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Looking at Photographs: New series of talks at the RPS

  Sign up to my new series of talks on the History and Theory of Photography . Starts in September and it's perfect if you want an intro...

Monday, 9 August 2021

Summer of Soul

 



I went to the cinema for the first time in an age to see Summer of Soul (Or... when the revolution could not be televised) . It tells the story of the Harlem Soul Festival in 1969. The festival was filmed but, as Woodstock (which took place the same summer) and other festivals all became feature films that were shown to acclaim in cinemas around the world, the film of the Harlem Soul Festival languished in various vaults, basements, and boxes under beds. The footage was never shown, and the Harlem Soul Festival was almost forgotten - except by those who had performed or attended.

The film was rediscovered in Japan of all places and at first nobody knew where it was from. And then they found out and the film was made. 

And what a film it is. It is beautiful, uplifting, filled with emotion that ranges from laugh-out-loud funny to outrage and anger. Most of all though, it is a film of joy and love. Love for life, for music, for the cathartic power of song and dance and freedom of expression that says who you are. The camerawork is amazing, with a focus on faces that reminded me, quite wrongly, of  Dreyer's Joan of Arc.

The crowd shots are incredible too, brilliantly edited into the footage and the commentary (from Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson, Gladys Knight, and visitors to the festival) is filled with a dream-like wonder. One man who visited as a kid, Musa Jackson, tells of going when he was 6 years and old and seeing Marilyn McCoo of The Fifth Dimension appearing on stage and being so beautiful. He says that seeing the film reminded him that this wasn't a dream, that this did happen, that this park filled with beautiful black women, and beautiful black men really did happen. And then he comes back to Marilyn McCoo and how beautiful she was; his first crush. 

And she was. And so was Nina Simone who sang with a power and and an anger - and David Ruffin who had just left the Temptations and sang a joyous My Girl in drainpipes and a frock coat. There was Sly and the Family Stone who came on stage leaving people wondering why they had a white drummer and a ginger guitarist, and why they had a woman playing a trumpet who could sing like a banshee.

One attendee who was in a band with 'four guys in suits' saw them come on stage and think what the hell when they saw their psychedelic hippy dress. By the end of the set, the suits were out the window and it was psychedelic soul wear all the way.

Jesse Jackson talked about being with Martin Luther King on the night he was murdered, and MLK mentioning Take My Hand Precious Lord as the song he wanted sung at that evening's service just before he was shot. And then Mahalia Jackson sang that song (as she had at his funeral), inviting Mavis Staples  to sing along with her. They put their life into that song and the camera caught Mahalia Jackson full face from below as behind them Jesse Jackson was joyous in his appreciation of the life of it all. It was sorrowful but celebratory at the same time. Al Sharpton came on and talked about black people not having therapists or counsellors. Instead they had music, music was the therapy, the catharsis, the outpouring, the expression and that was embedded all through the film.

There was the the fashion, the politics, the religion, the history, the cotton picking, the ridiculously charasmatic MC Tony Lawrence, the showmanship and the poetry, all against a backdrop of black power, black consciousness, the end-of-decade litany of poverty, violence, racism, assassination, drugs, and the moon landing (which nobody at the festival was too impressed by). It's also a history of music and where it comes from, how it travels across continents, how it moves from the fields to the city to the theatre and back again. It is a hidden history come to light, through song and music and dance that says who you are.  In his review, Mark Kermode describes it as making Woodstock and Gimme Shelter '...both look like a footnote to the main event: a festival in the heart of Harlem that was somehow written out of the history books.'

But more than that, Summer of Soul is a beautiful, beautiful film. Go see it, at the cinema if possible, in the front row. And stay till the very, very end or you'll miss Stevie Wonder at his funniest. 





Tuesday, 3 August 2021

Looking at Photographs: New series of talks at the RPS

 


Sign up to my new series of talks on the History and Theory of Photography. Starts in September and it's perfect if you want an introduction to photographic theory or a dip back into some of the images and ideas that have shaped photographic history. 



Are you looking to develop your own practice? Do you want to understand what photography is or can be? This 8-week course will introduce you to the contemporary practice of photography through examples that link the historical, the contemporary, and the theoretical in a way that is dynamic, visual, and accessible to everybody.

Touching on major photographic genres such as landscape photography, portraiture, and conflict, it will look at some of the key photographers and ideas that have shaped how we see the world today and will also present a global, pluralist outlook on both the wonderful expressive and artistic qualities of the photographic image, as well as its darker side.

The lecture series is the first of three standalone eight-week courses. The first will look at the origins of key photographic genres, where they came from, how they affect the images we make and see today, and how those genres are influenced by different global theories and practices.

The second will look at how social and cultural change in the post-war era influenced photographic practice around the world, and the third will look at specific areas of interest within photography, from representation of the body to the family album and how these ideas can be communicated through different global photographic media.

This series of lectures is ideal for anybody who wants to learn how images are made and understood. It will enrich your understanding of the multiple ways in which images can be read, and will also add layers to how you make images and how you communicate those images to a broader audience. If you have never studied photography, these lectures will give you a fast track introduction to the history of photography and its theory. And if you have studied photography, it will refresh old  ideas and present new possibilities that will refresh your understanding of what photography is and what it can be.


Sign up here.


Africa in the Photobook

 


I'm looking forward to running another series of lectures at the RPS on history and theory (more details are here). It's a great course if you're looking for an introduction to photographic history and theory or you've been away from studying and miss it. 


The images are from one of the lectures on the last course on Africa in the Photobook. This is a phenomenal website run by Ben Krewinkel on which there are photobooks that exemplify the power of photography to dominate peoples and influence opinion. 

The first image above is from Africa Occidental and came around the time of the Berlin Conference. It shows a flag on the bank of a river near Mozambique. It was pictures like this that helped determine the border of present-day Mozambique. It's the hinterland doctrine -  if you planted your flag, you had a claim. And there's the photograph to prove it. That is the basic way photography works and that's what you see over and over in the books Krewinkel presented.






The one above show early African elites. This example is form a time when Europeans needed people who spoke the language and had influence over local people, at a time before they had full influence over the colonised country. 

As soon as the colonisers had more complete control, this form of representation ended - until African nations gained independence and the first step of independence photobooks was to show Africans with education, with responsibility, helping themselves. Visibility mattered then, just as it matters now.





This is the heroism of poor white settlers  breaking the land in Angola. It's the heroism of settlement if you like. And the rationale for the need to settle land (that was already settled) comes from the kind of photobook featured below.




This was the anthropological photobook. There was the classification by hair, body type, tribe, whatever suited the colonial narrative to diminish, divide, and conquer. This kind of categorisation by ethnic group tied in with eugenics, with ideas of evolution, with ideas of genetic superiority - and helped justify the heroic settlement seen in the image above. By settling the land, you're saving the land. 





The colonial project had to be sold to European populations, and so books of discovery and adventure were made, of the white man going where no man had gone before. 



But at the same time, there was an emphasis on the brave warrior, this time in Congo. Here the idea is at least partly to justify military presence and action, and to riff off the idea of the necessity of the European civilising influence.



Tagged onto that idea was the idea that ultimately, the European was in the land of the savages. Hence the emphasis on cruel practices such as cannibalism. And if there wasn't any cannibalism and no photographs existed. Well, drawings could do the job just as well as in the image above. 



There were missionary books to show the civilising influence of the christian mission through the classic before and after image. It's the dumbest thing going the before and after picture, but unfortunately it is very simple and very effective. 





And there was more tourism, where modern cityscapes and industries were mixed with semi-ethnographic racist depictions of native life as colourful natives, as a tourist attraction. First they are dangerous warriors, then they are colourful natives (and further afield, that was exactly the process that transformed places like Bali into a paradise island)



There are books of conflict, the above shows pictures of Italian atrocities in the conquest of Libya. But you can see Brits burning villages, or other Europeans using natives from other countries as the final years of land-grabbing and colonisation took place. 




And then as independence gathered pace, unsympathetic reportage begins to show the avowedly racitst nature of white presence in Africa, in South Africa in particular.



Independence photobooks show the capability of the non-European to work in science, in medicine, in education. Visibility matters as mentioned already.



There is celebration as colonial flags come down, and independent flags go up.


And there are new presidents, new nations, and new forms of progress.




Again, in the image above and below, it's black doctors and nurses, a salve to the belittlement by absence of representation of the colonial years when white doctors would be shown saving black babies (and that is still the trope that raises the money in British fund-raising). 



There is still a kind of internalised colonial rule as very few African photographers get mentioned (and you can look at the examples in Africa in the Photobook and see how rarely African photographers are mentioned in some countries).



There are political crossovers, as different visual influences come to play. There are socialist influences with some of these photographers mentioned above trained by Czech photographers.





And then you get (just as you did with the missionary books) before and after pictures. Before colonialism and after colonialism.




There are books dedicated to leaders, some of which verge on the personality cult.


And as photobooks are given out as gifts, there come to be family resemblances between the photobooks made in different countries.




Key tropes develop and are used for multiple ends. So here images of hair are seen as a representation of independence from European beauty standards. 



But at the same time, in other places, how you wore your hair could also be used as a system of control, with hair length or style used to police the behaviour of people (and maybe that should read women).



There were atrocity books.





And in Mozambique, Frelimo trained its soldiers as photographers. The result was there were few images of conflict and the photographers were not named. Who needs a name if everyone is a photographer.



An Africa in the Photobook publication with contributions from African photographers and academics was in the pipeline, but now might be on ice. I do hope it comes along because there was nothing quite as concrete as the example of how photography and its absence can be used to control, influence, and demean.


To see more images from africainthephotobook go here. 


To see the RPS course, go here. 

Monday, 2 August 2021

Viet Thanh Nguyen and Lee Child

 

I read a couple of book on our short holiday on a Welsh Campsite. 

One was The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen. The other was Nothing to Lose by Lee Child

Both featured flawed protagonists who had undergone some kind of trauma (determined in the case of Vo Danh from The Committed, undetermined in Jack Reacher's case - maybe because I haven't read enough of Lee Child's  books).

Both have a French parent. 

Both are conflicted about their pasts and the way they weave into national histories - in the case of Vo Danh, it's the history of Vietnam, France, and the USA. In the case of Jack Reacher, it's the case of US involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, everywhere. Reacher says there hasn't been a worthwhile war since 1945

Vo Danh questions a simplified polarised view of the Vietnam conflict, but is also scathing about French colonial involvement in the country, with long set pieces that focus on the narrowness and hypocrisy of the French mind.

Reacher questions Bush's America and the evangelical right. He is scathing about that side of the USA

Both protagonists are kind to women at some point. 

Both protagonists have strong pain thresholds. Both books have a big violent ending.

Nguyen quotes Fanon, Cesaire, de Beauvoir and Sartre. Child quotes Dick Cheney, and Revelations

Both end in bloodshed. The protagonist gets out in both cases. I'm not sure which one has the more absurd plot, or whether that matters.

The differences? Jack Reacher's pretty sure of himself, Vo Danh categorically isn't. One book is literary fiction, the other is genre fiction. But there's such a crossover, I wonder if Nguyen hasn't been sneaking up on the bargain shelf at his local charity shop to pick up dog-eared Lee Child books.  And possibly the same goes for Lee Child when he was still writing. They're not that far apart in the big scheme of things. Not much is.


Thursday, 29 July 2021

The great pictures of Ernest Hemingway

 



Ernest Hemingway recovering from injuries at the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, Italy, 1918.


Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.


I really enjoyed watching Ken Burns' Hemingway series. It's like watching a man car crash from being a great and visionary writer (the short stories are coming from the library soon... but otherwise no I haven't) to a gaslighting bore of a man wallowing amidst the carcasses of his vomit strewn legend.





Ken Burns interview on Martha Gelhorn


'Yes. I think Martha Gellhorn threatened him fundamentally. His writing begins to decline. He sort of goes into his shell, he doesn’t want to go out. She wants to go out and cover the world, particularly the greatest cataclysm in human history. He’s not so sure, having been through the first world war and having done the Spanish civil war. And so I think he’s terrified of her, maybe emasculated. I think she needed her independence. As she said, she wanted her name back. She thought he could be a partner and he had pitiably no ability to be a partner.'



As he got older, he didn't take kindly to those more talented than him - he ended up flying to Europe to cover the Second World War as a journalist, leaving Gelhorn  (who was always going to go, who basically shamed him into going) to take a boat.






One of the most enjoyable features of the series was Ken Burns' use of still images. 


Here's what he said about these still images.


Your films are particularly celebrated for their use of archive photography. What is it about the still image that is rendered powerful in moving pictures?


'My father was an anthropologist and he was also an amateur still photographer. I wanted to become a film-maker and I ended up going to a college where all of my teachers were social documentary, still photographers. And so the still photograph is a kind of DNA of my work. I look at a photograph as if it is the arresting of an alive moment. So as I film it, I want to take that feature film-maker’s sensibility and each photograph is a master shot that has a long shot, a medium shot, a close-up, a tilt, a pan, a reveal detail. In the opening of The Civil War you tilt from an innocent boy’s face down to his waistband stuffed with two revolvers. That spoke a million words.'



So the still image becomes something different. It's lingered on, there is movement (on the screen at least) as different elements are highlighted. That creates a dynamism of reading where one lingers over the separate elements of face, gaze, gesture, body, environment, relationships. 


There's one image at the end where Hemingway has collapsed into his injury-raddled alcoholism and his eyes stare out, a shell of a man. It's an image that runs into the clip of him giving his stilted scripted delivery to a movie camera, the pain of his end rubbing raw on the screen.


It's basic montage, a way of bringing drama out of a still image of everyday life, of combining, repeating, and layering so that the still image stretches out into time. In the documentary everything is considered, and everything matters - and that extends to the still images, and these are then 'altered' through scale and movement in a very quiet kind of Tretyakov photomontage where the cutting and the scaling are gradual and slow and performed through movement of the photographs on the screen. These photographs are so full of content, so naturalistic, and so powerful, there is an elevated drama to them, a drama that is added by the connections made by the photographs' movements across the screen. Eyes, hands, gestures, bodies, emotions are connected through this movement and so these still images look like cinema - really good social realist cinema. 


They made me contrast them with staged  photographs where a similar thing happens, where everything is considered, everything matters, where connections are sought to be made between different elements. But somehow they never look like the images chosen in this kind of documentary - mostly because they are not. They definitively aren't that idea of the 'great photograph' that connects to the time when Hemingway was at his writing heights, and that we (or I) still have moments of romantic yearnings for. These staged images look like staged images that are trying to look like cinema in a way that comes from an idea of cinema that comes from an earlier staged photography.


It makes me wonder what a great picture is and how photographs loop across time and link into different visual and cultural histories and how we read that and intuitively understand it at a really fundamental level without necessarily being consciously aware of it. 


And the more traffic a particular loop receives, the more fatigued we get with a particular idea of what an image is or can be. It's not about being a great image anymore because that very idea is stuck in a distant past, it's about being interesting and engaging, and many other things I'm not quite sure of. But interesting, yes. And the images in Hemingway were interesting, so where am I? I'm not quite sure.






Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Anthony Luvera: "I don't think it's enough just to have good intentions."

I've been a bit slow with the blog to say the least, but more because I've been concerned with lots of evening teaching, talks, classes and so on - including talks with the RPS on the history and theory of photography. I'll be starting another one in September with the RPS, so if you are interested do watch out for updates.

One of these talks was on collaboration by Anthony Luvera. Collaboration is big in Anthony's practice, as is the idea of participation. What I really like about him is how everything posed as more of a question, as something to consider, as a thought - rather as some kind of commandment written in stone.  (Here's to the coming global backlash against the tyranny of Ibrahimical thinking. I'm keeping my fingers crossed)

That matters for people like me who like some distinctly uncollaborative work that relies on the grand spectacle of photography. I love the grand spectacle of photography, the visual statement that ties in to even grander biblical and archetypal narratives in which the individual is subsumed into some photographic Cecil B. de Mille epic of strain, effort, and suffering. That is at least some of the point of photography. 

But another point of photography is to be better at it, to slow down, step back and think about how it operates in history, in archives, in museum, in public consciousness. And it doesn't take much slowing down to get thinking. 

In his talk, Anthony pointed the way. It's important because it can make you tell better stories, it can make you go beneath the surface, and, most importantly, it can make you a better person. 

It can also make you bullshit-detect when people use the word collaborative for projects which really, really aren't. Oh they so aren't...

So there. The first question posed by Anthony was...


''What is collaboration?

Who is it for?

 -  The people taking part?

 -  The artist?

 -  The organisation commissioning the work?

Is the artist seducing the participant for the purpose of the work. 

Is the collaboration empowering, giving voice, giving confidence

What part do good intentions play?

Whose voice is being amplified ? How does the artist profit? How can the outcome be measured or described?

What is the intention of the artist? How does context affect understanding?"

That's what he asked. Then he went on to state... 

"I do not undertake the work to enrich the participants - though my work has been framed in that way by organisations.

It's not about what is in the image - it is about what happens to the image?

When work is disseminated publicly, outside the group, it must be seen as a representation of identity, not a link to reality. 

Good intentions can mask the inequalities between the artist and the participant. 

There is an unachievable ideal. That ideal is to put power into the hands of the powerless.

You cannot underestimate the importance of real feedback." 

 So there are some ideas to wrestle with as we try to justify the pictures we make. Or perhaps we don't need to wrestle with them, just consider them. They are not oppositional polarities. Very little is and perhaps that non-polarised consideration takes us to a more considered, constructive, happy place.


In his own work, Luvera looked at how historically the representation of lbgtq+ has been essentially negative and regularly portrayed through reductive stereotypes

His project, Not going shopping, looked at how people use photography, how they experience their identity and how that identity is represented, in particular how that representation is ignored in museums and archives. The question then becomes how can that representation be embedded in museums and archives, how can it become a part of broader visual memory banks. 

This project looked at the politics of pride, the politics of speaking out, the politics of song, the idea of  of identity and photographs in the photobooth - the idea of space and the closet like nature of the photobooth.

All of this linked to anthropological and identity formation in historical images - the exoticisation through photography and how that can be questioned and redirected. And ultimately the work got bought by the city  museum - so feeding back into early visits on how queer people were represented and not represented. And that is supremely neat tie back.





Queers read this pamphlet 

AN ARMY OF LOVERS CANNOT LOSE

   Being queer is not about a right to privacy; it is about
the freedom to be public, to just be who we are.  It means
everyday fighting oppression; homophobia, racism, misogyny,
the bigotry of religious hypocrites and our own self-hatred.
(We have been carefully taught to hate ourselves.)  And now
of course it means fighting a virus as well, and all those
homo-haters who are using AIDS to wipe us off the face of
the earth.  Being queer means leading a different sort of

                                                            2


life.  It's not about the mainstream, profit-margins,
patriotism, patriarchy or being assimilated. It's not about
executive directors, privilege and elitism.  It's about
being on the margins, defining ourselves; it's about gender-
fuck and secrets, what's beneath the belt and deep inside
the heart; it's about the night.  Being queer is "grass
roots" because we know that everyone of us, every body,
every cunt, every heart and ass and dick is a world of
pleasure waiting to be explored.  Everyone of us is a world
of infinite possibility. We are an army because we have to
be.  We are an army because we are so powerful.  (We have so
much to fight for; we are the most precious of endangered
species.)  And we are an army of lovers because it is we who
know what love is.  Desire and lust, too.  We invented them.
We come out of the closet, face the rejection of society,
face firing squads, just to love each other! Every time we
fuck, we win.  We must fight for ourselves (no one else is
going to do it) and if in that process we bring greater
freedom to the world at large then great.  (We've given so
much to that world:  democracy, all the arts, the concepts
of love, philosophy and the soul, to name just a few gifts
from our ancient Greek Dykes, Fags.)  Let's make every space
a Lesbian and Gay space. Every street a part of our sexual
geography. A city of yearning and then total satisfaction.
A city and a country where we can be safe and free and more.
We must look at our lives and see what's best in them, see
what is queer and what is straight and let that straight
chaff fall away!  Remember there is so, so little time.  And
I want to be a lover of each and every one of you.  Next
year, we march naked.


Wednesday, 16 June 2021

How to start a project by Nicholas Polli

 


I'm enjoying writing reviews of self-published books for Source Magazine. The latest set included Nicholas Polli's When Strawberries Grow on Trees, I Will Kiss U - which might just be my favourite lockdown projects. 

Anyway, it's got this great bit of text at the back that details how the project started.


‘One day a girl texted me. “Hey, how are you? What are you doing?”

What was I doing??? Could I ever text back? “Nothing. I feel like shit and I am lying naked on the bed while eating some pasta with tomato sauce, which stained the bed sheets too, but who cares… and right now I was simply here, doing nothing.”

No, that could not be the answer, and so I said. “Nothing much. I am taking some photographs for personal project…”

“Oh, cool. I want to see them then!”

Shit. At that point, I had to do it… I gathered some things, arranged them somehow, and took a picture. I put it on the computer and sent them to her.’


I kind of love that and the idea that things just happen by accident, that not everything is carefully calculated, scheduled, and timetabled. That sometimes, just sometimes, chaos rules, and something vibrant and funny and with soul can emerge from the well of isolation and loneliness and anxiety. 

Which means a thousand more people will be using this as a foundation for their own ill-thought out, half-assed narcissistic projects on absolutely nothing. Please don't. It works here because the self-obsession fits the occasion, indeed is determined by the occasion.