIFE would have had grave difficulty understanding that sentiment.

We need continually to padlock some pump handles and actually map the effects of what goes on, rather than simply making assumptions. We need to ‘do a Girouard’ on the photojournalism that became so central to American public discourse. I don’t know that I think that any great deliberate untruths have been told about the kind of imagery that LIFE and the other picture magazines fostered. I just suspect that a number of assumptions about that imagery — and as a result of its central place in the US canon, about photojournalism more generally — can be traced, if only we knew, to the habits, prejudices, abilities, friendships or early reading of Mr. Clarence A. Bach.

 

 

[i] Kauffman quoted at length above the signature of George P. Hunt, Managing Editor, on the opening ‘Editors’ Note’ page of LIFE on January 3rd, 1967

[ii] Photo Teacher. Tribute to Clarence Bach, by Tom Carlile. Popular Photography, March 1947.

[iii] LIFE, vol 22 No. 1, January 6th 1947, p.11

[iv] Morris, John G., Get the Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism. Univ. of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 55.

[v] Carlile, Popular Photography, op.cit

[vi] Carlile, Popular Photography, op.cit

[vii] Kauffman tribute, op cit.

[viii] Carlile, Popular Photography, op cit. in a picture caption.

[ix] Kauffman tribute, op cit.

[x] Sports Illustrated, A Pat on the Back, June 15th 1959, p. 88

[xi] Girouard, M., Robert Smythson and the Elizabethan Country House, Yale University Press, revised 1983.

[xii] Cf. for example, Johnson, Steven, The Ghost Map – The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic, Penguin, 2008 A Street, an Epidemic and the Hidden Power of Urban Networks.

[xiii] For the main list of his endeavours in this matter, cf. Coleman’s blog at http://www.nearbycafe.com/artandphoto/photocritic/major-stories/major-series-2014/robert-capa-on-d-day/ ( accessed in September 2016)

[xiv] Nelson, M., The Art of Cruelty, WW. Norton, 2012 ( paperback) p. 40