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April 22, 2004

Powerful Documentary: The Side Photographic Collection

Is documentary photography dead? There have been frequent assertions of its irrelevance and much hand-wringing (going back nearly 40 years) regarding how compelling and useful a straight "objective" approach is in depicting certain realities.

It's a big topic that's been addressed in endless ways by various art and photography critics, and various waves of "new photojournalism" and "new documentary" have seemingly sprung up over the last twenty years, to try to go beyond the standard attempts at "objectivity" that tend to produce earnest but mostly uninsightful reportage, or (worse) conceal biases that provide a misleading and skewed perspective.

Documentary photography and photojournalism, in my opinion, will always have relevance, for there are constantly stories that demand our attention that images give greater illumination to...but a number of critics and essayists have argued compellingly that the best photography needs to go beyond the "photographer as dispassionate documenter" approach. In other words, documentary approaches should actively include the photographer's viewpoint, or at least some acknowledgement of the role of the photographer (or the institutions that employ the photographer) in telling and framing the story.

In this regard, an online treasure trove of documentary photographs, the Side Photographic Collection, belonging to the Amber film and photography collective, is worthwhile viewing. The Amber collective, based in the North East of England, formed in 1968 with the goal of documenting working class communities, and many of the online exhibitions depict communities in the throes of post-industrial transformation and displacement, with the photographers themselves often being active members of the communities they were documenting.

There are also galleries featuring the work of classic photographers such as Lewis Hine, Weegee, August Sander, Martin Chambi and many others, as well as more recent documentary and photojournalism work focused on issues in other countries, but the latter feel weirdly out of place. The documentary work providing numerous perspectives on the working class communities in the North of England were the most interesting and fascinating viewing for me, though there are many galleries focused on other European communities that are rewarding.

Many of the galleries present a somewhat romantic view of families and the working class life 20 to 30 years ago, but the best photo-essays don't shy away from the pain of the changes and displacement that disrupted their communities and personal lives. And even the romanticized stuff...even the simple snap shots provide an amazing time capsule documenting a way of life that seems very, very far removed from today. There are also written essays accompanying many of the galleries, though I longed for more specific explanations regarding a number of the photographs and projects.


Jimmy Forsyth image, from Scottswood Road exhibition

There are over 2000 photographs organized in several different ways, with a lot of images in black and white. It's easy to go through many of the galleries given the modest image sizes, though the sheer amount of black and white can make the journey a little wearying in a single session...the color photography, when it does appear, stands out significantly. But black and white has been used masterfully in many cases to present documentary realities effectively, even though web sized images fall short at times in making one feel the texture of these working class lives and places.

Here are few of my favorites from the vast collection at Amber Online, but if you have a soft spot in your heart for this type of documentary, you should definitely wade through as much as you can:

1) Nowhere Called Home -- the story of Sicilian immigrant workers traveling to Germany to work at a Volkswagen plant, caught between two cultures.

2) Meadow Well -- the resilience of a community in the late 1980s in North Shields in England fighting massive unemployment and poverty.

3) Ashington -- documentation of an English mining town in the late 1970s, early 1980s

4) Letters from Ernestine K -- haunting portraits of women at a psychiatric institution in Germany in the late 1980s

5) Scottswood Road --Irresistible early color photographs of a working class community in Newcastle upon Tyne in the late 1950s/early 1960s

6) Steel Works -- One of several perspectives in the Side Collection on the former steelworking town of Consett. Distinctive and moving color photo documentary.

7) Writing in the Sand -- beach life in the North East of England between 1973 and 1988. A bit romanticized but superb photographs full of motion and fine compositions and light.

8) American Mining -- early documentation, circa 1940s, of American mining communities. One of the better non-European exhibitions in the vast Amber collection.

9) Sovinec -- documentation of one photographer's home village in Czechoslovakia.

10) Unclear Family -- a powerful multi-photographer exhibition documenting the experience of family in Southwest Durham in the UK.


Image from American Mining


Image from Steel Works


Consett2 image


Image from Ernestine K


Richard Grassick image from Unclear Family

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i love these. i think this is what id like to do as far as my style is concerned.

awhile back, bruce (bvcuma) told me i should start watching your photoblog, as we have similar exploratory styles. though you're much further along and far better than ill ever be, i think he's right in some ways. then again, im still new to photography.

blue moods reminds me of a series i attempted a few months ago. the theme was moods and i used color and light to portray it. i never made it public because it ended up meaning too much to me. i was afraid people might not understand it and it would hurt me too much.

im getting off topic now.. im killing time so i wont have to study physics. =)

keep it up.
- peter

Posted by: syckklam at May 4, 2004 2:23:16 AM