I’ve done a lot of thinking, reading and researching on how one might be able to evoke a ‘sense of place’ as a photographer. I realised early on that a lot of the exhibitions, books and photographers that I’d enjoyed and blogged about last year as part of the Art of Photography course were very much about places, and to varying degrees of success they managed to communicate a strong sense of the place being examined. I’ve revisited these and can summarise what I’ve learned in this research.
Robert Frank: The Americans 
Perhaps the most famous place-centric photo collection of the 20th century, The Americans takes the unenviable task of trying to depict one of the biggest and most populated places on earth. Whilst it’s difficult to encapsulate what defines such a vast and varied country – east and west coasts are very different, the midwest is something else again, specific cities have very distinctive identities – Frank did it very successfully, by identifying what is common to the multitude of cities and towns he visited.
His use of recurring motifs is key to communicating the mood: specific icons of Americana – the stars and stripes, diners, jukeboxes, big automobiles – repeat throughout the book like a chorus, bringing a backbone of unity to what could otherwise have been a disparate collection of images. He shows both the breadth of the country and what unites its people beneath the surface.
He is holding a mirror up to an entire nation, seeing it as only an outsider can (he was Swiss). He captured a mood, and it wasn’t wholly positive. Several images allude to the racial segregation that was still being suffered by minorities in the 1950s. A couple of less obvious thematic elements become apparent on closer examination: death is depicted or alluded to in several images; religious imagery, specifically the crucifix, makes a few appearances.
Martin Parr: The Last Resort 
Much of what has been said and written about The Last Resort centres on the style, the use of strong colours and daytime flash, quite unusual at a time when ‘documentary photography’ was predominantly black and white. However, what I was particularly looking for when revisiting the book was how Parr gets over the ambience of New Brighton as a place.
The colour aesthetic is a big part of it – it’s a garish place and saturated colours help to get that across. But I think the way he really gets across the feel of the place is through his selection of subjects and shots – he may deny this was his intent, but it feels like he chose to emphasise (stopping short of exaggeration, I think) details that showed the place in a certain way – downmarket, scruffy yet an improvement to the regular lives of visitors (it’s almost as if he’s saying “imagine what their lives are like the rest of the year if THIS is considered a holiday!”).
An unkind interpretation would be that this is a kind of ‘class tourism’, or even treating the subjects as some kind of anthropological study. However, coming from the class and generation that had holidays like this in places like this, I’d hope that he recognised the warmth and happiness with which families did genuinely enjoy holidays like this in places like New Brighton.
Like Frank, he has an outsider’s eye that simplifies and symbolises. It’s unfortunate that the lingering motif for me was overflowing litter – but he chose this final selection of images for a reason: this is how he saw New Brighton. He makes the place come alive on the page by focusing on images that matched his vision.
Tony Ray-Jones & Martin Parr: Only In England exhibition
This show at the Media Space in London was in three parts: a selection of images from Ray-Jones from his collection on English seaside resorts in the 1960s, posthumously published as ‘A Day Off’; a revival of Parr’s early b/w work on the Methodist community in Hebden Bridge, clearly influenced by Ray-Jones; and a Parr-curated new selection of rarely-seen images from the Ray-Jones archive.
The Ray-Jones shots in the first and third sections are fantastic examples of evoking a place and in particular a time. The seaside holidays enjoyed in the 1960s seemed to be a world away from the garish 1980s of The Last Resort – he employed more humour than Parr, gave over more of a sense of mild eccentricity – what one online reviewer called “the gentle madness that overtakes people when they feel they can relax and be their true selves”. Once again, a key aspect of Ray-Jones’ way of seeing the place and the people is that of the (in his case, semi-) outsider; though English himself, he’d spent many years in New York before coming back to see the old place with a NYC street photographer’s eye.
Parr’s series on the Methodist communities in West Yorkshire in the 1970s (published as The Non-Confirmists) takes on a more targeted subject and focuses more on little peculiarities that make these people stand out slightly from the norms of mainstream society. It’s this focus on the small differences that helps to evoke the nature of the community. Once again (there’s a pattern here) Parr was an incomer to the community and so could see it in a way that long-term resident might not have been able to.
Mark Neville: Deeds Not Words exhibition
An interesting project: photography as activism. Whilst the real story Neville was telling was about the legacy of deformity from contaminated land, the backdrop is of Corby as a community. The two aspects of the collection didn’t sit together that well for me, I found it a little jarring (maybe that’s the intention). With its strong Scottish heritage and culture, Corby is sufficiently interesting in its own right to have been the subject of a photo essay, and the activism narrative that overlaid it moved it into a different direction.
Like Parr in his Hebden Bridge series, Neville is good at picking out the slightly incongruous details that mark out the place as distinctive: the child in front of a huge supermarket display of Irn Bru for example.
Mass Observation exhibition
The fundamental point of the Mass Observation initiative was to record life in Britain – a broad remit indeed. Photography wasn’t considered a key aspect of the ongoing experiment though, merely a form of visual note-taking to validate the written reporting. What emerges in the photography (much of it by Humphrey Spender) is more of an evocation of time than place; it’s a time-capsule of post-war Britain that illustrates the maxim that ‘the past is a foreign country’. It’s recognisable as Britain, but not the one we live in now.
Certain aspects such as the images of workers in Bolton do carry some sense of the community and the place but in the end its the overall historical interest that lingers rather than a sense of place. It’s kind of strange to make the comparison, but thinking about this alongside The Americans it becomes apparent how important it is to have a coherent message in the photographs; otherwise they are just a bunch of historical artefacts. This speaks to the importance of intent in the photographer’s mind when shooting and selecting.
So, what have I learned by looking back over these bodies of work? There are some useful techniques that successful photo essays have adopted to help generate a ‘sense of place’ in a collection of images:
- An outsider’s eye: it’s useful to be able to see a place objectively, maybe in a subtly (or radically) different way to the way its residents see it
- Symbols and motifs: can help to evoke the mood of a place and reinforce the message without overtly depicting that which you’re trying to communicate
- Focus on the small differences: the kind of images that make you look twice, or look for longer, are the ones that show something recognisable as normal life but with some kind of twist that gives an impression of the place being depicted
- Frank, R. 2008. The Americans. Gottingen, Germany: Steidl
- Parr, M. 2012. The last resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis