Thursday, 29 January 2015

Faces, Father Ted and Krass Clement

picture by Larry Sultan

I chose a couple of favourite books for Paper Journal yesterday. One was Pictures from Home, the Larry Sultan epic that combines text and images to tell a complex story. It's a book that has fantastic photographs but uses the text to tell a far greater tale than images alone would convey. This is part of what I wrote.
The text comes via Sultan, his mother and his father so there are three voices; they’re not the same voice. They argue and quibble and dispute over who and what this family is. Words are had about fidelity, career, photography and love, all against a background of images that are repeatedly brought into question. Where do these pictures come from, why do we make them, what does it mean – this family, this photography, this love?

The other was Krass Clement's Drum. This doesn't have words but it does have fantastic pictures. The face tells the story, the face of one man. This is from the post.

picture by Krass Clement

This man sits alone, his eyes cast into the middle distance; to the floor, the ceiling, to anywhere they won’t be met. His back turns this way and that, always away and he stares rheumy-eyed into places where his gaze won’t be found. It’s the most cinematic of books and it has a leading man who is a study of loneliness. It’s heartbreaking.

So two books where Sultan and Clement are telling stories where people, the face and different forms of narrative structure power the viewer through their books. They are both single-minded in what they do and whenever anyone looks at the pictures in these books, they cannot take their eyes off them.

They are superb pictures. And Sultan and Clement knew it when they made them. They were/are the real deal. They know what works and they don't pfaff about with meaningless fluff. Their pictures get straight to the heart of things.

That's not always the case with photobooks. You can hear somebody tell stories about the people and places in their photographs and then show their pictures and there's nothing there. Somehow the story (which is so central to the talking about the photographs) gets lost in the showing. As though somehow including some text or other context will detract from the power of the pictures... "I let my pictures do the talking" must be one of the most heartbreaking sentences every heard. Not because this isn't possible, but because most of the time it should be "I let my pictures do the mumbling." I'm a bit of a mumbler so I know exactly where I'm coming from with this one.

But sometimes the power's not in the pictures. It's in the story that's the thing, the text and the captions and the overall yarn. That might not be the case with Krass Clement but it is with Larry Sultan, Sultan has his amazing large format photographs in pictures from home but it's the words of his mother and father, it's the mix of images and the welding of them into a geographical, social and family history that makes it so great.

Anyway, by sheer coincidence, just as the Paper Journal piece came out, this popped up via Petapixel. It was a story about an  Eyetracking device that shows what people look at in pictures.

The general idea is that professional photographers take better pictures than amateurs. These are some of the findings.

— People look first at faces. (This echoes other eyetracking studies I have directed for The Poynter Institute for Media Studies.) And they are interested in the relationships between people in the frame, often looking back and forth, between faces and interactions.

— The importance of “storytelling” to photography was mentioned by nearly every subject in the exit interviews.

 “A photo needs to tell me a story, versus just capturing a scene,” said a 44-year-old female participant.

“If (a photo) draws you in, it’s connected to a story and it makes you want to learn more, that’s important,” said a 41-year-old male participant.

So it's basic stuff and the key idea here is that if you hire a proper photographer, more people will look at your magazine, your brochure, your website, the photographs will hook viewers into the story, the product, the sale. So the aim is very much at selling photojournalism and commercial photography.

I know that when we talk about high-end photography, about prints, exhibitions and books, we're supposed to pretend that somehow our aesthetic capabilities rise way above this level.

But I wonder. The Larry Sultan and Krass Clement books hit all those spots; the people, the faces, the stories. And they hit them square on without flinching.

Drum works so well because of the face of that lonely man (is he lonely? I don't know, he might not be in real life, but he is in the pages of Drum). Clement is picking a face on which there is a life written, a face that is going to pierce through our cynical eyes. It's a rare skill that ability both to read faces and read how they are going to touch the viewer because these faces are not random, they are not just any old faces, they are faces that have been cast, that are one in a hundred or one in a thousand. There aren't that many of them. And reading these faces, finding these faces, is a skill that the real greats of art and photography have. It's the reason why we remember an Arbus or an Avedon or a Sander or a Klein.

That ability to read faces and understand how they work might be a bit more sophisticated than what the Eyetracking Device records, but it is still something quite hard-wired and basic. I wonder if sometimes we try to look away from the absolutely bleeding obvious and try to complicate things through wilful indirection and vagueness.

Or pretension. Because yesterday Federica Chiocchetti's fine interview with Sean O'Hagan was up on the brand spanking new 1000 Words website, where he repeated Nan Goldin's great quote.

“Fucking postmodern and gender theory. I mean, who gives a shit? People made all that crap up to get jobs in universities.” I think it kills the work for people who are not from that academic background. That kind of writing is exclusive by its nature. It often makes things less clear.

I know that it's brutal and that we should embrace all ideas and even give Judith Butler a go or two before losing the will to live, but at the same time, yes exactly. We shouldn't shut anything out, but things that 'makes things less clear', or things that have an excellent and complex point to make but take 500 words and the densest of prose to make to make that point. In the visual arts. Which is full of visual people. Isn't it sometimes designed just to intimidate and scare. And doesn't it still intimidate and scare.

And valuing all that theory above more interesting, entertaining and accessible ideas that attach to art, TV, film and literature - the powerhouses of creativity, education and information exchange, which is where we want to be? Is that the hierarchy we should have? In a visual art where people go into the visual for a reason.

I'm not saying that we should value the complete series of Father Ted above the works of Merleau-Ponty and Lacan, but... oh no, wait a minute. I am saying that. Oh dear, there's no way out. Better end it here.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Country Fictions/Country Hell

I like Country Fictions by Juan Aballe. It's published by Fuego Books, a Spanish publishing house based in Madrid, and it's an elegant green cloth-backed volume, one picture pasted on the cover. This pastoral cover image looks like a painting, it's all mountains, hills and fields with an idyllic-looking farmhouses in the foreground.

So there's the Country and there are the Fictions. We're straight into what we, as city dwellers, project onto country living, that pastoral idyll.

There are sheep on hills and smoky hilltops, a caravan where a woman who has just washed her hair sits drawing on a smoke; she's found the patch of sun and dappled light streams in through the vines growing above.

There are more caravans and lean-tos and teepees, mattresses spread out on floors where escapees from the city (or not from the city) flake out and rest their tired limbs. and at the end of the book a white haired woman looks out over a wooded valley, white shawl and felt shoes hinting at the nip in the air.

And then comes the poem. It begins like this:

We search for years, 
we imagine our future in better places
where we could start all over.

Maybe there was once a countryside, 
a village with green and fertile meadows,
Now we return to find only
the remains of a disused scenery.

We search for beauty in a landscape
where we do not belong,
where time seems to have stopped still.

We live our own transition,
our fragile utopia,
trying to understand,
what we are doing here,
and who we are.

So there's the scene set and we can project that onto the people - but that is all we can do. Looking at the pictures (which are really good. It's a nice edit) I can try to understand what these people are doing there - which ones are damaged or disturbed or lonely or shy. Who has found a refuge, who has escaped, who has left behind. We can make our guesses, but guesses are only guesses.

Maybe that's half the fun?

Buy Country Fictions here. 

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Best Dog Picture of All Time

The Best Dog Picture of All Time? This one's easy. No competition whatsoever.

Daido Moriyama's Stray Dog. Looks left, looks right, looks whichever way you want it to.

A more dog like dog it is hard to imagine. Even though it's not really that dog-like. How does that work?

Monday, 26 January 2015

Best Neck Photographs

Leon Levinstein.

It's all a bit much this start of the year. All the lists have ended and there's the serious threat of nuance and subtlety getting in the way of everything.

So with that in mind, I think it's time to get a basic set of ranking blog posts up. Not best of, but best.

Starting off with this one. Best necks. Sometimes you need the daft simplicity of a simple list.

Leon Levinstein's is my favourite neck but here are few other challengers.

Albert Watson

Richard Avedon

Shomei Tomatsu

Man Ray

Richard Avedon

Leon Borenszstein

Alfred Stieglitz

Thanks to Sam Anthony, Eugenie Shinkle, Tadhg Devlin, Scot Sothern, Alejandro Acin, Kirsty Mackay, Andy Adams, Brian David Stevens, Christophe Collas, Martin Toft, Stefan Vanthuyne, Mark Page, Claude Lemaire and Simon Anstey for contributing.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

The Eichmann Show and Entertainment: "Nazis. I hate these guys."

pictures from Life Magazine

I watched The Eichmann Show on BBC the other night. It told the story of the trial in 1961 of Adolf Eichmann (the SS commander who oversaw the deportation and transport of Jews to Concentration Camps in Eastern Europe), and how this trial came to be shown on television screens around the world and became the first globally watched documentary, one that helped transform the way in which the Holocaust and Survivors were regarded.

The acting was fantastic, it was beautifully shot and it recognised the power of the story it was telling. So original footage of the trial, and original testimony was integrated wonderfully into the drama.

There was a focus on the face of Eichmann, but also with how you can show this trial of horrendous events in a way to touch the hearts of people around the world (people who during the early stages of the trial were more interested in the Bay of Pigs fiasco and Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man in space).

This was a telling exchange, when a witness collapses during the trial and Milton Fruchtmann asks the director Leo Hurwitz, who has the cameras focussed on the blank-faced Eichmann if he got the shot. Hurwits, however, is obsessed by Eichmann . The camera's are on the SS man as Hurwitz waits for an emotional response to show he's human.

Milton: Did you get it?

Leo: We got almost everything but I think we missed the collapse.

Milton: Missed the collapse. Jesus, Leo.

Leo: We got a couple of seconds of it, but it's impossible to anticipate something like that. 

Milton: That was a stand-out moment, Leo, like someone crying out in the auditorium. Talking points. Human drama.

Leo: That's a real damaged life in there, not a fucking TV show. 

Milton: And a fucking TV show. AND. AND.

I think the exchange says something we could sometimes remember about documentary. Even with the grimmest of subjects, it needs to be engaging. It needs to be a TV show.

Watch the Eichmann show here if you're in the UK.

If you're not in the UK, Congratulations, have some nice food or go for a decent coffee or sit in the sun. Do something nice like that instead.

And here's my review of Wolf Hall, which showed on BBC TV last night; like Stanley! Flat.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Don't be a Crybaby because you are Rich

image by Diane Arbus

There was a little tizzy in the UK when the Shadow Culture Minister Chris Bryant said that the arts needed more diversity, that they were too limited in terms of class and were becoming dominated by public schoolboys and schoolgirls. Splendid though they might be, James Blunt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne or Helena Bonham Carter are not exactly the salt of the earth.

Cumberbatch and Bonham Carter have complained about prejudice  against toffs in the movie business the past, and they are now joined by Blunt who wrote this letter complaining about class bias. Blunt's letter is rather lacking in  awareness and possibly confirms the point that the Deputy was making.

I don't know if this applies to Blunt, but it applies to a lot of wealthy people I know. They have a blindness to their privilege. They have a sense of entitlement that is beyond the self-deceptive. I have friends who send their children to a very expensive private school (one of the best schools in Bath for schoolkids to buy drugs or pick up a teacher in town - if news reports from the last few years are anything to go by, but oh wait, they got a court order that told the local newspaper not to report the stories in full) at a cost of around £20,000 a child. With no irony, the parents insist "they're not getting any advantage. It's just like a normal school" ad infinitum. Well if it's just like a normal school, why don't you send your kids to a normal school and give the £40,000 you save to me, you ninnies. It will definitely make a difference in my pocket.

That sense of entitlement is everywhere. Including photography. Photography is creative. It's part of the arts where the investment is in the long term, where support from family, friends and networks is essential because to a large extent it's not what you do, it's how long you do it for. You need time to be successful and much as we do it for love, love doesn't pay the bills. A little money, no, a lot of money goes a long way.

If you can afford not to have a day job, if you never have to worry about rent, or paying the gas bill, or fixing the car (if you have a car), it makes a huge difference. If you can afford countless rolls of film, or memory cards, or lighting, or the new cameras, or a macbook or two, and the printing, and the publishing and the framing and the showing  - both at the start when the work is shit and at the end when it really isn't - all this makes a huge difference.

As does having the transport to get you somewhere, the luxury of time off a job to do a shoot, the luxury of not even having a job and just being able to pfaff around the world doing essentially pointless stuff for pointless money - simply as part of that vital learning exercise of learning what isn't pointless.

Then there are exhibitions to see, people to meet, competitions to enter, reviews to attend, and festivals and workshops and social networking and making contacts, and having the confidence to make contacts - which, in the UK at least, is a large part of what you are paying your £20,000 a year (non-boarding) for. To make contacts with other people like you who are going to help you out at some point in the future.

And I haven't even mentioned college! I believe in education which is convenient because I have a part-time job at a university, but how do people afford it? Answer is most of them don't.

The problem is people who have those privileges and can take all this stuff for granted don't really see them as priveleges because they don't understand what it is not to have them. That is how limited the imaginations of the entitled are. As a result a large part of the world gets shut out and, as the arts get increasingly populated by the privately educated, the possibility of getting a foot in the door of what is essentially a club reserved for the elite becomes more and more difficult. Shutting out more and more parts of the world.

And as it becomes more and more difficult so the photographic voice becomes more and more limited. It becomes irrelevant. I wonder if that isn't happening a little bit now, what with all this and that and everything.

What's the solution. I had a conversation with Francis Hodgson ( who you can see in, er, conversation with Mishka Henner tomorrow night in London. Has to be good.) before Christmas and he wondered how it would affect people's reading of images if they knew the photographer's background, especially if it's a particularly grand background. When it's working class like Bailey or McCullin, it only adds to the allure, what happens when the Chelsea boot is on the other Chelsea foot so to speak.

When the work is of the highest class, I don't think it matters. Who cares where Arbus, or McCullin or Moriyama come from. Nobody does Arbus, McCullin and Moriyama better than Arbus. McCullin and Moriyama. Top or bottom of the heap it doesn't matter, because you can be sure there way of thinking and looking at the world is more than simplistic - and is part of their work.

But if it's in the middle, not-quite-there photography which is what most everything is these days. Then the limitedness of outlook and the lack of depth might be down to something.

So there we go, How about that?  Former Hedge Fund worker, Peerage-in-Waiting, Finishing School in Switzerland, Daddy owns an Oil Well, Daddy has a Ministry, Oligarch Baby, It would be a bit mean though, a bit classist. Best focus on the work. The work's what matters. Money doesn't make a difference. Talent will out. Of course it will.

Read Francis Hodgson on the Murder of Britain's Photographic Heritage

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Sex, Cameras, Unlawful Meetings: The Night Lights of Lina Hashim


I really like Lina Hashim's Unlawful Meetings project (one of several interesing works that she has completed or has in the pipelin). Unlawful Meetings shows pictures of young (muslim) people doing what young people do around the world - unless someone stops them. It was made into a lovely little book (see below) and the images were also shown in a grid formation. These are surveillance pictures (using a mix of night vision, long lenses and phone cameras), showing what goes on beneath the surface, beneath the rhetoric. It's voyeurism alright; Merry Alpern meets Kohei Yoshiyuki, but with a point to it.

The idea of the project is quite simple really. It's making visible that is supposed to remain invisible, it's about making a documentary project that, in the most direct manner possible, gets to the point of what it is like to be a human, something Hashim, whose 36-year life history is a phenomenal story of hope, conflict and despair all wrapped in one. I decided to email Hashim a few questions about the project. This is her reply.

'The project started actually because of  my interest in  the phenomena of Unlawful Meetings, The word in Arabic is Zināʾ (زِنَاء) And it is an Islamic law concerning unlawful sexual relations between Muslims who are not married to one another. It includes extramarital sex and premarital sex, such as adultery (consensual sexual relations outside marriage), fornication (consensual sexual intercourse between two unmarried persons), and homosexuality (consensual sexual relations between same-sex partners). Traditionally, a married or unmarried Muslim male could have sex outside marriage with a non-Muslim slave, with or without her consent, and such sex was not considered zina. (I'm keeping this part for another project).

It's obviously very difficult not to fall in love and commit unlawful sex. I remember myself taking part in these Unlawful Meetings in my teenage life.

The couples meet in public spaces to avoid being raped or abused, in places outside of the city, far away from crowded places and mostly near the sea.  But in public spaces they use cars as a wall to make a private space where they can be alone, and when its gets more intimate inside the cars they turn Arabic music very high so no one can hear them. These are my Observations!

Then I began visiting the spaces I found at the beginning, ( the sea, a parking lot and empty places outside town) and as I photographed so I discovered more places. I never asked the people I photographed and they never noticed me photographing them.

I made the box book as you know, and made a big grid with 77 photos taken in different places and times. The grid shows places and meetings, some times my shadow. Some are taken with a night vision camera and others during daylight. I made them in back and white to leave the subjects and places more anonymous.'

Read more about Lina Hashim and Unlawful Meetings here.