Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Daily Mirror: Manipulation always Matters

This picture appeared in the Daily Mirror last week. It's a picture illustrating a campaign on food banks and the rising tide of food poverty in the UK. Food poverty is when people go hungry. It's a step above malnutrition. It affects how people live and work, it affects their relationships, their education and prevents them from moving out of whatever hole they find themself in for whatever reason. It's real, it's tragic and it's relevant. And it brings a level of hopelessness and despair that goes beyond a transitory hunger that is imagined in wealthy reactionary circles.

It's a serious issue in other words.

The problem is the Mirror (which I have a little nostalgia for) used a picture of a crying American girl for the story.

You can see the original picture and a few out takes and read the story of why the girl is crying here at  Lauren's Flickr page.

we went to the park and anne found an earthworm.

she promptly named it "flower", the most beautiful name in the world (da most bootifull name in da wold).

i convinced her to let me babysit flower, while she played. we then decided to put flower in the grass, so she could have a nap, and then when it was time to go we would find flower and bring her home, to live in our garden.

only flower didn't nap, she scootched away, and anne cried for the next 25 minutes.

Does it matter? I think so. It trivialises the issue and fails those it is supposed to serve. Surprisingly I've read various excuses for the picture; it'spropaganda, it's a campaign picture, the source of the picture doesn't have an impact on Christian values extolled in the piece, the Mirror has poor journalism so we shouldn't complain about it, it's snobby to criciticise the redtops, all kids crying look the same so what does it matter where the child is from and, English kids are not emotional enough with their tears so of course you go with the American!

So maybe I'm mistaken. But still, I do think that the sourcing of the picture affects the credibility of the campaign/story, the Mirror's dubious track record on front covers notwithstanding. And it's an important story and one over which the British press if fighting a little propaganda war on behalf of their ideological paymasters. This story from the Daily Mail is only one example of this. Of course, you'd expect nothing less from the Mail, but still, I despise them for their campaign of misinformation. But if the Mirror are leading from the other side with a picture that stinks of misinformation, how much better are they? This picture gives people a stick to beat them with, and as you beat the Mirror so you beat down the very idea that there is such a thing as food poverty in this country. Sniff around the internet and you'll hit the comments contrasting the food poor all have tummy tucks, Sky subscriptions and 60 inch TVs. They're poor because they're fat, stupid, lazy and dishonest because actually they're not poor at all - part of the classic Deserving/Undeserving poor division.

Anyway, based on some of those arguments, questions on the authenticity of pictures such as the strangely organised Syrian bomb factory don't matter; it's Syria after all and what do you expect but misinformation.

Or how about this illustration of Osama Bin Laden's hideout in the Tora Bora Mountains; a version was shown by Colin Powell at the UN and I remember choking on my cornflakes when I saw it in the Sunday Times way back when  But the Sunday Times! Come on, we all know about the Sunday Times.

And so you could go on and on and on. In fact just about every falsification or manipulation of images could be excused for one reason or another. Just as every questionable act could be excused. What do you expect? It's Terry.  But it doesn't mean we should excuse them or we should stop questioning. What's the purpose of that? We should always question images and lay bare their lies, falsehoods and manipulations - in news, in advertising, in fashion, in politics, in business. Because that's all part of the fun of photography and that way we learn how visual language develops and operates in world around us, even when it's a picture that lies.

I wondered about where manipulation doesn't matter and because David Moyes, manager of Manchester United, was sacked yesterday, I thought of the weird manipulated card of a younger Moyes that ran around social media a few years back.

Does it matter or is it just a bit of mean fun? I'll say it does matter even if it is a bit of mean-spirited fun that is entirely believable to gullible people like myself. It chips away at the idea that you can trust what you see (and we do, on the whole trust what we see - even people who say they don't).

The picture is also part of our obsession with appearance, something which we are bombarded with on a daily, hourly or minute-by-minute basis.

How about this before and after retouching of Madonna from 5 years ago? This one has been retouched and serves its particular purpose. Does it matter? I'll say yes even though we all know it happens and why it happens and maybe some of us do it, but yes of course it matters. The above images are part of a vast reservoir of before and after pictures (here are a few Madonna ones) where what exactly is happening is not as clear cut as might be imagined.

These kinds of pictures, and our bombardment are all to do with conformity to expectations, to aging, to body shape, to skin form. And the showing of the unretouched one matters because once you get the retouched version, the untouched version becomes part of the oppressive ideology (and it is an ideology) that led to the retouched representation in the first place. The ways in which pictures are made, edited and shown are not neutral, they are laden with value.

And here's one that definitely matters. It all matters!

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Stop Coveting the Old and Unaffordable.

I re-entered the digital world today after a short break and posted this Parr and Badger Q and A from Phaidon. My favourite bit was this story from Gerry Badger. It exemplifies the smoke and mirrors nature of market forces, both for prints.

Harry Lunn, the US dealer who created the photographic market, once addressed a symposium back in the seventies. He had two photographs. He said, ‘Here I have a print by Robert Frank from the Americans which I retail for $10,000. Here I have another print by Robert Frank from the Americans, the same picture, which I also retail for $10,000.’ Then he tore one in half and said, ‘Now I have this print by Robert Frank from the Americans which I retail for $30,000.’ As Harry always used to say ‘We’re in the business of creating rarity value.’ That’s the art market.

Of course the same kind of smoke and mirrors exists for photobooks. The photobook world is very small and is hugely influenced by hype, market-cornering and absurd valuation claims and counter claims.

I interviewed Martin Parr for the BJP a few months back and he raised the issue of increased prices in the photobook markets in out talk and how he has been accused of cranking up prices. Of course, he says this is not his fault but he would say that, wouldn't he.

But I do think he is fair in rebutting these accusations. I think the one thing that Volume 3 of the Photobook Histories does show is how vibrant the photobook market is, how the history is no longer about the past, but is developing as we speak. I wrote about this a few years back in Doing it by the Book, another article for the BJP, but if anything, the photobook world is even more interesting and exciting now; there is better design, more invention and a wider range of voices (though the ones that are most worth listening to are not always the loudest).

On the Facebook page, I got a complaint about Parr and Badger and the idea that they have put photobooks out of reach of the ordinary buyer. Fukase's Ravens was mentioned as a case in point. You want a copy of Ravens and it will cost you £1,000 give or take.

I have sympathy with this sentiment, but at the same time, where did people hear about Ravens from. From the Photobook History Volume 1 perhaps. And a reprint of the book was made shortly after the first Photobook Histories were made - which was available for around £40 I think - as were reprints of numerous other books. And then you get  Errata Editions reprinting books left right and centre. Look there's Drum, there's Ballet, there's The Stage. Fabulous! Shame I don't have any money because that's a few hundred quid gone straight away.

But at the same time, what Volume 3 demonstrates is how many great new books are around. I'm looking at the mess of my desk and I've got Eamonn Doyle, Quan Shen, Ken Grant, Anthony Cairns, Christopher Anderson and Christina Riley sitting on my desk all waiting to be looked at (again) and written about.

So why buy something old and beyond your budget when you can get something new. Especially when it's by Christina Riley and it's called Back to Me. And it's a book about mental illness and depression, which is pretty much what Ravens was about in its roundabout kind of way. Back to Me is more direct. That's why it's published by Straylight, a publisher which makes direct books with direct themes. Straylight is kind of rough and ready but it hits the spot and is much more than a decorative publisher. It makes books about things that matter. And it publishes people who don't get published elsewhere. And Christina Riley is one of those people.

Her book, Back to Me, is about depression, about suicide, insomnia, loneliness, and love. There's a text at the back. This is how it starts;

I rememember driving down hwy 1 south feeling almost certain I wouldn't return. The bottle of wine I planned to drink before jumping was sitting in the cupholder alongside a bottle of ativan and my camera. I cried the whole way to the bridge feeling guilt already for what I hadn't yet done. I stepped out of my car to a cold, foggy blowing skyd. But through all that, stars. I stood there in the darkness and they spoke to me. They were just for me and their message was clear. 

It would kill him. 

The pictures mirror the text. They are proper rough, old digital rough, filled with grain and noise and printed insignificantly on the page. The book starts with a doorway; we are entering the interior of Riley's mind, and then we are on to a double page spread of her partner and a picture of Riley (I think) holding her wrist up.

We go outside to smudgy winter dawns and pictures in which time stretches out into the preceding hours of a sleep that never came. This a book about dead time, about doing nothing and the slow, dripping torture of doing it. Riley stands in her knickers in a doorway, she looks out from a balcony at the lights of a city and she lies back on her sofa; lying and waiting, the thoughts rolling round in her head in an unending, inescapable cycle.

There's the bridge mentioned above, there's the balcony and there's the wrist. Delusion, death and the otherworld of street lights and noisy interiors mix with tears, sadness and a loss of self.

Thematically Back to Me overlaps with Ravens. They overlap with A Black Dog Came Calling by John Darwell, the work of Lauren Simonutti (who sadly killed herself two years ago) and numerous others.

So if you're looking at books from the past that are overpriced and unavailable, and you covet them, the solution is simple. Stop coveting, stop wanting. Buy something affordable instead. Buy something new. Buy Back to Me.

Omey Island "Last Man Standing"

Here is a review of Kevin Griffin's rather lovely Omey Island "Last Man Standing". You can also see this on Emaho Magazine's site. 

And you can buy the book here.

Isolated islands off the Irish coast? There are a few that come to mind. Craggy Island is one of them, Rugged Island another. Then there's the Aran Islands...

And that's about it. And then I saw Kevin Griffith's book, Last Man standing and I put another island into my mental world map; Omey Island.

Omey Island is a 1 mile square piece of land off the West Coast of Ireland. It's a tidal island. You can reach it when the tide is low. It has a couple of small lakes on it and people have lived there for over 6,000 years.

In the past, the population could be measure in the hundreds but today the population is one. His name is Pascal Whelan, a former stunt actor who moved back to Omey when it was a relatively settled place. Last Man Standing is the story of Whelan and his life on the island of Omey.

The book has four main elements. There are the clippings of Whelan from his stunt days; kicking another stunt man (called Bruce Lee - but not that one) in the jaw, fleeing an explosion or jumping off a cliff. Then there are the interiors and his domestic arrangements. We see Whelan's worn-out deck of cards, a rusty screw sticking through his caravan wall and the kitchen where Whelan makes his tea.

The landscapes set the book apart. Omey is small, flat and empty. It's also extremely old, with human settlement dating back 6,000 years. That age registers in the pictures of the island and Whelan's life there. From a short interview with Whelan and a history of the island, we find that Whelan grew up on the island. He was there in the 1940s. He saw his first plane there and ran home terrified because he'd heard about the bombings raids over in Britain and Europe. There was no gas, electricity or running water at that time. People lived off the land and ate fish, rabbits, geese and starlings. Every now and then they'd kill a pig, cook it and hang it in the chimney to be smoked by the turf fire.

The island looks old. We see the last grass on the island being lashed by the wind, we see Whelan 'eel watching' and we some strange circular markings on a daisy strewn lawn. There are many markings and traces on Omey and they add to the feeling of the isolated existence that Whelan leads. But it's an existence in which Whelan never feels alone. "There's a big difference between feeling lonely and being alone. I have been in large citieis where I am not alone but have felt very lonely, it is the opposite on Omey."

So it's a quiet book filled with quiet moments, but then suddenly the landscape explodes into some rare burst of activity; day trippers taking pictures of a beached whale, mainlanders lined up along the beach for the Omey races. And then we see Whelan in his everyday life; driving, sleeping and sitting.

I'm not sure what Last Man Standing is? Is it a book of landscapes, a travelogue or a diary of a man's life (in the mould of The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings). I don't think it's any of them or if it is, it's all three. And maybe that's why it's so good. It's a book where the man, the island and the life all merge together.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Hippety Hop Hop

Hippety Hop Hop, Hippety Hop Hop, this blog is going away for a while. 

Hippety Hop Hop, Hippety Hop Hop, Jesus is Dead, Jesus is Dead, an Easter Egg, An Easter Egg, Jesus is Dead, Jesus is Dead, I love Easter, I love Easter, Jesus is alive, Jesus is alive!

Fantastic - kind of sums it all up really.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

We Make the Dog by Walking

I've never had a dog. I've  never wanted one. But my daughter's first words were 'doggy' and we had a lovely neighbour called Wendy who had a lovely dog called Bailey.

About five years ago we started walking Bailey. Once or twice a week, we ended up taking Bailey on walks around our house in Bath. We walked to the park, to Brown's Folly, up Solsbury Hill but most of all down Charlecombe Valley. We entered a doggy world where people talk about their dogs and are so dog-like that they are one step away from sniffing each other's arses. I especially liked the slightly anxious owners who had rescue dogs. I always asked them the story of their dog and they always loved telling it - it was like a free trip to the dog analyst's with a Dickensian venality added to tie things down. And just as you had anxious owners, you had anxious dogs. You could see the worry lines on their doggy brows.

Isabel and I walked Bailey after school when she was younger. In summer we'd eat ice cream and in winter we'd sit at the top of the valley, have cake and hot chocolate and throw a ball for Bailey to fetch. It was a lovely memory of a lovely place but time moves on.

But then Isabel changed schools and we stopped doing those walks quite so ofter. The geography of where we live changed when that happened. My wife started walking him more and sometimes we'd go together during lunch breaks if I was at home. Then, a couple of weeks ago Wendy moved and took Bailey with her. So we don't walk him anymore. We don't go down Charlcombe Valley quite so often. We don't take the dog around the allotments or up Solsbury Hill or up to the park. Suddenly a great chunk of the world we used to inhabit has shifted. Sad but life goes on. It's funny how that happens.

The pictures above are from the last walk with Bailey. We make the path by walking the dog and all that. Oh well. Not flatlining yet, but I'm getting there....

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

"We teach girls shame..."

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talked about her latest book, Americanah in the Guardian at the weekend.

Americanah is "...the story of two Nigerian émigrés who love and lose each other across continents and years... It is a book about hair: straight versus afro; and discreet tensions, not just between white Americans and Nigerian immigrants, but between Africans and African Americans, between the light- and dark-skinned, between new and established immigrants, and its frankness – in particular on the subject of gender – has upset some people. "I knew that was coming," says Adichie. "I can't write a book like that and then go, 'Oh my God, they're upset.' But my intention wasn't to upset." She smiles. "It's just that I'm willing to if that's what it takes to write the book."

I like the fact that Adichie is very direct. She's direct about race, about skin colour, about the USA. She talks about her main character Ifemulu arriving in America and not being angry enough because she is African rather than African-American.; "I only became black when I came to America."

She also talks about Nigerian arrogance which was nice. I used to live in a house with a Nigerian who was a bit messy and used to say things like, "In my country you would be my servant and you would be washing my dishes," which always used to amuse both of us. 

Since leaving, she has began to see what she calls the Nigerian swagger – the attitude that causes resentment in other African countries. "We're not popular in any part of Africa. And we're rather proud of it. If I wasn't Nigerian, I think I would understand why. There's a kind of Nigerian aggressiveness … 'Why shouldn't we?' We'll do it very loudly and without much finesse, but hey. Inside Nigeria there are different cultures, but this is Nigerianness – it cuts across ethnic groups. I don't know if it's from our large size, I don't know if it's because we never had white people settle and stay. So Nigerians go to Kenya and Tanzania and we think, why are you so apologetic?"

Adichie also tooks about gender and the criticism she received for having a strong woman who has a will of her own. That's where the motivational picture at the top kicks in. I showed it my daughter the other day and she asked what the last part means, the part about the "art of pretence". I told her and she instantly recognised what Adichie meant. 

And that's why she's so good. Because she's direct and she says what is obvious to her, but at the same time recognising the business she's in. Americanah, she says, is ultimately a love story, because that is what stories are all about; love. 

Why complicate things when they don't need complicating. And I think that is true of all great writers. They tell universal stories using universal themes. Love's the big one. 

And isn't it the same in photography. Aren't there universal themes that great photographers touch on. Themes or elements perhaps. Emotion, the face, the body, the facade and the sublime. Isn't that what it all boils down to? 

But not love. Not even on the Left Bank. There's no love in photography. Funny that. 

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Spook Light. It's Spooky but is it Real?

I love the idea of the Spook Light. It's a great name for a light that mysteriously appears '...on a remote road deep in the Ozark Hills."

Spook Light Chronicles vol. 1 - the road and the light is an artist's book by Antone Dolezal and Lara Shipley that examines the strange phenomenon of the Spook Light. 

The book is a mix of found, appropriated and real-life-we-photographed-this pictures. These are mixed with text that takes us somewhere into the hearts and minds of Spook Light Country. Here's the place. They have an old map and that makes it Real! And because it's real, it's even scarier.

And Spook Light Country is a scary place; it's ' insular community living in the heart of the Bible Belt where the struggle between heaven and hell factors into everyday conversation.'

They factor into the book, because for Dolezal and Shipley "...the Spook Light has come to represent for the people we meet a desire for redemption and the fear of slipping into darkness." The  Spook Light "...provides a reprieve from ordinary life."

So Dolezal and Shipley are cranking it up, and with a name like The Spook Light, what's not to crank. The first question on my lips is "Is it real?" I really want to know this and like to believe that it is real. And Dolezal and Shipley pointing me in that direction with pictures like the one below. That has to be real.

One picture titled the boys that scared me, shows a young man standing bare-chested in the roadway.He has got two star tatoos on his chest and his hands are bunched into fists. He has a kind of smile on his face, but it's not a very nice smile and the man in the background has a near empty bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand. There is tension in the air.

The caption reads:

I was kind of thinking what if the spook light were to come right here and collide with me and take my soul with it. And you guys would just have to leave me here, because I'd be a soulless man, just wandering down the road. 

There are more references to lost souls, the afterlife and it adds to the threat. The Spook Light is not benign. This is a book for suggestible people by, I'm hoping, suggestible artists. I know that if I was on the Devil's Promenade, more than a little bit of me would believe. No, let's be honest. All of me would believe. I'd be petrified with all that spookiness going on.

The found photographs build on this suggestibility and really make me believe. If it's old it must be true. The contemporary pictures of flashes of light add to this sense of threat while the lit landscapes add an alien element to the mental picture.

There are two more volumes to come in the series (the first is sold out). Hopefully by the end, I'll have the answer to my question. Is it Real?