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The European History of Photography British Photography 1970-2000

I was commissioned to write this a few years ago for the Central European House of Photography in Bratislava (and thank you to all the photo...

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Brussels Boys Make More Noise...

Father Filip in the 70s and 80s. Well known in the neighborhood, he founded the youth center "Les Caves" where many young people from the neighborhood have worn their jeans.

How do we look at pictures? How do we understand them when they come through our phone, when we see them on social media, when they come through a laptop screen, when we see them in a newspaper or magazine, in the window of a shop on a street, in a restaurant when they're illustrating the food we're thinking of eating, or in a cookbook when we're thinking of cooking, in a clothes catalogue, in an album, in a box of images you keep under the bed, in a gallery, on a postcard, in a photobook, at the doctor's, on a CCTV camera, in a passport, and so on. 

Sometimes we look with pleasure, excitement even, sometimes an innocent delight. Much of the time we believe images both emotionally and intellectually, without question, and then sometimes we don't. They can make us angry, sad, hungry, aroused, or bored..

Pictures connect to different ideas, different histories, different cultural artefacts. They connect across time, across genre, creating wormholes into different times, different countries. An image can briing up a song, a poem an artwork, without us really realising how and why. 

They build on our global knowledge - a face, a place, a natural feature can change meanings depending on who we are and where we are and what we know. 

How we touch an image, how we view it, matters too. the edges, the back, the smell, the print, the projection, the slide viewer, the screen, all change what we see and feel. There's sight, there's smell, there's touch, there's sound.

There are a multitude of ways of looking at images, that result in a multitude of ways of understanding them, or feeling them. If photography is a language, it's a mix of multiple dialects with different inflections depending on who you are, where you are, and the way you're looking. And those languages cut across the senses, cut across emotional, physical, natural, or musical intelligences.

The intellectual way of looking at images is prioritised in some areas of photography. The history of photography is prioritised, the theory of photography is prioritised, a particular strand of thinking and writing about photography is prioritised. But only in some areas of photography. 

It's a good way of thinking, it's a great way of thinking that makes for really interesting and beautiful work, that ties in to the incredible wealth of images in the history of professionally made, distributed, or shown photography. 

It is one way of thinking however, amidst a million other ways of thinking. If you use that way of thinking wisely, to deepen our understanding, it's a great thing.

If we do the opposite and limit the understanding to one particular way of thinking and seeing, and we impose that on others like pound-shop autocrats, it's another story. Our ways of seeing become limited, the work we make becomes sterile and irrelevant, upheld only by those who have a vested interest in this limited way of thinking about, seeing and making photography. 

At the back of Vincen Beeckman's latest book, Annessens (I would love to link to a place you can buy it, but who knows?), there's a short essay by Brad Feuerhelm to this effect but not quite - it's very different. But the crux of the essay is what if, instead of worrying about this or that, we just enjoy the book. 

It's a lovely book. It's a bunch of pictures of a group of boys in the central Brussels suburb of Annessens having a great time through a local youth club. The photos are taken by a priest called Père Filip and show the boys in a variety of situations - doing kung fu, on the beach, riding bikes, shooting guns, flying hang-gliders, in the mountains, in Paris, all over the place. 

And they do have fun in the fresh air, in an escape from the ongoing difficulties of inner-city Brussels, taken there in the camper van of Filip, a priest who defended the boys from the police, a priest who neve proselytised. 

There's delight in these pictures and that's where the scope of this review ends, because I'm going to knuckle back down and enjoy them. They're great pictures from albums (not archives) I'd enjoy looking at.

But I'll come to them later from a different angle, because there are different knowledges, different experiences,  different histories, different economic and social realities that kick in; and the more one is aware of the that, the better the stories become.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Week 4: The first coronavirus book?

Gosh, JimminyCricket, Gee Whizz, how many weeks in are we now. In the UK, it's the fourth week, and it's dragging through the most beautiful spring anyone can remember.

In photography, there's new work being made. Lots of work is being made around online conversations - Skype and Zoom and Whatsapp portraits.

I'm working on these with Asia Werbel, on an Instagram account called @12smallpieces. It's fiendishly difficult because for me the images themselves are really not that interesting. It's the global reach of coronavirus that is interesting and the way it is affecting people in ways that can be very quiet.

So I love the stories where little glimmers come across of something that reaches beyond coronavirus. I like this piece from Sarker Protick about Emily Wabitsch, who became pregnant after a fun night out in November, and is now waiting for the coronavirus to end. "Last 11/11 I pretty much twisted my life upside down due to one beautiful thoughtless night. I forgot to take care of almost everything after that, except for my sleeping hours."

Or this one by Vincen Beeckman about Charlotte, who tells her life story in a couple of hundred words. "If you want to know everything, my life is a joke, a big joke. With two or three hiccups. Let's go. I had happiness, I had everything. A good job, good health and never sick!
I got married at 21. With a boy of 23. A postman. He drank with his colleagues after work and was violent so I left...." And so it goes on.

If you know someone who has an interesting story to tell, do get in touch.

I don't know if these kinds of projects do much good, or if they are much good, but that's perhaps beside the point. They are an escape from the coronavirus inertia, and that's what matters right now. We all need distractions because Netflix and the online world are not really that interesting.They really are not a substitute for 3-dimensional, sensory life.

And so the visual representation goes on -  masks, empty squares, singing neighbours (nobody's showing their absolute fucking nightmare neighbours), clean air, and video conferencing images still pop up in the news.

Online there are re-enactment of art works, pictures of home schooling, exercise, park walks, cooking, gardening, allotments, homemade haircuts, DIY gone wrong, fashion shows, dressing up and cocktail hours. I have suddenly discovered that I have been doing isolation pictures for years, so that's what I've started posting on my Instagram account. There is nothing new under the sun, instead meanings shift, new connections are made, and something new emerges out of it. That's why every story hasn't been told, even when the story has been told. The story, like the song, never remains the same.

There are still pictures of shops, queues (below is the longest queue I've had to face at my local Morrisons, a picture taken at every social distancing mark), the tape marks and the vernacular posters of social distancing are getting a look in, and there are lots of pictures of nature, of walks, of people far away, of whatever everyone is doing to pass this tedious time. There are countless projects showing people in their windows or doorways. Especially if they're smiling, with fortitude. These are my pet hate. I can't stand them. My pet hate would be pictures of people on Skype or whatever, but I'm doing one of those, so it can't really apply.

Not many are very good, but then that's not really the point. Being very good is rarely the point.

Some are doing it for fun, some are projects, some are fundraisers, some just to take one's mind off things. There's a bunch of books that are being planned, but how much of an appetite there will be I don't know. There will be the window books, the queue books, the screengrab books. There will be photojournalistic surveys, there will be old school piles of bodies books once it really gets going. There will be books which come with a medical textbook typeface with scans and data, there will be mask and glove books in a variety of forms, there will be still lifes and typologies, all grids and white pages, there will be books with graphs and statistics, there will be multiple AI books, and even more books with a surveillance theme (and one of them will be really good). God help us, what else?  I am looking forward to an Ed Ruscha type sequence of people queuing, that might be cool, or a graphic one of all the dashes of tapes, splashes of paints, and scrawls of chalk marks people are using to redefine personal space - it's like the Enclosures Act and Agriculture Revolution all over again, but instead of walls and hedgerows, we've got post-industrial striped markings in red and white and yellow and black.

But images are not fixed, they change over time, so it will be interesting to see what is/will become relevant and important in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years time. A lot of what will be relevant is what we take for granted now.

One of the first photobooks that will come out is Novis Corpus,  a book made by mostly Southern European photographers that is a paean to the enforced domesticity and confinement of the time, and is raising

This is what Tereza Uzeda and Gabriela Cendoya Bergareche came up with; Novis Corpus , the book, is about confinement, and it has been made in less than a month. Next week it will go to the printer. The pre order of the book has  already sold about 400 copies! The book is completely self published. And all benefits will go to nursecarers working hard to save the people.

It looks great and proceeds go to the charity, so if you would like to buy a copy,

email librocuarentena@gmail.com

The most interesting thing for me right now is the psychological impact of coronavirus. I find myself talking about PPE, about isolation, about clusters, about quarantine times with unrelenting repetition and I wonder where all this comes from. I didn't talk about this or think about this four months ago, I didn't know what covid-19, PPE, intubulation, or social distancing meant.

Now every time I use those words it makes me aware of the suggestibility we all have. It's like our brains are occupied (by some hugely contradictory and incompetent creature), and we are spouting complete and utter nonsense that changes from one week to the next with no real attachment to anything other than some weird form of group psychosis fed by every unreliable news channel under the sun. All of us who are staying at home are absolutely a part of this. And it's not necessarily a bad thing to be part of - there are plenty of other psychoses at play that you really don't want to be part of because a) you will be surrounded by awful people, and b) you might  very well end up sick and dead.

How will that mental state be visualised, how will it connect across time to the images we make, to the countless graphs, statistics, warnings, and etchings that we see all around us and that become part of a barely remembered history so quickly. I look back at a blog post from a few weeks back and it seems a lifetime ago, the graphics both so innocent, but also even more of a figment of a fevered design imagination than they were at the time. I wonder what we'll be looking at in a few months time. It will bear little relationship to what we're seeing now, of that I am sure.

And so we continue on our corona obsessed way. In the meantime news is happening, all smothered by coronavirus. And maybe that's the real news.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Susan Bright on Photography and Curating

Annunciation #11, 2011 © Elina Brotherus

Image by Elina Brotherus

Susan Bright gave her second talk on Tuesday, on photography and motherhood, based around the show she curated for both the Photographers' Gallery and the Foundling Museum. Thank you to everybody who joined and took part in what's a really enjoyable series of talks.

Susan talked about the invisibility of motherhood, the way it has been made invisible (lots of masks and concealing featured), controlled and iconicised, split into polar opposites that leave a fragmented and destructive way of seeing and being that you'll find echoed in mythology (I saw Madeline Miller give a great talk on her book, Circe in which she categorised witches in a way that mirrored the way that mothers have been categorised).

These are reflected through representations in photography, in art, in mythology, in film, that gravitate towards either abundance or loss; the abundance of life, of vitality, of glowing skins and idealised children, of a future that rises like the sun over a 1930s meadow. And  the loss of identity, of sexuality, of body, of mind, of child, and partner too.

Most poignant were Elina Brotherus' Anunciation, showing pictures of her failed IVF treatment. I remember seeing these at the exhibition and being moved by the directness of the images and the emotions and parallel universes they brought up. There was something unmediated about them (despite their highly mediated nature) that cut across multiple emotional, cultural, personal and physical worlds. Though there were no children in site, the intensely physical craving, the hope and despair created a shadow world. These images revealed the power of photography to occupy a space where a single image can make visual leaps across time, across space, across art forms. I absolutely loved them and wondered that until they were shown in the Home Truths exhibition, they had never even been shown to anybody else. That's another form of invisibility.

What was also interesting was the fact that the two exhibition sites allowed for the curation of two very different shows, coming from very different perspectives. This was a theme that also featured in her first talk, on food and photography Which leads us into the next talk which is on curating and photography, in particular her guest curation at PHotoESPAÑA last year.

It's on Tuesday 21st April, at 1pm UK time.

And if you're interested in joining, use this link - meet.google.com/niw-aarn-rrs 

It won't work until the meeting is opened about 15 minutes before the talk.

Or send me a message and I'll send you an invite (which will also send you the link but with a quicker join)

Sunday, 12 April 2020

The European History of Photography British Photography 1970-2000

I was commissioned to write this a few years ago for the Central European House of Photography in Bratislava (and thank you to all the photographers who contributed work). The book, which was great but expensive and very expansive, is now out of print so I am putting this up here. The brief limited me to 25 photographers , but there could have been so, so many more.

The History of European Photography

British Photography 1970-2000

The 1960s in Britain are remembered for the music, the fashion, the World Cup winning England team of 1966 and all of the other clichés the swinging Sixties can muster. It was a decade of political change and increased social mobility; university education was opened up to working class students, and working class voices were being seen, heard, and read in film, literature and journalism. Socially, there was liberalisation of laws on homosexuality, abortion and there was a sense of possibility and egalitarianism in the air. Class no longer mattered quite as much as it had and we were in the midst of what Harold Wilson called ‘The White Heat of a Technological Revolution’.

Photographically the breaking down of class barriers was made evident through the fashion work of Bailey, Duffy and Donovan while overseas Philip Jones Griffiths, Don McCullin and Larry Burrows were producing some of the most powerful photojournalistic images of the Vietnam War.
New music, new fashion, new wars. The mythology of the sixties would have us believe it was quite a party. And then the party ended. The Beatles broke up in 1970, British sporting glory became a thing of the past, and armed conflict came to Britain’s street with the rise of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and beyond, while in photography, and Tony Ray-Jones, British documentary’s brightest star, died of leukaemia at the age of 31. The Seventies had arrived, the party had ended, and Britain was suffering from a massive hangover.

That’s the myth anyway and much of British photography of the 1970s examines how this hangover manifested itself in Britain’s rundown urban centres. It should be remembered, however, that the high notes of the 1960s were isolated to urban areas. In some parts of Britain, life went on like it was still the 1950s. This was especially true of the British countryside. As well as making portraits of writers and artists, Fay Godwin also became known for her lyrical black and white landscape photography with images that layered the past and present and added a dark edge that undermined the pastoral clichés of the British landscape.

Access to the land and walking were key concerns of Godwin, and these elements were also to the fore in the work of Hamish Fulton. Fulton (who studied with Richard Long, another walking-centred artist) used photography and text to symbolise the emotional, physical and geographic aspects of the journeys and landscapes he had encountered on walks across mountain ranges, rivers and roads.
In urban Britain, many things hadn’t changed either. The industrial cities of northern England were still marked by bombsites, the aftermath of German bombing that still hadn’t been entirely cleared in the decades following the end of the Second World War. And where it had been cleared and new housing built, this new construction was often not much better than the dereliction which had preceded it. One of the huge social experiments of the 1960s was the clearance of inner city slum housing. In its place, shiny new tower blocks were erected. When these new flats were well-designed, the improvement in housing standards was welcomed. However, often build quality was low, and few thoughts were given to infrastructure or the social networks that were destroyed in the move from low-rise to high-rise.


The transition from these old forms of housing to the new forms of housing became a happy hunting ground for photographers, with Finish-born photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen leading the way. Her long-term documentation of Byker Grove in Newcastle, showed the wealth of working class life and culture in the decaying terraced housing of the area before these neighbourhoods were redeveloped and much of that culture was lost. Byker Grove is shot in grimy black and white and captures a neighbourhood that is filled with emotion and energy.

Another photographer finding fertile photographic ground in British inner cities was Daniel Meadows. Meadows, who studied at Manchester Polytechnic in the early 1970s with Martin Parr and Brian Griffin, was part of the New British Photography at the beginning of that decade. Inspired by the work of Benjamin Stone (a British photographer who photographed English life at the turn of the century 20th century), the photographers of the New Documents and New Topographics exhibitions, and the editorship of Bill Jay at Creative Camera, this group of photographers began to search for what Britishness meant and in particular how ‘the ordinary’ could be portrayed.
For Meadows, this search was focussed on northern England and had a collaborative approach. Based in Moss Side, Manchester, his Free Studio in Greame Street was a community project in which the privately educated Meadows put himself on an equal footing to the working class people he photographed.

This integration with the community was reprised in Meadows Free Photographic Omnibus project, in which he photographed England while travelling on a double-decker bus which acted as bedroom, darkroom and means of transport.

Meadows was working in the areas that were suffering most at a time of economic decline in the mid-1970s. The nation was plagued with industrial turmoil, annual inflation was nearing 30% and the initial euphoria of 1960s equal rights legislation was transformed into the harsh struggle of enacting change at an institutional and daily level.

One of many groups taking part in this struggle using photography was Hackney Flashers. This London-based collective worked on themes of equality in work, pay and the provision of free childcare. Heavily influenced by the collages of John Heartfield amongst others, their Who’s Holding the Baby exhibition in 1974 featured collages that questioned the provision of childcare and also featured photographs from a local nursery.

One of the members of the collective, Jo Spence also developed her own work in response to how women, family and the self were represented in society. Spence is one of the most influential and political of photographers working during this time. Her project and book, Beyond the Family Album, is an examination of what is and is not represented in traditional family albums. For this project, Spence reclaimed herself by taking control of her self-image and reinventing how she was represented in her remade family album.

In 1982, Spence was diagnosed with breast cancer which eventually claimed her life in 1992. Her subsequent experiences of medical treatment informed her later work, particularly in Phototherapy, a project which was a continuation of her investigations into how photography and therapy could be combined to visually reconfigure the self.

Jo Spence began working with the Hackney Flashers in 1975. The same year, just a few miles away from the Flashers’ Hackney base, Brian Griffin began working for the staid sounding magazine, Management Today. But though Management Today sounded staid, the photography Griffin produced for it was anything but. Instead of the usual office and desk shots, Griffin put his subjects through their posing paces in shoots that mixed the surreal, the odd and the downright embarrassing. Griffin’s was a visual language that was quite unique, infused with a sense of visual experimentation that extended into his advertising, music and portrait work.

Other photographers extending creative boundaries in the 1970s were Garry Fabian Miller and Peter Mitchell. Fabian Miller began his experimentations with colour in his adverts for the Milk Marketing Board, a path that would lead him to his influential cameraless photography and experiments with light in the 1980s and beyond, while Peter Mitchell’s colour images of the decaying industrial and residential architecture in the city of Leeds were signs of a radically different voice that found full expression in his ‘A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission’ show at Impressions Gallery in York in 1979. Though Mitchell’s work did not have a huge national profile, it had a major impact on key photographers who would bring colour to the foreground in the 1980s and 1990s.

Chris Killip’s work in and around the Northumberland coastline was also made in the late 1970s and the 1980s. At the same time Killip helped in the foundation of the Side Gallery (as did Sirka Liisa Konttinen, whose community-centred documentary exemplified both the work of the gallery and the Amber Collective – which the gallery was attached to).

Killip’s dynamic large-format photographs of the Northeast were shown in an exhibition and published in a book called In Flagrante, work that remains some of the greatest British documentary photography work ever made. In Flagrante shows people and communities that, despite being on the economic margins of society, retain an energy and humanity that has depth and emotion in equal measure. His later series Seacoal focussed on a community that collected coal from the sea, and was subsequently made into both a film and a book.

Changing Ethnicity

In the 1970s and 1980s, the ethnic make-up of Britain was continuing to transform the face of the nation’s inner cities. In the 1950s and 1960s, large numbers of migrants from the West Indies, Bangladesh and India arrived in the UK, settling in neighbourhoods and towns across the country.
Many settled in former mill towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire, with Bradford being a favoured destination for many Pakistani (and Bangladeshi) immigrants. For these newly arrived migrants, photography was a way of validating their presence in their new homeland, a way of proving to the folks back home that all was well and good.

The Belle Vue Studio in Bradford was one of many studios that catered to this need. The Belle Vue Archive (rescued from a rubbish skip by local photographer Tim Smyth) shows images of recently arrived Bangladeshis and Pakistanis posing with the symbols of their new lives in this mill town in Yorkshire.

In Birmingham, Vanley Burke was creating a more expansive archive of black British experience that included photography, music and art dating back to the1940s and first major post-war West Indian migration that was marked by the arrival from Jamaica of HMS Windrush in London in 1948.
His pictures also show the intensely political nature of the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time when industrial decline, the election of Margaret Thatcher, the rise of racism, and discriminatory police laws resulted in a series of riots across urban centres in the UK, including around Burke’s home in Handsworth in Birmingham.

Burke’s picture of demonstators standing outside Digbeth City Hall illustrate the rise of punk in the 1970s and the political alliances formed between anti-fascist groups and the musical subcultures that emerged from the chaos of punk.

In the late 1970s the rise of punk led to a huge interest in both the music press (with NME and Sounds leading the way) and the rises of small, roughly designed fanzines that had high energy and low production values. Photography played a huge part in defining the era and had influence that reached a huge audience outside the relatively small circles of documentary and art photography. Anton Corbijn’s moody pictures of Joy Division walking over Manchester’s Princess Parkway and posing in subways exemplified the angst-ridden dynamic of the end of the 1970s, an energy that was reprised when Corbijn moved into film-making and made Closer, a film that documented the rise of the band and the eventual suicide of Joy Division’s lead singer, Ian Curtis.

Another photographer who made the move from music into more lucrative areas was Chalkie Davies. His iconic album cover for the Two-Tone label showing the Specials isolated against a white background became a signature that was used when he moved to Apple in the late 1980s. Here he became a pioneer in high-end digital imaging and his still-lifes (which were made in incredibly complex studio settings) have helped define the visual branding of Apple products to the present day.


In fashion the most influential photographer to make the move from music and subcultures was Nick Knight. In 1982, while in his second year at university, he made Skinheads, a book that looked at skinhead subculture. In addition to images, he also included notes on fashion and music with a discography adding to a book that extended beyond photography.
Knight became Britain’s most innovative fashion photographer, and was part of a burgeoning fashion scene that, influenced by post-punk music world and the London-centric affluence of the 1980s, was taking the body-centred fashion photography of the 1970s into new directions that would eventually extend into online publishing and film.

The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, coupled with a deregulation in finance and in the mid-1980s led to a new wave of affluence in the south of England. It also provided fertile ground for the emergence of more mainstream youth-centred magazines with higher production values than the homemade fanzines of the punk era. The most influential of these magazines were I-d and the Face, both of which launched in 1980. Knight started his career at I-d, a publication for which German-born photographers, Juergen Teller and Wolfgang Tilmanns also photographed.

Both these photographers formed their careers in the UK using a relaxed, vernacular style that extends across both their professional and personal work. Teller’s book of wannabe models, Come See, remains a classic photobook with its rather sad portraits of aspiring models capturing the downside of an industry that packages an idea of glamour that is more imagined than real, while Tilmann’s reflections on the everyday, and his openness to use more relaxed photographic aesthetics in exhibiting his work, helped extend his influence into the art world when he won Britain’s premier art prize, The Turner Prize, in 2000.

The lightness of Tilmann’s work is also apparent in that of Elaine Constantine, a photographer whose snapshot approach moved fashion into a lighter, more upbeat world. Constantine centred her aesthetic around young women having fun, with laughter and energy prevalent in a blend that broke across generic lines, with elements of documentary combining with fashion and lifestyle imagery.
Corinne Day also used the idea of freshness when she photographed a 14-year old Kate Moss on Camber Sands in 1990. This shoot took place in 1990, a time when youth culture (fuelled by ecstasy and a flood of dance music) was becoming a place of democratic hedonism. Day helped launch Moss’s modelling career, but Day also became known for her darker fashion work, where waif-like models and what were regarded as hard drug references helped give rise to the heroin chic label, a label that entered the mainstream when it was namechecked by Bill Clinton in 1997.

Day also had a diaristic, daily-life centred approach to photography, an approach that was increasingly shared in other areas of the photographic world in the 1990s. Perhaps most notable of these works, and the most diaristic is Anna Fox’s Cockroach Diaries. This tells the story of living in a shared London flat through the unique narrative device of the cockroaches that Fox encountered in the living room, bedroom and Kitchen of the apartment. Other projects of Fox in include Work Stations, a text-image series that captured the absurdities of British office life.

More diaristic apartment living comes in Richard Billingham’s incredible Ray’s a Laugh series. This series of snapshots (originally made to be references for an art project) show Billingham’s parents at home in their cramped Birmingham flat. Ray (Billingham’s father) is an alcoholic, while his mother struggles to keep the family under control. It’s a one-off series that has affection, chaos, violence and sadness in equally measure.

The acceptance of Richard Billingham’s rough-edged colour work in the art world was due in large part to the wave of British colour photography that transformed the British photography landscape in the 1980s.

The photographer who used colour documentary in a more experimental way that linked to art and film was Paul Graham. His early projects were quite straightforward; Beyond Caring used a sparse visual language that showed the interiors of British unemployment offices, while Troubled Land showed Northern Ireland through landscapes marked with traces of the armed conflict and military presence that blighted the province from the 1970s to the end of the millennium.

Graham extended his viewpoint to photograph in Europe and then the United States where his American Trilogy series experimented with ideas of montage, narrative flow and the use of tonality to convey meaning in a way that was both ground-breaking and highly influential.  

Most renowned, and infamous, of the new colour photographers was Martin Parr. He sprang to photographic fame through his book The Last Resort. This gave an unheroic view of life (and particularly childhood) in the northern seaside resort of New Brighton. It was work that divided traditionalists (including Henri Cartier-Bresson who famously described Parr as being from a “completely different planet”) both due its colour content and due to the fact that the southern, middle-class Parr presented the working-class Wirral resort in such direct and uncompromising fashion. It was work that showed a working class that, thanks to the rule of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives, was on the edge of terminal decline.

Parr perfected his ring-flash, synthetic colour technique through work that focussed on the throwaway symbols of British culture, the vagaries of mass tourism and the use of the vernacular image in global visual culture.  As well as making doing editorial, advertising and film work, Parr was also a champion of the Photobook, and was responsible for its rise to popularity through the Photobook Histories he subsequently co-authored with Gerry Badger

Just up the road from New Brighton, another photographer was also hard at work capturing the edges of working class Wirral life. This was Tom Wood. His long-term, almost obsessive documentation of the communities of Merseyside amounts to one of the greatest British photography projects undertaken, with images that are touching, soulful and raw at the same time.


The experimentation with colour in documentary helped create a more open atmosphere in other genres of photography, including landscape.  As a photographer who uses cameraless photography to make large-scale prints of ponds, river and the sea Susan Derges is a prime example of this. Derges’ work has an autobiographical nature to it that connects the artist to the land in which she lives, in particular the area around her Dartmoor studio in the southwest of England.

Another photographer who worked in the Southwest of England is Jem Southam. His classically composed large format images of the ponds, rivers, estuaries and rockfalls of the Dorset and Devon coasts combine a practice built on walking with a gentle narrative flow in which geology, climate, seasonal change and human intervention combine.

Landscape was also the focus of John Davies’ immaculate large format photographs, but his work centred on the industrialised fringes of northern Britain and Wales. Often mixing the urban, the industrial and the rural, Davies used a sober topographical approach to landscape in which the connected and crowded nature of Britain is apparent, creating images that are both grandiose, familiar and thoroughly familiar.

At the end of the 1990s, Mark Power was working on projects that added a mapping element to British landscape work, an approach that extended the autobiographical and psychogeographical and walking-centred work of Jem Southam, Susan Derges and Richard Long. The Shipping Forecast was a project where images were made according to the areas named in the Shipping Forecast radio weather reports, while 26 Different Endings was a project based on the London A-Z street map. In this project, Power mapped the edges of London as marked by the A-Z and recorded the self-referencing power of maps to make or break a place in terms of geographical identity.
The 1990s ended in a period of optimism. The election of Tony Blair and the New Labour government in 1997 led to an era of widening opportunities. Full employment, investment in education, easy credit and accessible housing created a millennial Britain that was throbbing with optimism.

Yet at the same time, unsustainable privatisation, political corruption, and a subservience to the financial sector combined with Blair’s own messiah complex were beginning to infect British society. The millennium ended on a high note, but with 911, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the disastrous financial crashes of 2007 all on the horizon, the good times were not about to last. 

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Susan Bright's Feast for the Eyes

Susan Bright generously gave a free talk to students of mine and many other guests  last week on her brilliant and fun Feast for the eyes.

She talked about the fringe that exists between the familiarity of images and an 'offness', a particular element that makes images interesting, engaging and visually distinctive from the generic visual mass of images.

I love that idea of offness  - the idea that when anything is too visually tied to a particular photographic lineage and becomes generically fixed in visual strategies it becomes quite tedious, a wisp of an idea that disappears as soon as you bite down upon it, the visual equivalent of a overaerated espuma, a puff of air underflavoured by anything other than empty conceit.

So great food photography is not about the beautiful, in fact the beautiful picture is almost irrelevant here. But not quite.

Instead it's about the humanity and the absurdity of it all, but at an accessible level. The idea for Feast for the eyes started with the abundance and excess of 1950s advertising, a time of idealised plenty that spread around the English-speaking world in particular and reached its apogee in the 1970s (in the UK), where that combination of us abundance and the descendants of an Elizabeth David  celebrations of the Mediterranean were beginning to permeate UK food culture - but not quite getting it right. There's that offness again.

I remember that time, a period when the Americanisation of English food found commercialised expression in  the space age adventures of powdered exoticisms like Angel's Delight, Smash, and Rise and Shine, an English powdered orange juice, when the future of food was still tied to the space age and the notion that we'd all be living off optimised food pills.

Though Feast for the eyes is the history of food through photography, it's not about photography and not about food, but about the cultures in which food is embedded in and arise from. These cultures are commercial, scientific, artistic, social, and massively political, but for me the most important cultures are those based on pleasure - because there is a pleasure in the images. They look great, they feel great, but in ways that are celebratory, exuberant, sensual, and just made. And that idea of pleasure in food comes across in the book and the exbibition, which is ultimately about the ways in which the different functions of photography connect to those culture, but are entirely subservient to them.

Feast for the eyes was the first in a series of lectures Susan is giving.

The next is on Tuesday 14th April, at 4pm UK time. It's on Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood and again, that idea of offness, of images that go far beyond conventional images of photography and motherhood is apparent, as are questions about what we assume the mental, physical and relational states of motherhood are, and the ways in which photography can take us beyond those assumptions.

And if you're interested in joining, use this link - meet.google.com/niw-aarn-rrs 

It won't work until the meeting is opened about 15 minutes before the talk.

Or send me a message and I'll send you an invite (which will also send you the link.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Week 2, or is it 3 of Coronaviruszzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Daily exercise - I have the privilege of space

It's It's week 2 of the lockdown in the UK and everybody is going a little stir crazy because it's monumentally serious and monumentally boring. Things are changing so fast and there are people who are ahead of us who know what is going to come, This is from Francesca Landri's Letter to the rest of Europe after 3 weeks of lockdown in Rome, This is what we know about your future.

First of all, you’ll eat. Not just because it will be one of the few last things that you can still do. You’ll find dozens of social networking groups with tutorials on how to spend your free time in fruitful ways. You will join them all, then ignore them completely after a few days. You’ll pull apocalyptic literature out of your bookshelves, but will soon find you don’t really feel like reading any of it. You’ll eat again. You will not sleep well. You will ask yourselves what is happening to democracy. You’ll have an unstoppable online social life – on Messenger, WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom… You will miss your adult children like you never have before; the realisation that you have no idea when you will ever see them again will hit you like a punch in the chest. Old resentments and falling-outs will seem irrelevant. You will call people you had sworn never to talk to ever again, so as to ask them: “How are you doing?” Many women will be beaten in their homes.

In other news, the first children are getting named after the disease. This is the case of a 
girl named corona. Corona is a girl's name in this case, maybe Covid is a boy's name, or maybe they're gender neutral names. Who knows. Which leads on to the question of what's in a name, in a virus name, in a disease name. The first time I saw the virus referred to was at the Bath University Sports Centre, it was Wuhan Novel Coronavirus. Then it became just coronavirus, then Covid-19 came into being.

 Coronavirus is  quite gentle. It's stars and flowers and crowns and beer with lime and tequila. It's the kind of virus a fairy would get. It's generic, it doesn't kill you. Covid-19, which is what the disease was named  on February 11th,  is already sounding worse.

And then there's the disease, Sars Covid-2, which sounds far worse. This is the official terminology for the virus from the WHO.

coronavirus disease 


severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 

The first time I saw it referred to in this way was on Sunday, but perhaps I'm missing something. Then again, perhaps I'm not. the name was deliberately avoided by WHO for fear they created unnecessary panic in populations who remembered the 774 people who died from the disease in the early 2000s.

But you don't see the name for a reason. This is what they say on the WHO website. 

What name does WHO use for the virus?

From a risk communications perspective, using the name SARS can have unintended consequences in terms of creating unnecessary fear for some populations, especially in Asia which was worst affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003. 

For that reason and others, WHO has begun referring to the virus as “the virus responsible for COVID-19” or “the COVID-19 virus” when communicating with the public.  Neither of these designations are intended as replacements for the official name of the virus as agreed by the ICTV.

That seems a strange statement to make considering Covid-19 has killed over 30,000 people and counting to date. But it's also an understatement that connects to how the disease has been visually reported. As many have noted, the first substantial photojournalism on the project that seems to have appeared in the rather visually limited English-speaking world at least, is this one from the New York Times on Friday 21st March. Before that the reporting has been bland and lacking in graphic detail to say the least. This might not be the case elsewhere in the world, but stories featuring empty streets and face masks have been doing the rounds since Wuhan in January and God, they are repetitive 

There are lots of possibilities as to why this might be, but I wonder if the ethics of reporting, of not showing suffering and death, of not showing broad brush strokes of catastrophe (which might be simplistic and flawed but in the public interest in a very direct way) haven't been at play here. And I wonder if that not showing hasn't been responsible for people not taking the disease as seriously as it should be taken. Showing people suffering in their front room, or in a packed ward, or on their last breath, does rather cut through the 'it's nothing more than a case of the flu in most cases' rhetoric that as recently as last week people like our prime-minister (who is now suffering from nothing more than a case of the flu) were touting. 

So is there a case to be made that the ethics of photojournalism, that the rhetoric of photographic criticism might have contributed indirectly to hundreds if not thousands of deaths. And that the responsibility to show what is happening outweighs some of the ethical considerations we might normally consider. I think that case can be made.

You can read and see the whole story here: We take the dead from morning to night

As the disease spreads across the world there are interesting stories on The privilege of space, on the marginalisation and eviction of health workers in India, on the limiting of freedom of speech for doctors who speak truth on their lack of equipment, on the racist profiling that accompanies the disease, including in China and India where the #Chinesevirus19 was trending on Twitter last week accompanied by all kinds of conspiracy theories that lay the blame for its spread on whoever your enemy of the moment might be. 

The conspiracy theories are appealing because the longer it continues the more untrustworthy the statistics become, the more inconsistent the spread, the more varied the virus mutations, the deeper the erosion of civil rights, the more absolute the freezing of transport links,the more ominous the  development of digital currencies, the more surreal the mass psychosis that has gripped us all. Surely amidst all this chaos, there must be some sinister hand controlling our minds. It's so tempting to see conspiracies all around coronavirus but then you look at our leaders holed up in their Swiss chalets with their wives and concubines, bragging about their television ratings, or being so ultimately dumb as to catch the disease and spread it to the top tier of government, and you remind yourself that the only conspiracy going is the absolute venal stupidity of the leaders of the world's great powers. 

And anyway, who needs conspiracy theories when no matter what you read, watch, or listen to, there is always a relevance to coronavirus, isolation, or contagion. 

It was there when we watched the Great Escape the other week and saw Steve McQueen throwing his baseball in the cooler. 

It was there in this clip from Nightcrawler. 

And it was there in this documentary on Maradona where the Juventus fans sing about Napoli..

The song goes like this: 

Sick with cholera, victims of the earthquake, you never wash with soap. 
Napoli shit, Napoli cholera. 
You are the shame of the whole of Italy. 

Which for me kind of sums up the italian north-south divide in a way that nothing else quite does (the UK football Napoli equivalent is In your Liverpool Slums with Liverpool being an English outlying city). The Napoli song also sums up the ways in which poverty, disease, and death are thrown together in one unholy mess. 

There is the rhetoric of us being all in this together, of everybody being affected, but the more this goes on, the more it will be apparent that it does affect some people more than others, it will attack the weakest, the poorest, the sickest. It knows no borders, but it will sniff out those who are undernourished, who have no space, no home, no money, no food. And there will be a political result from that. 

Enough of that. We were on football. Back to football. The Belorussian league kicked off a couple of weeks ago. I was gutted by my team's (Dinamo Minsk) poor performance in the local derby last week. 

But they're playing again on Friday in the last league standing, in the one thing apart from the death of Kenny Rogers to break through the coronavirus wall of news noise.

There is a disturbingly large part of me that wants to look for Dinamo Minsk streaming sites and buy the shirt, join the Ultras, eat the Belorussian pies, drink the vodka that will protect me from coronavirus (it's better than cow's piss) etc etc - but my subconscious self is giving him a good kicking as we speak so hopefully he won't be popping his shaven head up any time soon. Because this is mad and irresponsible and dangerous.

But just in case you're interested, here's the  Belarus football guide. Anything to break the tedium. And let me know of anyone Belorussian league Zoom conference calls. They will be happening.