Category Archives: Donigan Cumming

Donigan Cumming

Following my assignment 3 submission, Thou Shalt not Age, my tutor recommended that I look at the work of Donigan Cumming. I had never heard of this American photographe,r born in Virginia, in 1947. The project my tutor recommended was Pretty Ribbons.(1)

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Une prière pour Nettie, Galerie Pons, Paris, France – 1995

This project concerns a woman, Nettie, who had been an actress  and a journalist and she agreed to allow Cummings to photograph her decaying body as she edged towards death. There is nothing Pretty about these images but somehow because we believe that Nettie cooperated fully with Cummings we don’t pull back from the result. Instead a sort of empathy develops between the viewer and the dying Nettie.

I wanted to look at more work by this photographer and to try to get into the reasoning of ‘why’ he took these images. In my own submission my tutor had picked up on the humour behind my own work. There is nothing we can do to avoid that march towards aging. So we can, instead, try to be amused by it. Cummigs does something similar.

There is nothing to recommend, visually, a twisted decaying almost corpse. And yet as in this extraordinary review (2) of Cummings work and his very detailed interview on Cumming’s videos, we have to agree with, Mike Hoolboom,  the author, that instead of “spitting out” and rejecting these images we keep looking.

Cummings’ ‘models’, all seem to be part of a small group of people on the margins. In the interview Cummings touches on his own, one time, addiction to alcoholism. It seems that he met one of this group at that time. They struck up a friendship. This gave Cummings an ‘in’ into the chaotic lives of these people who were living on the edge. He stresses that he always worked with them, by appointment and with their full consent, giving the impression that these people were behaving like ordinary people. I find this hard to understand.

When pressed, by Hoolbloom, about the difference between his life style and economic standards, Cummings agrees that his life is indeed very different, from that of his subjects, but he insists that his ‘models’ were always willing participants. He indicates that he always showed them the results and they signed their agreement to release the material. Cummings believes that the people involved had no opportunity to tell their stories to the world, other than through his lens. He indicates that they were at least willing, and often enthusiastic, actors in their own stories. He says he fails to understand why viewers sometimes describe his work as the pornography of misery. (2). I was unable to view any of his videos so I have to rely on the written word of others to write about this work.

It is a very frank and honest interview in which he admits to ‘staging’ or reworking many of his videos until he is satisfied that the end result presents the story he wants to tell. I could not put it any better than he puts it himself: The basic formula of my work is that the material has to carry the seeds of its own critical destruction. It is not a transparent window into otherness.(2)

In a recent article (3) on WeAreOCA, Les Monaghan, discusses the dilemma photographers face in photographing projects of this type. When is it voyeurism and when is it beneficial? I struggle with this concept.

  1. Pretty Ribbons. 2016. Pretty Ribbons. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.donigancumming.com/DC2012/GAL_prettyribbons.html. [Accessed 02 May 2016].
  2. Donigan Cumming | Mike Hoolboom. 2016. Donigan Cumming | Mike Hoolboom. [ONLINE] Available at: http://mikehoolboom.com/?p=3. [Accessed 02 May 2016].
  3. WeAreOCA. 2016. Photography Matters ii – WeAreOCA. [ONLINE] Available at: http://weareoca.com/fine-art/27054/. [Accessed 03 May 2016].