Thursday, 26 March 2015
A few years back my daughter wrote a little song to celebrate. It went 'Jesus is Dead, Jesus is Dead,Jesus is Alive, Jesus is Alive, an Easter Egg, an Easter Egg!'
Which sums it up really. Yes it's holiday time for the blog. I love chocolate, I love Easter. Looking forward to the next few weeks, after which I will return.
Wednesday, 25 March 2015
picture by Philip Toledano
Philip Toledano has another book out. It's the story of his sister, Claudia. She died when he was 6. It's a heart-breaking book in which snapshots, notes and personal memorabilia are shown alongside a skyscape of floaty clouds. In the years after Claudia's death, Toledano was obsessed with skies and stars and universes. He doesn't remember those years of grief so in the book these serve as a celestial substitute (think of Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death).
They grief is recalled through boxes of keepsakes he found after his parents died. He shows one of the cardboard boxes and then the pages open to reveal pictures of what's inside; a blue checked school dress, a lock of hair, a picture drawn in felt-tip. "To Mummy and Daddy. Love Claudia," it reads. Coiled within this memorabilia is a tight knot of grief. It's a very small leap to guess what went on over these boxes, the tightened stomach and the spasms of tears. It's there on the page. Now, Toledano is a photographer and a father, so there is a double loss, that he feels as a brother and that he feels as a father. And with time there are more complex resonances. He becomes a different kind of son and feels the echoes of his parents' grief, expressed through emotions that he never quite remembers but he is reliving now through the prism of his new fatherhood. We see a picture his father drew of the headstone that was to be made for Claudia, and then we see the words Toledano wrote.
"My sweet, gentle father.
What must that have been like?
To draw his own daughter's
The paper is black and complicated and sometimes backed in super-gloss olive-drab. It's the kind of colour you used to get in Airfix kits of Spitfires and Messerschmidts, but I'm sure that's nothing to do with anything. I'm not sure what it's to do with but it doesn't matter. The story comes through a mixing of image, memory, text and relationship and it reaches out to us in a most direct manner.
Toledano productive and puts it out there using all the means available to him, which might be many. He takes a chance and he tries to get an audience, a big audience. I like that and I think it should be something of a lesson to those of us who delight in our niches.
Not everyone likes his work though. Anouk Kruithof did a blog post earlier in the year along the lines of, so then, there are so many lists of top 10 photobooks, how about a list of a book that you hate. So after doing the books she loved (and it's a great list even if it goes a bit Nathan Barley at times), she did the book she hated. She selected Toledano's Reluctant Father.
I kind of understand what she is getting at, but ultimately the reasons she doesn't like the book are the reasons I do like the book. That might be my taste. I like grand narratives and archetypes. I love Bollywood and anime and Calamity Jane. I am easily moved and I like being moved. And The Reluctant Father does move me. It is a really good attempt to express something that is not often talked about but is a very common sentiment, a male equivalent of the post-natal depression and domestic overload and suppressed infanticide that new mothers so often have. Toledano uses his picture and tells a story quite consciously and to as large an audience as possible. He uses sentiment and he uses emotion and takes us on a journey. And he's quite right to do so. That's what story telling is all about.
Kruithof's post was passed over in silence. Averted eyes and online clearings of the throat gave a "er, yes, well, let's move on from here" feeling to things. Nobody wanted to volunteer their own thoughts, even though there are plenty of people who HATE plenty of books. They just didn't want to say it. They weren't as brave as Kruithof. She had an opinion that asked for more critique and she expressed it.
The truth is photography is full of different worlds; your commercial, your editorial, your fashion, your art, your academic, your photobook and so on. We like to stay cosy in our own photographic orbits. It's all very easy to critique somebody outside your immediate firmanent (that's why saying Jimmy Nelson is crap doesn't count for dickshit!) but somebody who is in the same orbit. That's a difficult thing to do because we don't like to piss on people in our backyard.
And of course these photoworlds overlap all the time, in these little tectonic photo-shifts where one culture comes up against another. Toledano comes from a more commercial world and I quite like the energy of this commercial world, both for its ability to get things done without agonising about it endlessly, but also for its ability to see beyond the immediacy of itself and its self-awareness that what it does for a living is often actually crap. The cliche of the photographer who makes a good living from photography (that's the mythical commercial photographer) is "the personal work keeps me sane." We all make nonsense at times, but perhaps it's only those who make the most transactional nonsense are honest enough to admit it.
It's a rare thing to get anybody making 'personal work', writing for an academic journal, publishing a self-indulgent photobook or receiving an arts council grant to confess in public, for the record, that "actually, this stuff that I photographed for my latest project is a load of unadulterated dreck! That's why I shoot weddings. It keeps me grounded and stops me being a tosspot." It's a rare thing but it shouldn't be so rare because it is often true. But for people who make work commercially you hear it all the time. From Blumenfeld and down, it's a constant refrain and a recognition of the different photographic strata you need to simultaneously inhabit.
The photo ghettos you get within different photographic genres (are they genres? What are they?) are echoed regionally. In the UK, there are little photo-ghettos in Brighton, South Wales, Birmingham, the Black Country, Belfast, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Bristol, all divided and split between little generic factionettes. Oh, and there's a whole bunch in London. Some are community based, some academic, some photobook, some a bit punk or self-consciously cool, most a bit of a mix of everything. Most of these communities don't have much money, some do. Some are open-minded and welcoming, some are more closed. There's support and communication for the most part, but also a bit of bitchiness, envy and resentment - everywhere.
And that's leaving out the biggest photographic communities, photo clubs and online groups that deal with travel or wildlife or cars or certain kinds of landscape. They are the photography communities, the ones that I rarely deal with in these blog posts, interesting though they undoubtedly are. And there's a reason for that. Which I shouldn't have to go into. I already do this blog to keep me sane from other stuff.
The photobook world is a strange one. In this article, Francis Hodgson (whose writing I always enjoy. He's got opinions and they're not silly) wonders at the photobook world and why certain things are considered photobooky and others aren't (the example of Donovan Wylie may not be the best. I have the impression that Wylie is much more of an white-wall man rather than a book man). Like Kruithof before him, Hodgson asks where the quality is and by extension where the non-quality is? And why the photobook world is not mass market?
Again there are different photobook worlds, and I suspect that Hodgson is talking about something beyond what goes in the world I like to think I write about. The photobook world is small, but it is open. Anyone can join it, it's quite welcoming. It's quite democratic. Anyone can write about any book they like; a catalogue, a monograph, a collection, a novel illustrated with archive pictures. I know I do.
But making a photobook is also a very lived-in and a very visible process. It's shared. In a quiet way, it can be a performance. That's what both Toledano and Kruithof understand. Toledano's Days with my Father was a hugely successful project that went way beyond the photobook world and engaged its viewers both through the publication and the preceding social media version of the project. It was moving and, as with The Reluctant Father and When I was Six, was intended to move. He tells a story and he tells it extraordinarily well.
Kruithof's books are very different. They are a documentation of her socially involved photography. In Untitled, she looked at how we curate pictures, how we look at them. And she got us to look at them by not showing them. She made us slow down in our viewing of the pictures. She addressed their slippiness, but in a sparky, slightly chaotic way, which is at odds with the stereotype of the cool design-obsessessed Dutch. She goes beyond cool. Which I really like.
That's what the best photobooks do. They make us slow down in our viewing of images, they build up ideas and stories and pictures. Few of them are the ultimate finished article. They are part of a way of using images, words, layout, colour, design, emotion and a hundred other elements essential to telling a story that has at least some kind of visual element. They take chances.
Toledano published his book with Dewi Lewis, with Lewis covering the costs. Kruithof self-publishes most of the time. And that costs money. In the past, she's done the artist's book overlap, so between them they cover most of the photobook gamut from the rough-edged handmade to offset, clothbound, from an edition of a few hundred to one of a few thousand. Either way, within that gamut everyone can make a photobook (and if you can't reduce the edition to ten or twenty and make it by hand). Everyone can buy a photobook. Everyone can write about a photobook and say it's good or it's bad and why that might be the case. this section has been edited so a few corrections have been put it here
It's a bit punk in other words, but with the proviso that we're not quite at the stage where people in Iowa, the Potteries or Fishponds are hanging around bus stations in charity-shop jackets with Akina or SPBH or Dalpine written on the back. We're not quite at that stage yet.
The photobook world is very open and accessible. It's not a closed world or a self-selecting world in the way other photography environments are. We can't all get access to a fine print, or an archive or even get to the big city to see an earth-shattering show. Not even online. But with photobooks, even online, we can often see what is not at our fingertips. There are people showing the work, writing about the work, selling the work.
It's social in other words. At the lower end of the photobook food chain, people are making an effort to make books. And they are doing it in a community-minded way. It joins up and it's supportive. It's supportive for the simple reason that most of the people making photobooks don't have much money, are doing it independently and they're finding it difficult. They're struggling but they're doing it. That's reason enough to support them.
For the big monographs and the exhibition catalogues there is a different market. They feature as free content in newspapers, magazines and online. They have a far bigger audience than, for example, most of the books featured on this blog or on Photo Eye. And quite right too. More often than not the photography is great and the stories are great and the pictures are great. In a trade kind of way, sniff sniff - (the other side of the whole punk analogy is that there is that fetishisation of small labels, the obscure and it could be incredibly exclusive. And it only lasted a few years and ended up transmogrifying into something awful and then the eighties happened and god help us! Who are the New Romantics of the photobook world. Find them and kill them all before it's too late).
But on this blog, on most blogs or online sites, the books featured are made by people who are self-publishing and self-marketing or publish with small publishers. The books they make are built up through enthusiasm and passion and a large degree of trust. Much of the time these books are shown as works in progress, and the people making them put their work on the line digitally as it is made. And they're selling their books through independent booksellers who are as far away from Amazon as possible. These booksellers do it for love too, and add a real personal touch, and don't make much money from it. But they have some fun, and they get things done.
Embedded in this little photobook world, in the Photo-Eye Lists and the Clubs and the Festivals is this basic truth. There is one side of it where making a photobook isn't just about making great word, it's about taking part in something that is very hands-on, giving and social.
And part of the totality of photobooks is the idea that the whole thing is moving in some direction, that there is a development of ways of working, designing and showing photobooks. When I review a book I try to engage with the thought process behind the photography, the book, the way of seeing, the engagement with family or people or place. Or the materials, or touch or size.
It's part experimental in other words. It's small and it's a preservation of our humanity in a detached and disengaged world. And it's enjoyable.
Not many photobooks are truly great. But the whole photobook phenomenon is something that is great, has impetus and punches way beyond its weight. People enjoy writing about it, debating it. I do, Toledano does, Kruithof does.
So that is why I think Anouk Kruithof never got to much of a response to her idea (despite it being a great idea). And why people are not so critical of the smaller photobooks. Because why bother? When life is tough, you don't have much money but you want to express yourself, what's wrong with that? If you're working hard and trying to stay true to something, and are reaching that some place, however imperfectly, why should you criticise it, why should you try to judge the legacy of something that may not have too much impetus in itself but does as part of something bigger.
I can get annoyed by anything and everyone, including myself. I do so on a daily basis. It's all annoying isn't it. But it's tiresom to be constantly annoyed. I'd far rather be happy. I'd far rather take pleasure in life of photography than constantly find it problematic or troublesome. Fuck that for a game of soldiers!
Mudita is the word for taking pleasure in somebody else's happiness. It's the opposite of Schadenfreude. It's a Buddhist concept which is part of a world view where overall contentment and happiness reigns. It's a word that fits Photobook Land, because it is very positive on the whole. "That's a great book," is a phrase you hear so often. And it's one that makes me happy.
I'm happy so you're happy too. That's the spirit!
Buy When I was Six Here
Monday, 23 March 2015
I enjoyed writing this article on Ken Grant for the BJP earlier in the year. In the feature, I describe the process of a Ken Grant crit, the thing where you lay your pictures on the table and Grant gives it the once over.
'You’d bring out an unedited mess of pictures and Grant would start talking in his mellifluous poet’s voice, his thoughts weaving in and out of the pictures, connecting music, literature and photographers to them.'
'He touched on places where life shone, where soul came through, and left the rest alone; it was never about you, or the images, but about the wider world, the quiet moments, what you might do and what you could do. Then you’d leave the room, never quite sure what had happened, but always knowing that what mattered was the meaning and the rhythm and the soul, and that what you could do was what you hadn’t done.'
So if your pictures were rubbish, you'd come out of there with a warm honey-tongued glow of cultural references and multiple possibilities, and a slow burn of a realisation that actually you needed to do something. If your pictures were good, Ken wouldn't say much so you'd feel good about that, but you'd miss out on lyrical endeavours. The pleasures came from the pictures on the table.
It was a zero sum game.
Reading it again made me wonder about other crit styles which had me thinking of the old taxonomy of Nazi General Stereotypes (the shouty, the austere, the sadistic/pervey, the cultured, and the Rommel model).
I think you could probably fit all those into the photography teaching slot, But what are the other types. A short scientific survey revealed these, among others. But I'm sure there are many more.
1. The card sharp (shuffle-shuffle how-about-this, shuffle-shuffle how-about-this...)
2. The meat market judge ( no, no, no, no, yes, no, yes, no...)
3. The Ethicist
4. The nit-picker
5. The camera operator
6. The do-what-I-do Crit ("everyone should do what I did")
7. The Empathetic Crit ("what is it you're trying to do?")
8. The you're-not-going-to-make-a-living-from-this-so-what's-the-point
9. The It's Shite and I'm not afraid to say it Crit
10. The My Great Career Crit
11. The Everything's Lovely Crit
12. The X-Factor Crit (can I make them cry?)
13. The Auteur/Whisperer
Friday, 20 March 2015
“Before the first war, he worked in Argentina and I think he had quite a good time there but later on when they were married he was offered a job in Buenos Aires and could have gone back and had a good life, but Ama (my grandmother) was too dependent on my mother.”
“My mother was the youngest and they really got on well or my grandmother being a bit controlling, my mother did as she was told. So my grandmother would have found that far too difficult. And my mother probably would not really have settled in too well. I don’t know, but I don’t think she would have wanted to go either.”
I went on Instagram the other week, mainly because I wasn't on Instagram and why not, but also to put a shape to my German family album pictures and make a coherent story (which goes from power lines, Siemens and Argentina to a brothel in Nice, a head on a train track and a feature in the Deutsche Algemeine Zeitung on the in-etiquette of Nazi salutes. There's a skein of domesic sadness running through there, White Ribbon meets the Tin Drum but without the boxing gloves or the screaming. But without the story, the pictures become generic. That's interesting in its own right and the generic is always going to be there (it's 1930s Germany!), but how can you take them in a new direction. Should you take them in a new direction.
It's difficult because, even though I know the stories, as soon as you begin putting words next to the pictures, things start shifting and get a life of their own. And the blurring between different versions of the same story, and the gaps in the stories and the motivations behind the stories are also fascinating in their own right. But how do you fill those gaps, and what does that do to the overall picture. How creative can you be with your story, how much of a life will the pictures get as a result and what kind of a life is the question.
The other reason to go on Instagram is to give myself some kind of deadline. I'm speaking at the Vienna Photobook Festival ( where speakers include William Klein, Olivia Arthur, Michael Mack, Nico Degiorgis and Gerry Badger) and the theme of my talk is, provisionally The Photobook, Text and Narrative. How exactly do you tell a story with words, how do they connect with pictures, when does the whole add up to more than the part and what are the photobooks that hit that text/image sweet spot. And how do I make everything a bit less wordier than it is now.
And here's the Photobook Bristol Festival progamme. More on this later.
Thursday, 19 March 2015
John Divola, Dogs Chasing my Car in the Desert, 1996-98
A few weeks back, there was something on the blog about Moriyama's Stray Dog being the best dog picture, to which a few people screamed 'no, it's not, it's Koudelka's black dog', a ravish half-beast, half demon, drooling tail-chasing shadow of a mutt.
The best dog picture might be up for grabs but there is absolutely no doubt about what the best dog series is. It's John Divola's 'Dogs Chasing my Car in the Desert'. These are dog-like-dogs doing what the title says; they chase John Divola's car in the desert. They're horrible dogs, all muscle and teeth and craziness. But they're energetic, literal, of a place and funny. These desert dogs would watch Divola's car drive past on the way in and then get up ready to chase his car on the way out. They knew he wasn't going anywhere, that he was heading into a dead end. They knew he'd be back. Smart and lazy they got their fun where they could find it. And that's written into the pictures; they may be mad-eyed, snarling brutes of a thing, but these dogs are having a good time. All thanks to John Divola.
So it was lovely to read this interview in Saint Lucy yesterday, and to read about the breadth of Divola's practice, The writer Durant says there is '...appropriation, performance, site-specificity, and architectural interventions a la Gordon Matta Clarke, interest in semiotics'. A lot of this work (like the Zuma series where he paints up the interior of a deserted house) resemembles work that could have been made in the last few years, or at least touches on the same interventionist concerns.
And it's work that comes from a moment where there was a liberty in how he made his work; he says, ' I was also in a context where nobody cared; there was nothing at stake. It was very liberating for me, I felt like I had great freedom.'
This freedom is a kind of freedom from the tyranny of seeing too much and hearing too much and reading too much (it's the kind of tyranny that, to paraphrase Soth, comes from sitting at a computer and thinking that everything has been photographed. Get out into the world and that is no longer the case.) Seeing too much can weigh you down, reading too much theory can weigh you down. 'The beauty of photography is that is pulls you not only literally out into the world, but pulls your consciousness into a mode of observation that is really rewarding, almost addicting.' says Divola.
That pulling can be joyful and fun. I think we agonise far too much about photography in all its forms, rather than enjoying it for what it is and relishing that addictive delight in the image, the book, the wall. We spend too much time nit-picking and looking for holes in work and sometimes forget that we are actually making fools of ourselves with our bad grace and bullying tones, and that all we are doing is creating barriers of expression both for ourselves and for others. And sometimes there is a partiality and selectivity to our critical thinking that is most unbecoming.
But when we put the focus on the energy, the dynamism, the pleasure of the work, then more uplifting elements come into play, and photography becomes about creativity, art and life, not about the dark austerities of photography's shadowlands. And then we have more freedom to experiment, make mistakes and create something new. We'll still make rubbish but we'll have a better time making it and because less energy is wasted on those things that sap our will, ultimately better, more interesting and more exciting work will emerge. Ahh, sweeping generalisations. Don't you love them! This is what Divola said about Isolated Houses (the project into which Dogs Chasing Cars is woven)
'But I was old enough by that point that I just didn’t care. I loved being out there, it was the most enjoyable body of work I have ever done. You are out on some dirt road, the car window is open and the wind is blowing, its beautiful and no one is bothering you, the doing of that body of work was just so fantastic. I gave myself permission to do it even though I didn’t think it was particularly cutting edge.'
There's enjoyment and fun in there and a sense of just getting things done and not thinking about it too much. I detect a sense of glee in those chasing dog pictures too. Glee on the part of Divola. He shot them with one hand on the camera, one on the wheel and you can imagine him teasing the dogs as he accelerates and coasts, accelerates and coasts, winding the dogs up as he goes. That might be why they look so mad. Or maybe that's a desert dog thing. I don't know.
Wednesday, 18 March 2015
I didn't get to go to Format Festival at the weekend, because it was Mother's Day and I had to cook breakfast, make dinner, wrap presents and generally serve up the delights that are due to the mother of my child. It was lovely.
And so, by all accounts, was Format. It's had rave reviews from the people I've spoken to who went. But I sadly missed the opening.
Instead, the picture I saw most of in the last few days was this one, spotted during my morning drive along mists of the A46 yesterday morning. It was an exciting drive as drives go - we saw a bunch of guinea fowl and a bus blew smoke into our window. But no matter what happened the eyes had to go front of road and there she was in all her skin-glowing domestic glory, the Bosch lady; for a full 30 minutes, until Bosch went Stroud way and we went Bristol way. Then I kind of missed her, I must confess. She looked quite kind all in all.
The picture shows a woman turning up the central heating on her 5-year-guaranteed Greenstar Boiler (Best Buy in Which September 2014). England is the land of mild winters and cold houses, so Central Heating is a valuable thing. I should know, I used to sell it door-to-door a long time ago. Well, I didn't sell it. I tried to sell it, but it's a tough call in Stockport where "I don't hold with Central Heating" and "It makes it muggy" and "I like it cold" were your standard answers to some dopey central-heating touting kid with a clipboard and an army jacket knocking on your door of an evening.
So there she is, turning on the heating. She's looking down at her health-filled toddlers snuffling into the shagpile, content that their flushed cheeks and glowing toes are from the vital warmth emanating from her magic dial; it's a comfort nipple, spilling out warmth and domesticity in gentle streams. And despite her scrubbed-up cheeks, she's red-faced and flushed, so there's a domestic double whammy in there. Maybe it's not toddlers she's looking at, maybe that dial she's turning is cranking up the innuendo. But probably not, no definitely not. That would be far too racey for Little Miss Scrubbed Face.
I know I'm supposed to pretend that pictures are just fictions as this one obviously is, and that they shouldn't influence me, but they do. That's why people put them on the back of vans or newspapers, so people can see them and be affected. And as we drove up the A46, I got more and more affected by this one and it's propagandisation of a wholesome adult with a boiler and a sensibility to match her exfoliated skin. It's a representation of somebody who's been visually stripped of what makes her flesh and blood. And so have her imaginary children and her home and her life. She's a plastic being, a manufactured concern, the kind of person who has learned to care deeply about the M4 Corridor and the Balance of Payments and the Budget Deficit because that's what you do when you're grown up. She's a Radio 2 News Update transmogrified into living, breathing, dial switching human flesh.
And there's a real, living, breathing person beneath that ad. Just like there's a real living, breathing person behind this cover picture for the Guardian Family Section. Which thanks to the caption is possibly the most annoying picture I have seen all year.
It wasn't just me who was annoyed by it, a whole slew of mothers looked at it and guffawed. There was a disjoint between their experience, their post-natal appearance and the particular smugness that the caption (and it is the caption, not the picture) provides. The poor mother has been Guardianified, She seems quite delighted with herself but within the context of the Family section she's been made aspirational. And again, even though we know it's a fiction and that if you stick a different caption on that grin of deluded delight could become something more akin to the threshold of despair. But that's not happened and so we all looked at this picture and bubbled up a little one-minute hate and had the photography people among us receding into our limited fundamentalist Dijkstra Childbirth fandoms. And it's not the mother's fault, nor that of the photographer. It's the Guardian's! You have to hate the fucking Guardian sometimes.
See more of Jenny Lewis's series (from which the above is taken), One Day Young, here without the annoying Guardianisation cover.
Tuesday, 17 March 2015
I visited my friend Tadhg Devlin in Liverpool a couple of years back for the Liverpool Look Festival. His son Patrick had this book on his bookshelf. It's called Where's Larry. It's like Where's Wally except instead of Wally, it's Larry. Larry's Irish and he's a leprachaun!
Here's a couple of easy ones.
Then it gets harder. Where's Larry?
Happy St Patrick's Day!
Friday, 13 March 2015
Lisa, the night I met her through law enforcement. I followed up with her about a month later, beginning a journalistic relationship that continues today.
A few weeks back, The Eichmann Show aired in the UK. It was a drama about the filming of the Eichmann Trial in 1961, and was the first globally screened documentary.
During the drama there was a great line in there which encapsulates whether serious drama, documentary or anything should have an entertainment element in it. It's the part where a witness collapses during the trial and the producer Milton asks the director if he got the shot.
Milton: Did you get it?
Leo: We got almost everything but I think we missed the collapse.
Milton: Missed the collapse. Jesus, Leo.
Leo: We got a couple of seconds of it, but it's impossible to anticipate something like that.
Milton: That was a stand-out moment, Leo, like someone crying out in the auditorium. Talking points. Human drama.
Leo: That's a real damaged life in there, not a fucking TV show.
Milton: And a fucking TV show. AND. AND.
It's a refutation in some ways of the old Adorno idea that it was barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz, that anything that reeked of the culture (be it high, be it low, but especially be it popular) from which the Holocaust arose was to blame for that holocaust. And if you like, it's a position in which there is a coldness, a calculation, and a displaced sense of one's own self-delusion that is even more in common with the foundations upon which the holocaust ( or other horrors of war) was built.
Keep on with the poetry, the drama, the entertainment and the TV shows in other words. I'll take them over Adorno any day of the week (and please, if you are really into Adorno or the rest of the Frankfurt school and I've made fundamental errors in this post, please fuck off and weave yourself a hair shirt!)
Lots of people like that photograph-and-feel-the-pain stance. There's a Stafford Cripps kind of mentality prevalent in photography that you should suffer for your work and so should the people who look at it. And it'll do you good. And you'll like it. Same way you like wheat grass juice or quinoa or salad without dressing (my wife calls it English Salad) or thrashing yourself across the back with stripped birch.
I wondered about this week as I read through Laia Abril's brilliant Epilogue. The Epilogue is a book that deals with a really difficult subject through the heartache of a family, through missed opportunity and an ever present sense of regret. It's a difficult thing to do, to make a book like that. You have to be brutal. You have to tell the story and you have to make people want to read the story. You're designing pages around real people's lives, you are literally laying out their emotions on the page. The temptations to ease your foot off the gas a little must come up again and again. That's what makes it difficult. there is real anguish and pain that is still present in the lives of the people who surrounded Cammy and must be made apparent in the pages of the book.
That's a real damaged life in there. And a photo book. And...
There's also an obsessiveness in there to follow the story to its dark heart. And that same obsessiveness is apparent in Tim Matsui's much shared article on winning a World Press Multimedia Prize for his work on sex trafficking.
The title of the story is I Just Won a World Press Photo Award and a POYi, But I’m Not Celebrating . Again, there are real damaged lives in there, but there is also a story to tell and Matsui tells that story beautifully in the post (which I've read) and I'm sure he does in the film as well (which I haven't seen - but here's the trailer).
It's heartbreaking just to read and see the pictures and it's done with a purpose in mind, to use documentary storytelling to engage and more importantly to change attitudes towards sex trafficking - to make it visible and to understand what lies on the surface and beneath the surface and how we collude in it much more than we realise. There's also a huge journalistic interest in how sex trafficking is represented and managed at a police, community and legal level. It's ridiculously complex and Matsui isn't holding back in the scale of his ambition.
It's a bit terrifying to be honest, and it demonstrates a level of commitment that really answers the question of why Matsui writes, films and photographs. He doesn't do it for photography's sake but for a wider purpose. He's committed to his belief in a way that few of us are and that is so very admirable. It's also a bit of a lesson for those of us who would like to think photography can change things, because he might be an example of somebody who is making that absurd proposition a little bit real. If you want to change things through photography, look at Matsui - this is one example of what you need to do. It's not just taking pictures anymore. It never was.
I don't know if the post was entertaining, but it was certainly engaging and was written to draw the reader into what Matsui is doing. He ended the post with some general thoughts on photography which are worth repeating. And not just for people who are making this kind of committed work. But for anybody making any kind of work. You can't sit back and be lazy. You have to be doing things, constantly. Non-stop. Never-ending. It's exhausting just thinking about it. But it's easier than ever if you have a mind for it. And remember that it's a story that you're telling.
For now, let’s just say, we’re in a new era. If you want to make stories, you have to think about publishing and distribution by yourself. These things requires nimbleness, ingenuity, and willingness to go where the audience is. You can get to those places more easily then an entire publication can!
Photographers looking for validation through awards and publishing limit us to the traditional model. Think bigger. If you say you want to make a difference, then be proactive. Don’t rely on traditional distribution models.
Engagement is not necessarily a photographer’s core competency, but engagement is essential. That’s what partners are for. Find them and build something custom. If it is reflexive and good and novel, the traditional distributors will take notice. Change in the industry can occur.
Finally, we’re not just content providers, we’re journalists turning a critical eye on the world and giving voice to the voiceless.
Always remember that.
Wednesday, 11 March 2015
I was buying bread in my local deli here in Bath the other week. It was early and and a certain kind of parent was out with their little ones. The parents had kind, mean faces with eyes that went one way and words that went another. The meaning came through in voices like a gust of November drizzle. Everything was clipped, considered and cold, the terminator personality of pinched cheeks and muffled emotions
The kids were kids, boys gunning for the pain au chocolat and the almond croissants and with no hope of either. But you could see the weight of their duty-laden world on their four-year-old shoulders, you could see the granite freezing into their little faces as the politics of monied envy came to bite. It was always November in their house; November for them and November for everyone they came in contact with.
I wasn't in a good mood that morning. I was in a better mood two days later when I went to a poetry slam that was part of the Bath Literature Festival. The venue was the Porter, a pub which is now something different to what it used to be. Upstairs it was filled with people living the politics of envy. It was all very restrained and you could just hear the smugness ripple above the square plates and seasonal ingredients.
Downstairs it was restrained too, but in a fresh-faced, creative, trying sort of way. We tried not to be restrained. We never quite made it but we tried.
The poetry slam was great and something unrestrained and eccentric won it. But the highlight was Chris Redmond and his poems of music, parenthood and loss. He railed against the abomination of Kenny G., lamented the loss of his bohemian days of drinking, smoking and drumming in dives with sticky floors, sticky tables and sticky walls.
And he mourned the loss of childhood evident in the little boys he taught the drums to, the same boys that I'd seen in that deli two days earlier. These were boys who played for their parents and beat out a neat two by four (is that right? God knows) but with no heart or soul because that was the way their parents were making them, in their image with jeans and tweeds and accents made to break your being.
What they had to do, Redmond told us, was "Let the Pig Out!" He mourned that they couldn't get down and dirty and bash the drums and make a scene. He wondered at the lack of life, and how everything became a grade and a formula and a certificate, something outside the here and the now of the banging of the drums and the beating of the heart. What they had to do, what we all have to do, Redmond told us, was "Let the Pig Out!"
Dirty, messy, obsessive, twisted and mad, it's where life comes from, it's what life is. That was Redmond's sentiment and it's the same in photography where the leaning towards the neat and tidy and the market-driven is countered by brutal single-mindedness, the downright eccentric, and the need to tell a story. And I think that's the photography that I enthuse about, it's work that isn't done for anyone else or has too much of an eye on a publisher or a gallery or hitting the top notes of concept, but is gimlet-eyed, sometimes brutal and often odd. That might be a bit romantic, but it serves the post. Let the Pig Out!
King Bladud letting his pig out.
Monday, 9 March 2015
I was listening to the news on the radio this morning as I do, and up popped a story about the dangers of legal highs. One man had it so bad he 'jumped off the altar' in a church - what happened to him after he jumped off the altar we didn't find. Another one imagined the police were coming because he had his fingers stuck under a toilet door.
The quality of the legal high is not good in other words. It's so bad that prioners in British jails use one legal high, Spice, to torture their fellow inmates - give over the recommended dose and 'it's like being in hell.
I don't think Guilherme Gerais took any legal highs in making his book Intergalactico. It's too far out for that. He gets way above altar level in this black and white, grain-spattered foray to interplanetary space. So if there are any drugs involved, they are made of tried and tested natural ingredients guaranteed not to have you messing with your fingers under toilet doors.
It's a book about space and our place in it, about the earth and the trees and the way we all spin around a star no matter what planet we live on. It starts with the cover which is a lovely thing; a symetrical design that stretches over the back and the front cover. It's centre lies in the spine and it's a little asteroid-like moon/planet. It looks like the moon where the Clangers used to live. Encircling this satellite is a circular wheel that looks like a space station. And all around this are dotted lines and circles and designs that have a low-fi scientific feel. Doc from Back to the Future might have drawn this - and look what he could do!
Open the book and there is a postcard which tells us that 'experience, as you know, is a sort of remembering, all that lives has already been imagined.' Then there are some words on the 'final stage', the strangeness of this world, a world in which '...there is only this wide desert, an absence of space.'
The preamble to the book has us going into the desert, a grainy desert with a motorbike in it. We keep looking at the earth and everything goes spacey. There are rock walls that look like asteroids and tunnels that look like galaxies. A handwritten message from Gerais says: Colin. The journey starts here. 2045. RUN!
So run we do and there are trees, and footprints and little signs that all is not well with this world, that the truth is out there, that something, sometime, somehow is going to happen and space is involved and where space is involved with earth, things don't turn out good for nobody. And running isn't going to help you none.
Symbols of keys and trees and secret runes follow. Is this a photographic map Gerais is showing us or some kind of game? Or a bit of both. Play your cards wrong and you will end up in a wilderness with vultures, a sign that says SPACE MAGIK, the dark side is coming and it's coming from the stars. It's going to wipe this planet clean.
But all the time there are people listening and people looking. We see this in the satellite dishes and the binoculars and the fries dropped in panic. Dinosaur bones and a shard-like landscape show us what has been and will be again. For the unlucky, there's a skeleton holding its brains, for the fortunate paths and corridors that provide a temporary escape to a world that will be Mad Max meets the Dice Man with an ending that is apocalypse giving birth to a new Eden. Stay and you will die. Run and you will find.
Buy the book here.
Read Adam Bell's review for Photo Eye here.
Read Joerg Colberg's review here.
Friday, 6 March 2015
'weirpearls': the flickers of light from a splash of water
Robert Macfarlane is a word collector. He collectors words that describe the landscape. And when you have a word for something, it changes what you see in the world. It makes it visible and it heightens your senses to what is around you.
In the same way, if you don't talk about something, if you skirt around it or remove the vocabulary from the language, your world view loses a particular perspective.
In this article in last Saturday's Guardian, Macfarlane wrote about the change in language in the Oxford Junior Dictionary, how words like kingfisher, heron and acorn were being replaced by bullet-point, attachment and blog. How a basic lexis that assumes just a modicum of familiarity (and delight, because that is what you feel when you see the blue flash of a kingfisher) with the natural world being replaced not just by a technology-centred lexis but one in which the very idea of passion, delight or creativity has been eradicated in favour of a bland, numb, conformist way of seeing the world.
Macfarlane isn't interested in this language. He collects words that take you out into the land and makes you see it in a new way, but one that is also instantly familiar to anyone who ever leaves the city. Words like smeuse, which '...is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”'
'Shetlandic has a word, pirr, meaning “a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water”'
You hear these word and you start seeing them all over the place. Or feeling them, or looking more closely at what is in front of your eyes and wondering what that something could be called. What is the word for the bumpy flow of water over a rock in a stream, or the pearl like shimmers of water splashed into your face, or the blow of the sea breeze on your underarm hair on a summer's day when you're sunbathing on the beach. And when there isn't a word for something, isn't it an excuse to invent one, especially when it is something as recognisable as this:
When Gerard Manley Hopkins didn’t have a word for a natural phenomenon, he would simply – wonderfully – make one up: shivelight, for “the lances of sunshine that pierce the canopy of a wood”
After reading the article, I went for a walk in the valleys where I live and started seeing things that were familiar, but didn't have a name. And I wondered what their name would be. The possibility of language enriched what I was seeing and experiencing. Macfarlane believes that if we don't keep this language alive through the richness of an experiential lexis, then the landscape becomes a 'blandscape'. It becomes a dead corporate site in which to grow bullet-pointed wheat and commitee-crammed chickens.
Experience leads to language and language leads to seeing. And seeing leads to photography. There are many people who work tangentially with these Macfarlane ideas; Paul Gaffney and Andy Sewell spring to mind as photographers who combine the experiential with the psychologeographical. And there's Dominick Tyler who does it in a more direct way with his Landreader Project. Here he matches up landscape images with old and regional landscape terms to create a visual/lexical glossary.
But it is difficult to preserve that gut-placed experience of these words in photography. There is something primal about them, something seasonal and sensory. They are landscape-sense words that connect into a dark part of our lizard brains.
So I wondered about what photography project connected best of all to this idea of language and sensation and history and then I saw Thom and Beth Atkinson's project, Missing Buildings. Well, first of all I saw it and kind of thought nice, but I haven't got £100 to buy a special edition - so no thanks.
But then I heard Rudi Thoemmes of RRB Books and Photobook Bristol praising it to the hilt. And because Rudi is no mug, I gave it another look and clicked through the updates and the texts. That made a difference.
Something that hadn't quite registered before clicked into place with this little text by Jem Southam.
Growing up in Britain in the 1950's meant journeying through cities still full of bomb craters, piles of rubble, vacant lots and the fascinating spectacle of homes sheered off along one end. Wallpapers, doorways, fireplaces were all exposed and added a surreal and almost decorative element to the urban environment. That so many such sites may still exist has been brought home to me recently by the brilliant typological series sought out and photographed by Thom and Beth Atkinson.
You had those bombsites and ruins in the 1970s and the 1980s too. And I saw them But it had never occurred to me that they still existed into the 1990s, the noughties and the twenty-tens (?), even though I see these reminders on a regular basis and they self-evidently do exist. And have been photographed existing.
So it's an example of photography providing evidence of something and changing the way you interact with your urban environment. It's an urban smeuse if you like, but instead of a space made by animals it's a blank wall or empty space made by bombs. It deserves a better word than Missing Buildings. BombGap?
Atkinson's photographs hint at the gut-wrenching violence of what happened to these buildings, the reason there are all these blank walls and dead ends. But it is the paintings and photographs that are shown on the Missing Buildings fund-raising website that also add a sense of trauma to these contemporary dead spaces, and trail of dusty footprints that go all the way back to the realities and mythologies of the Second World War and the Blitz, but also resonate in the same way that Macfarlane's sensory landscape words resonate; by touching on the grand narratives that are hard-wired into us, home, flight, fire, and death.
A collection of wartime documentary photographs depicting bomb damage, taken from Thom and Beth's research for Missing Buildings
‘When it is all over, a few of the wrecked buildings might well be left as permanent ruins… To posterity they will as effectually represent the dissolution of our pre-war civilisation as Fountains Abbey does the dissolution of the monasteries.’
John Piper Architectural Review 1941
Back the project here.
Thursday, 5 March 2015
Yolanda by Ignacio Navas is a modest book (Navas calls it a fanzine). It's about a woman called Yolanda, and it tells her story and that of her boyfriend, Gabriel. This is how the story ends:
She died December 6th, 1995.
I already didn't like Christmas much, so from that year on, I haven't been able to stand it.
It was hard, very hard. I was 25, very young. It was a mess.
- MY UNCLE GABRIEL
The book is small and handy, A5 size. It has a soft cover that looks like the kind of branded wrapping paper you get on a box of chocolates. But instead of Leonidas or Galler (and thank you Philippe, they were fabulous!) you have the name Yolanda on the paper. It's not the best cover.
(and thanks to Nico Baumgarten for pointing out it's like the writing on the back of old snapshots - and nothing to do with chocolate! That's my belly talking.)
Get inside though and you have a series of pictures from Uncle Gabriel's album mixed in with a very spare use of Navas's own location shots (read more about the background here).
All the way through, there's a snapshot feel and it looks like the 1980s however. This is not a slice and dice, mix and match throw a few old pictures in project. The snapshots are the soul of the book and they fit perfectly with the commentary of Gabriel that is slotted between the pages in half-page ten-line snippets that are about Gabriel and his friends and his dead-end life.
We all met up after work, 5 or 6 cars, and in each car 4 or 5 guys, all the gang was there.
It wasn't just taking drugs and laying around. I went to work high when I had 20-hour shifts.
Spent the whole day gong up and down in the van or else no fucking one could have stood it. All year long for two coins, no nothing... God.
And so life goes on; doing shitty jobs and scheming and stealing and dealing and doing drugs between times. And getting hooked on heroin because, '...it was nice, look how stoned we are, how chill we are. And then everything becomes shitty. You eat up your family, you eat up everything.'
Gabriel meets Yolanda, they become a couple, she becomes dependent on him and life goes on. He joins the military, he flees the military (because if you're good it makes you bad, and if you're bad it makes you worse).
He buys a car, he hits 'a grandfather'. From the state of the car he kills the 'grandfather.' But life goes on and things get happy. Yolanda gets a dog and she loves her dog
She kicks drugs, she gets back on drugs because she's too much too young and life without drugs is a life less lived.
And then she is diagnosed with AIDS and it's the end.
So that's the story told through words and all the way through there are these snapshots that are just that; snapshots of Yolanda and Gabriel and their lacklustre holidays and their smashed-up car. It's abook about what lies beneath the surfaces of these pictures that we take, these casual throwaway scenarios that have a backstory that is always there no matter how much we pretend that it itsn't. The words are sparse and clean and matter of fact. They're snapshot words to go with snapshot pictures, and they are full of the heartbreak and sorrow that are still part of Gabriel's life.
It's a great book.
Buy Yolanda here
Wednesday, 4 March 2015
A quick post today on Keizo Kitajima and his Moduru Okinawa, published by Gomma. This is Kitajima's exploration of the nightlife of Koza in Okinawa. It's 1980, the Vietnam War is over and they've stopped dropping the bombs, but the Kadena Air Base and the Americans (especially the African Americans in this book) are still there and so is the bar, girl, and drink industry that sprovides r'n'r for the the remaining, airmen, hangers on who patronise the local dives.
It's a fin-de-siecle 'celebration' where disco and glam meet yakuza and pimp. African-American becomes a Japanese and Japanese becomes African-American. It's the late seventies, things are falling apart, but the party continues at the next bar.
It's a sticky book with sticky pages showing pictures sticky bars with sticky tables and sticky floors. Everything's sticky here. And the pictures are great, all black and grainy blaxpointation fur coats and shiny suits, a portrait of a time in a decompressed half light of a time where the past was clung to and the future never quite happened.
Buy the book here.
Monday, 2 March 2015
pictures from, er, Home
This article by Liz Jobey on Photobooks was published in the FT at the weekend. Jobey interviewed many people who talked about many recognisable things like the herd instinct, the bubble and buzz over content. I certainly recognise the herd thing and try to resist sometimes buying books that are going to sell out just because I know they are going to sell out. At the same time, I like all that buzz nonsense. It makes it all fun and exciting and when you get books which have a big buzz, the reason is almost always because of the content, because they're really good books. And buzz gives people a rationale to buy books. It's not a rationale that has a basis in what actually happens or what actually sells. If you want secondary markets, you're probably better off buying a Peter Lik landscape than a photobook - even the ones that supposedly go for huge prices on ebay. Except of course that they don't. What you see is not what you get.
We all know what the photobook bubble is, but I have to say it's a piss-poor bubble as bubbles go and it's only a select few publishers and photographers who sit within that bubble. If 500 people constitutes a bubble it's about time we redefine what a bubble is, or come up with a new term for it. Maybe a bubblelet would be more accurate. The photography world is made up of little clubs and cliques and most of it sits outside the bubblelet. I like to think that Straylight (ok, I'm a bit of a fanboy and have written about it lots so it's in my tiny little bubblelettino) is outside the cool and noteworthy cliques. It sits in a different more functional territory that is strangely real-world in a non-real-world way.
Two new books from Straylight fit right into that functionality and show social media transformed in to book form; Timothy Archibald's Home is an adaptation of a Tumblr site while Tony Fouhse's Attack and Confusion/Asleep and Waking Up is a greatest hits of Fouhse's killed blog - including work from his excellent Live Through This project.
Archibald is best known for his collaborative project with his son, Echolilia, and Home follows on from this. But now his marriage is breaking up and change is in the air. The book starts with a black and white rainbow and then we're into a double page spread; on one side there's a picture of his two sons on a raft, on the other the raft is there and the kids are gone. The theme is repeated so we get to see what is and what might be; there's presence, there's absence and there's a deep sadness and fear inscribed into the simple black and white pictures. There is distance and isolation here.
There's a hole in a yard which changes throughout. It fills with air, it fills with water, it fills with Archibald's youngest son Wilson. It's a place where things get buried; the past, the future, or the children. Because accompanied this sense of change, loss and loneliness there is danger. A puddle, a pool, a road and a boarded up gateway behind which Archibald's youngest stands. And with that danger is an overwhelming sense of responsibility; death lingers. And so does loneliness.
There is a snippet of text in the book.
You really think you buried it?
Yeah, I'm positive.
Oh well, it's buried so deeply even I don't know where it is any more.
Tony Fouhse's book comes in two parts, and act as a mapping of the making of his photography projects as recorded on his blog Drool, in particular User and Live Through This. The first part is Attack and Confusion and this goes through the thoughts, opinions and stories Fouhse has as he works on portraitute from California, New Jersey and a street corner in Ottawa where the crack addicts gather.
This forms the major body of the book and shows how the portraits were made, tells the story of the people Fouhse photographed, and shows how it was exhibited. It also leads into the other section of the book; one of the users Fouhse photographed was Stephanie, who became the subject of Live Through This, his project on how Stephanie got herself clean.
pictures by Tony Fouhse
The story is told in Asleep and Waking; Journals from Live Through This. It begins in 2010:
'Steph and I have decided to embark on a project together. Expect to see it as it happens, here on drool.'
And then it continues. In a very different way to Live Through This. There is more confusion, less certainty, an emphasis on not knowing what is happening and a focus on things that are completely outside Fouhse's control; in particular the emergency brain surgery Stephanie has for an abscess on her brain. There ups and downs as Stephanie moves back east to Nova Scotia to a happy ending of sorts.
The book ends with Stephanie's own words that say how the project gave her;
'...a chance to stand back and look in actually see what I looked like in the mornings or late afternoons and that pushed me to clean up alot seeing the pictures first for myself. And when its a book then people get to read about my life and I'll always have something to look back on and maybe this will also become a movie (lol)'
It's a diary of a project in other words, complete with the doubts and fears that accompanied its making. In that sense it both demystifies it because it shows you exactly what Fouhse did. But it also mystifies it in the sense that you can see how difficult it was to make Live Through This. As with all good work, it's not easy. Nothing's easy.
But that is nothing to worry about. Don't be afraid of difficulty. Don't be afraid of anything. As Fouhse says:
Fear just keeps you in your box. Which sucks. Live a little.
Buy Home by Timothy Archibald here.
Buy Attack and Confusion/Asleep and Waking by Tony Fouhse here.