Friday, 9 October 2015

Storybook Homes and Cinderella Houses

All you can lose is your heart is KayLynn Deveney's follow-up to the wonderful Private Life of Albert Hastings.

It's a very different book. Where the Albert Hastings book was a touching and very gentle meditation on the rhythms of old age, All you can lose is your heart is a series of images of storybook houses in New Mexico.

Storybook houses were a particular kind of house that were built in the late 1950s in Albuquerque and other areas of New Mexico and Southern California. Imagine Hansel and Gretel houses, designed for the wife, and built in the desert and you're getting there.

The pictures of the homes are quite close, and bring out key design details such as rooftops, eaves and windows. Sometimes you see the original wooden shingles (these are not made anymore due to fire laws), sometimes you see the accompanying yard, the present impinging on the idealised past.

As well as images of houses, there are also fascinating texts including an interview with a local journalist Hank Stuever and Jan Valjean Vandruff, a house designer from the 1950s.

Vandruff (who designed and built a specific kind of storybook houses - 'Cinderella' homes  - in the mid-1950s) tells Deveney that '...every home I ever designed was designed with the people in mind who would live there, but especially the wife/mother. She must have a constant free-flow of sight and communication with her husband and children; hence, the openness of the kitchen to the living room or family room, usually through a wide open window over the kitchen sink.'

In his essay, Hank Stuever goes into social history and details the drift west as homebuyers are 'lured to the business of the atomic age' - he gives a fast-forward history of the area from the ancient people, to '...the Spanish conquistadores, lost and loony... Then come the mission churces and priests, the suffering of the pueblo natives, the usurpings and the revolts,' a history that extends way before the settlement of the east by mad European adventurers and zealots. It's a history that extends to the nuclear age, duck and cover drills, and then we're into Walter White and Breaking Bad.

And there in the middle of it all, in the golden rise of individualism and consumption, the 1950s are the storybook houses. Stuever sees these homes as 'a balm against the stark and constant expanse of New Mexico...', so there is a sense of geography in how and why these homes were built. There is a sense of control in the planning that connects to the landscape, in the 'wife-centered' design that corresponds to all those texts on the panopticon, surveillance and power and control.

It also ties in to othe projects, most famously those of Robert Adams, which takes a more topographical view, and Pictures from Home by Larry Sultan which takes a more personal view.

The story of this fairytale architecture is fascinating, but it feels like there is more that could be done here, that the planning, the design and the social history of these houses could be integrated into a grander whole, that homes are designed for a reason in places for a reason, and that is a story that still needs to be told.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Paul Gaffney: One Day, Three Shoots, One Book

Paul Gaffney will be talking at  Sound, Word and Landscape: Beyond the Visual at the SouthBank Club, Bristol

November 7th: 12:00 - 19:00 

Buy Tickets here

A year ago, Paul Gaffney went to Belgium for Three Days in Tharoul, an event where editor, photographer and publisher Fabrice Wagner invites a photographer, a writer, a bookmaker, a printer, to make a book in the house of Philippe Malcorps, deep in the Belgian countryside.

Last year the photographer was the photographer was Paul Gaffney, the bookmaker was Pierre Liebaert, and I was the writer. 

It was a magical event filled with fine wine, fine beer and fine music. Very special people in a very special setting. A one off, I've never experienced anything quite like it. 

They call it Three Days in Tharoul, but for Paul Gaffney, to photograph, it was more like one day; 24 hours, 3 shoots, And then the editing, and then the printing, and then the making of one book, a unique object that stays in the house. 

It was very precious, but in a good way. I followed Paul around as he photographed, delving into the forest, following the trails where the wild boar roamed, tracing their paths, searching for their dens in the rain and the mist. He'd find a smeuse  and he'd follow it, leaving me behind. And then he'd come back with his images; the first edit - not too sure, the second edit - taking shape, the final edit - shifted and sequenced, back and forth, feeling his way into the story, into the forest, into the boar's den, an example of Arnold's Berleant's...

'... participatory approach to landscape in which the artist, environment and viewer are considered to be in continuous dialogue with each other...'

It was quite something, a way of working where nothing is certain, where the unconscious, the lizard brain comes alive through walking, through photography, through a particular mental state. 

And that's a way of working that he has in his new work, Stray. The book is out soon. Will it be ready in time for Sound, Word and Landscape? I hope so.

Paul Gaffney will be talking at  Sound, Word and Landscape: Beyond the Visual at the SouthBank Club, Bristol

November 7th: 12:00 - 19:00 

Buy Tickets here

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Lines, Paths and Lives Made by Walking

picture by Paul Gaffney

Paul Gaffney will be talking at  Sound, Word and Landscape: Beyond the Visual at the SouthBank Club, Bristol

November 7th: 12:00 - 19:00 

Buy Tickets here

Titles are important. They can say alot or they can say nothing. 

For me, the best-titled book of the last few years is Paul Gaffney's We Make the Path by Walking

It's a title that sucks you in. It's abstract but concrete, instantly comprehensible, an idea that we have all had but not quite followed through. And it's philosophical as well, in a very Buddhist kind of way. We make our lives by how we live them. We should live according to the right path, behaving towards others how we want them to behave to us, with charity and kindness, but with a backbone to stand up to injustice when we see it. We make the path by walking. Indeed.

And of course the title has a more basic meaning, which is even more profound. We understand the title through the lives we lead, the paths we walk, the world we live in. The path makes the world. You can see it written into fields, pastures and hillsides, in the lanes, roads and highways that we walk, ride, and drive along. 

A Line Made by Walking - by Richard Long, 1967

We Make the Path by Walking describes the world around us, how we see it, how we experience it, how we live it. It also describes the history of land art. In that geographical and biographical respect, it ties in with the work of Jem Southam and Susan Derges (also speaking in Bristol on November 7th). It's a title that is influenced by and personifies the work of Hamish Fulton or Richard Long (and you can see Richard Long's exhibition at the Arnolifini in Bristol till November 15th), it summarises the ideas of psychogeography and the basic ways in which we map the world. 

And then there's the pictures in the book. They were made during Gaffney's multiple hikes of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. But they are not so much monuments to the landmarks and people he met on the walks, as a meditation on how we interact with the land when we walk, how we forget the land by being part of it. 

It's meditation and it's pilgrimage and it's terribly effective. Gaffney is a photographer whose work is mystifying. People like it but they are never quite sure why. He's a photographer who articulates the ideas that we have all had, and does it with a depth that most people never reach. 

Paul Gaffney will be talking about these things in Bristol on November 7th. He will also be talking about his new work Stray. It's difficult to make a follow up book to work that is as strong as We Make the Path by Walking. But from the dummy, Stray looks like it will hit the spot. Is the book going to be ready for November? I hope so. 

Paul Gaffney will be talking at  Sound, Word and Landscape: Beyond the Visual at the SouthBank Club, Bristol

November 7th: 12:00 - 19:00 

Buy Tickets here

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

YU: A place that doesn't exist


“Where do you come from?
From Yugoslavia.
Is there any such country?
No, but that’s still where I come from.”

Yu is for Yugoslavia; the country where the book's author (and my wife's parents), Dragana Jurisic was born. The problem is Yugoslavia doesn't exist anymore. It got split up into thousands of tiny pieces (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzogevnia, Kosovo, Montenegro and FYR Macedonia) following wars in which hundreds of thousands of people died, massacres on a scale that ISIS have come nowhere near matching were committed, and a flood of refugees appeared from Europe's own doorstep.

The problem for Jurisic is the place she comes from is now a country called Croatia. But Croatia is a very different place to that where Jurisic was born. Jurisic left Croatia in 1999 after she became disillusioned by the situation she found the new country in, a country that was not Yugoslavia, the place she was born. Yu is her search for the spirit of Yugoslavia, a book made on a journey 'originally conceived as a recreation of a homeland that  was lost, It was a journey in which I would somehow draw a magical circle around the country that was once mine, and in doing so, resurrect it...'

It was a journey Jurisic took after 10 years of exile from her place of birth. She had grown disillusioned with the new Croatia (especially after she discovered her phone was tapped and the police had a thick dossier on her) and left to live in Ireland.

But by 2009, it was time to return. Off Jurisic goes on her journey. But because she feels a stranger in her own land, because what was once home no longer exists, she needs a map of some sort. So she follows the trail taken by Rebecca West for her epic book on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, so adding a literary hook into the narrative pot. I haven't read the book so whether it adds anything I couldn't say.  There is an interweaving of texts but I did feel that the West elements added an unnecessary layer. The voice of Jurisic, smart and snappy and cynical, was enough for me.

The book starts with pictures of 'Yugoslavia'; a map, a sign, another map, and then we are off. It's pictures and text. The words of West in red, the words of Jurisic and the words of the people she meets.


Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The corner where Franz Ferdinand met his end.

The pictures are quiet and melancholic. The words bring death and tragedy. A man picks a dandelion near the spot where a boy is killed by a car, the 'corner where Franz Ferdinand met his end', and there is devastation everywhere. Burnt buildings, old army jackets and, in a muslim cemetery near Sarajevo the shaven heads of men who look like 'professional hitmen' (they're discussing how beautifully the birds are singing).

There are blood-soaked 'fertility stones' in Macedonia, border guards in Kosovo who are hostile to Jurisic's 'fine Serbian name' and a tourist from New Zealand who stuns Jurisic by telling her that 'she envies the Balkan history.'


Govedarov kamen, Macedonia.  It took a long time to find the fertility stone. Through the orchards and vineyards. And there it was. I mounted the rock, amazed to see blood in its crevasse. Last years’ sacrificial blood, with cigarette butts thrown in for good measure. I squatted over its bloody hole and watched the fertile landscape in the distance.

All through the book, Jurisic finds bad sculptures, bad shops and bad memories that linger through into the present. The pictures are  sometimes sunny but nearly always sad, infused by the words that weigh them down. It's a small book but a thoughtful one. Jurisic never rediscovers Yugoslavia, her country of birth, nor does she manage to find peace with what has taken its place. Instead she finds a corpse rotting by the roadside, one that will never be resurrected or buried or forgotten.

Buy the special edition of the book here

The regular edition is sold out.

I remember thinking it all must be some sort of a joke.
I remember being excited and scared at the same time.
I remember how I put all my LP’s into the hallway so they wouldn't get damaged by the crossfire.
I remember that my father and my brother were out that afternoon.
I remember bullets spraying the front door of our building.
I remember hearing what sounded like someone trying to get in.
I remember my mother thinking ‘it's them’ and running towards the door.
I remember grabbing onto her until all my nails broke.
I remember meeting my neighbours for the first time in the basement of our building.
I remember thinking 'pity I met them only now when we are all about to die'.
I remember the building burning above us.
I remember being sad about all those books my parents brought through the syndicate and never read... only consumed by me and the fire.
I remember being pissed off that I would die a virgin.
I remember when they came to pull us out.
I remember how I learned to zigzag run in order to escape sniper's bullets.
I remember taking shelter in the local supermarket.
I remember falling asleep on bags of washing powder, next to a boy I had a secret crush on (he was our local basketball star).
I remember him waking me up at 3 am and whispering: "What can I get you, Madam?”
I remember asking for ice cream and champagne.
I remember captured Yugoslav army soldiers sitting scared shitless opposite from us.
I remember Croatian soldiers handing them box of sweets.
I remember walking into our burned down apartment the following morning.
I remember feeling relief that all the mess was gone and I would not need to clean up my room.
I remember that everything melted except for a big orange gas bottle, laying in red
crackling 'coals', waiting to go off like some post-apocalyptic witches cauldron.
I remember the soles of my red converse shoes melting.
I remember walking out.  

What have they got that I ain't got?

Oh dear, those last few posts (this one and this one) did exhaust me and I feel my courage is sapped a little. I think I need an operation, so I will take a break from this stressful topic and return to more basic photographic subjects for a while.

Perhaps somebody else would like to pursue this. Do be my guest.

But thank you for the support expressed by various people in various ways including Katya Anokhina, Joerg Colberg, Annakarin Quinto, Qianna Mestrich, Stan Banos, Jim Mortram, Lina Pallota, Lewis Bush, David Fathi, David Campbell, Delphine Bedel, Susan Bright, Andrea Copetti, Dayanita Singh, Sohrab Hura, Hester Keijser, Wasma Mansour, ICP, Duckrabbit and John Macpherson, @WomeninPhoto, and Alessia Glaviano.

(Actually that's quite a few people in positions of real, not imaginary power, in photography. It's quite an initial statement that says actually, no, your career won't be harmed by talking about this. )

In this piece for Duckrabbit, John Macpherson says that it is essential to at least try to do something. He mentions this initiative written up by John Edwin Mason at the University of Virginia.

He also says that 'If we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem.' I'm not sure that's entirely true, but what I do think is that very often we (that is people involved in photography) are more part of the problem than we imagine.

Photography is global, it works on social media, it operates on basic perceptions. When somebody clicks a like on Facebook, or retweets something, it sends a message - for me, it counts as support (hence the names mentioned above). Pathetic I know, but that is how social media works.

When somebody sees a photographer standing with a museum director or a magazine editor or a gallery owner, people assume they are best buddies. When they see people are friends on Facebook or they retweet each other, it does the same thing. That has an effect on their perceptions of how the world operates, the power structures within it, and the relationships that connect those power structures. It might not be an accurate perception but it is one that is difficult to get away from. I should know better, but it affects me in exactly that way.

And the problem is that people use that to their advantage. They build reputations based around social media. It creates an image that we believe in. We have a responsibility for who we appear with, who we like, who we say is great. And to a certain extent, if we say somebody is great and they're not, we have a responsibility for what they do that isn't great. That was made abundantly clear to me over the summer (hence this series of posts) by somebody who it had also been made abundantly clear to.

The problem is there is a like button on Facebook, it's all geared towards positivity. But what happens when you want to withdraw that like. It's difficult to do. I'm doing it now.

In these posts there are two things going on. One thing revolves around sexually infused communication on a global scale; a kind of sex spamming. A fair few people are urging me to name the person behind this.

My favourite urger is the anonymous one who posts comments on this blog saying 'name names'. Oh, the irony is too much.

But keeping things polite, you must be fucking joking. I'm not going to name names on this blog. There are hundreds of women who have experienced this man's approaches. There are plenty of institutions and festivals and workshops and magazines who have direct experience of what goes on. I will happily evade responsibility on this one.

The problem goes beyond him though. The problem is nobody feels able to talk about it. Photography is not an environment where the problem is recognised or where people want to recognise it. It is not addressed. I'm talking about the problem on this blog, which is some kind of a thing I guess. But am I addressing it? No.

The problem is addressed in other places however. Why is it that when I worked in Further Education, hugely vulnerable and unworldly 16-year-old Somali girls usually felt able to complain when somebody sexually harassed them. They weren't afraid for their education or their exams or  repurcussions. But in photography, highly educated, secure women don't feel able to. Maybe it's because in FE there is a structure, there are people who will listen, because there are basic codes of conduct and also because a lot of women work in FE who are committed to addressing this problem.

But in photography?

Nope. Barely a tinkle. So the first thing that needs to be done is to help make that environment more receptive to complaints, more open to listening to people, more open to helping people say that they have had a problem. That's a really difficult thing to do

One person who did do it was Katya Anokhina, a Russian photographer. She put her experiences down on Facebook. You can read them here.

Maybe if more women did the same, it might help overcome the sense of powerlessness.

Or maybe not. I will come back to this, but over and out for a while.

Here's some inspirational music.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Is Photography a Bit Cowardly

I put this post about sexual harassment up yesterday and my inbox started pinging which was rather distracting as I had work to do.

I'm rather naive, so what I thought might be a relatively isolated problem is far more widespread than I imagined - a statement which will leave half the readers of this blog snorting in derision.

But everybody who got in touch told me this is exactly what large numbers of young women photographers talk about when they get together. At Arles, at Paris Photo, at Unseen, at Houston and so on.

One woman mentioned her experience of the curator's casting couch, something that doesn't feature in any professional development how-to-get-a-show features that you periodically see. She didn't visit the couch. She didn't get the show.

Another woman extended it and told me that when she's with her artist friends, they play The Curator's Game. This is where they tell their curator stories through role play. It's a bit more creative than your basic casting couch scenario; one where Performance, Installation, Action is all part of the game and pig's heads and clogs completely relate as a normal part of growing up. We're talking major museums here as well.

Then there's the Sex Spammer. I used to think that the screenings were the best attended events at Arles, but it seems that the Sex Spammers Correspondents' Club is even bigger. It starts 'Hello Sexy, let's hook up..' and then never stops until you tell him where to go. And if you don't, then it's 'I imagine fucking you by a river' and it's screen-grab time. Not nice.

The problem is nobody wants to talk about it in public for several reason. One reason is they don't want to be seen as 'difficult'. And the other reason is the possibility it will close off career opportunities. One person said, when you consider that '60% of men in some kind of position of power has engaged in this kind of behaviour, you will understand why people don't want to complain. You'll never work in photography again.'

It is difficult. And it's ironic that in photography, in the arts, where the rhetoric of telling the truth, effecting change, and being honest and raw is so prevalent, that we're not honest enough to recognise this problem or talk about it. There are no structures in place that help women to complain or talk about what happens not just to a few, to the vast majority of young photographers.

And if we can't talk about this, then it renders all that talk about truth, change, honesty, rawness for what it is; empty bullshit. We talk about things that we are comfortable being raw about, but not those that really matter. Which isn't really raw or honest at all.

It's a bit like all those debates about ethics in photography. We can discuss at length the amount of dodging in a shadow, or worry our fingernails to bits about Bruce Gilden or Boris Mikhailov, but when we are faced with something that really matters, it becomes something we simply ignore.

Bullshit to that!Dare I say it, but is photography just a little bit cowardly. Are we all yeller?

My question is what little step can help make it easier to talk about and act against the kind of behaviour mentioned above.

Something really basic might be a simple Equal Opportunities Statement of the kind all major educational establishments have in the UK.

It could be something led by the major organisations (I mentioned World Press Photo, Arles, Aperture, Deutsche Borse, Magnum, National Geographic, VII, Paris Photo, and lets throw all the major museums and galleries in there as well), with an opportunity to complain. As I mentioned, I'm sure many of these organisations already have something in place because they must all be very aware of the dangers of people offering access for sex. That's what it boils down to.

That would be a start.

And given that so, so many women photographers (like 100%) have experienced the things mentioned above, it would good if they could somehow speak out. I'm not sure how though.

But I've worked in various educational establishments over the years, with young people, with vulnerable people, and they've all managed to have policies in place. And many people (not all) who have experienced sexual harassment, racism, or discrimination have been able to complain about it and give others powers to act against it. It's difficult, but it's not that difficult.

This, for example, is lifted from Bath University (I don't work there) equality statement.

Equality principles 

Our equality principles are:- 

1. To maintain an organisational culture and environment in which all staff and students understand fairness, inclusive language, positive attitudes, and the value of equality and diversity, 

2. To remove barriers which may be experienced by members of protected groups including tackling unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation, 

3. To continue to foster good relations between staff, students, contractors, visitors and service users by promoting an inclusive work/study/leisure environment, 

4. To assist staff and students to achieve their potential at work and in their education through relevant policies, practices, equality analyses and monitoring. 

So it's a cut and paste job. And then you add a contact email for complaints.

The alternative is easier of course; just ignore the problem. We've got by so far by ignoring it. But if you do that, can we all please drop the language about photography and the arts being raw and difficult and challenging and effecting change. And drop all talk of ethics and values.

Because if you can't change something as simple as this, even in some little way, if people stay scared of talking about their experiences in public (while talking about them at great length in private) it really is all just so much hypocritical hot air.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Sexual Harassment in Photography

One of the problems mentioned by Sohrab Hura in the previous post was the difficulties experienced by women photographers.

I think one thing it is very easy for men to forget about is how difficult this can be, not just on a financial level, or a being-taken-seriously by editors, or getting paid less because you're a woman, but also how general everyday harassment can affect women photographers - or indeed women everywhere (there was an item on the radio about the effect of sexism and harassment of female surgeons in the UK this morning - it's everywhere and even when it sounds relatively harmless, it's not. It's insidious and damaging for so many reasons).

Photography isn't just a local business anymore. It's international. There are prizes, festivals, and workshops all around the world. And harassment does take place at these events and especially in meetings and communications leading up or coming after these events.

Phony connections, photographs (look how much I can help you - here's a picture of me with this person) and exaggerated influence (I can help you win this prize) might be dangled in front of people, accompanied by a sleazebag 'I scratch your back, you scratch my you-know' vibe. It's a photographic perving and it happens more frequently than we like to imagine, done by more people than we like to imagine.

And of course, it is most often to those who are less confident or powerful in places that might be off the photographic beaten track in some ways. This is especially true in more conservative places where the very act of a woman even wanting to be a photographer is a challenge.

Very often, women don't want to speak up because they think it will bring shame to themself, to  their family or threaten their career or make the rest of the photographic community angry (because if you look at photographs, or on Facebook or Twitter or whatever, we're all friends with each other and support each other).

Speaking out won't make me or most of the people I know angry, even if the person they speak out against is friends on Facebook or whatever. Being friends on Facebook or wherever is  a superficial thing. Being friendly with somebody on social media doesn't mean we would forgive our co-writers/photographers/editors/judges their concealed sleaziness, Similarly just because somebody appears in a photograph with somebody (as in the picture above) doesn't mean they sanction their behaviour or are even that particularly close. But unfortunately, we don't see the world that way.

The problem is women photographers in many places have no outlet for their complaints. They feel like they can't complain themselves; it's too embarrasing, it's career threatening. There's the idea that it might be just 'cultural differences? (no - it wasn't),  and of course there's the family. And at the end of the day, who can you complain to? Especially if the harassment consists of something that isn't illegal, that might appear quite trivial, that is joking or banter or just part of normal human communciation. Except of course it's not.

I'm writing this post because I've had complaints passed on to me from distant lands and I don't really know what to do about them. Maybe just staying quiet is the best thing. Except it's not.

But at the same time, I don't think having trials by internet is the best thing. Trial by internet is a not a good way to do anything for so many reasons.

But there is a problem that exists and it needs to be addressed, especially in a niche of photography that likes to think of itself as so right-minded (we're not in Terry World). There should be some kind of outlet for complaints, a code of conduct if you like -  a little equal opportunities section to tag on to the special events that take place across the globe.

Maybe it's time that photography festivals, awards, workshops, agencies had a basic code of conduct with accessible contacts for complaint so that grievances could be addressed when they happened. So there is at least some kind of forum for complaint.

Maybe it could start with the big guns who run workshops and events as part of their overall profile, all of whom I'm sure have some code of practice in place already; World Press Photo, Arles, Aperture, Deutsche Borse, Magnum, National Geographic, VII, Paris Photo, and filter down?

It might not be much, but it would be a start.