Tuesday, 30 November 2010

An Interview with Timothy Archibald




Echolilia, Timothy Archibald's collaboration  with his son has been in development for many years and I am a big fan. It shows childhood in a way that resonates with all parents, and captures the worlds that children inhabit physically and emotionally.

Timothy has likened the promotion of Echolilia to pushing a rock up a hill. Well, this autumn, the pushing finally got some rewards when it was featured on a slew of big-name websites. Echolilia has a subtext about autism, but it goes way beyond that - but it was autism that helped sell the project and get the project attention from beyond the photoworld. I think Echolilia still has some way to go before it reaches its rightful peak, so with that in mind, I thought I'd ask a Tim a few questions about the project. There are some really illuminating insights in the answers so read through to the end; this is a basic lesson in how to start, continue and realise a project.



How and why did you start the project?

In the fall of 2007 my son Eli was 5 and he really was driving my wife and I crazy. Strange behavior we couldn’t make sense of, massive temper tantrums that would brew like storms and explode all over the house, and complaints and concerns from teachers and day care providers…everything in my life at that point was all about Eli. “What about this? What doctor said that? We read in some book…it sounds like him a little…maybe its this?” All of our time was spent trying to figure out Eli. I couldn’t understand him and his motivations, probably feared him a bit, and time with him wasn’t like….enjoyable. I had always used photography projects as an escape from my real life- I used to like infiltrating subcultures that were different from me and learning about them, photographing them….photography was always an escape from my own life. Here I think I was just at the end of my rope, and started taking photographs of things he created, photographs of him, of the evidence of him and his behavior around our house. I thought maybe I’d see something or get at something. I don’t really know. But in writing they always say “ write what you know “. Here, this domestic chaos was what I knew, so I tried to photograph it.


How did it evolve - what were the key moments of realization?

The project was so wrapped up in our every day life it didn’t seem to have a moment of clarity, when it all seemed to be mapped out and we knew how to make it good. Almost the opposite of that happened…its almost like it was best when we were all in the dark and just exploring.

 One point that gave it power was when it started to feel like something we both were contributing to, rather than me just photographing him. That was early on…he really didn’t have interest in just being the subject, he needed to be involved.

Looking backward, it seems the best images were created when he and I were the most desperate, we were trying to make images amidst the most trying times, the times when his behavior was the worst, or was the hardest to make sense of. It’s like there was a bubble when we were making images, he was giving input on the shots and the poses but neither he nor I was too self conscious about what we were doing. That window seemed to yield the strongest images. As the project evolved, he and I became more in sync, more of a collective creative brain, and then its almost like we had to fight from repeating ourselves or fight to find new things….we had to work harder, we had to fail more, throw more images away. But when the project started, in the more desperate times, the good images were emotionally darker…more grim, not really positive, just really feral. So I think they are the better images, but I think as the project evolved the emotions got to be more positive, more universal, more maybe about childhood, what its like to be a child, rather than about my struggle with my kid…so I think the project evolved to be about a spectrum of emotions. Now that its done and is getting a lot of attention, I think these images that were less grim have allowed the project to be more accessible to people, they allowed it to kind of speak to more people and be more about “everything”, rather than just about one thing. A friend had always said to me “ the more personal you make it, the more universal it will become”. I never really knew how to go about that, but I think it may have worked out that way here.
How did the role of autism play in the project?

Autism…it always was the love / hate part of the project. When I started shooting it we didn’t know Eli was on the Autistic Spectrum, we just knew he was different and there was a mystery, a conflict, a question I was trying to figure out. What was the question? I guess it was “What is up with my kid?” or “How do I relate to this kid?” or something like that. So that was the fuel that really powered the project. It gave us something to figure out, something to make pictures about. After we got the diagnosis of ASD, I was pretty determined not to use the term to introduce the images. Either I was uncomfortable with it, or I didn’t want it to limit the project to being like “concerned photography” or something like that. Which it isn’t. I don’t really care about Autism. I care about relationships, individuals, personal connections, you know? So…showing the photographs to other photographers I’d use the term. But in public, I’d never use the term. I didn’t want it to be thought of as something only of interest to a small audience interested in this medical thing. But I did find that when it came time to give the book/series “the elevator pitch”, the quick sentence that would get a viewer or editor interested in the project, whenever I used the word it seemed to connect with people. It just answered all their questions and allowed them into the images with a little bit of necessary knowledge.


Do you think that made a difference to how Echolilia was received?

Yeah, for sure. I think that photography people would engage with the project simply as an intriguing collection of photographs. I think that the wider non photographic audience really could only engage with the work once the word Autism was used. And really, for things like Time, NYT’s, and Discover Magazine to grab on to the project, they needed a science hook that allows the pictures to speak to others, not just us, the photo nerds out there. A lot of this early attention and public use of the term “Autism” made me cringe. I’ve always tried to make it clear that Eli has a big vocabulary, goes to public school, and is just on a different channel. And the media have gone out of their way to acknowledge that in these stories as well, but I think I’ve always been trying to dodge it a bit. But now, really, after all of this attention, you do a Google search on “Autism” + “Photographs” and some mention of the project surfaces…so the cat is out of the bag.

You mention that making and promoting the work was like pushing a rock up a hill - how did you motivate yourself to continue doing this?

You know, I did say that…and I forgot what I meant by that. Because really, the project had some magnetic qualities that people seemed to grab on to in a surprising way, so now it kinda feels like a ball rolling down a hill. But its been 3 years of shooting and then a year of trying to do the book and by then you are sick of all of your photographs but no one has seen them yet in the book form so you push thru, trying to get that done. Then you have a garage full of books ( in our case, self published ) and you need to convince people to look at it or buy it or throw you a bone of sorts and by that time it is easy to want to give up and just start a new project. That is when you really feel like you are pushing a rock up a hill.  I did have a friend who said when I was hiring a designer for the book and wrestling with that “ You know, really its all about making motion videos now. You be better off if you ditched this book thing and put your energy into making a movie”. And commercially, he probably was correct. My answer at the time was “Oh, just let me give this thing it’s due, let me finish it, you know?” There is something to be said about following the arc of anything- a project, a relationship. If you don’t follow it to its end, it may haunt you. So, this I wanted to finish and follow the arc of. And getting this one in front of the public changed it immensely…or changed the way I thought of it, and others did too.

You suddenly got a huge audience outside the photoworld - how did this happen and what was the difference between the non-photographic audiences and the photographic audiences?

It was kind of a series of co-incidences. TIME called and wanted Eli and I to do a series of photographs to illustrate a story on childhood mental health and they wanted it to look like ECHOLILIA.. Their idea was to get us to do those photographs for the magazine, and then they would do an online book excerpt from ECHOLILIA. It was a smart pairing that they pulled of well. NYT’s LENS had been interested in it and agreed to do it differently, as a story written by Jane Gross, a writer who wrote extensively on Autism. Somehow both media monoliths agreed to do it…they each had their own spin on it. That got it in front of the masses.

Getting the body of work in front of the non photo audience was really eye opening and changed everything.. It was the story in the New York Times LENS blog that gave the project it’s other life….it really changed the way I viewed the project because there we got to hear from the viewers, the masses had a voice.

When you are working on something, its always hard to judge your motivations, hard to figure out what is driving the project. I’ve always had an interest in photographers who made “weird” photographs. Les Krims, Arthur Tress, Roger Ballen, Joel Peter Witkin, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, all of these photographers who’d fall under some similar umbrella of “weird”. This is the work I always had a soft spot for, even though my work didn’t really look like that. With ECHOLILIA, I thought that my interest in those photographers work was pretty evident in my images…this project kind of paid homage to that type of work, and I didn’t really know if I was driving it in that direction, or if the subject matter pushing it in that direction….I just didn’t know. When the work got in front of other parents with kids on the Spectrum, I was kind of preparing myself for the worst. I just didn’t think others would relate to the work. What I got was letters from around the world, privately and on the LENS blog, of parents saying that they are seeing their own kids in my photographs of Eli. They were saying essentially that these scribbled notes, these body movements, these curious stares, were things they see every day going on in their homes. A few parents sent me photographs, casual snapshots they took of their kids that looked like they could be stuck right into the ECHOLILIA book and fit in without anyone noticing! One mom had photographed notes her kid wrote and hung around the house, her son laying naked on a bookshelf, he son hiding behind a clear plastic tube….I mean it was all the same data. I hope to be able to share the stuff on my blog, but need to respect the parents’ privacy for now.


Has the input you have received from viewers of Echolilia changed the way you see it (could be good, could be bad, is probably a bit of both)?
Oh, the input has been great…I mean knowledge is power, right? But it has been good and bad. The one thing that it made me realize is that I really may not have done anything special with this project at all. I think that I really just operated a camera and a scanner in a rather elegant manner capturing things that parents of kids on the spectrum are seeing every day! I just happened to be the dad, there in the house, running the camera.

But the sense of familiarity that people are seeing looking at the images seems to be creating some sort of good vibe out in the world. People relate to the images, feel like it acknowledges what they are living but in a poetic way, there always is good that comes when people relate to the stuff. I have done projects that didn’t inspire such benevolence….but in this case it caught me by surprise. I always thought these were just images of my reality, not anyone elses’ reality.

One thing someone did mention on the NYT’s letter section was that people shouldn’t romanticize the images. The story of a dad building an emotional bridge to his Autistic son is a very attractive one, but the reality of the relationship, how challenging it is on a daily basis, how it can still drive me crazy, is something I wish the project acknowledged a little more. The other week things were really challenging at home with Eli, and I found myself telling my wife that I wanted it to be more like the photographs were: dreamy, romantic, quiet, poetic, organic, this whole inner emotional journey where I was in control and he and I were equals.. She laughed and reminded me that it never really was like that. That was a fiction made out of the conflict….and it made some intriguing photographs. But the reality was always harder and messier.


So who is your publisher Echo Press?

Oh, there is no publisher. Echo Press is just me and Eli. We hired a designer, hired an ad agency copy writer, layed out the book and took it to a printer to crank out 20 copies. That is our publishing deal! It also explains why the book is so expensive. But this is something that seems do-able these days….so we wanted to try it. In 2005 I was promoting my first book ( Sex Machines : Photographs and Interviews , Process 2005 ) which had a mainstream publisher,  I realized how hard it was to sell photography books. We’d do these big events- exhibitions in NYC, slideshow lectures at bookstores around the country, and still it was so very hard to sell any books. The events were a great cultural experience and were well attended, but as far as moving the books…it almost seemed unrelated! I recall flying to Chicago for a lecture, had a good audience had a great time, and the bookstore sold 3 books. I felt sorry for these wonderful people who chose to publish the book! So with this, I figured I’d just try it myself, keep it small, and every sale would mean something. My son would be involved signing the books, making a buck off of each one…it would just be different by design. So here we are. We just printed 30 more. But still the sales are tiny compared with any book published by a real publisher.

So what are you going to do next? Working on anything now?

Yes! The next project is called “Commercial Photography” and it essentially means I’m going to try to figure out how to make a living again with photography. These personal projects always take over and become this creative tidal wave I get happily absorbed in. After all this internal digging, I’m looking forward to the simple pleasures of working for a living as a photographer, making the pictures people tell me to make. And truth be told, these personal projects for me need to bubble to the surface…I just can’t execute them, and for now nothing has surfaced. But I’m waiting….

NYT Link:

http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/05/son-and-father-pierce-autisms-veil/?preview=true&preview

Monday, 29 November 2010

Interesting Photography: A Picture Editor's Perspective



John Loengard presents the picture editor's view on interesting photographs over at Scott Kelby's blog.

This invites the question of can there be such a thing as a boring photograph. As an avid student of visual culture, I could say no there isn't - a picture reveals the strategies, preoccupations and pretensions of the photographer and so provides insight into the culture and mindset of which they are part. Let's pretend I believe that, so I can disagree with John Loengard below.

Does the picture editor's view applies to other areas of photography? Documentary or art for example? Commercial or fashion? Do all photographs have to be 'distinctive' in some way, and if not, why not? Is there such a thing as a boring photograph and if there is, what is it?

And what makes a photograph distinctive, as Loengard mentions. I feel I have been here before many times, but Loengaard's view is so direct and coherent that it is worth going there again.


To be interesting, a photograph needs to show something distinctive. A two-headed cow is unusual. A bride in her wedding gown standing in a kitchen is a bit odd. But there can also be something special in what otherwise might be a common picture: a child’s yawn, for example, or a man’s gestures or a tree’s shadow. The flawless detail in print from a large-format camera may define the peculiarity of a subject.

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To be interesting, a photograph needs to show something distinctive. A two-headed cow is unusual. A bride in her wedding gown standing in a kitchen is a bit odd. But there can also be something special in what otherwise might be a common picture: a child’s yawn, for example, or a man’s gestures or a tree’s shadow. The flawless detail in print from a large-format camera may define the peculiarity of a subject.


I assumed that “good photographers” took “good pictures” because they had a special eye. What I found was that good photographers take good pictures because they take great pains to have good subjects in front of their cameras. (Reflect a moment on what cameras do, and this makes sense.) Good photographers anticipate their pictures. What good picture editors do is help them.


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Photographers don’t like leaving their pictures to chance. When shooting people, they gravitate toward making portraits-strong, static pictures they are certain will command attention-not riskier pictures that catch people doing things. As in a novel, action is always at a premium. And in truth, most subjects are static. Encourage photographers to take chances. Will the 100-year-old lady please bend and touch her toes?

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Seeing this work on a computer is not seeing it at all.



Where should you view this picture  - it is of Isabel and is from the Flora series? This computer isn't the best place for it, that's for sure - it's not an end point in any way whatsoever. Paul Kopeikin mentioned this in relation to  the Wired list of bloggers that seeing work on a blog is not seeing it at all - and that work should be seen in the appropriate place. The right place and form might be a gallery in the form of a print, it might be in a book, it might be in a home or in an album. It might even be on a computer, as with Snakebox Odyssey or interactive materials such as Prison Valley. So perhaps this is the right place to see it.

This is just to let you all know that you haven't seen any of the work on this blog until you have seen it as a print, as a book, as a magazine article or as an illustration - all these pictures are like copies that have been xeroxed and re-xeroxed (xerox - what an archaic, exotic, North American word! Fabulous!) until they bear no relationship to the original.

Sometimes there will be a definite wrong place to see something. I suspect that the White Space Gallery is the wrong place to see Rimaldas Viksraitis' pictures - so the Gallery should have a post-it note on the wall saying that these pictures should really be seen when drunk and naked in a Lithuanian shebeen. Similary, nearly all documentary and photojournalism from the past should be seen in a magazine or even as a contact sheet rather than in the places one sees them now.

But the point is good so I will put up a little warning on the side of this blog saying:

Please note: The work on this blog is not the original work. It is being shown out of context and denuded of content. To see the work as it should be seen, buy the book, magazine, visit a gallery, go to the appropriate website or watch the film. Do not mistake your computer experience for anything other than the little that it is.
Now it is just time for all the gallery websites, personal websites, magazine websites and bookselling websites to make the same point. Blogs are just a tiny corner of the internet, corners that gather a tiny amount of traffic compared to newspaper or magazine websites. Every image seen on a website should come with the same warning.

What do you think?

Monday, 22 November 2010

Rimaldas Viksraitis and Other True Stories



In this video of Rimaldas Viksraitis pictures, the translator mentions they are special because they tell a true story, a story of rural excess, of drinking and debauchery.





What is a true story is the big question. Well, keeping it simple because there is not too much happening up top today, a true story is a true story as opposed to a made-up story.

During the talk somebody asks how much the pictures are staged, how much they are straight documentary? Which  begs the question of whether the villagers' performances can't be straight documentary. It's the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle again, where the camera changes everything - just as a writer's questions or presence changes everything, or a film camera or microphone changes everything. People are affected by whoever or whatever is around. We are not invisible and nor are our cameras.

The question needs to be flipped around and we should ask when people claim something to be a performance or staged, in what way is it a performance, in what way is it staged, having as our starting point a taking it for granted that there is always a staging or interference of some kind in all photographs (just as there is in all social interactions). So if a photograph is staged, why is it staged and what is so special about this staging that the photographer has gone to all this trouble of directing his/her subject rather than letting them perform in the way that Viksraitis or Billingham or Mikhailov or Kranzler do.

That way we take truth for granted and we have a foundation on which we rely on, even when the foundation is entirely unreliable and made of sand. I think this is at least part of the agenda of Susie Linfield's excellent (and flawed) new book, The Cruel Radiance, to reclaim truth in the photograph and so return to a love of looking, seeing and showing rather than the hatred so prevalent among Anglophone critics and writers.

A little bit of Paul Kranzler to end this post. These are from Land of Milk and Honey - and note that seeing these pictures on the web is no substitute for buying the book or seeing the prints in real life.


Friday, 19 November 2010

The Photograph as Conscience



I saw Awara last week, the classic neo-realist (sort of) Hindi film directed by Raj Kapoor and starring both Kapoor and the incomparable Nargis. It's one of the greats, a Bollywood template, a good-mum/bad-dad separation film where Raj Kapoor plays Raju, the son who never knows his father, Judge Raghunath - this is because Judge Raghunath is a cruel, hard-hearted man of prejudice who believes one is born to one's fate - born to a thief, you die a thief. One day, Jagga ( who the judge once wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn't commit - causing him to subsequently turn to crime ), a local bandit, decides to prove the Judge prejudice's wrong. He kidnaps the Judge's wife, Leela, then releases her. Leela is pregnant and the Judge believes that she is pregnant with Jagga's child so he kicks her out of the house as she is giving birth - Raju is literally born into the gutter...

Later in the film, an impoverished but honest Raju makes friends with Rita, a wealthy classmate. But when Raju's mother falls ill and can't pay Raju's school fees, Raju leaves school and Rita behind. He is picked up by Jagga who turns him to crime. All through the movie, Raju has an old picture of Rita to perk him up when he feels down, to show him the way, to show a life different to the one of crime and immorality he is leading. And when Raju is reunited with Rita towards the end of the movie, and as it races to its gripping climax (involving the Judge, Leela, Rita and Raju), the picture acts as conscience, witness and memory. It is the reminder of an identity that Raju has apparently lost. Awara is a wonderful condemnation of prejudice, corruption and greed, and its use of the picture, a memento mori of a lost soul is profound, moving and convincing.
 

And the dream sequence! Bali finds its way into the dance sequences here, look out for the Kecak dance, the invention of the Walter Spies, a Dutch artist (who the film's director had met on a trip to Bali). So we get Hinduism reinvented four ways, with a Dutch, colonialist and Balinese touch, but coming back to India through the imagination of Raj Kapoor and his choreographers. It's oriental Orientalism, the re-referencing and self-referencing tying everybody up in all kinds of Bombay knots. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

(And some better-informed ideas on the dance influences here)


Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Gallery Owner as Sycophant

A friend who has a gallery in London told me how difficult it is having a gallery, how you have to go to your own openings and travel around the world going to art shows. "I don't know how much longer I can do it," he says. "You have to talk to all these people. Some of them are decent, but most of them are just obnoxious, ignorant and aggressive. They are bullies who are rich and are used to having their own way and you have to pretend you like them because they are the kind of people who are going to buy your artists' work. Basically my job as a gallery owner is to be a sycophant. I came into art to work with artists and creativity, to do something I love but now I'm just a sycophant. How did I end up like this?"

I don't know if he's being dramatic or if that's really the case. And if it is really the case, is it just the case for gallery owners or is it for everyone - in photography, in art, in life?

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Cameron in China: What's your poison?




Strange people, strange picture. What's their poison, I wonder, and is it a comment on the quality of Chinese goods, that whatever it was, it was just not good enough.

These four are in China, and they are wearing poppies, ostensibly because of Remembrance Day when we British remember the horrors of war and say Never Again/express our support for the boys in Iraq/Afghanistan/Iran and Yes, Again.

The Chinese associate the poppy with opium, which we forced upon the Chinese in the 19th Century. We were Victorian drug dealers and the Chinese were our junkie scum. That helped us in learning lessons of hypocrisy. It also helped destroy China and led to wars and rebellions that cost tens of millions of lives. And the opium was sold because we had a bad balance of payments.

Chinese officials apparently asked Cameron and co. not to wear the poppy because of this, because the poppy is a vivid symbol of China's humiliation at the hands of the European powers. "We informed them that they mean a great deal to us and we would be wearing them all the same," a British official explained.

Perhaps China's export of  all the plastic crap and tat that floods our shore is their revenge for these past humilitations, a poison of pointless consumption. And just as opium not only destroyed China, but also blighted the heart and soul of this country through the wealth attained by corrupt and criminal businessmen, so China is being poisoned, both literally and metaphorically by toxic wealth, lost fingers and wasted lives.

A Royal Wedding! Very nice, but wouldn't a Political Funeral have been better. Come on China, must do better next time!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Recommended Postings from Pete Brook's Prison Photography



 Thanks to Pete Brook of Prison Photography for including me in his favourite photobloggers list over at
Wired Rawfile. Possibly this is because he's from Chorley which is where my grandmother was born - see the above video for some cultural insight.

Check out the Rawfile site for all Pete's recommended blogs, blogs which have introduced me to a huge range of new photography that I would otherwise be unacquainted with, blogs which extend photography and visual culture (which I am preoccupied with) into areas beyond my knowledge. The internet can be tedious and repetitive at times, and so can blogs (including this one), but when they get it right, they are wonderful, mind-broadening things, a resource that is truly a wonder to behold.

Pete Brook's Prison Photography belongs on the list. The best blogs are those which escape the photography vacuum, that bring outside elements into play and broaden our understanding of the world visually, emotionally and politically. That's what Pete does, and when I can't think of anything to look at I head over there for a little bit of prison or community-based inspiration.

Some great posts that I recommend are Navajo Graffiti, Stateville Prison: Art Object and Fabienne Cherisma's Corpse Features at Perpignan (parts 1-15).


Enough of Pete, what about me. This is what it says at Wired.



The Pundit

Blog: Colin Pantall's Blog

Blogger: Colin Pantall
Location: Bath, England
Day job: Writer, photographer, teacher
Blogging since: December 2007

Preoccupied with visual culture at large, Pantall draws frequent parallels to literature, television and film. The result is an eclectic exploration of what "does and doesn’t make photography work."
"The best photography blogs arise out of a passion for something outside photography," says Pantall by e-mail:
These blogs contextualize photography and make sense of the great chaos in which images exist. They also have a depth, feeling and knowledge that helps make sense of the creative (and non-creative) surges that are currently taking place in photography. I value most the times when I find a groove in which passion and cynicism combine to cut to the chase of what photography is really about. It becomes unique when neither I, nor the readers, are sure if my rhetoric is entirely serious.
Wired.com recommends: Propagandists and Who Took the Myra Hindley Photograph?

Monday, 15 November 2010

Kathryn Flett: "Call me a prude..."



Kathryn Flett writes on children viewing photographs in Saturday's Guardian.She asks whether children should see either pictures with a sexual element (specifically Mapplethorpe's) or pictures showing the aftermath of violence (specifically Stuart Griffiths photographs of mutilated servicemen).

I think I'm with Flett on this one, but the question is whether adults should see more of images of violence - with Remembrance Sunday just past, I can't recall seeing any picture on the television or in the papers that remembered the horrors of war in the way that Griffiths' pictures do. The idea that we are overrun with pictures of violence and suffering is laughable - in the UK at least, graphic images are self-censored and controlled.

This is what Flett has to say - read the whole article here.


Anyway, there I was on one of my child-free weekends, soaking up the culture, clocking the penises and the Patti Smith portraits, when I spotted a couple of cool-looking mid-30s mums and dads plus their offspring, ranging from babies to not-quite-double-figures, all "enjoying" the Mapplethorpe oeuvre en famille. At which point I felt almost comically middle-aged and reactionary. And for the second time in a fortnight, no less, having experienced similar bemusement at the sight of groovy parents, singly and in couples, hauling their kids around one of the edgier exhibits at the Brighton Photo Biennale – the horribly mutilated subjects of Stuart Griffiths's fine but harrowing (and also very large) colour portraits of maimed ex-servicemen.

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Having first been struck by the Small Children + Scary Pictures = Who Knows What equation at Stuart Griffiths's Brighton private view, I wondered what the photographer felt about his work being right up there with a Pizza Express pit-stop and 3D Despicable Me as part of a cosy family day out: "Well, I grew up with a very rose-tinted, Action Man view of the army as somewhere where men were able to be men – but my son, who has grown up with my images, doesn't have that at all. I've asked him if he'd ever want to join up, and straightaway he said no, he doesn't want to end up like one of my photographs. As far as he's concerned, war is bad and that's that," says Griffiths.
As anti-war propaganda, then, Griffiths's pictures are undeniably powerful tools – and all the more so for having been made by an ex-soldier. And then there is a human narrative largely missing from the Mapplethorpe oeuvre that might engage even relatively young children (though I think mine are too young) in a potentially positive way.
The picture at the top is an illustration of Hilary Mantel who writes a disturbing but entertaining article on the visceral and psychological indignities  served up when an operation goes wrong. The illustration reminds me of Eikoh Hosoe's Ordeal by Roses. Read the article here.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Lazhar Mansouri, Marc Garanger and Battle of Algiers









I'm on a bit of an Algerian film thing at the moment - having watched The Prophet, Hidden and Battle of Algiers in the last couple of months.

The Battle of Algiers reminds me of  the photographs (top 3) by Lazhar Mansouri and in turn those of Marc Garanger (bottom 4), all of which are quite amazing.

In turn, Donald Weber's Interrogation pictures (see previous post) represent a different end of the spectrum as Marc Garanger's portraits, but without the baggage contained in Garanger's (or other colonialist/embedded) pictures - the meaning of which has unravelled and re-entwined with time - which is interesting in itself.

The quote below is from a Foto8 interview with Marc Garanger

In 1960, Marc Garanger, 25 and pressed into the French military service, found himself over the course of a fortnight making identity card portraits of 2000 women in occupied Algeria on the orders of his division commander. Each woman was photographed once, on a single frame, seated on a stool against a white wall. A language barrier prevented the photographer and subject from communicating verbally. But in these brief interactions were moments of extraordinary intensity; many of the women in the pictures glare at the camera, while others appear more placid. Even as they are literally being identified and cast as colonial subjects, they stare back, and so these pictures have come to be recognised as a celebration of pride and resistance in the face of power, dignity maintained under duress.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Donald Weber's Interrogations

 Petty Thief
 Delinquent and Shop Lifter
 Prostitute and Drug Dealer

A few years ago I taught a group of Russians from Moscow. It didn't matter what their politics were, whether they loved Putin or hated him, whether they thought Estonia should be bombed into the stone-age or not; they were all unanimous on one thing - head 50 miles outside of Moscow and you were in a different country where things would only get worse, where alcohol was the only refuge and where hope had deigned to tread since the invention of fire.

I think of their descriptions when I see the pictures of Donald Weber - all rough and bleak, a kind of Winterreise without the lyrical edge, they have the sentiments of what I imagine a Siberian in October must feel with the winter ahead.

Weber's latest series is Interrogations (in the current issue of the BJP). It's portraits of petty criminals confessing in police interrogation rooms - where they don't have the good cop, bad cop routine but the "bad cop, really bad cop" routine. Interrogations is special, a case of the photographer distancing himself from the subjects at hand, and having difficulty doing so. Maybe the project raises questions of complicity - on the part of us, the viewers, Weber and the police and subjects themselves. So with that in mind, I put a few questions to Donald which he was kind enough to answer.
How did you gain access to the interrogation room?

I've known the major of the deparment for five years now. We've worked together since I first started travelling there. Always knew it was a project I wanted to photograph, but also knew it was one of the most difficult places to see, this is about as close as you can get in the police procedure.
What were you photographing? When did you choose to photograph?


Solzhenitsyn talked about the moment of recognition, he always wondered during his execution what he would look at, would he look up at the sky and look for a bird, or would he look down at the ground, head bowed? It's about a moment of recognition, once that flicker of acceptance occurs, things undoubtedly change. So I was looking for these moments, that passage from knowing what was once will never be again.
 You have mentioned the "moral communion" you had with your subjects? What was that "moral communion"? Did you ever intervene in the process, were you ever referred to or spoken to in the process?

The process was about a four month struggle to become completely disengaged from all sides - from me as the photographer in the room, from the interrogators to the interrogated. At first I rarely photographed, I discovered the police were actually holding back and behaving themselves; I thought for sure they'd be extra violent. I didn't want to see either of this, but the process itself. I have a very high level of patience, I would just sit there from 9am in the morning to the evening, and just wait. I went days without actually taking pictures. It's a game of chicken, and I always flinch last. In time, the police would just give up on trying to "perform" and just go about their jobs, which allowed me to do mine. It took a few months, but we got it. I saw some very terrible things and was quite disturbed by the whole process, still am, but I believe I am not a judge of their crimes nor of the methods. I am not there to intervene in the process, that would be a betrayal of my years of trust built up with the police. The work formed in this manner because I was not interested in the physical violence, but the psychological violence that we as humans seem to have a special affinity for. 
You said you found the process "morally repugnant"? In what ways? How do you reconcile that with the project?


Well watching the methods was not pleasant. Humiliation, violence, degradation. How could you not be repulsed? But the reasons I was there were not for judging them, but was to actually show something very special in the terms of the secrecy of the act. I made a special document precisely because it was about the 'absence of the void,' that it showed humans at their most vulnerable and most cruel. This series could easily be judged along the same lines as a war photographer that constantly gets criticized for not doing anything, for not jumping into the fray. What I saw was a process; we may not enjoy or agree with this process, but it's a process that has a very long history in humanity - confession.
Do you think your documentation made you complicit in the interrogations?

Not at all. In fact the person who is complicit in the interrogations is you, the viewer, and that was the point.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The Day Nobody Died and The Warsaw Ghetto



Who is the audience and who is looking at your pictures? I think that is one of the questions that might be at the heart of Susie Linfield's collection of writings; a collection where she attempts (I say this but I haven't read the book, only snippets here and there - I'm guessing in other words) to reclaim photography criticism from the critics, to say what photography actually might be rather good at.

I think one key element of photography that is ignored is what assumptions are you making when you show somebody a picture (or text or film or anything). Show it to a person who looks at the kind of photography you get on this and other blogs or people who might seek out pictures of misery, death and destruction and there is not the same reaction as you get from the audience who just catches pictures in passing, the people for whom Nachtwey, Smith or Salgado mean nothing - the vast majority in other words.


This makes me think of Broomberg and Chanarin's Afghanistan project and The Day Nobody Died. Who is the audience? It is fair to say that inasmuch the project  is a critique of photojournalism and some aspects of documentary practice, it also has an assumed knowledge of its history and background at its heart. Its foundations are the essence of Concerned Photography, and a Sontagian view of it at that.

So for people who know nothing of the war in Afghanistan, or the role the British army or media play in it, the project serves no purpose - it is not for that type of person. And if you think people don't know about the war in Afghanistan, that there is even a war of some kind there, well you are making some assumptions there to begin with - they are definitely not part of the audience. So who is the project for?

This in turns reminds me of another Holocaust film, this one called Warsaw Ghetto: The Unfinished Film, a documentary about archive footage of an intended Nazi propaganda film on the Warsaw Ghetto. This featured interviews with both a cameraman and some of the people in the film. It is amazing footage and a direct line to how propaganda films are staged and to what purpose. One of the scenes mentions how the people of the ghetto are assiduously recording their lives, how they are writing about their daily existence and the way the Nazis are attempting to grind their humanity into the ground. Somebody asks why they are bothering, when their words may never be read, their voices never heard, their stories never told. But their words were read and their stories were told and in films like Warsaw Ghetto, their voices were heard again and their stories told again. Some of those stories might not have been the most poetic or elegant, some of those words may have lacked a certain grace or might have been repetitive, but they were told and they will be told again and again. And that is the right thing to happen and a good thing to happen.

Here's a positive review of the Broomberg and Chanarin project from foto8.

This is from the Paradise Row Gallery.

In June of this year Broomberg and Chanarin traveled to Afghanistan to be embedded with British Army units on the front line in Helmand Province. In place of their cameras they took a roll of photographic paper 50 meters long and 76.2 cm wide contained in a simple, lightproof cardboard box.

They arrived during the deadliest month of the war. On the first day of their visit a BBC fixer was dragged from his car and executed and nine Afghan soldiers were killed in a suicide attack. The following day, three British soldiers died, pushing the number of British combat fatalities to 100. Casualties continued until the fifth day when nobody died.

In response to each of these events, and also to a series of more mundane moments, such as a visit to the troops by the Duke of York and a press conference, all events a photographer would record, Broomberg and Chanarin instead unrolled a seven-meter section of the paper and exposed it to the sun for 20 seconds. The results - strange abstract passages and patterns of black, white and variegated hues - all modulated by the heat and the light - deny the viewer the cathartic effect offered up by the conventional language of photographic responses to conflict and suffering. Instead the viewer is, by default, invited to question their relationship with images of violence and the true nature of the relations between culture, politics and morality.



Working in tandem with this deliberate evacuation of content, are the circumstances of works' production, which amount to an absurd performance in which the British Army were, unsuspectingly, playing the lead role, co-opted by the artists into transporting the box of photographic paper from London to Helmand, from one military base to another, on Hercules and Chinooks, on buses, tanks and jeeps. In this film, the box becomes an absurd, subversive object, its non-functionality sitting in quietly amused contrast to the functionality of the system that for a time served as its host. Like a barium test, the journey of the box became, when viewed from the right perspective, an analytical process, revealing the dynamics of the machine in its quotidian details, from the logistics of war to the collusion between the media and the military.

The Day Nobody Died is the expression of a considered position informed by the last ten years in which Broomberg and Chanarin have followed, to quote Janet Malcolm, "...the camera's profound misanthropy, its willingness to go to unpleasant places where no one wants to venture, its nasty preference for precisely those facets of our nature that we most wish to disown..." Their work has focused on zones of conflict; Rwanda, Darfur, Iraq, Palestine… but has always forsaken the easy production of shock or pity and so has found itself in opposition to the traditional role of the photographer as a professional witness who serves as a moral proxy for the spectator back home. The Day Nobody Died, takes this position to an extreme point - its series of radically non-figurative, unique, action-photographs, comprising a profound critique of conflict photography in the age of embedded journalism and the current crisis in the concept of the engaged, professional witness. 

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Theory for Photography, not against it


Following on from the previous post on Susie Linfield, Politics, Theory and Photography links to her new book, a collection of writings in which Linfield attempts to recover theory for photography rather than against it.

I wonder if the amount of critical theory on photography (and how it's exploitative, cliched, propagandistic and thoroughly wicked) is due to the rather grandiose claims made by photographers, especially the concerned variety (if you really care, there are better jobs where you can make a bigger difference) as well as the ubiquity of average images. And by the same token I wonder if the claims for its exploitative nature compare to those involved in the production of virtually any food, fashion or consumer goods.

It does seem odd that we focus so much of our attention on this sea of averages, when we should be looking (as critics do in film and cinema) at the truly outstanding work. True, there is not that much truely outstanding work, but then neither is there that much in literature or film (the great films of the last couple of years? I'll go for A Prophet - and after that?).


Here is Linfield's description of the book, which I look forward to getting my teeth into.

I teach criticism and read a lot of it, and some years ago I realized how different photography criticism can be in tone and approach from criticism of film, or music, or other cultural forms. Pauline Kael, Greil Marcus, and others are very immersed in their subjects; they write analytically and critically but with love. By contrast, Susan Sontag and her postmodern heirs in the realm of photography criticism were very removed from, even hostile to, the subjects they discuss. That observation, in concert with lessons derived from reading Brecht at the same time (albeit for different purposes), highlighted for me the antipathy to subject matter and the antipathy to emotion in books like On Photography.

Capa’s photos of the Spanish Civil War, or of China after the Japanese invasion, were very clear on political context. You knew what to do with your anger and your horror. Today, looking at images from Sierra Leone or the Congo, one can feel horror, disgust, and great sadness—but what to do in response is much less apparent. Which of the twelve militias now fighting in the Congo do you support? Visual atrocity is much clearer today, but we no longer have the political clarity to accompany it.

At the same time, a lot of what passes for “visual literacy” today is merely visual cynicism. People, especially young people, are very used to saying “photographs lie,” to pointing out how images are manipulated by Photoshop or other means. Such suspicion and skepticism isn’t entirely bad, but I don’t think of it as visual literacy. I don’t urge naïve acceptance or cynical rejection of photos of political violence; the book makes a plea for us to use photographs of atrocity as starting-points to engage with very complicated histories and very specific political crises. If we want to construct a politics of human rights that isn’t merely an abstraction, we need to look at these photographs of suffering, degradation, and defeat. We need to think clearly not only about the relationships among these images, how they function and what they communicate in aggregate, but about the specific conditions each one depicts, no matter how disturbing, shaming, and bewildering an experience that may be.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Photography: The Treacherous Medium



I read The Treacherous Medium by Susie Linfield again. In her 2006 article, Linfield asks why so many people who write about photography hate it so much, why even the act of looking should be so wrong, why photography should (as it is by Susan Sontag) be characterised as...“grandiose,” “treacherous,” “imperial,” “voyeuristic,” “predatory,” “addictive,” “reductive,” and “the most irresistible form of mental pollution.”

She goes on to write about the emotional element of photography as well as its multi-faceted nature, how one genre overlaps into another, how boundaries are blurred and identities mistaken - and possibly how this happens more often than we care to understand in contexts that are presented as otherwise.

I think that is one of the things that appeals so much about photography is this multi-faceted nature - the different claims people make for their work and the different claims we as viewers make for it on their and our own behalf. There are many claims but I think one of the most interesting is the normative claim - when people (who may be conceptual or art photographers more than photojournalists or documentary photographers) are presenting a world not only as it is, but how it should be, if only because that is the way it is - it could be otherwise but which do you prefer. I like to think that is what I do with my pictures as well, but how far I succeed is another question.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Sharmila Tagore and The Look of Love


picture: Sally Mann

The last post looked at The World of Apu and how Satyajit Ray directed the 14 year old female lead, Sharmila Tagore - very simply. Look up, look down, look left, look right resulted in a sumptuous and beautiful scene filled with yearning and love.

I think with any kind of photography, there is a visual Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle at play. We can pretend to be objective or we can pretend to be subjective, but the person determining the picture is outside our control.

Some people have the intelligence to use this. So Sally Mann exploited the boredom of endless reshoots to capture her children complete with elegance, grace and a certain attitude. Her children look moody, grumpy and bored because they are moody, grumpy and bored - with their mother mostly. And that is what makes Mann's work so special. Rineke Dijkstra used minimal direction to allow her subjects to fill the space with bewilderment or their own expectations of what they think they are supposed to be.

In-your-face photographers also get the look they want. Look at the pictures of William Klein, Mark Cohen and especially Bruce Gilden and you see people who are monumentally stressed. They might be stressed because they are living in big cities (or in Cohen's case, a small industrial town), but it's more likely it's because they've got Bruce Gilden in their face with a Leica. So what we see is people who are pissed off (or smiling manically) because Bruce Gilden is in their face. Which is not necessarily the way we read the pictures, but possibly makes them finer than they are before we discovered this universal photographic truth - your camera affects everything it sees.



Hurry up, mum! It's only the bleedin' focus!

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