I came across the work of Peter Funch as I explored the idea of creating street scene composites and researched the work of Chris Dorley-Brown. I found a blog post by Johnathon Hall, a fellow OCA student I had ‘met’ as a regular attendee to hangouts for my previous course documentary. I had forgotten that Johnathon had created composite images for his final documentary assignment and discovered that he had written a post as part of his research into this which focussed on the work of both Dorley-Brown and Peter Funch. I must have been instinctively aware of this post already although I could not remember it as the image Jonathan chose to illustrate the work of Funch demonstrated the dynamism and chaos of city life that I wanted (but had not succeeded) to capture in my own work. While I agree with Jonathan that Funch’s work is much more extreme than Dorley-Brown’s due to his use of a much larger amount of photographs in his composites and the witty way he focuses on people engaged in similar activities, I would argue that they are as believable as Dorley-Brown’s work as both approaches have the same sense of unease inherent in them. In some ways the stillness of the Dorley-Brown compositions accentuate the uncanny nature of the images and make them more immediately identifiable as composites, while it is closer analysis of Funch’s work that makes the viewer do a double take and realise the scenes must surely be constructed.
Curator at V1 gallery Jesper Elg is quoted on Peter Funch’s website as saying this about ‘Babel Tales’:
“Babel Tales is a series of works that focus on human relations (or lack thereof) in big cities. [The] project is a junction between documentary photography and manipulated photography. Through repetition and juxtaposition [Funch] zooms in on human similarities and collective behavior and ends up creating a strange poetic and detailed picture of our presence as both individuals and community in the public sphere. His uncanny work raises questions of reality contra fiction and challenges our notion of photography as being a depiction of a certain moment in time.”
In an interview for Time magazine, Funch describes his working methods and how over the five years he was engaged with the project he was concerned with exploring coincidence, repetition and the relationship between fiction and reality:
“I did not formulate Babel Tales before I started photographing, but I had some elements I wanted to work around, like making a larger document about human behavior and photographing over time from the same place…I put it together on the computer and it was magical to see what it did when everybody in the photo did the same thing. it was like adding fiction to documentary.” (McClelland, 2011)
Howarth and McLaren (2011: 161) see a clear lineage between Funch’s work and the 1960s classic street photography of Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand because of the sense of urban energy that each shares. Funch exploits the possibilities afforded by new technology to create compositions with the freedom of a painter or filmmaker, stating: “I’m not interested in being objective…I like playing with tools and playing with minds.”
Two other series’ are on Peter Funch’s website, ‘Amsterdam Stories’ and ‘Danish Diaries’ that appear to use the same compositing technique. There is no explanatory text with these sets but they display the same sense of humour as ‘Babel Tales’.
I could not find any supplemental information about this series, however, they appear to be abstract, overlaid composites taken from ‘Babel Tales’. This is a technique I have also tried using my street composite images without success, the effect that Funch creates here is similar to how I previsualised my images would look but failed to achieve – I will have to return to this technique to see if I can find a way of making the images work. These pieces also remind me of Idris Khan‘s composite images.
The idea for this series grew out of ‘Babel Tales’, Funch photographed at the same area near Grand Central Station for nearly ten years at the same time each morning, between 8.30-9.30am. He began to notice, and photograph, the same people. Rituals and behaviours started to appear – the same activity, expression and clothing were seen repeatedly. The images are presented as diptychs and deliberately play on the similarities of the images – at first they appear to be shots from the same sequence until subtle differences become apparent.
Douglas Coupland says this in the explanatory text on Funch’s website:
“[Funch] is a documentarian and he has a stunning eye for capturing the golden needle in the haystack of daily life. He also highlights the somewhat industrialized nature of the everyday downtown work cycle…Is it a critique of labour? Is it a critique of Marxism or an argument for Marxism – proof positive that we sell our time and energy on a regularized basis so that we have the freedom to, well, continue doing the same thing: life as Groundhog Day?”
The suggested narratives that are present when viewing the images reminds me of Paul Graham’s ‘A Shimmer of Possibility’, and this is the success of the series that there is enough information for the viewer to be able to construct detailed potential background stories about the people in the images, and that they are none specific enough to allow this to happen freely.
Cole, T. (2018) Peter Funch sees the patterns in the people on the street. The New York Times, 20th March 2018. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/20/magazine/peter-funch-sees-the-patterns-in-the-people-on-the-street.html [accessed 29th July 2019]
Fulleylove, R. (2017) Peter Funch has photographed the same people ion the same street for nine years. It’s Nice That, 2nd October 2017. Available at: https://www.itsnicethat.com/articles/peter-funch-42nd-and-vanderbilt-photography-021017 [accessed 29th July 2019]
Hall, J. (2018) Photographs inspired by Chris Dorley-Brown and Peter Funch. Jonathon Hall: Documentary. Available at: https://johnsocadocumentary.wordpress.com/tag/chris-dorley-brown/ [accessed 9th June 2019]
Howarth, S. and McLaren S. (2011) Street Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson.
McClelland, N.H. (2011) Composite characters: Peter Funch’s fictionalized New York. Time Magazine, September 21st 2011. Available at: https://time.com/3781071/composite-characters-peter-funchs-fictionalized-new-york/ [accessed 29th July 2019]