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The next workshop is on Saturday 12th October, 2019 (the September one is now full) Email me at colinpantall@yahoo.co.uk with any question...

Monday, 15 July 2019

An abandoned house, an abandoned life

Dievs Daba Darbs by Vika Eksta  is a book about a house in the woods that has lain empty for years. It's a book about Eksta's trips to the house, and the things she finds there. It's about the woman who used to live there, who died (alone), whose belongings,  clothes, and  keepsakes Estra discovers on her trips to the forest. 

And the house is very much in the forest. It's dark and it's surrounded. In summer there is foxglove and fennel and birdsong, in winter there is dankness and solitude and cold.

Eksta photographs herself in this house. She puts on the clothes of the woman, she undertakes the chores every woman who lives in these woods must undertake, and as she does so she photographs. There is wood chopping, sugar pouring, lightbulb changing, clothes washing, fruit picking and child caring. There are slippers and old shopping lists, a pram,  all photographed in a  kind of rough and ready way, with the rougher images being the most successful in creating something very poignant. When we don't know who is in the picture, that sense of Eksta becoming the woman in the house.

It's a modest book. It's made like a schoolbook, with prints stuck onto  the lined pages and then photographed. At the back there's a diary detailing mostly photographic details, but also some notes on the isolation of the place. 

But what makes the book interesting is this found house and this process of becoming this woman, of taking on her home (if only for a few hours), of being in this backwater, of feeling the weight of the past, the land, the forest, the isolation, the cold flow into the present. That's the mood of the book, and that's where the weight lies, in the being of this woman whose presence comes through Eksta's interventions in the remnants of her domestic life. 

Friday, 12 July 2019

Faces of the dead

I submitted my latest article for Witness at the end of last week. I write about a few things including the picture of Oscar and Valeria Martinez lying dead in the rushes of the Rio Grande and deserving and undeserving victims.

I really don't know what the right thing is to do with images of death, to show them or not show them. I don't think anyone knows. I do know that far fewer images of death are shown in newspapers than 30 years ago - and the world appears nicer because of it. But at the same time, there are far more images of death floating around in different channels. The only channels they don't go into are official news channels.

And that's  discomforting because when images aren't there, there is a massive void, a huge gap. The stand out example is the Great Famine in China when 40 plus million people died. And there's not one picture.

The same happened with Srebenica, an industrial scale massacre of over 8,000 people that took place over a few days in 1995.. Are there any pictures of the actual murders?

I don't know if it would make any difference in terms of policy or action (and evidence suggests it wouldn't - not in the long term), but it could hit all those hand-wringing guilt buttons that are kind of better than not having a clue what's going on and being able to remain completely oblivious..

Anyway, these are photos of those massacred in Srebenica... The faces make a difference. It's a hand-wringing, isn't it terrible difference, but I think that's better than nothing, especially in the current climate.

Compare to being callous, cruel and destructive, hand-wringing is an absolutely brilliant response, as is generosity, empathy and kindness.

This is what the collector of the photos, Dzenana Halimovic, said about the images.

'When I started collecting photos of the people killed in Srebrenica, the task at first seemed like a clerical one.

I looked for names, birthdates, and anything else that would help me sort through the records.

In a way it was a microcosm of the Bosnian war itself. Everyone knew the names of the first victims as Yugoslavia disintegrated into interethnic chaos in 1991. But as the war continued over the next few years, names turned to numbers. As humanity seemed to disappear, so did any semblance of personhood.

But then I started to look at the faces.'

Friday, 5 July 2019

Colonialism, Fascism, and Tourism: The view from Italy (and the UK)

Hereafter by Federico Clavarino is a big book. It's a long book. It's about his family and their lives serving the tail end of the British empire.

It mixes contemporary images of his family, domestic emphemera with pictures from the family album. There are childhood notes, sketches, newspaper clippings and overlaps with key figures in Sudanese, Gulf and Jordanian history.

When I opened it, I started reading it immediately and was fascinated by that overlap between the personal, the colonial, the historical.

It's got a directness to it that is sometimes missing in family based photobooks. There's the strange idea that to be sophisticated you need complexity, and that complexity often blends into obscurity. It looks intelligent but strip everything away and there's nothing left except a lot of empty talk. That's not happening here.

It's about family, but it's also about history, and the history, the colonial history is what's front-loaded. I find that fascinating.

But I was also frustrated by it. Because it's very long (part of an ongoing tendency to long under-edited books) that history gets lost in the contemporary images. It's the old dilemma of trying to pack too much in, to include the historical, the archival contemporary. How do you do it? Why do you do it? Do you need to do it?

A default position is to use contemporary images, of people, of places, rephotography and so on, but the disadvantage there is they have a certain flavour and can be much less interesting than the old family pictures. And interesting matters. It really matters.

In Hereafter I think the contemporary element that is interesting is the way colonialism, or the post-memory of colonialism lives on in Britain. The historical aspect of that is manifested in the family album images and the snippets of really interesting (contemporary) text - but there's a disconnect with the contemporary images, they come from a different, colder place. The contemporary words do a job that the images don't. There is something going on there about how the past lies dormant and is manifested in these particular, but my distant, brutal choice is kill those visual darlings.

So it's frustrating but at the same time it's an interesting book that could be smaller and shorter. If you're interested in family photography, and old family albums, and the ways in which the past is manifested through real people and real lives still buy it though, because it touches on so much that interests me and has so many ambitious and very direct approaches that are different to the way that Clavorino usually works.

Mussolinia is a short run book by Filippo Nicoletti. It's based on the fascinating idea of the model fascist town in Sicily, Mussolinia. Mussolini himself went to lay the first stone of the town  in a shambles of a trip where humiliation and embarassment plagued his every turn. He even got his bowler hat stolen.

So Mussolini got the building started, but it never continued. Until some years later Mussolini asked how the project was going. "It's going great" was the reply given - the problem was it wasn't going well - there was still only that one stone that Mussolini himself had laid.

To cover up the lack of action, they created a model city, photographed the models and sent them back to Mussolini who was so impressed that he put them in a book on the architectural achievements of fascism. If you want to know how the story ends, you'll have to find out for yourself. I ain't telling....

The book is a post-truth (there's a definition of it at the back) blurry screenprint dream of a book. Crops, distortion, the effect of overlapping layers distance the past and the imaginary project from the present. It's ambitious and it's experimental and it isn't easy to read in places, but so it goes. I think the problem is it doesn't quite have entry points that can draw you into the conceit and create a flow. There are images that I'm guessing are from what would be present-day "Mussolinia" but because Mussolinia is a concept rather than a thing, that doesn't quite work for me. But it's an interesting idea; how do you depict a town that physically only ever consisted of one brick, but conceptually represents the victory of Sicily over fascism.

Sinking Stone by Cristiano Volk is a visual story of tourist Venice. It's edited by Federico Clavarino and it tells in a flow of images where form and shape combine with emotional and political content. It's a dystopian mashup of pairings  of  monuments mixed with tourist bodies and faces, my favourite being the Gorgon statue  paired with the white-haired lady. If you haven't got the message of the grotesqueness of the tourist experience, then the low views, the bright flash, the toxic skies should fill in the gaps for you. Think Parr, Gilden, Rodchenko all mixed up but in his own chaotic style.

The grotesques eyeball gapers in Sinking Stone are in Venice, but then that's what everybody really looks like when they're tourists. You become part of the furniture. That's what you look like. That's what I look like. Dont' try and think you don't because you do.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Pictures Made with Thought and Love: Migration Research, Claude and Lilly

Yesterday I posted about Censorship and Instagram and the day before I attended a really interesting workshop on Image Making in migration research and campaigns in Bristol.

Questions of identity, consent, evidence, story-telling, authorship, witnessing and the functions of photography were just some of the things that came up.

In the work that was shown, faces were blurred, backs were turned, photographs were rejected and there was a strange sense of control at work, very often for good reason. But it was still control and still censorship and it was very much connected with the ease of sharing images on social media and ideas of identification. Which matters of course, but I wonder if there isn't leakage from other areas and we aren't in danger of over-fetishising the image. Sometimes it is really important and is more than just a picture.

Most often, however, it is not. It is just a picture.

How people dealt with consent was interesting. This ranged from Jess Crombie and the research for  guidelines for the People in the Pictures (download the report here). Here the emphasis was not just on consent but on authorship and how voices can be amplified. It's not about giving a voice because people already have a voice. It's about making that voice heard.

Then there was work about the process which included the Asylum Navigaton board. This looks like a game but it's not a game. The game is the hook but actually it's a resource that maps out the process of seeking asylum, of going through a system that Vicky Canning said was "endemically violent" and "designed to fail asylum seekers".

You go into that system and the default position is that you will be humiliated, imprisoned and deported. Physical and psychological violence is done to you and, says Canning, we need to recognise that in the language we use. We need to be more direct in how we communicate about injustices and use direct and hard language. We equivocate too much, there needs to be less ambiguity in key situations.

That has implications for photography where meta-narrative work is often emotionally distancing, dismissive and serving a closed audience. There is no room for ambiguity.

At the other end of the spectrum, consent was informally written into the process of making work by Camilla Morelli In her work with the Matses .. in Ecuador, This looked at the Matses people and focussed on young Matses ideas of living on the fringes of Ecuadorian society - not in tune with their parents' tradition of living in and with the forest, instead 'craving the concrete of the city' (this is what they said) - where they would live a different kind of marginalised life.

Morelli didn't use consent forms of any kind in this work as the alienating nature of consent forms, the barriers they create when making work. It was a kind of theme in all the talks - how do you balance the rights (and they are fragile rights) of people you are photographing or filming or interviewing with a lightness of touch of making the work.

Sometimes the very making of collaborative projects, with patronising ideas of empowerment and giving a voice, is just another burden on people who are burdened already. If every encounter you have is mediated through forms, bureaucracy, technology, really you are just another part of the economic structure that forms around refugees, asylum seekers, migrants.

So how do you make something a simple pleasure and part of a life-enriching creative flow is one element of working in this field ? But this is in conflcit with  if you're working for an NGO and there are funding imperatives, how do you tend to those needs, when the historical template for raising funds is still the crying child - a template that is recognised comes with historically questionable perspectives.

And then the other elements are how can you be direct in your work, using language that doesn't sugarcoat or sentimentalise. Which ends up being how can you tell a story well, how can you make a 360 degree story that is meaningful and leads to a longer lasting change of consciousness that goes beyond the £10 pity donation.

Strip all that down and it comes back to how can you tell a story well.

Anyway, I don't think there are simple, clean-cut answers to any of those questions. I like the simplicity of Camilla Morelli piece. It reminded me of my favourite new project of the year, Vincen Beeckman's Claude and Lilly.

The simplicity and open-ness of the images which are not pretending to be something they are not is what appealed to me (and many, many others). It's one of those really basic rounded stories which is not especially collaborative, which is  a simple series of pictures of Claude and Lilly hugging. They are pictures made for Claude and Lilly, but in the book they got a new life and became pictures made for everybody. They are pictures stripped of all the layers that agrandize and conceal, they are open pictures. They are pictures made with love, about love.

I wrote the text for the book, and it's my favourite thing I've written for a long, long time. They are pictures made with love and consideration and caring, combined with words made with love, consideration and caring that also lead to deeper, more meaningful questions that go beneath the surface and strip away all those layers of bureaucracy, dishonesty, pretension and virtue-signalling.

And maybe that'swhat the message of the Migrations Research was about. And there endeth the lesson. Amen ...

This is the story of Claude and Lilly (think of it as a starting point, not an end point).

Buy the book here.

And see Vincen's and other Belgian work if you're at Arles.

“I met Lilly when I was working at the Foire du Midi fair in Brussels,” says Claude van Halen of his late partner, Liliane Maes. “I met her on the 14th of July 1995. The boss of a bar asked me, "Claude do you want to go with her because her man is beating her?" I said yes. I even left my job for her. I went with her and and we stayed together for so long, for 23 years.”
“We stayed together from the first day. It was love at first sight. She said, “Claude I have to tell you - I cannot cook”. And then I said, “No problem, I'm a butcher and I can cook for you”. The thing was she really loved to eat so I did cook for her. Maybe that’s what made her strong. But even when Lilly was young, she was strong, even when her husband asked her to prostitute herself she said no and was able to fight back against him and beat him.”
“I fell in love with her simplicity. She was not a woman who lived in luxury or wanted luxury. She never wore make up, there was no product on her face. She just said all the time, “I have a problem. They are too little…" She meant her boobs) ...And I would say “it's not important. That’s what God gave you.””
“We lived on the streets in different places in front of Pierrot rue des Fleuristes, then in my brother’s place, the place where he committed suicide. After that we lived on the streets for more than 10 years on and off, but also in small flats until she got evicted. But we always found a new place in the end. We got by.”
“The most romantic moment we had together was when we were in the woods in Rhode-Saint-Genèse close to Brussels where I grew up. The mayor of the town saw us making love. But luckily I knew her and she said “just remember to take all your stuff with you”. And you know what we forget our underwear. Both of us. That's the truth.”
Lilly passed away on 6th June 2018, Claude by her side till the end. The romance between them is kept alive through Vincen Beeckman’s pictures of Claude and Lilly. They are pictures of love, small sequences of affection, of touching, holding, kissing and being together in each other’s company.
“I met Vincen because of a picture he took at Brussels Central Station,” says Claude. “It’s my favourite, the one where Lilly is wearing the blue jacket. But I like them all and I remember all the places where he made them, and the times he made them, including the time on Lilly’s birthday when Vincen brought us a bottle of champagne to celebrate.”
That first picture shows Claude with his arms around Lilly in the blue jacket, then as the sequence progresses the hats change, the coats change, Claude’s hair changes. Lilly puts her hand on Claude’s leg, they both look at the camera, him in a sheepskin jacket, both looking at the camera. In the next picture, they’ve turned and kissed. They kiss for the camera but also for themselves, for the love that lives on through the memory. Claude grows a beard, he has his head shaved, they wear Belgium football shirts for the big match, they kiss, Claude wraps his arms around Lilly and Lilly wraps her arms around Claude, Claude strokes his beard, they kiss, they are in love. And then gradually Lilly fades away, she’s sick, she falls into her bed, she falls into herself with Claude at her side, and so she passes.
The memories and Vincen’s photographs are what remain but these are not the only pictures that Claude has of himself and Lilly. “One time Vincen gave us disposable cameras and five of my pictures were shown when he exhibited some images in a little exhibition. It was really nice, we had beer and shared some beautiful moments. But I have 2 pictures of Lilly and me from a disposable camera that I didn’t give back to Vincen that I don't want to show anybody. We are naked in them. We made some nude images and I went on my own to get the images at the photo shop. I told the person “don't look at that too much”.”
“I will never find another Lilly. That's why I want to go into an old people’s home. I’m waiting for that to happen.”
Lilly may be gone, but Claude still has his pictures and memories of the love and affection that helped them both make it through the hard times, with the only warmth and comfort that which came from the love they felt for each other.
“I was in love more and more each year,” says Claude. “My love grew and grew, it never stopped.”

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Censored by Instagram

I wrote about Jo Spence in a fanboy kind of post a few weeks back. I like her work because it's both anti-photographic and photographic.

It's anti-photographic because it's not about great images or great subjects. It's not about decisive moments, it's not going to fit into a 100 Greatest Images of All Time compendium next to a Cartier-Bresson or a Robert Frank. It doesn't look like that.

I love those  'great' images, I love 'iconic' images, I love photographs that look like good photographs, but one of the downfalls of 'great' photographs is the ways of making, seeing, thinking and being that 'greatness' ties into. It's a bit limited ultimately. And a bit boring once you get down to it.

But her work is very photographic in other ways; it's tied in to the history of photographic representation and its downfalls and she identifies as a photographer. One of the big disappointments of 'non-photographic' photography is so very often it position itself in a non-photographic practice is a rather sad attempt to work in a more valuable currency than the photographic one. Photography isn't the smartest tool in the box, nor is it the most lucrative. It's kind of stupid and instinctive and all over the place. Which is also what makes it interesting and attractive.

And photography is where Jo Spence positioned herself, the poor person's Cindy Sherman, the political Cindy Sherman. Or it might be that Cindy Sherman is the rich person's Jo Spence, that makes much more sense.

So Spence worked in these conflicting areas in her lifetime and as a result, never really had the financial success she might have had. But then that's embedded in her work anyway. To sell work at a high level, you really have to want to sell work at a high level. You have to sell your services, you have to sell yourself, you have to close your eyes a bit and think of England while the filthy rich pour their money down on you. That's one version anyway. The irony is that now that she's well dead and well harmless, Spence's artefacts are finding a market with collectors, museums, the very wealthy. It's a curious thing, because a melodramatic, romantic view would say that the very act of buying a Spence work strips it of its value, which is a very vocal value. But then that is what a market is for anyway - to take something and, through the market, strip it of its real worth and resell it to you in a distorted and ultimately worthless form. 

Anyway, I put this image from Spence's Final Project (on the breast cancer that eventually killed her) on Instagram a few weeks ago. It got taken down from both Instagram and Facebook - from which I was banned for a few days.  It's one of a number of images that I've had censored on my Instagram account. It was made invisible - and then I destroyed it some more by doing that to it (see above) - so a double destruction. That's what Instagram does, that's what Facebook does, that's what we do in their name. That's what I just did there.

It's a bit like the art market in that way. Anything that goes on there gets distorted by its way of liking, sharing, seeing and being. You're diminishing your work to algorithms, swipes and taps by being on there. But still we go on there. Still I go on there.  And Twitter, and Facebook, and Blogger, and the rest. It's the modern hypocritical condition

Anyway, it's a way of seeing and a censorship that is changing the way we see images, about how we see life. It's a weird misogynist mix that comes from multiple sources but is also about control of childhood, of body, of dress, of seeing and being.

Among others, I know Alessia Glaviano is going to be having an exhibition on this censorship at some point, and now @jorgcolberg is looking for responses on censored Instagram posts. 

It's a vital question about a Zuckerberg inspired misogyny which is having an immediate and global effect on what we show, where we show it and how we understand images. 

This is what Joerg says...

If your work has been censored on Instagram would you mind dropping me an email (jmcolberg@gmail.com). I want to talk to you! If you know someone whose work has been censored on Instagram would you mind telling them to be in touch (ditto). I want to talk to them!

It matters because it is changing not just the way we see work but the way we talk about work and ultimately the way we live. And it's coming from an identifiable place that we still engage with. We engage with Facebook even though it destroys a sane political life, just as we engage with Amazon even though it doesn't pay taxes, we engage with Airbnb even though it creates a housing crisis and destroys communities. 

And then I'm saying that Facebook, Amazon, Airbnb do that. But they don't. They just enable us to wreak their destruction on their behalf. Mmmmmm?

Friday, 28 June 2019

Real Face, Sad Face, Fake Face?

My latest article for  Witness is on faces and emotion, how it's communicated through expresssion, gesture, space, history, oh and electric wires. 

The thing I love is it gives me a chance to talk about some of my very favourite work by some of my very favourite photographers as well as touch upon ideas of faces, masks and heads. The images below are by Krass Clement. If you don't know Krass Clement, it's a beautiful learning experience...

It also gives me a chance to revisit some older work, as in a few years older. I think because photography moves so fast, we don't really give work a time to settle. There's a flurry of activity for a couple of years and then it passes.

This is very true of photobooks which sometimes seem in a kind of visual concept race where one idea is worked to death for a year before another one comes along and then another and then another. And the substance and heart and soul of work gets lost in the process. 

The substance is what matters. That the case with Laura El-Tantawy’s In the Shadow of the Pyramids, which I revisited for this piece. 

It's a series of images from Cairo’s ill-fated Arab Spring (and that fate was always written into the work. There are lines of protesters, ranks of police, people fleeing, rocks being hurled, all under the orange glow of Cairo’s sodium lamps. And then people are arrested, they’re injured, they die. And because people die, their mothers, their fathers, their family, their friends grieve.

El-Tantawy shows this grief. But rather than showing the intensely performed grief that you so often see, she shows a more private grief, one that runs deeper that comes through simple gestures that are tightly cropped and intensely personal. 

It's direct and it's simple and the emotion runs into and beyond what is happening on the streets of Cairo. 

Pretty much all the writing on photography is about its authenticity. Even people who write about how inauthentic and fake it is have at the heart of their thoughts some inner ideal world where authenticity reigns supreme.

It's the real-notreal, true-nottrue cycle. And the answer is a bit of both, and it depends, and maybe. There are no absolutes. The nice thing about photographic criticism is people write in absolutes - 'the photographic is a neurological pathway to a collective consciousness..'  or  'the image of disaster and war is a catharsis for our collective guilt...' 

People come out with this stuff, with no proof whatsoever, and then it's taken as fact and regurgitated a million times. It's a notch above Photography is good v Photography is bad, but not too much of one.

And which is true? is photography good? Is it bad? It depends on several things? Including is the photograph real or is it not real? And how do you know that? Well that depends as well.

Christopher Anderson's pictures from Stump are real (all photographs are real, wherever you find them), and what they show is real as well. Not authentic, but real.  The faces that Christopher Anderson photographed in his book Stump, are as false as you can imagine. The smiles are more like grimaces, the upturned lips or gazing eyes expressions of gravity and power. These are faces where emotions are all on the surface.

It’s the visual version of Oliver Sack’s story, The President’s Speech. This is a story where a group of aphasia patients (who can't understand the individual words too well in isolation, but understand the emotional content of the speaker) are watching Ronald Reagan give a speech. And they are pissing themselves laughing because... he's such a bad actor. They get beneath the language. 

That's what these pictures are about. 

And then the final person I look at is Soham Gupta and his pictures from Kolkata. These are harsh pictures, I'm not sure about them, they're shock images which doesn't always bode well. But I remember seeing them for the first time and there was something about them that resonated beyond the shock. 

I'm not a complete believer in the idea that to make a picture of a people or place, you have to be of that people or from that place . But, like everything, maybe sometimes it's the case, maybe sometimes it isn't. Maybe very often it's a good idea. (And I'm looking forward to attending a workshop next week that will touch on that issue and migration - part of which will go into the next piece)

It's very much a good idea with Gupta, who is at the same of the place and the people, but perhaps also not. His work comes from both the people he photographs, but also stretches into ideas of asymmetrical urban development, neglect of mental health services, and the history of Kolkata as a place of publically owned displacement, distress and death. 

“It’s like punching the wall. I want to shake up the people [who] are living in their comfort zone. I want to shake their world and show them that this is also a world that exists and it’s not that far away from their world. It’s in the same city but different.

People don’t acknowledge their existence, they don’t look at them, they don’t care. They are not the vote banks for politicians so you don’t need to do anything for them. It’s very sad.”
“There are two sides to this work. On one side it’s about these people’s suffering, about their rotting away on the streets of Kolkata, on the other side it’s how I see my life, the prime of my life. It’s for my own understanding of how I see the world.

Most of these people develop mental illness over time and because getting treatment is very difficult, they leave the home. Or if they are women and being abused they might get kicked out and then they end up living on the street. And that’s where the problems begin.

I’m not an outsider in some ways, but in other ways I am an outsider. And they are outsiders. Mental illness is a big stigma in India and I experienced that so there’s a lot of anger in me so that finds a way of being expressed in my photography. I empathise with them and I see myself in them.”

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Jo Spence: Domesticity, Genre and the History of Photography

                                                    (Image from Jo Spence's Final Project)

One exhibition I'm really looking to this summer is Jo Spence and Orjeet Ashery at the Wellcome Collection in Misbehaving Bodies.

It's an exhibition that '...documents Spence's diagnosis of breast cancer and subsequent healthcare regime throughout the 1980s. Her raw and confrontational photography is shown alongside Oreet Ashery’s (b. 1966) award-winning miniseries ‘Revisiting Genesis’, 2016. Ashery’s politically engaged work explores loss and the lived experience of chronic illness in the digital era.'

So there's that, but it also gives me the chance to fanboya bit over Jo Spence, a photographer who is so overdue a major retrospective, dedicated monograph (there isn't one. How unbelievable is that) and primacy of place in British photographic history.

If you're wondering who Jo Spence is, imagine Cindy Sherman, but with her soul laid bare, with everything out on the surface, without the miasma of cultural-economic superstardom to mystify things. Imagine Cindy Sherman, but working-class English and poor and never really cool, enigmatic or successful, engaging with and directly questioning the orthodoxies of art, photography, gender and class. There you go....

For the longest time ever I had difficulty really getting her work. On the one hand, I really like work that disrupts photography and that disrupts the accepted stylistic flickers that we have come to believe make good photography, a meaningful project, a challenging project and all those things that tie in to all those traditonal ideas of what good photography is, all those things that people still, almost without exception, work with. Photography can be critical, but the questioning stops in particular places. There are lots of formulas at play.

On the other side, I love those formulas, I love that tradition of the epic image, the classic photo essay, the wonderful photobook, all of which come pre-packed with certain assumptions and really serve our informational expectations more than anything else. I love that side of photography. Which is a good job really, because try as I might, I don't see that being challenged too much anywhere, especially by people who say they challenge it. Being challenging is a formula. Anyway, enough of that, it's all good.

The great image, the heroic essay, the idealised portrait, the formula, the singular voice, the stylistic mannerism is not  where Jo Spence is coming from. That's what she worked against. She was disruptive and not selectively disruptive.She was a very strange photographer, a photographic polymath who worked against the grain, who got stitched up by photographic communities on various occasions, who doesn't quite fit into some of the histories of photography because... possibly because she was and still is working ahead of her time. 

Essentially, Jo Spence worked in the 1970s and 1980s on projects that looked at how identity was formed by photographs and how identity could be transformed by photographs. She looked at multiple gazes (the familial gaze, the medical gaze, the domestic gaze, the male gaze). She examined ideas of invisible motherhood and unrecognised labour in pursuit of acknowledgement and change. 

She was the most important photographer of the domestic in that sense, working with ideas of collaboration and activism that are still relevant now. Even more contemporary was the way in which she undermined the supremacy of the image. She made pictures that didn't quite fit what a picture should be, that still doesn't quite fit what a picture should be. She was making all those images of the body, of the self, of awkwardness that you see now - the difference being that her images were awkward, were off-kilter, did not conform photographically or subtextually, to a softening visual narrative.

She worked on the history of photography (with Terry Dennett), visualising domestic anthropologies and questioning the history of photography and the ways it reinforced ways of seeing and thinking about women, domesticity, the family, the world. 

Working with portraiture in family albums  she examined how photography and traditional hierarchies of power overlapped, how photography could passively fit into existing class, economic and gender structures and fossilise negative identities, and how photography could be actively used to disrupt those social structures and transform identity.  

Feminism, social justice and questioning of power were central to her work. Her knowledge emerged from practical experience in advertising, wedding, child and social photography, so it wasn't just empty rhetoric. It came from somewhere - and that generic questioning is still a place that very few photographers are willing to go - basically because it kind of destroys the image, and the art, and the marketability. Now she's long-since-dead, Spence's work is eminently marketable. It's disempowered somewhat by that. It's the classic Catch-22 of any art. 

So hers was a very empirical practical where the personal and the political are expressed in a photographic voice rooted in experience and an underlying ideal of the authentic - an idea of the authentic which comes by way of the inauthenticity of the traditional photographic image in all its functional manifestation.

Her curating of images, her disruption of genre and style, her consideration of pose and facial expression in images as a creator (and destroyer) of identity is a forerunner of  Gender Advertisement (Goffman, 1979) and Gender Trouble (Butler, 1990) and is still relevant today. 

Her domestic work connects to the idea of both the domestic interior and the idea of the geography of the home and labour. It also ties to idea of class, sexuality and the spectacle of the body, especially the way in which the female body is portrayed and understood, and the way it has been both commercialised and vilified. There's a melding of the body, home and art that is made from within the domestic space, from within its gendered power boundaries. That is so unusually powerful and connects far more to the conceptual work of artists such as Mierle Laderman Ukeles who examined the hierarchies of domestic labour as well as how change could be affected through art, rather than the purely photographic. 

And then she died. And of course she made work about that, which is what the Wellcome exhibition is all about, with reflections on the body, the self, how that body and self are seen by doctors and hospitals,  and how these are seen and recovered through both the medical gaze and through her ( and Rosy Martin’s) photo-therapeutic approach. 

Read back on what she's done and it reads like a deconstruction of  the functions of photography, with all its histories, its powers and its  knowledges. But he work is also about how genre, voice and Identity overlap with ideas of visual power and  - most importantly - how that power can be undermined.  

We all like to think we undermine power and the like, and many of us do up to a point. But up to a point means up to a point. But Jo Spence, one feels, was a bit of a real deal; in the intensity of her obsession, her exposure of the self, her mass of visual energy, and the anti-photographic nature of her work.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Writing is Easy, Writing is Difficult

The next workshop is on Saturday 12th October, 2019 (the September one is now full)

Email me at colinpantall@yahoo.co.uk with any questions

I'm a photographer. I'm a writer. I teach photography and I have a background in teaching writing.

Writing is difficult and it's made more difficult by limited expectations of how you can write, what you can write and where you can write. 

But writing can be made accessible. Everybody can write. 

And when it's made accessible, when it has a directness and a voice, it can make a huge difference to how photographs are understood. It can help the writer change the view of what photography can be, of what photography matters. 

I write a lot. I write in different formats and different styles. I write for magazines, I write this blog, I edit books, I write on Instagram.

Because of this, I get a lot of people asking me to help them with writing . Sometimes I will help people out with writing because it's interesting, or I love the work (see this piece here, or this piece here), sometimes I will give advice. 

I get asked so often I decided to start a workshop: Writing and Photography.

It's designed to give participants a voice, to make writing accessible, to open new perspectives on what to write and how to write. It's designed to create a structure for writiing about photography.

It's for anybody who's interested in writing about photography, including those who think they can't write. Learning to write is a process. This will start you on that process.

It will be lovely, interactive and confidence building. 

Here are the details below. Or go to my website for another view.

Colin Pantall Workshop: Writing and Photography

Book this workshop on writing and photography in Bath, Saturday 7th Septemeber

£100 - payable via paypal –  https://www.paypal.me/colinpantall (NOTE - THE SEPTEMBER WORKSHOP IS NOW FULL)

The next workshop is on October (date tbc)


Writing and Photography is a one-day introductory workshop on the different ways you can write about photography – both your own photography and other people’s. Using interactive examples, the workshop  will examine different forms of writing, the different voices it can be delivered with, finding your interests, how to start writing and finding a structure for your work.

If you have ideas you can write, if you lack confidence in writing, this workshop will help you gain confidence.
 It’s for anybody who is interested in writing about images..
Writing develops ideas, it makes connections, it enriches photography. This workshop is for people who want to expand how they think about and see their own photography. It’s for people who want to write about their own work and find ways to connect their way of seeing with viewers through writing.

It’s for people who want to write about photography, who think there are areas that are neglected or ignored in photography. It’s to give a written voice to those areas. If you think photography is controlled by a small circle of gatekeepers, this workshop will help you become your own gatekeeper and create an active, positive written representation of what you think photography can be.  
 One of the major blockages for people who want to write about photography is thinking there is one way of writing. There are many ways of writing about images. It does not have to be formal, academic, or an essay.
 Using interactive activities with images, texts and key examples, participants will identify ways of writing that match their personal style. They will identify barriers to writing, find ways to overcome them, and will also look at starting points for getting your inspirations and ideas in a variety of written forms. By the end of the workshops, students will have a writing plan that they will be able to work on in the coming days, weeks and months.

 I am a writer, photographer and lecturer in photography. I write regularly for publications including the British Journal of Photography, World Press Photo Witness, Magnum Photos, PH Museum of Humanity, Photomonitor, and Source Magazine. I co-edited and wrote Magnum China and have also written and edited texts for photographers including Cat Hyland, Laura El-Tantawy, Vincen Beeckman, and Amak Mahmoodian.
 In addition to this, I have a background in teaching writing to learners with language barriers. Building confidence and developing both short-term and long-term strategies and frameworks of writing for participants of all levels is my speciality.

 Saturday September 7th:  10:00 – 17:00

 New Oriel Hall
Brookleaze Buildings
Larkhall, Bath, BA1 6RA

Maximum number of participants: 8

(Regrettably, due to booking the room on this occasion is not accessible. A later workshop will be in an accessible room)

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Sweeping generalisations and repetition

This post came up on Hyperallergic the other day. It's about which artists get into the Whitney Biennale...

How do artists get into the Whitney Bienniale?

In order to ascertain what the participants shared, I broke the spreadsheet down into these initial categories, which became more focused as I went along: gender, racial and ethnic identity, place and date of birth, undergraduate and graduate education and degree.

Afterward, I decided to add the following categories for reasons that will become clear, as I detail them. Where do the artists live and work? How many of them have gallery representation? Where are the galleries located? What shows have they been in?

What do these 68 people have in common?

In terms of geographic locale, 38 of the artists spend at least part of their time living and working in New York City. Two live and work in Philadelphia, and one lives and works in Baltimore. Two other artists live within commuting distance of New York, in Somerset, New Jersey, and Germantown, New York. This means that 43 out of the 68 individual artists in the Biennial live in or near New York, or along the Northeast Corridor (what William Gibson would call the “Sprawl”).

The basic gist of is although there is diversity in some forms, in regional terms there isn't and, with the concentration of participants from particular educational and artistic environments (and with a particular way of thinking and talking about art), the diversity is actually really limited. 

It's an idea that certainly struck a chord in any country which has a economically and culturally concentrated arts community. It strikes a chord in the UK where the same focus on a particular kind of voice and way of seeing is often at play and London dominates  in a huge way.

It makes everything a bit dull, like an extended artist's statement, with everything aiming to play that cultural capital into some kind of economic benefit - a tricky thing in the UK, a country where the arts aren't exactly valued, photography even less so.  It also makes things quite parochial with a limited number of people and organisations shaping what we see, but also how we see it and the way we talk about it. Probably including me to be fair.

That huge regional and institutional weighting limits voice and it limits any kind of work that diverges from a very time-specific set of cultural values. Everything comes from that one very sober, very rational, very considered framepoint.

It also calls into question the liberal values that are supposed to exist in the arts because that sober, rational voice is one that is defined by class, education and networks. It's very sober, it's very controlled, it's very consistent. None of which correspond to the way any of us really talk, live, breathe or anything.

In the UK it's also defined by London. And London, in sweeping anthropomorphising general terms, is not the most self-aware of places. It doesn't really understand the rest of the UK, it doesn't understand how much it is envied and despised by so many people.

But the happy thing is the relationship is reciprocated. The rest of the UK doesn't really understand London. I'm not sure I do. But then I live in Bath, a city of 100,000 people, best known for being the home of Jane Austen, and I haven't got a  clue how this city works. It looks nice though and it's always gratifying when people tell me that I must live in some Georgian mansion with neighbours who keep ribboned pet sheep on their lawns. Perhaps, if we're making generalisations, it would be truer to say that nobody understands anyone in the UK. It's so divided by class, region, politics, income, ethicity, nationhood that nobody has a clue what's going on anywhere. Instead, we're just riven with envy and petty jealousies at why somebody is getting more than us and doing better than us. That's why we have a government that destroys people in power. Because at least those people aren't us and they must deserve it in some way.

Back to the rest of the UK, and let's call it the North now. The North does understand how much it is despised by so many in London, it's part of the lifestyle practically. Hence, so many things.... And instead of London, just say the south, simplify things. North-South. They don't get on.

Wow, the sweeping generalisatons are coming thick and fast here... and the happy thing is they are international in nature. Swap London, North and South, and you could be talking about anywhere almost.

The important thing is to be seen to be liberal, for the values to adhere to the particular values of the time that trigger ideas of liberalness. Within that idea of liberalness there are  multiple blindspots in there, many of them related to class and -brows (highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow) but they're blindspots that have always existed, so the poor, the uneducated, the female have always been valued less when there is a clash of ethical imperatives. You could see that in the 19th century, you could see it in the 1970s, you can see it now. Nothing is quite as liberal as it seems once the sniff of filthy lucre comes into play. The question is understanding what those liberal blindspots are now. And there are plenty.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

There's nothing interesting about photography

A few weeks back I wondered what the face of contemporary photography would be if we look back at it now. It's kind of difficult to tell because history gets shaped by mythologising and we haven't mythologised the present yet.

But what is really refreshing about the present is how so many contemporary photographers are framing their work using different voices, modes, and generic nods to create narratives that recognise how we read and understand images.

An example of this is a series I'm writing for Magnum on inspirations. It's a kind of loose title but essentially it's a way for photographers to talk about their work and the way they work without talking about photography. In and of itself, photography isn't interesting, it's really boring. There's nothing more tedious than talking about photographic nuggets on technique, on lens, on lighting, on post-production.

It's not to say these things don't matter, it's just that in and of itself, it's not in the least bit interesting. It's like talking about why a butter knife is so good at spreading butter without ever eating the toast that you're spreading the butter onto. Actually, no it's worse than that. Spreading butter on toast is pretty nice.

Anyway, what is interesting about contemporary photography is how much work does have personality and does tell a story and brings in elements in from forces outside photography. In the last few months I've seen brilliant and interesting work that connects to music, science, poetry, short stories, folklore, martial arts and cinema.

 All of these things have been used to create parallel narrative structures in photography, to tap into our global image bank and lead us into particular directions and ways of seeing and being.

There are photographers who talk about the way their images are seen and understood, and how they can transform the way images are seen and understanding by a shift in voice. So you can shift something from being regarded with the gravity of documentary to something altogether lighter.

That's the idea behind this conversation with Cristina de Middel, where she talks about the way music (and musicals in particular) can loosen up your visual train of thought. Everything is allowed in a musical,  as opposed to the limitations of some forms of photography. So click your mind into musical mode and there is creative freeing.

If you've ever studied photography, you'll recognise this as connecting directly to the idea of the discourse of sobriety. Basically, we are kind of preconditioned to talk about certain things in certain ways. So with photojournalism or documentary we have the discourse of sobriety - we talk about it very soberly and persuade ourselves that we are involved in recognising a particular problem and engaged in something high-minded and... sober. Move over to musicals however, and we talk about them differently. We smile, we laugh,we remember, we experience pleasure.

So there you go. And of course you can shift how people see your work by the way you frame it, by the way you talk about it. It's difficult but you can do it because nothing is written in sand, the great challenge is to get people changing how they talk about genres as a whole. The sobriety is great when we need to be sober, but sometimes pleasure (in the broadest sense) might connect to a wider audience and be - more pleasurable. There's a limit to how much sobriety, concern and rage (ah yes the discourse of anger and rage. There's a lovely thought) one can take..

One way to do this is to shift the genre, to let it merge and overlap with other genres - that's what's happening all over the place - and when that happens you talk about things in different ways. So it makes little sense anymore to view fashion as something purely connected to ladies and gents wearing nice frocks and suits. It never did. Fashion was always about the body, about sex, about identity, the best fashion always mixed things up that way. And now even more so. And similarly with documentary or art photography. The most interesting photographers slip across genre, across media, across materials begging, borrowing and stealing from here, there and everywhere to tell a good story, well, to give it body and soul and substance, to move everything away from photography. Because photography is not that interesting. \It's what it attaches to that's interesting..

But it was always that way. But now even more so.