Narrative # 1 – Country Doctor and The Dad Project

late at night he jots notes on any piece of paper that is handy...

late at night he jots notes on any piece of paper that is handy…

“The town of Kremmling Colorado, 115 miles west of Denver, contains 1,000 people. The surrounding area of some 400 square miles, filled with ranches which extend high into the Rocky Mountains, contains 1,000 more. These 2,000 souls are constantly falling ill, recovering or dying, having children, being kicked by horses and cutting themselves on broken bottles. A single country doctor, known in the profession as a “g.p.”, or general practitioner, takes care of them all. His name is Ernest Guy Ceriani.”

– Opening of Country Doctor,  Life, 20/09/1948, pp 115-126

“Three months after my Dad died, I found myself hanging photos on a gallery wall that revealed the story of our relationship and of his death. We had recorded it together through photography and film during his last six months, and it became ‘The Dad Project’. He was 65, I was 29, and two years have passed since.”

– Opening of  .pdf version of The Dad Project, online, Briony Campbell, November 2011

In itself, the attribution to these two quotes identifies a number of significant differences between the two series’ of photographs considered here. Country Doctor exists in a single form contained in one edition of Life; The Dad Project has had many versions – a book, exhibitions, articles in the press (and a Guardian film) and the currently available online version that I will base the bulk of my comments in this post upon. Country Doctor – although the pictures are available with some outtakes on both the Life and Magnum sites – is a singular thing; The Dad Project is multiple. Country Doctor is a 3rd person narrative; The Dad Project is first person.

Also, while Country Doctor’s pictures are clearly credited to W. Eugene Smith, the text and layout are the anonymous work of Life staffers; The Dad Project  –  even where other’s are involved in one of its presentations – is obviously authored by Briony Campbell to the extent that a misreading by the German magazine die Zeit (pdf, 11) is identified and rendered non-canonical.

Smith took the pictures for the Life piece (and like Campbell with The Dad Project, had his reputation at least in part created by it) but after he’d spent his time in Kremmling, Colorado, then moved on to the next story and the next fight with his employers over deadlines and format. Campbell occupies a position closer to that of the curator of a living exhibit.

The “Structured Project Management Methodology”, Prince 2 makes much of the finite time-boxed nature of projects; similarly in On Being a Photographer (Hurn and Jay, 52) Hurn specifies that [a photographer should] “take on a project which is containable and can be completed within a reasonable period of time”. The Dad Project seems much more open-ended than that. While taking pictures had an endpoint in the death of Campbell’s father the editing and the structuring of the presentation potentially can continue indefinitely. As Campbell says (pdf, 11) while the photographs were being taken “it belonged to dad and me. Once it had been exhibited and published [….] The Dad Project belonged to whoever saw it”.

However closely Campbell tries to curate it, the production of meaning is at least in part down to the viewer. The continuing nature of this is at the heart of Campbell’s description of it as “an ending without an ending” (Campbell, project page, home).

How are the two series organised? To start with Country Doctor, its “story” is tightly organised into 11 pages and contains 9 sequences:

  1. His endless work has its own rewards (1 Picture)
  2. He Must Specialize in a Dozen Fields (9 Pictures)
    • The Day’s first office call (1 full page height, thin)
    • Minor Emergency (1 small)
    • Another Home Call (1 small)
    • X-Ray Pictures (1 small)
    • Broken Ribs (1 small)
    • Problems of Age (1 small)
    • Woes of Youth (2 medium)
  3. An Accident Interrupts His Leisure (5 Pictures)
  4. An Old Man Dies at Night (3 Pictures)
  5. He Sets a Badly Dislocated Elbow (3 Pictures)
  6. …And Amputates a Gangrenous Leg (3 Pictures)
  7. The Community Absorbs Most of His Time (4 Pictures)
  8. And then, a final half-page text column with no pictures – General Practice v. Specialisation

1 is a single page with the introductory text and Ernest Ceriani walking across a field with a lowering sky behind. 2 – 4 are double page spreads. 5 and 6 cover two pages split horizontally and 7 is a final two-page spread with the picture of Dr Ceriani in his surgical gown, smoking a cigarette with a cup of tea or coffee late at night. After this, the final half column of text contains biographical information about the doctor and contextual generalisations about GPs in the US.

No adverts break up the run of pictures although from google books’ scan of entire issue, the page before the first story page is a full page ad for cutlery (and in style is not that different from the pages that follow, consisting of photographs and text examining the dilemma of what to ask for as wedding presents) and the lefthand column of the final text page (8) is another advert, this time for ladies’ shoes. indeed, both advertisements suggest that the expected readership is female – something picked up on the final picture spread where the way Dr Ceriani’s wife’s internalised feelings with regard to the calls on her husband’s time are examined in a much more straightforward way than the Doctor’s are anywhere else.

The Dad Project can also be split down into sequences, linked by text:

  1. sunshine (and, once established, the sun makes appearances throughout) (3 photographs)
  2. father cried; hard headed woman; campbell crying (3 photographs)
  3. the garden (4 photographs, but see below)
  4. death (20 photographs,which can be broken down into two sets, one at pre hospice (4 photographs) and then the last short period in a hospice starting with “Welcome to the end”).

All the pictures display at one of two sizes depending on whether they are landscape (the majority) or portrait. Their ratio is a constant 3:2. Between sequences 1 and 2 – collecting fallen hair –  and 2 and 3 – the spilt energy drink –  there is stand-alone image, a pause; likewise the final garden image – “Bree’s last visit” links into the final sequence depicting the move from life towards death. At the close there is a final, archival picture from 23 years earlier of Campbell dressed in her father’s clothes and carrying his briefcase staring out at us.

Once established at the beginning, the sun recurs, putting in appearances in the final two sequences, shining into the lens and burning out sections of the image at timely moments.

Where you are not drawn by the Life story to really think about someone making it, Campbell appears at least once in each section. Indeed, her father doesn’t appear at all in the Sunshine sequence, and while he makes direct eye contact with the camera (and therefore us) only once, at the start of sequence 4 it is only towards the end of the final sequence that the self portraits get smaller  – to start with they are BCUs – and she stops looking out at us from inside the story before her 6 year old self reestablishes eye contact at the end.

We are definitely inside her head trying to make sense of her father’s dying; it is her story that we are following and her subjectivity that mediates what is going on both in the series itself and in the .pdf description of the making of it. The extent to which the Guardian film (which is embedded at the top of the Project Page, as well as being linked to elsewhere on her site) includes her father’s recorded words  as a discourse emerging from his mouth rather than as quoted text is striking.

(This is also possibly why – while it would be unthinkable to call Smith “Gene” – it seems hard to avoid referring to her as “Briony” when writing this. Although of course my position within the hegemony of masculinity may have something to do with it too.)

The narrative voice of the text in Life is instantly recognisable from numerous 50s film or television documentaries; you can almost hear the words on the page being read out loud. The final sentence of the narration (“Two things can help turn back this current” [of small communities having great difficulty in attracting one of the small pool of GPs starting out in the US]) sets out clearly the social/political purpose of the piece. But the rhythm of the essay comes from the way the pictures are sized and laid out on the page, emphasising some and running others together.

In The Dad Project the pictures are all the same size and are viewed in linear series as you scroll down the page; here the time taken to read the text paces the exposition as much as the pictures themself. Some of the images are more striking or involving than others – the close ups of Campbell crying; her dead father’s candle-wax white hand held in hers; the ambiguous smear of the energy drink – blood stain? spilt liquid? shit? – all pull you up – but the flow of your movement through the site is determined as much by the time it takes to read the linking text as it is by how long the pictures command your attention.

The Dad Project pictures are stylistically neutral (ie they look like normal pictures, snapshots even); they look like pictures anyone would take. Of course , if you look closer, or longer this is not the case – the subject matter is not the sort of thing “anyone” would take; while some of the pictures are obviously taken as the opportunity arises, others – the picture of Campbell finishing off her sleeping father’s meal; Campbell asleep on the hospital bed in her parents’ house – are quite complicated set ups. It takes skill and knowledge to set up pictures like this and – however “natural” the essay may seem – a great deal of thought, some of it at the time and some of it later, as the images are edited down to a final set.

Country doctor on the other hand is obviously created and authored. The pictures are cinematic  – they are dramatically composed and the pictures are printed in a way that ups the contrast – and obviously of their time. Even though there are things in them that can’t be – surely can’t be – set up, such as the boy crying as his stitches are examined or the parents watching while their daughter is examined  after being kicked in the head by a horse, they look as if they could be. The pictures are melodramatic in the same way that Hollywood could be melodramatic: the mise en scene captures and emphasises emotion and feeling in the same way music was used to determine audience reaction in the Victorian theatre. While this may now, nearly 70 years later, seem hokey or false  – the full page photograph where Ceriani stares into eternity trying to work out how to say that the girl will lose the sight of her eye is as obviously constructed as David Byrne slapping his forehead and saying “My God! What have I done?” in the video for Once in a Lifetime – it is probably the passage of time that highlights this. The surface of The Dad Project may become as obvious, once enough time has passed for the historical-specific elements of the presentation to become apparent.

Both stories are constructed. Smith was striving for effect, using the entire arsenal of story-telling techniques available in the late 40s. He had an audience and he knew how to manipulate them. There is nothing wrong with this.

Similarly it takes a lot of craft to create something as seemingly transparent as Campbell’s open narrative. She is the daughter of a pioneering family therapist; she was doing an MA in photography and already had a long period of photographic practice under her belt. Certainly she is not as naive as the surface of her work here may suggest.

None of this is to say that I wasn’t moved in some way by both stories.

My mother died of cancer when I was 18. There are things in The Dad Project – the yellow tinge to Campbell’s father’s skin as he nears death in particular, but also a disinclination to take at face value the inevitability of what’s going on and  the sheer bloody sadness of it all –  which I can completely identify with.

But then again, the ideal of service to a community held up in Country Doctor was definitely part of my father’s motivation for my parents’ move from Manchester to Orkney a few months after the Life essay appeared. The difficulties of getting people to go to do unglamorous work in remote parts of the UK – teaching, say – is a part of the present day situation; the story and its telling may seem dated, but there is still stuff in it that has contemporary resonance.

Both work. Both communicate. But in different ways and to different parts of my head.




  • David Hurn and Bill Jay, On Being a Photographer: A Practical Guide; Lenswork Publishing, 1997.
  • Prince 2 –

Specific to Country Doctor:

Specific to The Dad Project:

1 thought on “Narrative # 1 – Country Doctor and The Dad Project

  1. Pingback: Assignment 5 – Making it up | Simon Chirgwin's Learning Log

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