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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 question...

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.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

What is the photography of now?

So I have been working on a couple of interviews today and these two passages popped up.

Cristina de Middel for this series for Magnum

“It’s quite a new thing to assign veracity and truth to things. We’re right at the moment where we are going back to  a more creative understanding of what truth is. It should open up the debate between truth and reality and what is the link between them. And I don’t think photographers can answer that question because it’s a huge problem and essentially it’s metaphysics. And photographers aren’t metaphysicians.”

Aaron Schuman for the BJP

“Slant is about telling the story gradually, revealing the truth gradually in a manner that doesn’t shock or overwhelm people. It’s the idea that truth is malleable, ever-changing and diffused in a way. There are truths on the surface but there are other truths that lie behind that and beyond that.”

They made me think about a couple of things that came out of the excellent talks at the Martin Parr Foundation on British 1980s photography last week. These talks by Anna Fox, Karen Knorr, Paul Graham, Jem Southam and Chris Killip were super interesting. They talked about the shared interests, backgrounds and ways of seeing of the photographers, their different roots in photography, the struggle to get paid, published and generally make a living. 

They also talked about what changed their way of seeing, from the straight documentary and photojournalistic approach of the 1970s to something freer and more creative. And it was American photography. If you want to simplify things not too greatly, the 1980s saw the Americanisation of British photography through the work of Bill Owens and Robert Adams in particular. 

It's an unfair simplification but then again why not? Simplifying anything down inevitably involves creating a myth, a myth that serves a particular agenda.  The agenda is Parr's and it is to elevate a particular way of thinking about photography. That's not a bad thing. It's how myths are made. 

The question that lots of people were asking is if  the day encapsulated the essence of what 1980s photography, what would encapsulate British photography today?

I'm not even sure British photography can be so clearly delineated anymore. 

So we can extend it out, to what encapsulates photography today. And perhaps, just perhaps, contemporary photography in the present day can be summed up by those two quotes. Multiple truths, multiple layers, multiple meanings, multiple voices. It's just what you do with it that matters. 

Friday, 26 April 2019

Leica's Tank Man Ad: What they got right

   Still from Leica's Tank Man Ad

I know the recent Leica ad perpetuates ideas of the macho photojournalist as hunter, witness and purveyor of the truth with all the imperialist world views that come with it. It's a bit like seeing the unreconstructed sides of every photo agency ever blended into a giant photo-macho smoothie that will make your lens grow longer and your motor-drive move faster. On that level, it's not great.

The real noise came from China and didn't give a flying fuck about any of that stuff. What was objected to there was the idea that the Chinese Communist Party might be a torturing, massacring, oppressive force of  corrupt evil. And that  Leica's phone partners, Huawei might suffer because of it. Here are a few comments picked out in response to the ad.

“Has Leica gone insane? It’s free to look for trouble for itself, but does it want to throw Huawei into a hole too?” one user wrote on Weibo.
“Do you even deserve to collaborate with our patriotic Huawei?” another user said of Leica.
And here is an alternative response. 

“It captured the spirit of 30 years ago,” said Zhou, a student leader in the protests and once No 5 on Beijing’s most-wanted list. “I was in tears watching it.”

Zhou said that the Chinese government would be unlikely to openly address the advert to avoid drawing attention to the subject matter. But if Leica’s position in the Chinese market suffers as the result of any retaliatory action by the government, Zhou said he hoped the “international market would [stand] up for them”.

Learning later that Leica had sought to distance itself from the promotional video, Zhou said it was “a shame”.

“They could do better.”

So I can't help but feel that in the big scheme of things (and despite the racist tropes that you see all over the place in photojournalism. Let's lose those) Leica got it right in the big picture. And Tiananmen is the big picture here - the ad coincided with the 30th anniversary since the protests began (and if you want to know what the man might be carrying in the bags, watch Chimerica, another flawed, but sometimes fascinating, depiction of  the photography-Tiananmen overlap).

I mean Leica  are making enemies in Chinese government over Tiananmen, they're kicking up a fuss over Chinese human rights, something the world is massively silent on. Almost no-one in photography ever kicks up shit about China. And here's Leica doing it. Leica? Surely that's a good thing right?

Perhaps it could form part of a wider advertising campaign that moves Leica beyond being a plaything for the crazy  to becoming a real force for political openness and change, for an applied concerned photography.

What next? Perhaps Leica could get their cinematic photographer-character (drop the machismo hunter rhetoric, maybe broaden who that photographer might be) photographing in the concentration camps of Xinjiang, maybe they could do a piece on state torture, brainwashing and organ harvesting,. perhaps they could sneak into the low-level violence that China is involved in in Africa.

That's the Chinese marketing campaign done.

So let's balance that out with the British side. Our Leica photographer could cover the suffering of people killed by our bombs in Yemen, they could train their lens on the secret meetings where those arms are sold, they could infiltrate British security services, their photographers serving to make people care about the role they played in torture, rendition and murder, and there could be so much more.

They could go to the US and photograph black lives not mattering (oh wait, that's already been done), they could go to Istanbul and see exactly how Adnan Kashoggi was murdered (oh wait, that's already been done), they could, well there's so much they could do. Every country could have its own campaign. The rich and powerful of every country could be offended by Leica's outside interference in their internatl affairs, by their exposure of corruption and cruelty. The Tiananmen ad could just be the start.

So really Leica should be praised for their advert and use it as a starting point for a wider politically engaged campaign that directly addresses human rights around the world. I think it would be a great idea and I really sincerely admire whoever came up with the broad idea of the advert. I mean it fucked up Leica's China market, but so what, it's Extrinction Rebelllion week here in the UK and making markets smaller is what we need.

(See the full ad here)

And if you want to read about Tiananmen, Ma Jian's Beijing Coma is a great start. And if you want to read about contemporary China and forgetting the past, Ma Jian's China Dream is the place to go.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Jonathan Jones reviews Harry and Meghan Markle's Pictures

Jonathan Jones continues to surpass himself. I don't know what to say so here are some snippets. I've done this before so I'll include some old ones.

I reckon his latest offering was a quick order for 400 words sharpish that he wanted to get out of the way before settling down for the snooker.

Prince Harry v the Duchess of Cambridge: who is the better photographer?

'Harry’s nature portraits show someone trying too hard. Kate’s portraits of Louis, on the other hand, show true artistry'

 'No longer content to spend hours posing for professional snappers as their predecessors did, today’s young royals publish their own efforts.'

'As an ecological image, this is eloquent. The only trouble is, Harry’s aesthetic ambitions are too obvious. Black and white always smacks of pretension unless the photographer is a true artist.'

'In this case, it’s all too clear the photographer is emulating one artist in particular: the great SebastiĆ£o Salgado, who travels the planet photographing endangered nature and oppressed humanity. But Harry isn’t Salgado.'

'Good for the Duchess of Cambridge. Her new photographs are simply portraits of her son Louis. Any parent would be proud to have taken them – as would many professionals. Each picture has an intense focus on Louis himself. This not only exhibits technical excellence, but communicates feeling.'

 'The duchess is an active patron of the National Portrait Gallery. I reckon she looked closely at its exhibition of masterpieces by the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, for her concentration on her child’s face is a poetic technique that Cameron pioneered.'

'Harry is play-acting at being a great photographer. The duchess takes family snapshots and shows they can be little works of art.'

'Kate Middleton is rightly honoured for her photographs – they are full of love'

 'I would much rather look at these honest documents of familial love than Mario Testino’s fake flattery of royal glamour.'

'If you want to take a great photograph you need to discover something unique.'

'Kim Kardashian looks at what she loves, too, and so does SebastiĆ£o Salgado. If you want to take worthwhile pictures, concentrate on what really matters to you, be it your bum or the lost peoples of the Amazon. It is the scene that is wondrous, not the snapping of the shutter.'

Flat, soulless and stupid: why photographs don’t work in art galleries

'It just looks stupid when a photograph is framed or backlit and displayed vertically in an exhibition, in the way paintings have traditionally been shown.'

'It’s amazing how long some people can look at a photograph. I observed the observers, rapt before illuminated images that I really can’t look at for more than a few seconds.'

That is because when you put a photograph on the wall I cannot help comparing it with the paintings whose framed grandeur it emulates, and I can’t help finding photography wanting.

'A photograph, however well lit, however cleverly set it up, only has one layer of content. It is all there on the surface. You see it, you’ve got it.'

A shocking image of Syria's brutal war – a war that will continue regardless