The following notes summarize my reflection on how Briony Campbell’s The Dad Project compares with W. Eugene Smith’s Country Doctor. I have made notes on each of these two essays separately in previous blog entries (see links to my notes on Country Doctor here and to The Dad Project here).
Both The Dad Project and Country Doctor attempt to document a series of events but while the former has a clear chronological feeling to it, Smith’s essay is presented as a series of vignettes or mini stories that are chronological within themselves but that could come in any order within the essay without altering the end result. In that respect, Country Doctor feels more like snapshots of somebody’s life, rather than a path along it.
W. Eugene Smith made the effort to be invisible in the scene and consequently Country Doctor is a detached, cold account of events that feels objective. At no point in the series one feels that Smith is emotionally affected by what is happening in the frame. His point of view and execution feels like that of a press photographer. His pictures are dramatic, contrasty and skillfully composed and angled to maximise impact. While the pictures, as originally intended for magazine publication, are accompanied by captions, many of them are very clear and unambiguous on what they are portraying and it would be fairly straightforward to follow the story even without the written aids. This contrasts with The Dad Project, which feels a lot more ambiguous and difficult to understand as a sequence. The story in The Dad Project was not about the photographer’s dad, but more about her relationship with him at the time of his terminal illness and death and, as a result, she appears in many of the images. The involvement of the photographer with the subject and the difficulty of the circumstances being portrayed makes the photographs in here more subtle, indirect and subjective. Yet, while it is harder to follow than Country Doctor, The Dad Project still makes visual sense when viewed in sequence.
The format and presentation of Country Doctor was somewhat pre-determined at the time of shooting. W. Eugene Smith was working on a commission from LIFE and the photographs were always intended to be published as a magazine feature. The pictures are also available now on their own, online and in book form, but they seem somehow to have left W. Eugene Smith control once they were shot. As I mentioned previously in my separate notes for Country Doctor (link), it feels like the editorial team in LIFE had a great deal of control over which pictures were included and how they were presented or captioned. I could not find any evidence that Smith made any further attempts to recycle this material into other projects. This also contrasts with Briony Campbell’s approach in The Dad Project, as the material has been presented in a multitude of formats and media, including magazine / newspaper features, exhibitions and in book form. In addition to photographs, Campbell also makes use of video in the project, which altogether enriches the experience. Because the The Dad Project is not merely a chronicle of somebody dying, but instead tries to explore the relationship between the photographer and her father, the project does not feel as if it was complete. The photographer seems to be using this material as a way of continuing that relationship, beyond her father’s passing, and the project seems to be morphing over time to explore different aspects of this. In fact, looking at Campbell’s notes (1), one gets the impression that she only began to figure out how to use the photographs and video footage she captured long after she finished photographing, and she has allowed the material to be shaped not only by herself, but also by others. This continuous exploration, all of which is happening after the photographs were taken and without any possibility of re-taking them, is probably what Campbell refers to when she mentions that The Dad Project “is the story of an ending without an ending”
(1) Campbell, B. (2011). The Dad Project. [online] Available at: http://www.brionycampbell.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/The_Dad_Project_Briony_Campbell.pdf [Accessed 11 Sep. 2017]