Erich Salomon

Newhall cites as case in point the photography of Erich Salomon, whose ‘candid’ style he claims has been imitated by anyone who can afford a camera and f/2 lens! Unfortunately, in Newhall’s opinion, the imitations fall far short of the original.

Dr. Erich Salomon was the father of candid photography – in fact, the phrase was coined for him by the London Graphic after French PM Aristide Briand’s 1930 quote that unless a ministerial meeting were documented by Salomon no one would believe it had happened. A close friend, Briand held Salomon with deepest respect; he reportedly shouted at an important conference, “Where is Dr. Salomon? We can’t start…. What’s a meeting that isn’t photographed by Salomon? People won’t believe it’s important at all!”

In the French foreign ministry, Quai d’Orsay August 1931, Salomon prepared to snap a picture of a group of five politicians standing in a circle in a corridor. Ten-times Prime Minister of France (then Foreign Minister) Briand noticed him and exclaimed: “Voila le roi des indiscrets” (“There he is, the king of the indiscreet“) as Salomon captured the moment:

Indeed, his images were indiscreet, and quite rightly coined the phrase candid! This picture shows the strain diplomats were under during the Second Hague Reparation Conference (1930) to address the question of how Germany was to pay reparations of 600 million marks demanded by the Treaty of Versailles. According to Shelley Rice (2001), Salomon used his upper-class status and personal acquaintance to gain entry to state dinners, political meetings and other official gatherings of the wealthy and powerful: “he arrived unannounced and uninvited at all events relevant to public life and policy, in order to document the breaking news of history” (p 16). However, rather than focusing on the official façade of the events, he went behind the scenes with his camera, searching for the human aspect, “the laughter, the fatigue, the insecurity, the friction, and the sociability of the politicians and diplomats shaping the world at that time” and in doing so invented a whole new genre of photography; indeed, Rice refers to him as “the first of the modern paparazzi” (ibid, p 16), and Mary Panzer notes that his pictures “still carry a thrilling sense of trespass” (2005, p 15), while his 1931 book was titled Berühmte Zeitgenossen in unbewachten Augenblicken (Famous Contemporaries in Unguarded Moments). Salomon was eventually to meet his fate in Auschwitz.

Newhall is quite vociferous on the imitation of mere style: “And so it is with “documentary.” Because the majority of best work has been concerned with the homes and lives of the underprivileged, many pictures of the down-and-out have been made as “documentaries.” The decay of man and of his buildings is picturesque; the texture of weathered boards and broken window-panes has always been particularly delightful to photograph.” The ‘candidness’ is just a simple repetition of the old themes and subject matter; although Newhall wrote this in 1938, to my mind nothing has fundamentally changed– the subject matter for ‘serious’ documentary is still the same, and the same as what Rosler riled against in her famous (and undeniable) essay, Afterthoughts – the plight of others (the subaltern) still makes for sensational viewing among the privileged classes (poverty tourism).

Newhall makes the shrewd observation:

The documentary photographer is not a mere technician. Nor is he an artist for art’s sake. His results are often brilliant technically and highly artistic, but primarily they are pictorial reports. First and foremost he is a visualizer. He puts into pictures what he knows about, and what he thinks of, the subject before his camera. Before going on an assignment he carefully studies the situation which he is to visualize. He reads history and related subjects. He examines existing pictorial material for its negative and positive value – to determine what must be re-visualized in terms of his approach to the assignment, and what has not been visualized. (p 5)

All great documentary work is of necessity investigative, where the documentarian gets under the skin, even cohabits with his subjects, to get a deeper understanding and feeling, and this comes across in the atmosphere and immediacy of the resultant images. If the documentarian is indifferent, the images will be of an indifferent nature:

He will put into his camera studies something of the emotion which he feels toward the problem, for he realises that this is the most effective way to teach the public he is addressing. After all, is not this the root meaning of the word “document” (docere, “to teach”)? For this reason his pictures will have a different, and more vital, quality than those of a mere technician. (p 5)

Is the word document actually etymologically related to the word docere?!? Apparently yes it is:

document     noun (ˈdɒkjʊmənt) early 15c., “teaching, instruction,” from Old French document (13c.) “lesson, written evidence,” from Latin documentum “example, proof, lesson,” in Medieval Latin “official written instrument,” from docere “to show, teach” (see doctor (n.)). Meaning “something written that provides proof or evidence” is from early 18c.

I had no idea that this was the case. Perhaps this is why we as documentarians feel this pedagogical urge to instruct, to apprise.

Newhall then goes on to quote Bourke-White’s method of “…letting the subjects talk away until just that expression which you wish to capture crosses his face.” She describes setting the camera up and then moving away with a remote control while her partner Caldwell spoke with them, sometimes for an hour, before they gave the particular expression they were after, and then “…the instant it occurred the scene was imprisoned on a sheet of film before they knew what had happened.” This idea of capturing what the authors want to express rather than what the people themselves wish to express or be portrayed somehow betrays Bourke-White’s ultimate intent, and it’s surprising to me that Newhall doesn’t feel that this is at odds with documentary. It is then, after all, an imposition of the documentarian’s point of view or take on a situation. Newhall does not broach this political dilemma.

He does speak about the importance of presentation – by this he is talking about how the images are displayed and thus perceived by an audience, meaning not only their series and juxtaposition, but also captioning:

The photograph is not valid as a document until it is placed in relationship to the beholder’s experience. It is paradoxical that, although a photograph may be better than a thousand words, the addition of one or two words makes it even more concrete and forceful… more extended captions enable the beholder to orientate himself, thus leaving the photographer free to interpret the subject more imaginatively.” (p 6)

Then more importantly, especially for me, is his observation that the images work better when presented in a series, where one image reinforces the other, approaching the cinematic:

A better way to give this orientation is by a series of photographs, which when properly presented approach the cinema. This is the richest manner of giving photographs significance, for each picture reinforces the other. It is, I believe, the logical method of presentation. It is more – it is the logical approach to the medium… Almost universally photographers take many exposures of a given scene, if only to make assurance doubly sure. The series is usually produced with no idea of the method of its ultimate presentation. (p 6)

Truly, this is the best way to approach documentary, although Newhall then goes on to suggest that a whole team of editors and captioners are then involved in the final layout, the idea that the documentarian has shot the scene in a cinematic way, drawing in close and then backing off, approaching the scene from various angles to try and find the best composition or lighting, is exactly the way we do work (at least I do, and if we look at contact sheets of documentary photographers, it seems to be pretty much what we all do). The final decision over which of a series of images to use may well depend on the images that come before or after, or the finalized text that will accompany the images. Although Newhall suggests using a shooting script, this is something I have never done. However, since working with my current subject matter, I have been taking notes of things that I particularly want to photograph, or that my subjects particularly want to show. I have also been reviewing the interview material in light of the images and returned to ask subjects to explain more or clarify certain things that appear in the images. I want these presentations to be more didactic, since I am not the one who is doing the instruction here: it is the subjects themselves who are imparting knowledge to the audience.

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