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Sofa Portraits now available for pre-order

  1.          Sofa Portraits is now available for pre-order from my website (orders will deliver in October/November)   The pric...

Thursday, 31 January 2008

The Gravy Train is Long and Crowded

The gravy train is long and crowded.

Which is perhaps the real reason why fashion icon and Afghanistan president, Hamid Karzai is seeking the death penalty for local journalist, Sayed Pervez Kambaksh.

Kambaksh has been sentenced to death for "...blasphemy after he downloaded a report from a Farsi website which stated that Muslim fundamentalists who claimed the Koran justified the oppression of women had misrepresented the views of the prophet Mohamed."

But another reason is that he wrote articles outlining the endemic corruption of Afghanistan's political, religious and economic elite.

You can sign an online petition here.

Jacob Holdt

One more from Jacob Holdt.

Jacob Holdt

Jacob Holdt (pictured with Mary - that's her house burning) is up for the Deutsche Borse Prize for the Steidl version of American Pictures. Holdt is pretty nonchalant about the Steidl book, saying its publication was down to two curators who wanted a catalogue for a show of Holdt's work they were putting on. The curators were so nice, Holdt just couldn't say no. All Holdt did was go to the receptions and drink the wine.

If you haven't seen the online version of the book, you can see it here. It is phenomenal and chilling work. Holdt reckons its only the hairstyles and cars that have changed in America since he made his pictures, and that his work was made at a time of hope.

The worst place Holdt visited was Immokalee in Florida, a place of slave camps, murder and hopelessness. Immokalee was in the news at the end of last year and not much has changed it seems.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Fazal Sheikh

The Deutsche Borse Prize is upon us again. Last week I spoke to the four shortlisted photographersfor an upcoming feature in the BJP and a rare pleasure it was. The winner is always good, but sometimes the shortlist can be patchy. This year it's incredibly consistent - an anti-art list of committed/committable photographers who really don't care about the art world.

Fazal Sheikh has been nominated for Ladli, a book in which Sheikh gets behind the illusion of India's economic development to examine a country where, as he says in the book's introduction, a girl's "...very gender, from conception, makes many women the potential victim's of a patriarchal system which tacitly condones their exploitation, mistreatment, even death."

The photography is simple and direct and so is the text, deep photography dealing with deep political and cultural issues. You can see the whole book online here.

One of the organisations Sheikh worked with was Shakti Shalini, which is run by two women (one muslim, one hindu) whose daughters were murdered for dowry payments. You can read about Shakti Shalini and other issues that are the flip side of India's economic miracle here.

And as Sheikh points out, the horrors of forced labour, forced prostitution and domestic abuse aren't confined to India - you can also find them closer to home, right on our doorsteps.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Pablo Escobar - James Mollison

From Deep Politics to Deep Photography. James Mollison latest offering is Pablo Escobar, a multi-faceted view of the life of Pablo Escobar. It's a great book with an engaging text and has some fabulous images from a variety of archives, including this one of Escobar with his wife. Here's a piece I did for the lovely folk at the BJP.

Pablo Escobar

A Myth in His Own Making

by Colin Pantall

“As a child, he loved nature and animals,” says Dona Hermilda, the mother of Columbian drug dealer, Pablo Escobar. “He loved trees from a very early age. He nearly cried when his father had to chop them down.”

Pablo Escobar was not so sensitive when it came to people. His rise from small-time gangster to the world’s biggest drug dealer was accompanied by a level of violence that brought Colombia to a state verging on civil war. He was responsible for killing half the nation’s Supreme Court and blowing an airliner out of the sky, he murdered politicians, journalists and police at will and transformed his home town of Medellin into the world’s most dangerous city. In 1991, he walked out of a prison he had built for himself and spent the next 2 years on the run. He escaped over 14,000 police raids before his death in 1993, shot by Colombian police on the rooftop of a safe house in Medellin.

James Mollison’s latest work, Pablo Escobar, is a visual examination of the life and times of Escobar. Tying in images from a variety of archives with a text, the book provides a visual overview of  a man who was once America’s Public Enemy Number One.

“I was in Colombia and I was doing this Narcotecture project,” says Mollison. “I got excited about it because of the idea and name. People would tell me about buildings made from drug money which had swimming pools instead of balconies, but then I got there and there would be nothing interesting to photograph. The buildings were boring.”

“I was depressed about it, but I was photographing in Medellin and was in the process of going to an old Escobar office block called Edifacio Monaco - which only confirmed that the project didn’t work. The building was occupied by Columbia’s public prosecution service, I was apprehended by security and had my camera confiscated. I was taken to meet the boss whose office was in Escobar’s old bedroom. He was so excited by this and brought out this whole book of photographs. Seeing this record really threw me because other books on Pablo Escobar have a US perspective but the images I saw were gritty and not glamorous. I wanted to know how Escobar had got into this position.”

Mollison returned to Columbia 6 months later and set about searching for visual records of Escobar’s life, not an easy task considering many pictures had disappeared or been destroyed - Escobar paid the police to destroy their files and the mass media were not much help either. Most journalists who were brave enough to tell the truth about Escobar were killed. Escobar closed down Colombia’s second biggest daily, El Espectador, by killing its editor, bombing its offices and forcing advertisers to withdraw their patronage. However, the bravery of El Espectador’s journalists shows in the archive they held on the activities of Escobar and his associates.

The El Espectador archive forms the heart of Mollison’s book, its black and white images detailing the height of Escobar’s sociopathic terror against Colombian society.

“One thing I came to understand was Pablo was obsessed with power,” says Mollison. “He was a classic gangster. He wasn’t really a drug smuggler, but he was born in the right place at the right time and there was an opportunity for him to do what he did.”

Images show the rise of Colombia’s cocaine industry in the early 1980s, a time when Escobar’s exports to the United States were earning him tens of millions of dollars a month. In 1982, Escobar’s obsession with power caused him to make the mistake that would ultimately lead to his downfall - he entered Colombian politics. Disturbed by the open influence of drug money on Colombian society,  government minister Lara Bonilla attacked Escobar in congress. “The violence started at that time,” says Colombian congressman, Alberto Villamizar. “Lara Bonilla was fighting them and they killed him and until Escobar was dead it was just a war.”

The El Espectador archive shows this war - the bombs, the killings, the mayhem and the continuing fight to extradite drug dealers to the United States. Police archives show the slow victory of the authorities - one shocking image shows the corpse of Gacha, a kingpin in the Medellin Cartel, his skull blown off, one eye staring to the heavens above. Other images show the victims of the death squads who operated against Escobar and his supporters, while colour pictures of Escobar’s death in 1993 come from the personal album of Hugo Martinez, the police officer who hunted him down.

“Escobar’s story is surrounded by so much myth,” says Mollison, “so we decided to let the people speak and tell their own story.”

So we see  pictures of his rise to power in the late 70s, informal snaps taken by his personal photographer, El Chino, and Mollison’s own pictures of the landscapes and people who survived Escobar’s war on Colombia.

These images provide a different perspective on Escobar and together with the interviews with those close to him - his family, his minders, his hit men - they provided a more three-dimensional view of a man who was mythologized to a point where he was America’s Top International Bogeyman - a position since occupied by Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.

Most interesting are El Chino’s photographs. These show Escobar the family man. One series of images shows him at his daughter’s 12th birthday party, just after Escobar had become number one on the FBI’s most wanted list. He’s on the run, but we see him dancing and drinking and presenting his daughter with a white horse. The final image shows him sitting deep in thought, a bizarre cocktail of dry ice and cordial foaming in front of him. “That is my favourite photograph of him,” says El Chino, “because in the middle of the party he is left thinking and that is him... He was not a happy man.”

We see Escobar’s country retreat, Hacienda Napoles, resplendent with its own private zoo, and the prison Escobar built for himself (and walked out of) as part of a surrender deal to avoid extradition. Rough colour shots show the sex toys found in the prison and the football pitch where Columbia’s most successful team  played Escobar’s prison side. Escobar’s side won.

Mollison’s provides the images for the aftermath of Escobar’s life. There are interiors of homes built by Escobar for the poor of Medellin - their ramshackle but immaculate interiors decorated by  images of Jesus, Mary and Pablo Escobar. A portrait of Escobar’s mother shows eyes that perhaps saw, heard and spoke more evil than she would have us believe, while a searing portrait of Popeye, one of Escobar’s most trusted lieutenants, shows a face that seems almost incapable of showing any remorse or pity or pain.

The artwork of German Arrubla recreates Escobar as a kitsch Jesus/Che figure, complete with camouflage robes and a bleeding heart, while the personal album of US DEA agent, Javier Pena, shows Pena ( a Borat-lookalike with crimpy hair and big tash) posing with the guns, gold and drugs seized by the police on raids on the Medellin Cartel’s properties.

Mollison was only able to research Escobar because he has become a mythic figure. “He’s become someone you can talk about because he’s the bad guy,” says Mollison. “If I had asked about the people controlling the drug trade today, that would have been different. The new guys have learnt from Escobar not to be so flamboyant, to be more low key. In Escobar’s time, if somebody got killed they would be dumped on the street. Now they get buried instead, but it’s not that different.”

Mollison’s Pablo Escobar is both a simple and a complex character. Simple, because he was essentially a gangster, complex because his violence was on such a grand, almost legendary, scale. Mollison’s text draws a picture of Escobar that acts as a primer on the politics of the drugs trade and how money, power and law influence each other both domestically and internationally. Mollison doesn’t make any solid conclusions about anything. Instead, he poses questions that remain unanswered, and lie awake in one’s mind long after one has read the engaging and accessible text. The effect is compounded by the images ( and the wide range of sources they come from) that contradict and undermine each other and add to the idea of Pablo Escobar as a myth in his own, and many other people’s making.

“He was just like any other bandit,” says Hugo Martinez, the police chief ultimately responsible for Escobar’s death. “I have always put a lot of the blame on the gringos - the agencies, the press that built him up on the world stage as a Mafioso who was very important... They fanned the flames. He thought that he was very important and started believing that he had the right to kill presidential candidates - to do anything he wanted.”

Monday, 28 January 2008


copyright Colin Pantall

Can't imagine why, but this poster of a pointing Suharto, the Father of Development, makes me think of this song by the Fall - H-H-H-Hilary.

HILARY - The Fall

Where's the sixty quid you borrowed off me for the gas?
I won't give you a kiss
Hey Hilary

'New Faces' on Saturday at six
Brought you back to me


I'm sure it was you in the new Audi
Outside Sainsbury's


Remember when you needed three caps of speed
To get out of bed
And now you're on ecstasy


With your daft African pop
And that wine you call bull's blood


I thank the lord that you still don't live next to me


Suharto - RIP (In the highly unlikely event anyone is interested)

Former Indonesian president, Suharto, died yesterday. He came to power in 1967 following a coup (known as Gestapu) in 1965 in which Indonesia's leftist generals were murdered along with hundreds of thousands of communists, socialists, atheists, artists, writers and other fellow travellers.

Suharto's achievement was in selling to the world (see newspaper/magazine/television obituaries this week) the idea that the coup (in which all the pro-left military figures got killed) was the work of the Communists.

There are those who believe Suharto and other anti-communist generals were the real brains behind the coup, including Peter Dale Scott, who has also come up with the idea of Deep Politics to talk about the complex interactions of money, personality, politics and power that lie behind virtually every noteworthy event.

In the highly unlikely event anyone is interested, you can read about Dale Scott's version of events here (The Cia in Indonesia, 1965-1967)

picture copyright Colin Pantall

The United States and the Overthrow of Sukarno, 1965-1967

Peter Dale Scott

In this short paper on a huge and vexed subject, I discuss the U.S. involvement in the bloody overthrow of Indonesia's President Sukarno, 1965-67. The whole story of that ill-understood period would transcend even the fullest possible written analysis. Much of what happened can never be documented; and of the documentation that survives, much is both controversial and unverifiable. The slaughter of Sukarno's left-wing allies was a product of widespread paranoia as well as of conspiratorial policy, and represents a tragedy beyond the intentions of any single group or coalition. Nor is it suggested that in 1965 the only provocations and violence came from the right-wing Indonesian military, their contacts in the United States, or (also important, but barely touched on here) their mutual contacts in British, German and Japanese intelligence.

....This article argues instead that, by inducing, or at a minimum helping to induce, the Gestapu "coup," the right in the Indonesian Army eliminated its rivals at the army's center, thus paving the way to a long-planned elimination of the civilian left, and eventually to the establishment of a military dictatorship.2 Gestapu, in other words, was only the first phase of a three-phase right-wing coup -- one which had been both publicly encouraged and secretly assisted by U.S. spokesmen and officials.3

Continue reading here

Friday, 25 January 2008

mother and child

The other thing about the Alison Lapper statue (see post below) is the way it also portrayed pregnancy - which is viewed as a disability in its own right - in a public place, something rarer even than the portrayal of disability (alright, Nelson in Trafalgar Square has only one arm, but he doesn't count).

Which takes us back to mother and child - to me, the relentless physicality of motherhood is an aspect that is both fascinating and exhausting.

copyright Colin Pantall

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Trafalgar Square - Fourth Plinth

Following on from Margate, Tracey Emin has one of the four proposals for Trafalgar Square - the meerkat stature. I get the feeling Tracey is a fan of Meerkat Manor, ( an anthropomorphic animal soap opera about meerkats - I love it) but I can't say I like her proposal - now if it was one massive, threatening meerkat, that would be different.

Another proposal is Jeremy Deller's bombed out car from Iraq - mmm, not too sure about that, but it does get more interesting the more you think about it. It appeals, then doesn't appeal, then appeals again.

See all the proposals here.

My favourite statue from the past is still the Alison Lapper pregnant statue (not favourite enough to buy the book though). It's too big and too shiny say some. Not big or shiny enough, say I, but then I just visit Trafalgar Square as a tourist to feed the pigeons and sit on the lions - I don't have to live with the things. But the art world needs some Farrelly Brothers figures ( these are some of the reasons) - and with the Alison Lapper statue, Marc Quinn is as close as it gets.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Wendy Ewald

I love Wendy Ewald's work, which also brings photography to the street. She has worked with children across the world for over 30 years, giving children cameras and helping them photograph their dreams and nightmares. The resulting images portray childhoods filled with anxiety, violence and death. “Death is usual for children,” says Ewald. “We try to censor it and sweep it away, but their fears are so vivid and visual. There are a lot of violent urges in childhood.”

One recent project and book, Towards A Promised Land took her to Margate, England (where Tracey Emin comes from - rough old place) where she worked with immigrant children. She made large format prints, which the children wrote on and then blew them up and exhibited them around the town. It was a great project, but it was undermined in some ways by its very nature - the children were diverse, their dreams were diverse, and Margate is not the kind of socially coherent place Ewald normally works in. In addition, the project was overshadowed by being part of a wider, over-ambitious Exodus day (there was music, the burning of Anthony Gormley's Waste Man, and Penny Woolcock made a dodgy film).

Still, Ewald provided a human and intelligent perspective on one of the major issues in the UK today - and one which UK photography has barely touched on in a meaningful (and public) way. Ewald’s attempts to broaden understanding through art did not go down well with all the locals. “In the first week I was there, we were egged and two of the posters were petrol bombed after the London bombings. Some people were very angry.”

Monday, 21 January 2008

Beat Streuli

Seen better on Flickr!

Beat Streuli uses the street, both to make his work and sometimes to show it in the form of giant billboards - public space moved into commercial space. He photographs people unawares, making inconsequential portraits that capture urban joys and anxieties of people in their streetwalking off time. His work appears simple in the extreme and reduces Streuli to a random bystander/photographer, but his pictures stay with me for some reason. Perhaps it is because his lack of projection onto the subject leaves you with something raw and, dare I say it, authentic. There is a lot going on despite the apparent simplicity.

There's an awful lot of work on his website, so the other thing that happens is similarities emerge between the different cities and countries he shoots on - similar to Hans Eijkelboom's work on Shanghai, Paris and New York.

But at the same time, there are differences too, and that's what stands out more. Despite the shared urgency (or otherwise ) of various people's movement through space, despite the similarities in pose and dress, their is a feeling of inner space beyond Streuli's control. And that, I think, is what makes his pictures stick.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Nick Waplington

Nick Waplington's Whitechapel show has just ended - but below is a review by Tadhg Devlin.

The show is a case of taking the art to the streets and to the masses - or maybe it's taking the middle classes to the masses. I'm not quite sure, but it's mixes map with the gallery and the street/local community.

This is what Tadhg thinks of it. (All pictures by Tadhg.)

Nick Waplington’s show at the Whitechapel Gallery extends from the gallery walls and out onto the streets of East London and the surrounding area. The work that is shown in the gallery consists of a projection, ‘Synesthesia,’ of 1, 000 images found on the internet taken by service men and women who have served in the Middle East over the past 20 years, primarily Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. There is also a live feed from a business radio station KCEO San Diego, so you have a mix of images while listening to the radio host discussing whatever takes their fancy at the time.

When I was there I was listening to the ‘Home & Garden’ show where they were discussing how the lemon tree was growing in their garden, while watching a young soldier hold a gun to his head, and images of fighter planes over a desert. Accompanying the projection is a collection of 10 books consisting of over 100 images in each, titled ‘You are what you see’. Though not the same images as those in the books, they are very similar, but by looking through the images at your own speed it becomes a more intimate experience, where you create your own interpretation of a narrative.

The exhibition continues in shops, cafes and pubs in the surrounding area as you are given map of the chosen locations of the rest of the work, the woman in the gallery described it as a photographic version of a treasure hunt. The images are of everyday scenes from streets of London to family trips to the beach, as well as urban and rural landscapes throughout the UK.

Although I really like the idea of bringing the work out of the gallery space and into the public domain, I always wonder how many people actually bother to engage or would walk around the list of locations to view the work. In some locations they didn’t even know what I was talking about and others were quite difficult to spot as the images blended into the surrounding space, be it a curry house or a ukele shop. There seem to be a number of photographers at the moment, who prefer to show their work in the public domain to make the work more accessible and less elitist. Zoe Strauss shows her work in a yearly ‘Under I-95’ show under the Interstate Highway, selling photocopied prints of her work for $5 dollars each. In 1995, she started the Philadelphia Public Art Project, a one-woman organization whose mission is to give the citizens of Philadelphia access to art in their everyday lives.

Not sure if this was Nick’s idea but the guy working in ‘Ali’s Superstore’ seemed more interested in how much the print on his wall was worth.

Friday, 18 January 2008

James Nachtwey - Indonesia

This image by James Nachtwey is from Jakarta, 1998, and sums up the end of the Suharto regime and the immediate post-Suharto years.

The images is part of a series that is truly shocking and one of the great photojournalistic series - right up there with Larry Burrows One Ride with Yankee Papa 13 story.

It also encapsulates the backdrop of politics that defines Indonesia in the late 1990s, incorporating elements of sectarianism, military machination, political patronage, regional warfare, manipulation of information and out and out gangsterism. The story goes something like this - the victim was a Christian member of a paramilitary extortion group with links to Suharto's ( recently-deposed as president) daughter. His group had desecrated a local mosque, been chased by local Muslims and found sanctuary in a small army barracks. He got killed after the army kicked him and his friends out - his friends were sent back to where they came from - a place called Ambon - where a brutal and distant little Christian-Muslim war was brewing, a war that ultimately cost perhaps 10,000 lives and saw different branches of the military supporting and helping out different sides in the conflict.

And that is all there behind the picture - though it's not something you would ever find out from the captions that have accompanied the published image, or the stories that it has been used to illustrate. Which is a pity.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Li Zhensheng

Leading on from Parke, Sobol and Moriyama and photography that ties in with emotion, place and history is the work of Li Zhensheng. His work, published a few years back as Red-Color News Soldier returns us to China and photojournalism that is of a very specific time and place - 1960s China and the Cultural Revolution (you don't want to be there). It's incredible to think of what he photographed and how he photographed, and his patience in getting the images shown to the world, with the help of Bob Pledge at Contact Press, must have been neverending (that goes for Bob too I feel).

The story of Li is pretty well-known, but it's always worth repeating, especially in the year of the Beijing Olympics. His pictures are also revealing of present-day China, inasmuch as the Cultural Revolution seems to be sort of on-limits for discussion in China - as something that was definitely the responsibility of Chairman Mao and not the Chinese Communist Party or People's Liberation Army - in contrast to the Great Leap Forward for example, where famine and death on a truly immense scale occurred. With China it's much more interesting sometimes to think of what's not reported and why it's not being reported - the same goes for anywhere really.

The pictures also have a contemporary resonance, and Li's images capture a depth of Chinese history that projects way beyond the death of Mao and into the early developments of the Deng Xiao Ping years. Nowhere is this more true than in his images of Rhen Zhongyi undergoing one of several thousand public humiliations (in the dunce's hat in the top picture) - a CCP official who would later become the architect of economic development in Guangzhou - a real capitalist roader in other words.

I interviewed Li a few years ago for a story for the Far Eastern Economic Review/Aperture. Here's the Feer version.

Bringing the Revolution Home

When Li Zhensheng, now 63, began working as a photographer at the Heilongjiang Daily in 1963, his job was simple - to capture glowing images of the party, peasantry and workers of China’s most northerly province.

Then came the Cultural Revolution. Purges of “class enemies” and “capitalist roaders”, the overthrow of “counter-revolutionary” communist party leaders and internecine fighting between rival groups of Red Guards claimed millions of lives and brought the People’s Republic to the brink of collapse.

There to record it all was Li Zhensheng. Acting outside his brief of presenting only the positive side of proletarian China, he captured the violence and chaos in an archive of incredible images that constitutes arguably the most important body of Chinese photojournalism ever created.

Continue reading here

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

zoltan jokay

In his interview on Magnum in Motion, Trent Parke talks about ending a project, moving on, developing a new way of seeing that looks at the physical rather than the emotional.

Zoltan Jokay talks about a similar thing here, hinting at a visual writer's block (duh - photographer's block, innit!) and the downside of using a visual language shared by others - or at least perceived to be shared by others.

In many ways, Trent Parke, Jacob Aue Sobol and Daido Moriyama share a visual language - 35mm black and white images relying on a direct understanding of light, the use of leicas and ricoh gr1s and faith in the random machinations of impulse photography. But they way they work and what they work with makes each one unique and their images unmistakeable. Others will try to copy their style (there are a million mini-Daidos out there) but will fail miserably - simply because they're not Trent Parke, Jacob Aue Sobol or Daido Moriyama.

It seems to me that Jokay has a very recognizable language that makes beautiful images of people at odds with the world in some way. His vision comes out (though it's not perhaps best represented on his website) in his slightly disjointed and ethereal images that have a real new Europe feel to them.

Trent Parke

"You shoot a lot of shit and you're bound to come up with a few good ones," says Trent Parke. Parke has shot a whole lot of shit in his time and come up with a whole load of good ones - in work that portrays his native Australia in a spiritual, apocalyptic and personal light with intimations of life, death and rebirth thrown in for good measure.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Trent a couple of years ago, and a more honest and down-to-earth photographer you couldn't hope to meet. I also saw his Minutes to Midnight dummy and it was phenomenal - but not published as a book yet. You can hear Trent Parke talking about his work here.

He's since moved on to colour work, but I don't know what he's doing now - taking a rest perhaps. Anyway, here is my interview for the BJP with Trent Parke.

“I love taking pictures,” says Trent Parke, “and I love Australia. It’s the only place I want to photograph.” Parke’s dual passions have resulted in a body of work that portrays Australia in a revelatory light, a light that is as revealing of Parke’s own psyche as it is of Australia itself.

“My mum died when I was 10 and it changed everything about me,” says Parke. “It made me question everything around me.” Soon after his mother’s death, Parke began taking photographs with an old Pentax, and his questioning became visual. “Photography is a discovery of life which makes you look at things you’ve never looked at before. It’s about discovering yourself and your place in the world.”

Continue reading here

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Jacob Aue Sobol - Sabine

Greenland is the next setting for a photographic exploration of emotion and place, this time in another interview I did - with Jacob Aue Sobol for Gomma Magazine. Sobol's Sabine is a beautiful book which captures a time and place through the photographer's love affair with Sabine.

“When I was a child, my father gave me a book called The Diary of a Hunter. It showed Greenland and the changes that were taking place there. I finally visited Greenland when I was a student. I wanted to show the culture clash between the traditional and the modern. I went to Tiniteqilaaq, a settlement with 150 people. I had 2 rules while I was out there - no pictures of icebergs or empty beer bottles.

After 5 weeks, I got home, developed my film and realised I had only photographed the clich├ęs of Greenland, so I went again and stayed with a priest called Hans. I went hunting with him and on one trip, I saw a seal - the rule is that if you see an animal first, you kill it. Hans gave me the gun and I shot the seal. It was the first animal I had ever killed and it changed my relationship with Greenland forever.

Then I fell in love with Sabine and started living with her and her family. Now, instead of coming home with exposed film, I wanted to come home with fish or fur. I started using my compact camera to record my emotions with Sabine. I was fascinated by the spontaneous way she expressed her joy, her fear, her sorrow and I tried to capture that in my photographs.

Continue reading here

Monday, 14 January 2008

Daido Moriyama - Memories of a Dog

Continuing on the theme in the Xiaolu Guo post, how writing creates a visual sense of place , there are very few photographers whose writing adds to their visual sense of place. One of the exceptions is Daido Moriyama's Memories of a Dog. I did pieces on this book - which is more of a psychological history of post-war Japan (and its associated identity problems) as it is a photobook - for lovely people at both the late, lamented Feer and the BJP.

Memories of a Dog

Daido Moriyama was seven years old when America dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The post-war years he grew up in were the bleakest time in Japanese history. Living amid scenes of destruction and occupied by the Americans, the Japanese people were dislocated from their past. Having effectively lost their identity, they turned inwards and dedicated themselves to the rebuilding of their country. Economically, it was a hugely successful venture. Culturally and psychologically, it was a time of darkness, depression and spiritual emptiness.

This was the environment Daido Moriyama grew up in, and the atmosphere and mood of this environment is what he photographed. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, he shot the world around him - the streets and alleyways around his Shinjuku home, the roads on which he travelled, the television which he watched. He photographed his own disturbed, inner state, and in doing so captured the troubled soul of post-war Japan.

Moriyama’s photographs from this time are some of the most distinctive images ever made. Blurred, dark and grainy, they are also completely at odds with traditional ideas of what a good photograph is supposed to be.

“Daido’s work is difficult,” says Michael Hoppen, whose Michael Hoppen contemporary Gallery represents Moriyama in the UK. “Sometimes people see it and think, ‘Why would anyone want to buy Daido’s work? It looks like he doesn’t know what he is doing. So when you see his work, you have to forget everything you know about photography. Instead you need to know something about his background and what he’s trying to do.”

“Daido Moriyama is a true visionary,” says Martin Parr. “He has a very distinctive language that he’s made his own. There are only 5 or 6 truly great photographers in the world and he’s one of them.”

Continue reading here

Friday, 11 January 2008

Hackney - Xiaolu Guo

In A Conscise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, novelist Xiaolu Guo also visits London. Her beautiful novel reveals how language, culture, sexuality and self interact through a love affair set in Hackney.

It's a story of physical and emotional self-discovery and being a stranger in both a foreign land and, as a result, one's own land. It's not really about London or England but somehow little snippets provide a bleak, but convincing view of the coldness and isolation of different aspects of English life.

"I sit in a pub alone, trying to feel involved in the conversation.It seem place of middle-aged-mans culture. I smell a kind of dying, although it still struggling."


"Hardly days is absolutely sunny, sunny until sun falling to the west. Sky in England always look suspicious, untrustful, like today's. You see me sad but don't understand why."


"You lie in bath. The water comes to top, and the bubble covers your body. We both always take bath when we feel depressed. Do most Englsih people do that, especially in the long dark winter? I wonder. How many baths we have been taken since we being together? In last six months the bath I had must be more than I did in the last twenty-four years."


"You start drinking your tea. A vegetrian shepherd pie is in the oven, the kind of English food I hate. Such a sad food. A kind of food shows how boring the life is. A kind of food without passion."

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Stephen Gill

Following on from the US, China and Indonesia, it's only fair to move on to London - a city where the living environment is being destroyed in the name of development, progress and the Olympics.

Stephen Gill is incredibly productive and has a huge body of work, using a wide range of strategies - toy cameras, collage, rephotography, burying his pictures - to make his work. I'm not always convinced by what he does, but when I am, as in Hackney Flowers for example, it is amazingly fresh, original and beautiful.

It also provides a new perspective on London and captures the soul of a place that is unloved but beautiful and lived in, a counterpoint to the soulless, materialist facadism of the London of the 2012 Olympics, and a reminder that the heart and culture of a city can belong outside the visible and accepted spaces.

As Gill says on his website, "Hackney Wick sits in east London between the Grand Union Canal, the River Lea and the Eastway A106. I first came across the area at the end of 2002 when I was photographing the back of advertising billboards. Although I had lived in London for nine years and thought I knew East London well, Hackney Wick threw me; it completely changed my mental map of this part of London.

My first visit was on a Sunday, to the market which used to take place in the old greyhound/speedway stadium. The vast market was like no other I had seen before. At first glance, apart from few pot plants, most of the items on sale looked like scrap. It was not a market for luxury goods; it seemed to exist for people who were struggling to keep afloat themselves: exhausted white goods, mountains of washing machines and fridges, copper wire and other scrap metals stripped from derelict buildings; piles of old VHS videos which had been forced out of people’s homes to make way for DVDs.

That day I bought a plastic camera at the market for 50p; it had a plastic lens with no focus or exposure controls. I started making pictures with it at once. Over the next two years I visited Hackney Wick again and again. Hackney has long provided a refuge for immigrants and asylum seekers from all over the world and for me Hackney Wick especially reflects the great diversity of London.

The market closed on 13th July, 2003; it had been going for seven years. According to the Trading Standards inspectors it had been swamped with stolen and counterfeit goods. The remains of the old stadium were demolished weeks after the closure as part of the preparations for London’s bid for the 2012 games. The games which will bring many good things to the area: new transport links and much needed infrastructure. But there will be losses, too. There is another side to Hackney Wick. Away from the noise and chaos nature has somehow managed to find and keep a place for itself. The canals and rivers and secret allotments (known only to their dedicated gardeners) are home to many birds and animals. These hidden paradises have a vibrancy of their own which will soon be muted by the dust that will cover them."

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Kota Metropolitan

Sze Tsung Leong's images of Chinese development remind me of Jakarta. I lived there once, walking the streets with my camera as I tried and failed to do an Atget on the place.

Jakarta had its kampungs flattened in the name of modernisation and development, but just as in China the old hierarchies remained. I don't know what the term used for modernised cities in China is - but in Jakarta it was Kota Metropolitan (Metropolitan City).

So a little blast from the past before a little more Chinoiserie.

Sze Tsung Leong

Sze Tsung Leong's images of China's urban construction/destruction boom share a sentiment of Paul Graham's - that an environment denuded of public space and historical functionality. Like Graham's work, they also have a subtext of the gaps between rich and poor.

At the same time, though, Sze recognizes that there are other layers of history that don't change - that the "...appearance of the cities may be entirely different, but the inner workings hehind these changes still persist, the hierarchies of power, the relationship of the individual to the majority."

What is so interesting about China and the modern urban development that Sze's images show, is the way these hierarchies of power are being overlaid by a new image of China - that of the modern, developed country capable of being a world class economy/cultural venue/sporting competitor and so on. It's all a facade, as this interview in Guernica (via Conscientious/Exposure Compensation) explains, but with the Beijing Olympics coming up, we're going to be seeing a lot more on the mythical new China - Chinoiserie for the 2000s?

images copyright Sze Tsung Leong

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Paul Graham

Last year, I interviewed Paul Graham
about A Shimmer of Possibility for the BJP. This is the story:

A Shiver of Possibility

There are 12 volumes to Paul Graham’s A Shimmer of Possibility and nothing much happens in any of them. A man smokes a cigarette, a woman eats a meal and a couple walk home from the supermarket. The themes are humdrum and so are the pictures. There is no spectacular light, no fancy angles and no in-your-face portraits. Everything is direct, to-the-point and supremely quiet. Yet somehow, add it all up and you have a work that brings together the great movements of American photography in a seemingly effortless swoop that redefines what a photo book can be.

The first volume sets the scene. Two sets of sequences are spliced together to provide a gentle rhythm for the American dream to unfold against. In the first of 9 images, an African-American man mows grass above a roadway in Pittsburgh. In the background, tree covered hills are bathed in a hazy sunlight and everything seems somehow idyllic. The next shots are wider and Graham reveals more of the surrounding landscape - gas station signs, telegraph poles and fast food restaurants enter the image. The grass the man is mowing is by a car park, it’s flecked with brown and is arid. This is no rural idyll, and the mowing work is no walk in the park either. It’s labour and it’s hard. The man wipes his face and trudges back and forth, and back again, his brown van waiting for him to finish the day. And when the day is done, he can eat and wash and replenish himself. Graham hints at the food the man will consume, splicing the mowing sequence with images from a convenience store, its shelves lined with processed food that is a pale an imitation of what food should be.

Continue reading here

image copyright Paul Graham

Garry Winogrand

A Garry Winogrand quote for Paul Graham.

"A photograph can only look like how the camera saw what was photographed. Or, how the camera saw the piece of time and space is responsible for how the photograph looks. Therefore, a photograph can look any way. Or there's no way a photograph has to look (beyond being an illusion of a literal description). Or, there are no external or abstract or preconceived rules of design that can apply to still photographs.

I like to think of photographing as a two-way act of respect. Respect for the medium, by letting it do what it does best, describe. And respect for the subject, by describing it as it is. A photograph must be responsible to both.

I photograph to see what things look like photographed."

image copyright Garry Winogrand

Monday, 7 January 2008

Robert Adams

A break from the mothers and children for a little bit of Paul Graham.

I interviewed Paul Graham back in October 2007 about his wonderful A Shimmer of Possibility - a book heavily influenced by the New Documents and New Topographics photographers - Arbus, Winogrand, Friedlander, Baltz, Adams.

Most influential is Robert Adams, whose The New West is being republished later this year.

Follow the link for commentaries by Adams on the environment, motivations for making photographs and the political effect of photography.

From The New West, Robert Adams wrote:

"Many have asked, pointing increduously toward a sweep of tract homes and billboards, why picture that? The question sounds simple, but it implies a difficult issue - why open our eyes anywhere but in undamaged places like national parks?

One reason of course is that we do not live in parks, that we need to improve things at home, and that to do it we have to see the facts without blinking. We need to watch, for example as an old woman, alone, is forced to carry her groceries over a fifty acre parking lot; then we know, safe from the comforting lies of profiteers, that we must begin again.."

image copyright Robert Adams

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Rineke Dijkstra

Another blast from the past, but one that is incredibly powerful. Rineke Dijkstra found it difficult to photograph her new mothers so she only made a few images - but there is a real primal feel to them. A sense of love but also the feeling that these women would kill for their babies.