Friday, 21 October 2016

Hypernoramlisation: When you end up believing Adam Curtis films.

I feel a bit bad hating on Adam Curtis because I really liked Century of the Self and the one on Afghanistan.

But Hypernormalisation feels like a rehash, it feels like he's going through the motions, it feels a bit too dicey and speculative and made up. It feel like what it is critiquing (which is the Spectacle basically).

Part of the problem is Curtis' voice. He's not God, so why's he using his voice.

The other problem is the stream of snippets of  stuff that is thrown at us. We're living in the age of snippets of stuff and it is really quite exhausting. Especially when the snippets are selective in the extreme and have a time limitation. Nothing is older than the age of the archives he is picking from, too much is left unsaid, and the examples he chooses are often two-dimensional.

In Hypernormalisation, there's a snippet of Patti Smith being vague and apolitical  and uncommitted and harking on about some irrelevance in a two-dimensional sort of way - but you get the feeling that is what Curtis is doing with this film,

You also get the feeling that he could just as well do exactly the same programme but put a rightist spin on it and it wouldn't be too different.

The real problem is there are parts of it that are absolutely fascinating but that the voice Curtis has made his own is really a barrier to our understanding. There are three hours of headache-inducing footage with too much noise, incoherence and questionable material that lacks a certain substance and depth. He's been trapped by his own branding it seems, which is a shame because there's probably about 5 or six top-notch documentaries in there.

 Play Adam Curtis Bingo here (it should have "But then..." in as well) and there's a South Park parody I'm told (thanks Alex and Mark) but I've never seen it and don't know where.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Mary Hamill's Tulips

When we were judging the dummies for Photobook Bristol/Gazebook Sicily, there was a really high standard.

Despite that, there were only two books that we all instantly said  yes to.

One of them was Mary Hamill's Semper Augustus.

'Semper Augustus is an inquiry into one woman’s understanding of her body and its cultural and historical significance' is what the artist's statement says.

The book a record of Hamill's periods as measured through tampons which are then upended to look like tulips, hence the title. It's very simple. It's very direct. Not many people would do it. Hamill did. It works.

Buy Semper Augustus here.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Plastic Lecturers

In the UK, you have PCSOs, these are Police Community Support Officers. They earn about £7,000 a year less than real police and they don't have responsibilities like the power of arrest. They're popularly known as plastic coppers. They're second class coppers. It's policing on the cheap.

In higher education, you have an equivalent. You get senior lecturers (I'm a senior lecturer for a little bit of every week) and you get associate lecturers (I'm an associate lecturer for a few other days). The associate lecturers are second class lecturers. It's teaching on the cheap. They're plastic lecturers, hired on hourly paid or short-term contracts to save the university money because you only pay them for the hours they work.

You get what you pay for, somebody who is working on an hourly paid contract and knows they are being hired to save money while students are being charged £9,000 a year to study on the course you teach on does rather impact on the teaching. Essentially, the higher the percentage of associate lecturers you have in a university, the cheaper the university is.

You can check how the percentage of associate lecturers a university has here.

And you can read all about it here.

It is a crude tool however, and universities are at pains to point this out and defend the flexibility and range of voices they can hire by using associate lecturers. But I suspect this might be denial.

Here's a real life conversation from a pre-term departmental meeting that was narrated to me by a friend who works on an arts-based course at a university in the Southeast of England.

Faceless Management Type: "The good news is you're all associate lecturers."

Associate Lecturer: "Basically an associate professor is somebody who works on a zero hours contract."

Angry Faceless Management Type: "You don't work on a zero hours contract, you work on a fixed hours contract. A fixed hours contract is very different a zero hours contract."

Associate Lecturer: "Does anybody have their contracts yet?"

The other ten associate lecturers working in the department: "No."

Faceless Management Type: "Still, Whether you have a contract or not, a fixed hours contract is much better than a zero hours contract."

Associate Lecturer: "How's it better?"

Faceless Management Type: "Because you're a lecturer. An associate lecturer."

Associate Lecturer: "What would an associate lecturer on a zero hours contract be?"

Faceless Management Type: "They wouldn't be on a zero hours contract because they're not as good as fixed hours contracts. We don't just do any kind of contracts here."

KL Troopers: Dickheads

The Clash playing at a Rock Against Racism gig in 1978. Image by Val Welmer.

Don Letts' Skinheads was a really enjoyable overview of the five or six lives of Skinhead-ism, and the contradictions between the disparate parts of the subculture.

There was one clip of the man who set up the Skinheads against Racism in Music talking about global manifestations of racist skinheads: 'There's this gang of fucking dickheads called KL Troopers and they're Malay Nazis... and they want all the Chinese and Indians to fuck off...'

Malaysia for the Malays only. That would be as good as England for the English  or India for the Hindus, or France for the French, or Nigeria for the Nigerians; you'd be left with a nation of inbred simpletons sewing on their silly patches and drooling into their 100% native nasi lemak/fish and chips/whatever...

So there you have it, KL troopers. You're now known internationally as dickheads. Well done.

Watch Skinheads here if you're in the UK or you can get around it.

And buy Skinheads the book here, for only £8.99 (that's probably about 5 of your euros if you're reading this in 2018). This is Nick Knight's first book, made in his second year at college the bastard before he became a fashion superstar.

The book was made in 1982 and is symptomatic of the huge link between music, subcultures, publishing, fashion and photography in Britain at the time. There's such a direct connection between the ethos of music, the rise of colour in British photography, the development of fashion magazines in the early 1980s, the rise of British fashion photography and the ethos of punk and protest and how that affected photography, and design - to the present day.

Ah yes, design. In parts of the UK, design does gets a little fetishised, especially in places like Manchester, where the emphasis is understandably on the high-end manifestations and you can get all Factoried out by the design. Here's a more typical example below of Manchester design (from this classic source of ephemera from Manchester's musical past).

You can read about music and anti-racism in this review of Walls Come Tumbling Down.

And here's Syd Shelton talking about his photograph at a Rock Against Racism/Ruts gig in 1979.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Political leaders as a manifestation of a nation's state. Who's dumber/crueller/uglier/more corrupt?


Bing, Bing, Bong, Bong, Bing, Bing, Bing by Kenneth O'Halloran is a very simple book. It's an oversized series of pictures of people responding to the Trump star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In fact the most complicated thing about the book is the title, which comes from a speech Trump made in 2015. But it's simple in a good way, in a topical way, in a way that connects to what we are all thinking. Loathe him or loathe him, we all have an opinion on Trump after all.

The pictures in the book start with a series of portraits of people walking past the star, so in that sense it's a kind of cross section of America in the Year of the Trump.


Fingers are pointed. Index fingers are raised as people respond in a variety of ways. There are smiles, sneers, frowns and then the phones come out - and we see people photographing the star; so we go from half-page spread to a line of thumbnails all lined across the top of the page.

The star shots are broken up with more Trump quotes and images of Sunset Boulevard during a movie launch. Then we go into details shot long; a raised finger, another finger but this time down the throat, then more fingers, raised and on cameras and phones.

Muslims, Jews, African-Americans and Mexicans look at the star. It gets spat at, stamped on, and splattered with tomato sauce. It's scrawled over, defaced and modified in a variety of ways. There's a couple of pages of Instagram images of the star defaced.


'Someone drew a swastika on Trump's star on the Walk of Fame and there's no way to know if it was done by someone who hates him or supports him,' reads one of the captions.

So there you have it. It's a book about the Donald Trump star.

I was given the book by Kenneth O'Halloran at Gazebook in Sicily and I had a quick glance through it.

Then I took it home some more and looked some more. Despite or maybe bccause of  the simple subject matter, there's quite a lot going on which all hangs together.


First and foremost, it's a book of street photography; imagine Beat Streuli crossed with Paul Graham crossed with a lot of Californian sunlight and high body-mass indices.

But then again, it's a kind of cross section of US society and its response to an explicitly divisive man, all shot with an eye on ritual grimacing that links (if only slightly) to the Stump work of Christopher Anderson.

Stick all that together and you end up with a sickly book, a big book (too big perhaps) that's a fetid mix which is as much about the end of an empire and the mythology that created it as it is about Donald Trump. Trump ends up just being a symptom of the disease, as does the star, as do all the people in the book, as do all of us who watch in gobsmacked horror and fascination as the impossibility of Donald Trump becoming POTUS becomes ever more real.

We stand in awe of the stupidity of a nation that might elect this buffoon as president. Oh, but then again, who am I from the Brexit nation to talk? Our situation is so bad that you can't buy marmite for your toast here anymore. It's like the Blitz all over again. God Save the Queen. Land of Hope and Glory, When I'm Cleaning Windows, Bombay Duck and powdered egg. Truly greatness beckons once more.

It probably won't happen, as we say in the UK. But it might.

Buy the book here.

And watch George Formby here.

And here's Marlene Dietrich.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Love Makes Everything Bleak!

There's always something sad about photographic love stories. They are stories that have ended so that makes them sad to begin with; the love arc peaks, declines and then we are left with a conclusion that is either tragic or bathetic.

Throw photography into the mix and the sadness intensifies. The essential nostalgia of photography fixes the past in concrete form. It's what has-been and will never be again, it's a marker of the height of our emotions, a paean to our youth. Photography of the past (which is all photography - duh!) looks times when we were younger, stronger, smarter, sexier. And there it is fixed for all time, a laughing contrast to our present, decrepit, boring, faded selves. The real me is filled with uncertainty, the photographic me is clearly defined in every possible way (as long as it is a 'good' photograph - because that's what 'good' photographs do).

There's that sadness in just about every photographic story going; think Solitude of Ravens, Sentimental Journey, Love on the Left Bank, or, more recently, Yolanda. There is death involved in three of those, so that helps, but you get the idea.

The same sadness infests Alex and Me by James Pfaff. This is a cinematic love story, a road trip love story that goes from Florida through to Ontario and features Pfaff and his lover, Alex. It's shot in the past, so it is of a time, and it's kind of rough around the edges in a nineties kind of way. Which adds to the melancholic air of the piece.

The book has a notebook type cover (Pfaff works a lot with notebooks and diaries). It's covered in notes and is painted over, so there's a nice start to the book, a reason to get you into it. Open it up and there's an envelope with a postcard and a typed summary of the relationship.

It's the summer of '98, there's asphalt, coffee and cigarettes. And Alex:

I'd only been together with Alex for a few short weeks, but I knew she was a special woman. 

Alive and real. 
Carefree, intoxicating.
In full blood, sensual...

Well, it was a beautiful journey.
We burned bright and faded. 
Later, in a gentle moment, I noticed it was autumn.

So you know there's going to be some poetry in there, with the melancholy cranked up (as it should be). The pictures begin with pictures of the road at night; a sign on the highway pointing to Baton Rouge, a coffee, a juke box, a waffle house. There's a nod to Robert Frank, Stephen Shore, Walker Evans and road photography as a whole, but with more road, more darkness, and more paint (some of the images are painted over! I'm still thinking about that).

We see Alex on the bed, followed by a picture from a soft-porn magazine. More road pictures follow, an American flag, gas stations and the detritus of the road. It's a quite barren environment for this love affair to play out against. The barrenness is compounded by how the pictures are laid out on the page, set on what looks like a painted wall, the brush strokes letting the pink of the plaster show, bare bones, bare flesh only partially hidden. That textured feel is echoed by the cover, which is in notebook mode (but a bit too smooth to the touch).

There are nods to the times; a Daily News cover featuring Bill Clinton, phone booths covered in graffiti, and repeated Go-Go bars. Finally, the couple end their trip in Canada - we see a map that tells us this is the end, and we see them crossing the border at Niagara Falls. The book ends with portraits of 'Me' and 'Alex'. Me is shot through the rear view mirror of the car, Alex is shot with her hand across her face. We never really know who they are in other words.

Edited by Francesca Seravalle, Alex and Me is a moody, road-trip of an affair that is tinged with an inevitable sadness. Canada marks the end of the affair, the end of the passion and the burning bright, the return to a more faded life. And such is the fate of photographic love stories, they have a love that is lived in sadness, a serotonin antidote to the bleakness of the backdrop they are played out against, and then they end - and the consolation of passion is gone. All that is left is the bleakness.

Buy Alex and Me here


Buy Alex and Me here

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Rania Matar and The Mass Psychosis of Childhood

                Darine 7 and Dania 8, Beirut Lebanon, 2014   (all pictures copyright Rania Matar)

I went to the pub a couple of weeks ago to celebrate the birthday of one of my Bath Photography friends, James Allen . He also happened to have a newborn baby with him, and there was a bunch of people round the pub who had children from a few months to a few years.

It took me back, and you could see it took others back. Eyes followed Minnie the Newborn as she was passed around the circle of people (nobody passed her to me funnily enough. Do I look like the kind of person who drops babies?). There was something so other-worldly about newborn children, you just can't take your eyes off them. It was like having some lizard-brained element of your brain come up and direct your eyes to the object you should be attending to.

And then you look to James and Sophie (Minnie's mother), and you see them totally in tune with this baby-world. Minnie is all they have been looking at for the last few weeks. It's a different way of thinking and a different way of being, one that they clicked into when necessary. It's the mass psychosis of parenthood basically. And it's necessary, because if you didn't have it, there is no way you would allow your life to be so dominated by this crying, farting, yellow-shitting thing that doesn't even know how to smile yet (except when it farts). Without that psychosis, sleeplessness would take over and baby, sack, rock and river would be the order of the day. Thank goodness for hormones or the human race would die out (oh, and the earth would be saved. Extinctionism, there's a thing.) And of course it's a psychosis that I used to have, that my wife used to have. That we don't have any more, praise the lord.

My daughter grew up. But I remember when she was 4 or 5, or 8 or 9,  or however old. Whatever age it was, you'd be in tune to that. You'd understand the rawness of it, the physicality of it, the madness of it. And you'd be part of it. It's like a mini-mass psychosis. And once you're out of that world, you're out of that world. It's very strange.

But there are times when you return temporarily. That's what happens with  Rania Matar's new book, L'Enfant Femme.

                  Savannah 10, Snowmass Colorado, 2016

This is a book of rather beautiful pictures of young girls on the verge of adulthood. The book is a traditional photobook of portraits beautifully produced with a series of images and a couple of short pieces of writing at the back.

Being on the verge of adulthood is a common theme in photography, but one that Rania does supremely well, but with an eye on the beautiful qualities both of the photograph and of the girls who are in them.

The girls are shot in their environments, both interior and exterior, in the US and Lebanon, and have expressions which, though verging on the deadpan, are so direct that their characters do come through. But it's their poses (some of which they chose themselves I'm guessing) which also tell a tale.

Darine, 7 and Dania, 8, are a case in point; they stand in front of the camera with Darine glaring, head slightly tilted down, legs apart and at a slight angle. She's the badass one. Dania, meanwhile, holds her pink handbag with her pink  painted nails and her pink hijab (sunglasses on top) as polite as can be, an 8-year-old going on 48.

For me, as a father, it is always strange to see pictures of childhood. I have been so immersed in it, through photography, through fatherhood, that everything should be instantly recognisable.

    Joelle 9, Beirut Lebanon, 2012

I have been in those spaces both as a child, as a photographer and as a father. But it is incredible how fast things change. My daughter is in a different space to the girls in L'Enfant Femme and as a result so am I.

These girls are incredibly physical. They are bambi-like beautiful, with big eyes and long legs, in the same way young deer are beautiful. But behind that beauty there is  sometimes a fragility. They are unsteady on their legs. But they have also been photographed to have a certain strength of character, the idea that they are who they are and don't mess with them. It's a popular trope in photography, but it's something that is tremendously difficult to do without a hefty does of sentimentality. But that is avoided, leaving pictures that do represent a sense of the person these girls will become, a person occupying a very physical body.

When you are a father you take that physicality for granted. Just as when you are the parent of a five-year-old, you take for granted they will jump on your back or hide under the table. You get used to that idea. The problem is as soon as you get used to it, the child changes and you have to change.

                Aya 8, Bourj El Barajneh Refugee Camp, Beirut Lebanon, 2012

I suppose that starts when a child is born and you come home and all of a sudden you have a child to look after. Not even a child. A baby.

You are thrown into that situation and you simply have to adapt and become a mother, become a father. There are parts of that which come naturally. But there are also parts which don't. You have to invent your new self, you have to grow into it. You have to decide to become a mother or a father. It's easier in some ways for a mother, because the child is part of the body, the hormones completely take over and you are possessed by an unconditional love. But it's a love that changes.

I'm making a guess that this is part of the motivation for Rania Matar, that her photography is a central thing in her life, and it is the way that she identifies as a mother. It's a part of her motherhood. I might be wrong, but when I see those pictures of those loose-limbed girls, I think of how she must feel with her own daughters and how her motherhood must change as her children get older. And I wonder if her photography isn't a way of preserving that relationship, both to herself as a mother, and to that age of child. It's a beautiful age, but it's one that you need to be in to understand - in, or around. And that's where the L'Enfant Femme takes you.

Buy the book here.

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Thanks for the Memories, Gazebook Sicily!

Gazebook was fantastic! If you don't know it, it's a festival that takes place in the small town of Punta Secca on the south ...