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Black Art, Black Hollywood, Bristol University and Doing the Right Thing

Whoever Heard of a Black Artist, Britain's Hidden History was a wonderful BBC documentary that looked at the artists, themes and id...

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Great Cat Pictures

      Image copyright Rabbit/Hare - David Billet

One of the great things about photography is every now and then you get something that cuts through the rhetoric because it's just fabulous. 

That's the way I felt when I first saw this image in Rabbit Hare by David Billet and Ian Kline. It's a book of great images that riff on ambiguity and mixed messages. 

I think I like the image because first it's a great picture of a cat and cats look great, but then it's a massive double take because your eye goes from the main bird and oh, no, poor thing, it's going to get caught, to  the birds in the bottom left of the picture and the realisation that these must be the dumbest birds ever or something else is going on. 

There are other places in the book where the real and the fictional mix and I kind of ran with that, so the review is a litany of inaccuracy and paranoia but that kind of fits. I love the uncertainty of images, I love that sense of the non-absolute interalised into the book. It's a book that is a pleasure to look at.

And here's another great cat picture, this time by Jim Mclagan, which I saws in  the World Press Photo catalogue, 1982. I feel quite bad for the cat because she looks quite pissed off, but then I wonder if she's not just acting up for the camera. And I bet she's not half as pissed-off as the cat in the Rabbit/Hare picture when he finds out those are stuffed birds. Or are they?  

Friday, 3 July 2020


all pictures copyright Tami Aftab

I really enjoyed seeing  The Dog's in the Car by Tami Aftab (she helped organise Three Men Make a Tiger event, a three week festival of BA Photography by way of compensation for the lack of final degree show. Click on the link to see their work here, and to see other UK degree shows here).

I love the way Tami defines her relationship with her father, his personality, his life history through images that have a nod to everyone from (for me at least) Timothy Archibald and Keith Arnatt to Jo Spence and Duane Michals, that moves the family from a controlling, idealised (and ultimately patriarchal, male-centred) view to something more democratic, liberating and joyful. 

But also very difficult, because her father has hydrocephalus, a condition that causes short term memory loss. This is not work that comes with the rhetoric of empowerment and dignity, because to do that would ultimately not recognise the seriousness of her father's condition - empowerment can be disempowering, it can deny the voice.  If this had been made under the rhetoric of dignity and empowerment, it would have been at best anonymous and empty, at worse - the same really. 

Rather it confronts the illness head on through her images, her research, her way of working, and reveals her relationship with her father in the process.

The project then is also about the '...hushed tones that can surround illness... collaboration and consent... the space between documentary and performance.... it is a story about a father-daughter relationship, and how one family deals with illness and identity'

I asked her a few questions about her work. See more work here.

When and why did you start to photograph your father?

I began working on this story in 2018, but it started as an interview project through videoing conversations between Dad and our family, capturing how his short-term memory affects his daily life. These were really the foundation of this current project, as it led me to realise the importance of humour in understanding how we deal with illness as a family, and everyone who watched the videos came away loving my Dad for it.  Therefore, I decided to restart this project as a photographic collaboration. I feel as though it wasn’t a question of if, but of when I’d begin photographing Dad. He exudes personality and has no ego in his presence, it’s like he was always meant to be in front of a camera in this way.

What are the difficulties of photographing immediate family?

There are certain difficulties in photographing your parent. Sometimes I felt there was a sense of urgency to create work every time I saw Dad, which wasn't realistic and could sometimes taint the times we spent together at the beginning. But once I let that pressure go, I realised that the times to photograph came more organically and didn't overwhelm our relationship. Another challenge we’ve found is when we organise to shoot, we can’t guarantee Dad will be feeling up for it, as some days are more difficult than others. It had been tough for the last 3 months, as both Dad and I are high risk and had isolated separately to begin with, which made making images near impossible. But now we're back together, we've been able to make new work.

How does your relationship come through?

I think the most prominent parts of the images that show our relationship, is the notion of care and intimacy that comes across in the project. Dad and I are both very sensitive people, and I believe that shows in the imagery we create. Also, the sense of humour that comes across is definitely a reflection of our relationship, and how we interact with each other in daily life too.

Why did you decide to make it humourous?

It wasn't so much of a decision at the beginning, but more something that became prominent naturally and stood out in the images. When I was trying to create more documentary style conversational videos, I think I was trying to depict memory loss and illness in a way I thought was 'correct'. But the strongest part, to anyone who watched those, was Dad's humour. Therefore, when playing around with image-making, this humour resurfaced and became quite a dominant part of the project. I then started to think about the idea of comic relief in living with illness, and how it's something I don't often see documented. I definitely want people to come away from seeing the project with a smile on their face.

Has photography changed your relationship in any way?

In some ways, yes. I'm definitely more aware of the nuances of Dad's memory loss. So even when we're spending time together, without taking photographs, I'll start spotting things I would like to photograph such as the Post-It notes, or all of his hats. But our relationship doesn't feel as though it has changed, more that we just have an extra thing we do together now.

What is the dark side of your father's condition? Have you and can you photograph that?

Physically, Dad suffers from severe migraines and gets very tired throughout the day. Mentally, it can be very damaging to his self-confidence at times. Dad often describes how frustrating it can be when he forgets something important, and how he can find it hard to trust his memory. I have got audio from conversations, but I'm yet to photograph these moments. I do believe in the future that we'll start to document the tougher times too, but as a daughter, I put the photographer in me to the side at the moment.

How will the project progress?

The project is certainly a long-term one, so I think over time it will progress to places I haven't even thought of yet. I would love to create more video and audio within the project, to create an experience that is more three-dimensional. I also hope to have the opportunity to spend more long-term time with Dad, so that we can create work but also to have more dialogue that could help the work.

What will you do next?

Good question! Haha. I've just finished my Photography degree at London College of Communication, and the world I'm entering as a graduate seems very different from the one I was in at the beginning of my final year. I will definitely be continuing this project with Dad! I also hope to get further experience in the world of commissioned photography, and perhaps some intern work in order to learn more about the industry as a whole. I'm definitely nervous, but moreover excited, to be a 2020 graduate..

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Patrick Hutchinson rescues a man from a beating

    Patrick Hutchinson by Dylan Martinez (Reuters) 

Perhaps the defining image (the fall of the Colston statue was the defining event) of BLM in the UK is this one by Dylan Martinez of Patrick Hutchinson and his friends rescuing 'statue defender' Bryn Male from a severe beating.It's a picture that stands in almost polar opposition to the still existing racist images of black males on display in the foreign office and in civil service medals. 

The basic story is that on Saturday 13th June, there was a 'statue-defending' demonstration to counter the Black Lives Matter demonstrations taking place the same day. No statues were defended and the statue defenders which included Britain First and the Football Lads Alliance were the absolute standard bearers of English masculinity that you might expect if you've been watching too many football violence videos on youtube. My favourite football violence video is still the one from Luton v Millwall many years ago, and if you're interested in historic football violence, you can learn more about Millwall if you search for Millwall documentary.

Which brings us to Martinez's picture and the guy being carried, Bryn Male (who coincidentally is a Millwall fan and former policeman). He says he came to London on his own ("I wasn't with any of the boys from Millwall... I don't have a racist bone in my body"), says he spent the day talking to policemen in Trafalgar Square and says he was attacked without provocation (though there are witnesses who heard  somebody shouting "Fuck Black lives matter"). 

And so there were confrontations, assaults (and you can see a sequence of images here), attempts to calm the situation, and then the rescue that resulted in the image above. The image show49-year-old  Patrick Hutchinson and his friends  ( Pierre Noah, 47, Jamaine Facey, 43, Chris Otokito, 37, and Lee Russell, also 37) carrying Male away from the confrontation.  

The first thing you see are Hutchinson's eyes, dead centre frame staring out to the left. There's an intentness in his gaze, a determination to get the job that he is doing done. And it is a job, because you can sense an irritation and fatigue in there, perhaps at the circus around him (of which nothing good will come in the long term), but maybe at the fact that he has to rescue this guy who has been in the wrong place at the wrong time, possibly saying the wrong things at the wrong time (and this story has a ways to run I think). 

Then you see his arms, his size, his physical presence, a presence that is reinforced by the mask, the hat, the black t-shirt. He looks like security because he is security - he came to the march to defend BLM demonstrators against the violence of the counter demonstrators.

The strength and purpose of Hutchinson's arms are in contrast to those of Male. He is completely impotent in this image. Hutchinson is the adult, Male is the child who has put himself in a situation he needed to be extricated from.  One arm ends in a clutched in a fist that is dwarfed by the arms of Hutchinson. The other reaches to his head to feel for the tender spots where he has been slapped, or punched or burnt as a friend of Hutchinson, with what looks like a wehrmacht helmet, sunglasses, and underwear showing, holds his hands out to protect Male from random blows that demonstrators were still trying to get in as he was taken to safety. 

Male is a human too, he bleeds, he bruises, he hurts. The real pain is in his eyes though. He has surrendered himself to the occasion, to the rescuing figure of Hutchinson. If Hutchinson is St George (and St George was never a white man), then Male is the maiden being rescued. But there's no romance in this rescue, it is one that is a duty, a responsibility, part of the burden of being a breathing, thinking adult The masculinity of Britain First, of 16 pints of lager football supporting All Lives Matter Ing-er-land it's only banter Two World Wars and One World Cup  is completely compromised in this image. You can almost see these thoughts running through Male's head as he is carried to safety.There's a fair few thing being compromised. And perhaps Male is thinking about that. That might be the real message of this image. But then again perhaps not. Images don't change the world and nor often do life-defining events. Things will probably carry on as normal for everybody, but probably worse. 

Shawn's image of his friend on the empty Colston plinth was a table turning image for me, one where a smile has power and strength and a historical depth. In the same way, Martinez's image brings with it multiple redefining nuances of blackness, whiteness, masculinity and humanity. It also turns the tables of traditional images that are prevalent of black men as children ( see this image of a mural that greets visitors to the UK foreign office, or this image of the medal that is the second highest honour in the British civil service)

Mural by Sigismund Goetze

Africa shown bottom right in this mural of the British Empire by Sigismund Goetze 

St George killing a black satan in this UK Civil Service Medal

I remember reading somebody saying that it was the event that was extraordinary, not the photo. And of course it's the event that is extraordinary. It's always the event that's extraordinary. It's the image that brings out the events, the voices, and the nuances that those voices bring. Without Martinez's image I would never have read about how Hutchinson and 5 friends were involved in martial arts and had come to defend BLM demonstrators from violence. I would never have learnt that even though it appears they were rescuing a counter-demonstrator from being killed, the thing that was at the forefront of their minds was still the protection of their community from different forms of violence, and that is where the depth of the image lies, in bringing us to different perspectives and ways of thinking and being.

“My thing was not really saving that man,” said Russell. “It was more saving one of these black kids that was attacking that guy – their life could be gone, as well as the gentleman’s. A wasted life in prison because of those moments of madness.”

They know little about the man they rescued, but they hope his good fortune will provide a lesson to others. “Maybe it will change the views of racists,” said Russell. “I hope it shows that whatever they think of us, we’re cool, we’re good – we just saved your life.”

For Otokito, though, every bit as important is the message that he hopes the image sends to the black community.“As a brother, son, nephew, friend, I wanted to set an example, that it’s our responsibility to take ownership,” he said. “And hopefully it sends a different narrative to how the image of a black man is usually painted.

“Normally, it’s the picture of George Floyd with a knee on his neck. This is a completely different image – the tables are turned: a black man picking up a white man to put him on his shoulders to take him to safety in the midst of a situation that he’s created for himself. Hopefully, it sends a message that we are capable of being great.”

Monday, 8 June 2020

Shawn-Naphtali Sober's Beautiful Portrait of Bristol

The statue of slave trader, Edward Colston, was pulled down yesterday. It's been standing in the centre of Bristol for decades, a monument to a man whose business resulted in abduction, torture, rape, sexual abuse, and death for tens of thousands of people. You could have Fred and Rosemary West up there and it would be less offensive, and equally 'educational'.

Anyway, the statue was ripped down and thrown into the harbour, an act which has multiple historical resonances in itself. 

The image that I really loved came later in the day, once most of the crowds had gone. It's a picture by Dr Shawn-Naphtali Sobers (one of the few black academics working in photography in the UK), and it shows his friend Rob, jumping up on the plinth and taking the knee. This is one of four frames that Shawn made before Rob jumped off. 

What I love about it so much is the celebratory nature of the image. It combines the present, the past, but overcomes them both in a face that is filled with joyous delight. A lot is written about agency in images, and that is what this picture is all about; an unmediated moment where an unfettered emotion says more about what  the removal of the statue means than words ever could. 

In this picture, Rob takes Colin Kaepernick's knee and ties it directly into a local and global history of slavery, a history in which Colston was directly involved. 

This is what journalist Mike Gardner wrote about Colston.

"Between 1672 and 1689, Colston's company transported more than 100,000 slaves from West Africa to the West Indies and the Americas. To maximise profit, his ships divided their hulls into cramped holds, so they could transport as many slaves as possible. They were stripped and chained in leg irons – the women and children were caged separately and were frequently victims of sexual abuse. Unhygienic conditions, dehydration, dysentery, smallpox and scurvy meant mortality rates for the eight-week crossing were as high as 20 per cent. Slaves who died or refused to eat were thrown overboard.

A third perished within three years of arriving in the New World after a short life of unimaginable horror, flogged and chained and starved until they could take no more, farming the fields of cotton, sugar, tobacco and molasses."

There were negotiations for some of this information to be included on the statue, but it was blocked and vetoed at multiple levels. Elements in Bristol in particular, and the UK as a whole (and the world as an even bigger whole) is not very good at remembering. It doesn't want to remember the past and it doesn't want to remember the present. (One thing worth remembering is that the statue was only built with great difficulty. There was no outpouring of love to build it, but rather a clutch of tight-fisted apathy)

The problem is the information is out there, the slave trade was commercial and was documented and there are tens of thousands of  people living in the city of Bristol who are absolutely direct direct descendants of that slave trade. And they do remember the past, they have it shoved into their faces every day, in statues, in street names, in the paintings that adorn univeristy walls, in the architecture and economic fabric of the city. 

You can go to sites like Slave Voyages and see where ships embarked from, where they sailed to, what their 'cargo' was, and how many people died. The ancestors of Rob and Shawn were on one of these ships. It's not an abstract matter that has been put to rest a) because it's not abstract, and b) because it has never really been addressed.

These are basic informational graphs, they don't really show the physical, emotional, or social reality of what that slave trade meant. That's what education would do, that's what a proper museum of slavery would do. But we don't have that in Bristol. 

We don't  even have a statue to the people who were kidnapped, enslaved, murdered on those crossings. I think Shawn's image of Rob, cast in bronze and towering 18 feet high above the city would be a great start to redefining who we celebrate and what we celebrate. 

Instead we have statistics and tables detailing how many slaves were trafficked. Brazil and the British Caribbean had by far the highest numbers. That's significant...

the number of slaves disembarked according to destination and century, 1500-1900

...and we have informational devices which are also enlightening, The flip side of all of this information is the mass of personal, social, and economic histories waiting to be told, that are being told, but not finding voice. And once you're aware of those histories, you become more aware of the world around you, and you become aware of your own ignorance. Which is dangerous of course to many people.

Education, and enlightenment is everything. And sometimes pulling down a second rate statue of a second rate man is part of that enlightenment. Thank you Shawn and Rob for the picture. It brightened up my life and is, for me, the most important picture to come out of Bristol for as long as I can remember. 

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Brussels Boys Make More Noise...

Father Filip in the 70s and 80s. Well known in the neighborhood, he founded the youth center "Les Caves" where many young people from the neighborhood have worn their jeans.

How do we look at pictures? How do we understand them when they come through our phone, when we see them on social media, when they come through a laptop screen, when we see them in a newspaper or magazine, in the window of a shop on a street, in a restaurant when they're illustrating the food we're thinking of eating, or in a cookbook when we're thinking of cooking, in a clothes catalogue, in an album, in a box of images you keep under the bed, in a gallery, on a postcard, in a photobook, at the doctor's, on a CCTV camera, in a passport, and so on. 

Sometimes we look with pleasure, excitement even, sometimes an innocent delight. Much of the time we believe images both emotionally and intellectually, without question, and then sometimes we don't. They can make us angry, sad, hungry, aroused, or bored..

Pictures connect to different ideas, different histories, different cultural artefacts. They connect across time, across genre, creating wormholes into different times, different countries. An image can briing up a song, a poem an artwork, without us really realising how and why. 

They build on our global knowledge - a face, a place, a natural feature can change meanings depending on who we are and where we are and what we know. 

How we touch an image, how we view it, matters too. the edges, the back, the smell, the print, the projection, the slide viewer, the screen, all change what we see and feel. There's sight, there's smell, there's touch, there's sound.

There are a multitude of ways of looking at images, that result in a multitude of ways of understanding them, or feeling them. If photography is a language, it's a mix of multiple dialects with different inflections depending on who you are, where you are, and the way you're looking. And those languages cut across the senses, cut across emotional, physical, natural, or musical intelligences.

The intellectual way of looking at images is prioritised in some areas of photography. The history of photography is prioritised, the theory of photography is prioritised, a particular strand of thinking and writing about photography is prioritised. But only in some areas of photography. 

It's a good way of thinking, it's a great way of thinking that makes for really interesting and beautiful work, that ties in to the incredible wealth of images in the history of professionally made, distributed, or shown photography. 

It is one way of thinking however, amidst a million other ways of thinking. If you use that way of thinking wisely, to deepen our understanding, it's a great thing.

If we do the opposite and limit the understanding to one particular way of thinking and seeing, and we impose that on others like pound-shop autocrats, it's another story. Our ways of seeing become limited, the work we make becomes sterile and irrelevant, upheld only by those who have a vested interest in this limited way of thinking about, seeing and making photography. 

At the back of Vincen Beeckman's latest book, Annessens (I would love to link to a place you can buy it, but who knows?), there's a short essay by Brad Feuerhelm to this effect but not quite - it's very different. But the crux of the essay is what if, instead of worrying about this or that, we just enjoy the book. 

It's a lovely book. It's a bunch of pictures of a group of boys in the central Brussels suburb of Annessens having a great time through a local youth club. The photos are taken by a priest called Père Filip and show the boys in a variety of situations - doing kung fu, on the beach, riding bikes, shooting guns, flying hang-gliders, in the mountains, in Paris, all over the place. 

And they do have fun in the fresh air, in an escape from the ongoing difficulties of inner-city Brussels, taken there in the camper van of Filip, a priest who defended the boys from the police, a priest who neve proselytised. 

There's delight in these pictures and that's where the scope of this review ends, because I'm going to knuckle back down and enjoy them. They're great pictures from albums (not archives) I'd enjoy looking at.

But I'll come to them later from a different angle, because there are different knowledges, different experiences,  different histories, different economic and social realities that kick in; and the more one is aware of the that, the better the stories become.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Week 4: The first coronavirus book?

Gosh, JimminyCricket, Gee Whizz, how many weeks in are we now. In the UK, it's the fourth week, and it's dragging through the most beautiful spring anyone can remember.

In photography, there's new work being made. Lots of work is being made around online conversations - Skype and Zoom and Whatsapp portraits.

I'm working on these with Asia Werbel, on an Instagram account called @12smallpieces. It's fiendishly difficult because for me the images themselves are really not that interesting. It's the global reach of coronavirus that is interesting and the way it is affecting people in ways that can be very quiet.

So I love the stories where little glimmers come across of something that reaches beyond coronavirus. I like this piece from Sarker Protick about Emily Wabitsch, who became pregnant after a fun night out in November, and is now waiting for the coronavirus to end. "Last 11/11 I pretty much twisted my life upside down due to one beautiful thoughtless night. I forgot to take care of almost everything after that, except for my sleeping hours."

Or this one by Vincen Beeckman about Charlotte, who tells her life story in a couple of hundred words. "If you want to know everything, my life is a joke, a big joke. With two or three hiccups. Let's go. I had happiness, I had everything. A good job, good health and never sick!
I got married at 21. With a boy of 23. A postman. He drank with his colleagues after work and was violent so I left...." And so it goes on.

If you know someone who has an interesting story to tell, do get in touch.

I don't know if these kinds of projects do much good, or if they are much good, but that's perhaps beside the point. They are an escape from the coronavirus inertia, and that's what matters right now. We all need distractions because Netflix and the online world are not really that interesting.They really are not a substitute for 3-dimensional, sensory life.

And so the visual representation goes on -  masks, empty squares, singing neighbours (nobody's showing their absolute fucking nightmare neighbours), clean air, and video conferencing images still pop up in the news.

Online there are re-enactment of art works, pictures of home schooling, exercise, park walks, cooking, gardening, allotments, homemade haircuts, DIY gone wrong, fashion shows, dressing up and cocktail hours. I have suddenly discovered that I have been doing isolation pictures for years, so that's what I've started posting on my Instagram account. There is nothing new under the sun, instead meanings shift, new connections are made, and something new emerges out of it. That's why every story hasn't been told, even when the story has been told. The story, like the song, never remains the same.

There are still pictures of shops, queues (below is the longest queue I've had to face at my local Morrisons, a picture taken at every social distancing mark), the tape marks and the vernacular posters of social distancing are getting a look in, and there are lots of pictures of nature, of walks, of people far away, of whatever everyone is doing to pass this tedious time. There are countless projects showing people in their windows or doorways. Especially if they're smiling, with fortitude. These are my pet hate. I can't stand them. My pet hate would be pictures of people on Skype or whatever, but I'm doing one of those, so it can't really apply.

Not many are very good, but then that's not really the point. Being very good is rarely the point.

Some are doing it for fun, some are projects, some are fundraisers, some just to take one's mind off things. There's a bunch of books that are being planned, but how much of an appetite there will be I don't know. There will be the window books, the queue books, the screengrab books. There will be photojournalistic surveys, there will be old school piles of bodies books once it really gets going. There will be books which come with a medical textbook typeface with scans and data, there will be mask and glove books in a variety of forms, there will be still lifes and typologies, all grids and white pages, there will be books with graphs and statistics, there will be multiple AI books, and even more books with a surveillance theme (and one of them will be really good). God help us, what else?  I am looking forward to an Ed Ruscha type sequence of people queuing, that might be cool, or a graphic one of all the dashes of tapes, splashes of paints, and scrawls of chalk marks people are using to redefine personal space - it's like the Enclosures Act and Agriculture Revolution all over again, but instead of walls and hedgerows, we've got post-industrial striped markings in red and white and yellow and black.

But images are not fixed, they change over time, so it will be interesting to see what is/will become relevant and important in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years time. A lot of what will be relevant is what we take for granted now.

One of the first photobooks that will come out is Novis Corpus,  a book made by mostly Southern European photographers that is a paean to the enforced domesticity and confinement of the time, and is raising

This is what Tereza Uzeda and Gabriela Cendoya Bergareche came up with; Novis Corpus , the book, is about confinement, and it has been made in less than a month. Next week it will go to the printer. The pre order of the book has  already sold about 400 copies! The book is completely self published. And all benefits will go to nursecarers working hard to save the people.

It looks great and proceeds go to the charity, so if you would like to buy a copy,

email librocuarentena@gmail.com

The most interesting thing for me right now is the psychological impact of coronavirus. I find myself talking about PPE, about isolation, about clusters, about quarantine times with unrelenting repetition and I wonder where all this comes from. I didn't talk about this or think about this four months ago, I didn't know what covid-19, PPE, intubulation, or social distancing meant.

Now every time I use those words it makes me aware of the suggestibility we all have. It's like our brains are occupied (by some hugely contradictory and incompetent creature), and we are spouting complete and utter nonsense that changes from one week to the next with no real attachment to anything other than some weird form of group psychosis fed by every unreliable news channel under the sun. All of us who are staying at home are absolutely a part of this. And it's not necessarily a bad thing to be part of - there are plenty of other psychoses at play that you really don't want to be part of because a) you will be surrounded by awful people, and b) you might  very well end up sick and dead.

How will that mental state be visualised, how will it connect across time to the images we make, to the countless graphs, statistics, warnings, and etchings that we see all around us and that become part of a barely remembered history so quickly. I look back at a blog post from a few weeks back and it seems a lifetime ago, the graphics both so innocent, but also even more of a figment of a fevered design imagination than they were at the time. I wonder what we'll be looking at in a few months time. It will bear little relationship to what we're seeing now, of that I am sure.

And so we continue on our corona obsessed way. In the meantime news is happening, all smothered by coronavirus. And maybe that's the real news.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Susan Bright on Photography and Curating

Annunciation #11, 2011 © Elina Brotherus

Image by Elina Brotherus

Susan Bright gave her second talk on Tuesday, on photography and motherhood, based around the show she curated for both the Photographers' Gallery and the Foundling Museum. Thank you to everybody who joined and took part in what's a really enjoyable series of talks.

Susan talked about the invisibility of motherhood, the way it has been made invisible (lots of masks and concealing featured), controlled and iconicised, split into polar opposites that leave a fragmented and destructive way of seeing and being that you'll find echoed in mythology (I saw Madeline Miller give a great talk on her book, Circe in which she categorised witches in a way that mirrored the way that mothers have been categorised).

These are reflected through representations in photography, in art, in mythology, in film, that gravitate towards either abundance or loss; the abundance of life, of vitality, of glowing skins and idealised children, of a future that rises like the sun over a 1930s meadow. And  the loss of identity, of sexuality, of body, of mind, of child, and partner too.

Most poignant were Elina Brotherus' Anunciation, showing pictures of her failed IVF treatment. I remember seeing these at the exhibition and being moved by the directness of the images and the emotions and parallel universes they brought up. There was something unmediated about them (despite their highly mediated nature) that cut across multiple emotional, cultural, personal and physical worlds. Though there were no children in site, the intensely physical craving, the hope and despair created a shadow world. These images revealed the power of photography to occupy a space where a single image can make visual leaps across time, across space, across art forms. I absolutely loved them and wondered that until they were shown in the Home Truths exhibition, they had never even been shown to anybody else. That's another form of invisibility.

What was also interesting was the fact that the two exhibition sites allowed for the curation of two very different shows, coming from very different perspectives. This was a theme that also featured in her first talk, on food and photography Which leads us into the next talk which is on curating and photography, in particular her guest curation at PHotoESPAÑA last year.

It's on Tuesday 21st April, at 1pm UK time.

And if you're interested in joining, use this link - meet.google.com/niw-aarn-rrs 

It won't work until the meeting is opened about 15 minutes before the talk.

Or send me a message and I'll send you an invite (which will also send you the link but with a quicker join)

Sunday, 12 April 2020

The European History of Photography British Photography 1970-2000

I was commissioned to write this a few years ago for the Central European House of Photography in Bratislava (and thank you to all the photographers who contributed work). The book, which was great but expensive and very expansive, is now out of print so I am putting this up here. The brief limited me to 25 photographers , but there could have been so, so many more.

The History of European Photography

British Photography 1970-2000

The 1960s in Britain are remembered for the music, the fashion, the World Cup winning England team of 1966 and all of the other clichés the swinging Sixties can muster. It was a decade of political change and increased social mobility; university education was opened up to working class students, and working class voices were being seen, heard, and read in film, literature and journalism. Socially, there was liberalisation of laws on homosexuality, abortion and there was a sense of possibility and egalitarianism in the air. Class no longer mattered quite as much as it had and we were in the midst of what Harold Wilson called ‘The White Heat of a Technological Revolution’.

Photographically the breaking down of class barriers was made evident through the fashion work of Bailey, Duffy and Donovan while overseas Philip Jones Griffiths, Don McCullin and Larry Burrows were producing some of the most powerful photojournalistic images of the Vietnam War.
New music, new fashion, new wars. The mythology of the sixties would have us believe it was quite a party. And then the party ended. The Beatles broke up in 1970, British sporting glory became a thing of the past, and armed conflict came to Britain’s street with the rise of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and beyond, while in photography, and Tony Ray-Jones, British documentary’s brightest star, died of leukaemia at the age of 31. The Seventies had arrived, the party had ended, and Britain was suffering from a massive hangover.

That’s the myth anyway and much of British photography of the 1970s examines how this hangover manifested itself in Britain’s rundown urban centres. It should be remembered, however, that the high notes of the 1960s were isolated to urban areas. In some parts of Britain, life went on like it was still the 1950s. This was especially true of the British countryside. As well as making portraits of writers and artists, Fay Godwin also became known for her lyrical black and white landscape photography with images that layered the past and present and added a dark edge that undermined the pastoral clichés of the British landscape.

Access to the land and walking were key concerns of Godwin, and these elements were also to the fore in the work of Hamish Fulton. Fulton (who studied with Richard Long, another walking-centred artist) used photography and text to symbolise the emotional, physical and geographic aspects of the journeys and landscapes he had encountered on walks across mountain ranges, rivers and roads.
In urban Britain, many things hadn’t changed either. The industrial cities of northern England were still marked by bombsites, the aftermath of German bombing that still hadn’t been entirely cleared in the decades following the end of the Second World War. And where it had been cleared and new housing built, this new construction was often not much better than the dereliction which had preceded it. One of the huge social experiments of the 1960s was the clearance of inner city slum housing. In its place, shiny new tower blocks were erected. When these new flats were well-designed, the improvement in housing standards was welcomed. However, often build quality was low, and few thoughts were given to infrastructure or the social networks that were destroyed in the move from low-rise to high-rise.


The transition from these old forms of housing to the new forms of housing became a happy hunting ground for photographers, with Finish-born photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen leading the way. Her long-term documentation of Byker Grove in Newcastle, showed the wealth of working class life and culture in the decaying terraced housing of the area before these neighbourhoods were redeveloped and much of that culture was lost. Byker Grove is shot in grimy black and white and captures a neighbourhood that is filled with emotion and energy.

Another photographer finding fertile photographic ground in British inner cities was Daniel Meadows. Meadows, who studied at Manchester Polytechnic in the early 1970s with Martin Parr and Brian Griffin, was part of the New British Photography at the beginning of that decade. Inspired by the work of Benjamin Stone (a British photographer who photographed English life at the turn of the century 20th century), the photographers of the New Documents and New Topographics exhibitions, and the editorship of Bill Jay at Creative Camera, this group of photographers began to search for what Britishness meant and in particular how ‘the ordinary’ could be portrayed.
For Meadows, this search was focussed on northern England and had a collaborative approach. Based in Moss Side, Manchester, his Free Studio in Greame Street was a community project in which the privately educated Meadows put himself on an equal footing to the working class people he photographed.

This integration with the community was reprised in Meadows Free Photographic Omnibus project, in which he photographed England while travelling on a double-decker bus which acted as bedroom, darkroom and means of transport.

Meadows was working in the areas that were suffering most at a time of economic decline in the mid-1970s. The nation was plagued with industrial turmoil, annual inflation was nearing 30% and the initial euphoria of 1960s equal rights legislation was transformed into the harsh struggle of enacting change at an institutional and daily level.

One of many groups taking part in this struggle using photography was Hackney Flashers. This London-based collective worked on themes of equality in work, pay and the provision of free childcare. Heavily influenced by the collages of John Heartfield amongst others, their Who’s Holding the Baby exhibition in 1974 featured collages that questioned the provision of childcare and also featured photographs from a local nursery.

One of the members of the collective, Jo Spence also developed her own work in response to how women, family and the self were represented in society. Spence is one of the most influential and political of photographers working during this time. Her project and book, Beyond the Family Album, is an examination of what is and is not represented in traditional family albums. For this project, Spence reclaimed herself by taking control of her self-image and reinventing how she was represented in her remade family album.

In 1982, Spence was diagnosed with breast cancer which eventually claimed her life in 1992. Her subsequent experiences of medical treatment informed her later work, particularly in Phototherapy, a project which was a continuation of her investigations into how photography and therapy could be combined to visually reconfigure the self.

Jo Spence began working with the Hackney Flashers in 1975. The same year, just a few miles away from the Flashers’ Hackney base, Brian Griffin began working for the staid sounding magazine, Management Today. But though Management Today sounded staid, the photography Griffin produced for it was anything but. Instead of the usual office and desk shots, Griffin put his subjects through their posing paces in shoots that mixed the surreal, the odd and the downright embarrassing. Griffin’s was a visual language that was quite unique, infused with a sense of visual experimentation that extended into his advertising, music and portrait work.

Other photographers extending creative boundaries in the 1970s were Garry Fabian Miller and Peter Mitchell. Fabian Miller began his experimentations with colour in his adverts for the Milk Marketing Board, a path that would lead him to his influential cameraless photography and experiments with light in the 1980s and beyond, while Peter Mitchell’s colour images of the decaying industrial and residential architecture in the city of Leeds were signs of a radically different voice that found full expression in his ‘A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission’ show at Impressions Gallery in York in 1979. Though Mitchell’s work did not have a huge national profile, it had a major impact on key photographers who would bring colour to the foreground in the 1980s and 1990s.

Chris Killip’s work in and around the Northumberland coastline was also made in the late 1970s and the 1980s. At the same time Killip helped in the foundation of the Side Gallery (as did Sirka Liisa Konttinen, whose community-centred documentary exemplified both the work of the gallery and the Amber Collective – which the gallery was attached to).

Killip’s dynamic large-format photographs of the Northeast were shown in an exhibition and published in a book called In Flagrante, work that remains some of the greatest British documentary photography work ever made. In Flagrante shows people and communities that, despite being on the economic margins of society, retain an energy and humanity that has depth and emotion in equal measure. His later series Seacoal focussed on a community that collected coal from the sea, and was subsequently made into both a film and a book.

Changing Ethnicity

In the 1970s and 1980s, the ethnic make-up of Britain was continuing to transform the face of the nation’s inner cities. In the 1950s and 1960s, large numbers of migrants from the West Indies, Bangladesh and India arrived in the UK, settling in neighbourhoods and towns across the country.
Many settled in former mill towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire, with Bradford being a favoured destination for many Pakistani (and Bangladeshi) immigrants. For these newly arrived migrants, photography was a way of validating their presence in their new homeland, a way of proving to the folks back home that all was well and good.

The Belle Vue Studio in Bradford was one of many studios that catered to this need. The Belle Vue Archive (rescued from a rubbish skip by local photographer Tim Smyth) shows images of recently arrived Bangladeshis and Pakistanis posing with the symbols of their new lives in this mill town in Yorkshire.

In Birmingham, Vanley Burke was creating a more expansive archive of black British experience that included photography, music and art dating back to the1940s and first major post-war West Indian migration that was marked by the arrival from Jamaica of HMS Windrush in London in 1948.
His pictures also show the intensely political nature of the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time when industrial decline, the election of Margaret Thatcher, the rise of racism, and discriminatory police laws resulted in a series of riots across urban centres in the UK, including around Burke’s home in Handsworth in Birmingham.

Burke’s picture of demonstators standing outside Digbeth City Hall illustrate the rise of punk in the 1970s and the political alliances formed between anti-fascist groups and the musical subcultures that emerged from the chaos of punk.

In the late 1970s the rise of punk led to a huge interest in both the music press (with NME and Sounds leading the way) and the rises of small, roughly designed fanzines that had high energy and low production values. Photography played a huge part in defining the era and had influence that reached a huge audience outside the relatively small circles of documentary and art photography. Anton Corbijn’s moody pictures of Joy Division walking over Manchester’s Princess Parkway and posing in subways exemplified the angst-ridden dynamic of the end of the 1970s, an energy that was reprised when Corbijn moved into film-making and made Closer, a film that documented the rise of the band and the eventual suicide of Joy Division’s lead singer, Ian Curtis.

Another photographer who made the move from music into more lucrative areas was Chalkie Davies. His iconic album cover for the Two-Tone label showing the Specials isolated against a white background became a signature that was used when he moved to Apple in the late 1980s. Here he became a pioneer in high-end digital imaging and his still-lifes (which were made in incredibly complex studio settings) have helped define the visual branding of Apple products to the present day.


In fashion the most influential photographer to make the move from music and subcultures was Nick Knight. In 1982, while in his second year at university, he made Skinheads, a book that looked at skinhead subculture. In addition to images, he also included notes on fashion and music with a discography adding to a book that extended beyond photography.
Knight became Britain’s most innovative fashion photographer, and was part of a burgeoning fashion scene that, influenced by post-punk music world and the London-centric affluence of the 1980s, was taking the body-centred fashion photography of the 1970s into new directions that would eventually extend into online publishing and film.

The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, coupled with a deregulation in finance and in the mid-1980s led to a new wave of affluence in the south of England. It also provided fertile ground for the emergence of more mainstream youth-centred magazines with higher production values than the homemade fanzines of the punk era. The most influential of these magazines were I-d and the Face, both of which launched in 1980. Knight started his career at I-d, a publication for which German-born photographers, Juergen Teller and Wolfgang Tilmanns also photographed.

Both these photographers formed their careers in the UK using a relaxed, vernacular style that extends across both their professional and personal work. Teller’s book of wannabe models, Come See, remains a classic photobook with its rather sad portraits of aspiring models capturing the downside of an industry that packages an idea of glamour that is more imagined than real, while Tilmann’s reflections on the everyday, and his openness to use more relaxed photographic aesthetics in exhibiting his work, helped extend his influence into the art world when he won Britain’s premier art prize, The Turner Prize, in 2000.

The lightness of Tilmann’s work is also apparent in that of Elaine Constantine, a photographer whose snapshot approach moved fashion into a lighter, more upbeat world. Constantine centred her aesthetic around young women having fun, with laughter and energy prevalent in a blend that broke across generic lines, with elements of documentary combining with fashion and lifestyle imagery.
Corinne Day also used the idea of freshness when she photographed a 14-year old Kate Moss on Camber Sands in 1990. This shoot took place in 1990, a time when youth culture (fuelled by ecstasy and a flood of dance music) was becoming a place of democratic hedonism. Day helped launch Moss’s modelling career, but Day also became known for her darker fashion work, where waif-like models and what were regarded as hard drug references helped give rise to the heroin chic label, a label that entered the mainstream when it was namechecked by Bill Clinton in 1997.

Day also had a diaristic, daily-life centred approach to photography, an approach that was increasingly shared in other areas of the photographic world in the 1990s. Perhaps most notable of these works, and the most diaristic is Anna Fox’s Cockroach Diaries. This tells the story of living in a shared London flat through the unique narrative device of the cockroaches that Fox encountered in the living room, bedroom and Kitchen of the apartment. Other projects of Fox in include Work Stations, a text-image series that captured the absurdities of British office life.

More diaristic apartment living comes in Richard Billingham’s incredible Ray’s a Laugh series. This series of snapshots (originally made to be references for an art project) show Billingham’s parents at home in their cramped Birmingham flat. Ray (Billingham’s father) is an alcoholic, while his mother struggles to keep the family under control. It’s a one-off series that has affection, chaos, violence and sadness in equally measure.

The acceptance of Richard Billingham’s rough-edged colour work in the art world was due in large part to the wave of British colour photography that transformed the British photography landscape in the 1980s.

The photographer who used colour documentary in a more experimental way that linked to art and film was Paul Graham. His early projects were quite straightforward; Beyond Caring used a sparse visual language that showed the interiors of British unemployment offices, while Troubled Land showed Northern Ireland through landscapes marked with traces of the armed conflict and military presence that blighted the province from the 1970s to the end of the millennium.

Graham extended his viewpoint to photograph in Europe and then the United States where his American Trilogy series experimented with ideas of montage, narrative flow and the use of tonality to convey meaning in a way that was both ground-breaking and highly influential.  

Most renowned, and infamous, of the new colour photographers was Martin Parr. He sprang to photographic fame through his book The Last Resort. This gave an unheroic view of life (and particularly childhood) in the northern seaside resort of New Brighton. It was work that divided traditionalists (including Henri Cartier-Bresson who famously described Parr as being from a “completely different planet”) both due its colour content and due to the fact that the southern, middle-class Parr presented the working-class Wirral resort in such direct and uncompromising fashion. It was work that showed a working class that, thanks to the rule of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives, was on the edge of terminal decline.

Parr perfected his ring-flash, synthetic colour technique through work that focussed on the throwaway symbols of British culture, the vagaries of mass tourism and the use of the vernacular image in global visual culture.  As well as making doing editorial, advertising and film work, Parr was also a champion of the Photobook, and was responsible for its rise to popularity through the Photobook Histories he subsequently co-authored with Gerry Badger

Just up the road from New Brighton, another photographer was also hard at work capturing the edges of working class Wirral life. This was Tom Wood. His long-term, almost obsessive documentation of the communities of Merseyside amounts to one of the greatest British photography projects undertaken, with images that are touching, soulful and raw at the same time.


The experimentation with colour in documentary helped create a more open atmosphere in other genres of photography, including landscape.  As a photographer who uses cameraless photography to make large-scale prints of ponds, river and the sea Susan Derges is a prime example of this. Derges’ work has an autobiographical nature to it that connects the artist to the land in which she lives, in particular the area around her Dartmoor studio in the southwest of England.

Another photographer who worked in the Southwest of England is Jem Southam. His classically composed large format images of the ponds, rivers, estuaries and rockfalls of the Dorset and Devon coasts combine a practice built on walking with a gentle narrative flow in which geology, climate, seasonal change and human intervention combine.

Landscape was also the focus of John Davies’ immaculate large format photographs, but his work centred on the industrialised fringes of northern Britain and Wales. Often mixing the urban, the industrial and the rural, Davies used a sober topographical approach to landscape in which the connected and crowded nature of Britain is apparent, creating images that are both grandiose, familiar and thoroughly familiar.

At the end of the 1990s, Mark Power was working on projects that added a mapping element to British landscape work, an approach that extended the autobiographical and psychogeographical and walking-centred work of Jem Southam, Susan Derges and Richard Long. The Shipping Forecast was a project where images were made according to the areas named in the Shipping Forecast radio weather reports, while 26 Different Endings was a project based on the London A-Z street map. In this project, Power mapped the edges of London as marked by the A-Z and recorded the self-referencing power of maps to make or break a place in terms of geographical identity.
The 1990s ended in a period of optimism. The election of Tony Blair and the New Labour government in 1997 led to an era of widening opportunities. Full employment, investment in education, easy credit and accessible housing created a millennial Britain that was throbbing with optimism.

Yet at the same time, unsustainable privatisation, political corruption, and a subservience to the financial sector combined with Blair’s own messiah complex were beginning to infect British society. The millennium ended on a high note, but with 911, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the disastrous financial crashes of 2007 all on the horizon, the good times were not about to last.