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Deaths that aren't shown

Ginnalyn Soriano weeps over the body of her elder brother Julius, who allegedly fought back and was killed by police during what they sai...

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Thought For the Day: The Civil Contract of Photography

'When the citizen's gaze is diverted from photographs, and direccted by the field of vision created by the ruling power, where, in facct, there are no images, individuals abandon their commitment to the contract and effectively colloaborate with the ruling power even whent they may be explicitly opposed to its actions.'

Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

The story has to be real, felt, not contrived...

'She said the story had to be real—whatever that meant for her. I think it meant not contrived, not incidental or gratuitous: it had to be deeply felt, emotionally important. She told a student of hers that the story he had written was too clever—don’t try to be clever, she said. She typeset one of her own stories in hot metal on a Linotype machine, and after three days of work threw all the slugs back into the melting pot, because, she said, the story was “false.”'

Lydia Davis, from the introduction to "A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories,"  by Lucia Berlin, my current read.

I like that, the idea of emotionally real and not contrived and not being too clever because then you end up looking false. And so not clever at all. Soul is the goal.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Format: Soul is the Goal

Carolilne Furneaux

 “I want the story to exist somewhere so that in a way it’s still happening … I don’t want it to be shut up in the book and put away – oh well, that’s what happened.”

I love that quote from Alice Munro. I love that idea of the sanctity of the story and the ways in which its inherent storiness can be destroyed by the vehicle in which it appears - be that a novel, a photograph, a magazine, a film.

    Kensuke Koike

Read Alice Munro and you enter a world that goes beyond the page of the book, you feel characters who almost seem to exist as entities in themselves. The story opens them, they flow beyond the narrative, they carry their stories into that world where Munro's story "is still happening."

Maurice Broomfield's Cameras

You get the same in photography. I went to Format at the weekend and my favourites were those where you got the idea that something was happening beyond the simplicity of the frame or the slide-viewer or the magazine or the portfolio.

You also get the opposite in photography so sometimes there was a feeling that any story that was there was blurred and obscured, that things disappeared in a haze of ambiguity and possible meanings. You had to work hard (even when you had seen the work before) to eke out any possible meaning, and when you did, it really wasn't worth it.

Caroline Furneaux

But enough of that. There were also those where there was a visual distancing which came with some reward. I loved the slides (I love transparency - it is a superior film) of Caroline Furneaux. You viewed them through a slide viewer so had to work for your reward and the reward were these wonderful images of women her father had photographed in the days before he became her father. They were possible mothers. I'm not sure I entirely bought that but the pictures did the work for me. The girl with the cactus was just beautiful, and all seen through the four inch screen of an old-school slide viewer.

And Maurice Broomfield was wonderful, a series of industrial image where something else always seen to be going on. They're part industrial sublime, part socialist realism, and part sci-fi something or other. They have the speculative reflexion of Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel's Evidence, but 20 years before its time. The great thing is you see them and you get them, and then you keep on watching and perhaps you see some more. It's a gift that keeps on giving.

The one exhibition I really wanted to see taken to a grand scale and expanded upon both conceptually and visually was the Cameraworks exhibition. I'd love to see how those key areas of community, political engagement, and activism have developed (and not developed). The political voice and directness of the writing and images was something to behold, above and beyond the repetition of black and white images albeit of a politically vibrant and destructive time - it's a similar time now but that kind of clarity and voice is notable by its absent. Instead we're hiding stories rather than telling them.

The direct and literal continued in the exhibition of the old Kassel Book Dummiy show with Rebecca Samson's wonderful Apples For Sale. This is a book on the lives of Indonesian maids in Hong Kong, an antidote to some of the really weird and delusional captions I've seen accompanying images of Southeast Asian Maids working overseas, captions which can be described as naive at best, or as an exercise of soft power at worst. There is a lot of visible soft power at play in photography.

Anyway, Apples for Sale is telling a story that is very apparent if you read the news, see the world or talk to anyone where the export of labour is a major industry, and it tells it through images, Facebook Posts (what do you do if your maid has Body Odour. Or wants a day off. Or runs out of jobs to do. Or has a boyfriend), agency rules and all the rest of the dehumanising hoops you have to go through. It's not on scale of the horror stories of murder, sexual harrassment and cheating that you get from Gulf Maids, but it's bad enough and actually it can be a horror story of lying, deceit and abuse. Samson tells that story but with some intriguing touches on the physical, emotional and creative escapism that people find even in the most claustrophobic of circumstances.

Format was a pleasure as always, it's attraction lying in the diversity of the venues and the sheer range of work you can see. I didn't see everything but I came away filled with thoughts and ideas and notions and cliches like keep it real and soul is the goal and the story is the thing.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Deaths that aren't shown

Ginnalyn Soriano weeps over the body of her elder brother Julius, who allegedly fought back and was killed by police during what they said was a drug sting operation, at a morgue in Malabon, Metro Manila, Philippines, June 22, 2017. At the morgue, the family noticed Julius’ wrists had cuff marks. The arm had a bullet wound too, and the slug was still embedded in his arm right where the cuff mark was, suggesting that the cuffs had stopped the bullet. © Ezra Acayan

My latest offering on World Press Photo Witness is on deaths in photography and how death is shown or not shown.

See my previous post, Rethinking the Ethical judgement of photography here...

I often wonder that what really defines photography is not what is shown, but more particularly what is not shown, and why it is not shown, and who decides it is not shown, and whose purposes that serves.

The not showing of something, the censorship is far more powerful in some ways and shapes how we see and understand the world. We don't see death in UK publications very much for example. It wasn't always that way. It is now.

This is from the piece...

Examples of when suffering is deliberately not shown provide a counter argument to this idea. From its earliest beginnings, war photography has been defined as much by what it doesn’t show as what it does. This tradition of not showing death extends around the world and is quite revealing of the power of photography to shock, outrage, and move people. This power is evident in the fear governments have of photography.

During the Great Leap Forward in China, around 45 million people are estimated to have starved to death. Yet there are no images of these deaths. The only images the government wanted were positive ones. Atrocity images of piles of dead bodies, of cannibalism, of people eating mud and tree bark in a vain attempt to survive do not exist. If they did, perhaps the history of China would be very different.

The political goals of photography are equally apparent in the post-9/11 images of the Iraq War when, between 2004 and 2005, The New York Times, The Washington Times, Time and Newsweek did not publish a single image of a dead American soldier. That asymmetry of reporting is still something apparent today in the ongoing debates of who is shown and who is not shown to be suffering in US media.

It is the same in the UK. There is an increasing reluctance to show people suffering, and when people are shown to be suffering to focus on those overseas in places where disaster and war are presented as part of the natural scheme of things with limited captioning or reporting to contextualise the image or state otherwise. 

The solution to this is not to eliminate all images of suffering but rather to create a more level playing field. Some of the most terrible pictures I have seen in British newspapers are from the Hillsborough Disaster but I think they serve a purpose, I think they helped in some small part create a counter narrative that was really struggled for and is only now, 30 years after the event, gaining some kind of just end. The trial of the police officer in charge during the disaster did not happen by accident and would not have happened if it hadn't been fought for.

Photography and its publication (and the lack of it), serves political narratives. Photography is also subservient to news, and news is a commodity. It is something that can be traded and sold and photographers operate within that system, creating work that can fit both the demands of the publications they work for, and the narratives that help make a story newsworthy and palatable to governments, owners, advertisers and, finally, the public.

Perhaps that's why I think photographers such as Ezra Acayan, who record death, who lay out murdered bodies for the world to see, are so important. There are people (the murderers) who don't want those bodies to be seen, yet still he, and others persist. This is also from the piece

One of the contributors of Everyday Impunity is Ezra Acayan, a photographer who has photographed more than 500 murders (out of an estimated 12,000) and 100 funerals since the beginning of the War on Drugs in 2016. His pictures are beautifully composed, dramatically lit studies of death, grief and mourning that fit into a photojournalistic template. But they go beyond that as well. In an email interview, he describes the process of photographing the War on Drugs:
“I suddenly found myself in the frontline of this ‘war’, and at first I wanted to show the brutality of it all. Despite the large number of deaths, most of the public never saw the killings personally; almost all victims were poor and were killed in the slums.”

Read the whole article here.... 

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

It doesn't have to be boring

A few weeks ago Danny Blight (he writes on photography and is into theoryin a big way) got hammered on Twitter for saying Don McCullin is boring.

So I did a Twitter quiz on what is more boring....

What is the most boring thing in photography? You can only have four things otherwise, good lord, it would have been a long list. This is like an itch I shouldn't scratch but...

The Old British Photography bit didn't win, and it is more than just Don McCullin. There's a whole bunch of stuff up there, but still it only got 8%.

Personally I really like Don McCullin's work.He's one of the greats. I've seen it in exhibitions here and there, I've read his biography and seen his films. I've shown them students and had students coming out going, that's amazing, but where the fuck is Biafra and what's with the hero stuff. Which is good because it means you can do some history (on average 10% of students have heard of Chairman Mao - for example!) and address the hero element.

So I thought when they did a big show at the Tate, it would be an opportunity for people to come out of there learning about the world, about the period these images were made, about the monumental historical shifts they recorded. And to go beyond that photographer-as-witness-hero rhetoric. I actually quite like that rhetoric, I have a soft spot for it, but  it's a bit limited and superficial  ultimately and you need to leave it behind quite quickly when you have the right stage.

Maybe Tate was the right stage but I'm getting the impression that it's not. Anastasia Taylor-Lind expressed her frustration not just with the hanging of the images (all the same size in frames), the constant rhetoric of the heroic photographer, but also the lost opportunity to do something epic with the pictures.

The curation focused a lot on the war photographer as tragic hero and myth creation. One text read “ I want to create a voice for the people in those pictures” It’s 2019- time to start taking about passing the mic, not giving others a voice.
Another section intro read “I’ve been loyal by risking my life for fifty years” another “I dream of this when I’m in battle. I think of misty England...”
It honestly feels like I travelled back in time 20 years to see this show the curation is so outdated and poorly framed.

Because they are historically huge pictures that are of this world, and it is up to somebody else to realise their importance, and their role in UK publishing in particular, and take them outside the more limited frameworks of a super-talented individual to make us not just bask in their compositional brilliance but also understand something about the pain, heartache, suffering of the world, and the names under which wars have been fought and continue to be fought. Because that is the key message I choose to take from Don McCullin's work. I ignore the elements that don't interest me (the hero, great man stuff) and focus on the ways in which the images have a life beyond McCullin and the more hagiographic perspectives - which are the least interesting thing about the photographs, and perhaps have little to do with the photographs. The pictures have a life of their own, they are part of a larger visual field and that is what I have not seen recognised in any McCullin exhibition I've been to. And perhaps it's not recognised in this one.

I actually love old British work so it's a shame to see this show is a bit same-old, same-old. with a lack of imagination and maybe a cheapness about it (and it does cost a lot to enter so you should be getting alot). I don't know, I haven't seen it so maybe everything written here is wrong. And maybe it doesn't matter that much. I know that many of the things my photography friends moan about are completely irrelevant to the real, more-fully-functioning world. The show's doing well, getting great press, who cares? But I felt the urge to write this before doing something else that I really don't want to do...

But even when you there are economics at play, if you have some imagination, then you can be brilliant. I just reviewed Chris Killip's four part newspaper of his old work from the 1970s and 1980s from the Northeast of England. It's printed on newspaper it's printed brilliantly with a real design element that highlights vital historical work that doesn't feel reheated, that feels fresh and in its mix of images, feels like it is shedding new light on what it is to live in the communities where he photographed.

So yes, that's good!

Monday, 25 February 2019

Laura Dodsworth's Womanhood

Perhaps the most viewed pictures in the UK  this year have been Laura Dodsworth's Womanhood. It's a series of 100 images of women's vulvas and it follows her other series of images on penises and breasts.

The pictures have featured here there and everywhere including a tv programme dedicated to them but interestingly they don't quite figure in the worlds of photography that this blog is concerned with - art, photobooks, festivals, documentary, photojournalism.

The theme is there. Magazines and galleries have dedicated issues to the Girl Gaze and ideas of reclaiming the body that go back to the very powerful ideas of Carolee Schneemann and beyond into the distant, distant past.

It fits a particular theme and articulates ideas of the body, gender, agency and how perceptions of self are formed and can be changed. It's a good thing then, but still it doesn't quite hit the mark. It might well be because the photographer doesn't quite speak that same language (if it is the right language), is too mainstream, has a past career in publishing and marketing that has kind of stuck, or simply has bigger fish to fry. Or doesn't care.

Maybe it's because her pictures of breasts, penises and vulvas are so descriptive. There's the idea that is endlessly repeated that all the stories have been told (and they have), and everything has been photographed (and it has)... the conclusion of these ideas is that you can't photograph something without ending up in banal repetition. That perhaps is the cause of the endless overcomplication of things. I do sometimes end up looking at photography projects wishing that I was better at puzzle solving, because that is what so many books read like. They are a mystery for the viewer to solve, with the subtext that the more pain the better.

There isn't any mystery in Dodsworth's projects. Perhaps that's the point. And the point is also that even though the story has been told, it hasn't been told in this way. Dodsworth latest project focusses on vulvas. They have been photographed by photographers (and written about and exhitbited) and you'll see them in porn. All Dodsworth did was photograph them slightly differently, possibly not all that 'well' - and they don't fit into a typological grid because that's not their concern. Their concern is to show something unadorned and unfiltered. That's waht made them appear new to people, to women in particular, and in various publications they were accompanied by interviews and confessions that felt quite liberating.

It's a kind of stating the obvious. Anyway, I like them I think. I'm still struggling to grasp exactly why they don't really figure in the micro-photographic scheme of things. She just has the wrong voice, she's not an artist, she's simply operating in that world. I think that's interesting on so many levels, and indicative of so much, not of Dodsworth, but of the failings that shut her work out. It's indicative of a definite conservatism, quite a limited way of thinking. I  wonder what little twitch of visual, verbal or personal expression would change her work from something that has been viewed by millions to something that could garner the praise from photography's more precious, if less-visited, worlds. Not much I'm sure, but then if you're getting shows on mainstream television, why really would you bother?

I remember when I was a kid and there were certain records you could buy, and certain records you couldn't (even if you liked them). It's that basically, but in photography...

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Rembrandt: No comparison with our own Mr Rippingille

'Rembrandt is not to be compared in the painting of character with our extraordinarily gifted English artist, Mr Rippingille.'

John Hunt, 19th-century art critic' on the work of Edward Villiers Rippingille, whose Young Visitors you can see above or at Bristol Museum.

My wife used to quote this to me all the time when she saw people agreeing and nodding their heads to some absurdly mistaken opinion stated as face. And then we saw some Rippingilles in real life. It ain't nice.