Sign up to my new series of talks on the History and Theory of Photography . Starts in September and it's perfect if you want an intro...
Monday, 31 March 2008
Do US politicians have to be morally unimpeachable?
"Oh no," says Sara Paretsky,"you only have to love Jesus and be against abortion. Newt Gingrich served his wife divorce papers when she was in the recovery room after a radical mastectomy, but he loved Jesus and was against abortion. There was somebody in the Bush administration... who was forced to admit that many of his sexual experiences were with sheep, and this did not affect his ability to hold office because he loved Jesus and was against abortion. And besides, he said that in Georgia that's how most people first became sexually active."
From a Sara Paretsky interview in the Independent.
Then came the violence of the splittist Dalai Clique, spreading disharmony and anguish wherever it reigned, despite double digit increases in Tibetan farmer's income in the previous...
Oh dear, something got into my head there....
Back to reality and China and where do you start really? Tibet, Xinjiang, support for Burma, Sudan, land rights, labour rights (including those directly related to the Olympics), forced labour, China's collecting the cliches of human rights violations (here is the UN declaration of Human Rights - tick off the ones violated in China and then, just for fun, do the same for your country - it always makes for interesting reading).
The interesting thing about the depiction of minorities in Chinese propaganda posters such as the one above was how they were shown as childlike people, playing happily in the fields, tending their surprisingly docile stock, wearing colourful outfits and smiling, smiling, smiling.
This idea of the colourful, innocent native had its roots in Victorian ideas of the Innocent Child. They're innocent, they know nothing, so we have to look after them.
It's a paternalistic idea that is best expressed in the idea that children should be seen and not heard. It's an excuse to ignore, neglect and ultimately abuse. And the children are only seen as benevolent as long as they stay quiet - as long as they remain innocent. Any ability to complain or act independently, and the child is transformed from innocent to evil - it's the virgin/whore syndrome but for kids.
This applies for children. It also applies for peoples and for countries. It's a rationalisation that is at the root of colonialism and occupation of people and land in the name of all kinds of ideologies from capitalist to China's sort-of-communist.
Tuesday, 25 March 2008
It is the same with art. We don't know what we are makng until it is completed - the complexity and subtlety of great work cannot be planned, it only becomes apparent in the aftermath of its creation.
Maybe that's the case with Juliana Beasley's Rockaways Project. Maybe she has found her fossil on Long Island and is chipping away at the layers to reveal what lies beneath. Ostensibly the project is about the inhabitants of Rockaway Beach, a historically important but now neglected corner of New York - it's a story of a place where mental illness, addiction and gentrification clash, a story which slots into 3 or 4 of the photojournalistic cliches mentioned earlier.
But at the same time, I don't think it's really anything to do with that. I'm not really sure what the pictures are "about" (or even if they need to be "about" anything), but I loved them and they excited me from the first time I saw them. They seem so different and special and I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's because Juliana makes her work in an instinctive but ritualistic manner that blends with the unconscious lives of those she photographs. She hangs out with her subjects, she drinks with them, lives with them and shares the travails of life with them. Her photographs appear constructed but in reality they are accidents waiting to happen, they are not part of some thought out whole.
Instead, her images latch onto elements of Charlie or Paddy's or Isabelle's lives, elements that are essential to their survival in a world that has passed them by. The people Juliana photographs look unreal. They resemble characters from old movies ("I'm ready for my close-up now, Mr deMille.") . But at the same time, the fictional world they have created for themselves still has its edges - it's a realer non-reality than the ones Hollywood ever imagined. It's a non-reality that makes them look real, organic and human. Their lives have not worked out as they hoped, but they haven't capitulated. Instead, they have a sense of drama that protects them against the values of the world that surrounds them and threatensto engulf them. They have a frontier spirit, they are themselves - and perhaps that's something you need to survive in the SROs of Rockaway Beach.
That clash between the dramatic and the mundane, the real and the fantasy is what makes them so original. And so American. And so truthful. And so beautiful!
Monday, 24 March 2008
Most of the cliches are so huge in their range of possible treatments that they are only cliches if they are treated in a cliched manner. When someone says "Homelessness has been done", he or she is hugely wrong. Nothing has "been done". For all its ubiquity, photography has scraped the surface of all the categories listed here or elsewhere. Stick a half-original treatment in there and you find a fresh perspective on something that has supposedly been done a million times before.
Anyway, cliches of photojournalism, off the top of my flu-addled head, in no particular order.
Illness & Disease
Housing and homelessness
Exotic and not-so-exotic minorities
Any more categories (All sport, especially boxing and amputee football, is banned). I'm having trouble coming up with the Documentary Photograph Ever, though. Any suggestions?
Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Philip Jones Griffiths was one of two photographers who shot the destruction of Cholon/Saigon in 1969. The other photographer was the late, great Larry Burrows. The top image is by Griffiths (and converted from colour for Vietnam Inc.), the bottom one by Burrows - that's Griffiths lens you can see in the corner.
Burrows was a true great. His images didn't shy from the suffering on all sides, including US troops - this image is one of his best known (the soldier with the bandage on his head attended the book launch of Larry Burrows Vietnam a few years ago).
Burrows (like Nick Broomfield in his documentary, Battle for Haditha) also captured the psychological damage of war on the ordinary soldier, and no better than in his story "One ride with Yankee Papa 13", a story which showed as directly as possible the effect witnessing his comrades getting killed had on a young soldier.
As Stan at Reciprocity Failure pointed out, images of US and Iraqi casualties of war are heavily censored (both in the US and the UK, though not in other countries) - Stan recommends people google "Iraqi war casualties - photos". The first place that takes you is here .
Not subtle, but so it goes - we are allowed to see the kind of images Griffiths and Burrows made. A short video of Larry Burrows can be found on the Digital Journalist here.
Griffiths' Vietnam Inc. remains to my mind the great book of war photography - a sarcastic ransacking of the hypocrisy and lies that accompanied the Vietnam War, and one which can still serve as a guide to the rationalisations and deceit that forms the foundation for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I interviewed Griffiths about his follow up to Vietnam Inc., Agent Orange, a few years back - the text follows below.
Welsh photographer Philip Jones Griffiths first heard about the dangers of Agent Orange (the highly toxic herbicide used as a defoliant during the Vietnam War) in Saigon in 1967. "During the war there were these rumours that babies were being born without eyes and it became a quest to find them," says Griffiths. "I visited as many catholic orphanages as I could, but I was barred entry from most of them and I became convinced that the Americans had put the word out - don't let any press in."
Continue reading here.
Tuesday, 18 March 2008
Maurice Broomfield (whose epic industrial imagery featured on an earlier post) is Nick Broomfield's (his films included Ghosts, Battle for Haditha, Tupac and Biggie) father.
Nick Broomfield's Battle for Haditha was on Channel 4 last night and it was a great film - brutal and honest. See it if you can.
Nick Broomfield talks about the film here. Father and son talk about their relationship here.
Monday, 17 March 2008
Or are these just questions that have been raked over so much, we should just ignore them. Questions that are old, really old questions, really, really old questions - at least 400 years old, according to Tom Lubbock who in the Independent last Friday described how...
"...the Neapolitan artist Salvator Rosa wrote a satirical poem about painting. He aimed his scorn especially at those who painted pictures of beggars, and those who then bought them.
Such paintings demonstrated for Rosa the glaring gap between wealth and misery, and between taste and morality.
"These pictures are so much appreciated
That you see them in the homes of the powerful
In superbly ornamented frames,
While real life beggars, wretched and naked,
Don't get a penny from the people..."
Who will pay thousands for paintings of them..." He concluded, "Quel che aboriscon vivo, aman dipinto" ("What they abhor in life, they love to see in pictures").
The Boy with the Club Foot by Jusepe de Ribera
Friday, 14 March 2008
In celebration of Esko Mannikko winning the Deutsche Borse Prize (check out his memorable acceptance speech here), we go back to Pierre Bayard, author of How to talk about books you haven't Read.
He writes about the need to "free ourselves of the oppressive image of cultural literacy without gaps... for we can strive toward this image for a lifetime without ever managing to coincide with it. "
"Truth destined for others is less important than truthfulness to ourselves, something attainable only by those who free themselves from the obligation to seem cultivated, which tyrannizes us from within and prevents us from being ourselves."
In other words, we don't have to know everything, our pictures don't have to strive towards some technical pitch of photographic/non-photographic perfection, or some academic pitch of all-knowing cleverness, or some commercial pitch of saleabiltiy, don't photograph for the art market, the mag market or the ad market, don't try to be cool, don't try to hip, don't try to be someone else, don't try to make money, don't try to get published or show your work. Anything that does that will just be disposable. Just be yourself and let the work will come from that.
Thursday, 13 March 2008
These images are from the Wellcome Image Awards.
You can hear how they were made (if you've seen Fantastic Voyage, you'll know the answer already), vote for your favourite and learn about the scientists involved.
Pictured are red blood cells, crystallising vitamin C and breast and prostrate cancer cells.
Wednesday, 12 March 2008
In his excellent book on writing (title, you've guessed it, On Writing), Stephen King talks about how writers who try to copy others, "...produce nothing but pale imitations... because vocabulary is not the same as feeling and plot is light years from the truth as it is understood by the mind and the heart. When you see a novel with 'In the traditon of (John Grisham/Patricia Cornwell/Mary Higgins Clark/Dean Koontz) on the cover, you know you are looking at one of these overcalculated (and likely boring) imitations."
Which applies to photography too it seems. So what should we write about or photograph?
"Photograph what you like," says King (actually, he says write but...), "then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending it with your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work."
King goes on to describe his distrust of plot. "I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless... and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity or real creation aren't compatible."
Which also applies to photography conceived in the cold blood of one's waking mind. It also ties in well with these two quotes. The first is from Paul Graham, while talking about his dole office pictures from the 1980s - pictures that, for me, are the most evocative of the time.
"Sometimes the simplest things to do are the things immediately in front of you."
And the second is from Rineke Dijkstra, on her new mothers pictures. "A lot of women came to me and said, it's great that you make these photographs because this is the way it is but nobody ever shows it and I can recognize myself in it. And the men were all, like, you can't show a woman like that."
Both can be found on video interviews from the Cruel and Tender show at Tate Modern a few years back (thanks to Tadhg for that).
Tuesday, 11 March 2008
London Transport temporarily saw fit to ban this painting advertising the Lucas Cranach (friend of Martin Luther, production line output, Desperate Housewives Adam and Eve...) exhibition.
Reviews of blockbuster shows like this pop up all over the place in the papers, on the radio, on the telly, on the internet - and a varying bunch they are too.
Tom Lubbock Lucas Cranach The Independent doesn't like Cranach,
Laura Cumming and Waldemar Januszczak in The Guardian and The Sunday Times do.
As well as proving that production line artistic output (see this article featured in Mrs Deane) is nothing new, Laura Cummings points out to the physical tenderness apparent in Cranach's paintings.
Most interesting is Lubbock's view of Cranach's portrayal of bodies that come whose "...outlines are as sharp as paper, but the flesh inside them is as formless as beaten egg. Like soft cake-mix in hard cookie-cutters, these bodies offer no resistance to the weird, sinuous shapes that Cranach imposes on them. With snake-like torsos and frog-like limbs, his Venus and Lucretia pose against darkness, while standing on a shallow curved foreground. People who like to set the flesh-loving Old Masters against the flesh-denying ways of the fashion industry should remember their Cranach. You won't find a stranger or more artificial body-ideal on any modern catwalk."
And on Cranach's production line painting factories, Lubbock has this to say, "Christ Blessing the Children has Jesus thronged by mothers presenting their babies. Heads overlap. Eyes peep out of narrow gaps. A pressure of eager intimacy builds up. And then you notice that every single baby's head is the same baby's head, from the studio "baby's head" template book. If he won't bother, why should we?"
Monday, 10 March 2008
My good friend, Juliana Beasley is best known for her brutally honest Lapdancer pictures, but her latest series on the Rockaways is , though very different, even better - especially when you see the prints. I'll be posting some of Juliana's Rockaways pictures later, but above are some shows where you can see her work - if you happen to be in the US that is.
Friday, 7 March 2008
The BBC starts its peculiar White Season tonight - the basic premise is that the white working class in the UK is becoming invisible. Which it's not.
Marginalised, yes, but invisible, no - and that's the working class in general, not just the white working class.
Interestingly, the BBC has decided to couch the series in racial terms (it includes a documentary on Enoch Powell, whose Rivers of Blood prophecies have proved hopelessly wrong) - though it would be more appropriate to look at the political and economic policies that have resulted in deteriorating education, health and housing for the British working class.
The death of British manufacturing industy and the transformation of the Labour Party from an organisation with ties to unions and labour to something quite different also have something to do with this marginalisation as do numerous other factors - falling numbers of working class students getting entrance to universities, widening wealth and health gaps and - oh, I could just go on and on...
The BBC have decided to advertise their season with this clip here which bears a remarkable resemblance to Zhang Huan's Family Tree pictures. The difference is that in his sophisticated work, Zhang covered his face with calligraphy that related to the complex ties of history, family and society - rather than the BBC man's unconvincing messages of "Britain is changing" and "I love Britain".
Thursday, 6 March 2008
The biggest picture on display when I visited was this one of Mao shaking Deng Xiao Ping's hand - the Great Helmsman and Capitalist Roader weren't exactly mates for life or swimming buddies.
There's a great series of posters featuring scenes from Deng's life over at Stefan Landsberger's site (which also feature the developing city - another great cliche of Chinese art photography).
Wednesday, 5 March 2008
Here is an excellent site for Chinese propaganda posters, with posters from Mao's activist Changsha days through to the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution and beyond - complete with text giving some historical and political background to the images.
Tuesday, 4 March 2008
Xiaolu Guo's first chapter of 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth opens with a picture of Mao - one of the great cliches of Chinese photography (and again, there are few pictures that can't be improved by the addition of a Mao somewhere in the frame).
Mao is more than just a cliche though (as Wung Hu explains here) - his cult of personality was such that he is an icon with a multiple personality - with a whole selection of avatars ranging from the young activist/idealist to the soldier, bringer of independence and beyond. None of his avatars are especially true to the real Mao, the unhygienic old lech so entertainly described by his personal doctor in The Private Life of Chairman Mao or the carelessly callous leader that Philip Short writes about in Mao: A Life.
And of course, having a posting on Mao gives me an excuse to run some Mao pictures of my own. And what could be more fun than that.
In 2006, Wu Hung, a curator and academic, said, "Art is so dynamic in China everything moves so fast, so art captures this sense of social transformation. Chinese artists make their works very quickly. there is not a sense of perfectionism, so work can be very huge but crudely made which gives it a strange sense of power. It can just be made for a couple of days exhibition, then the artist moves onto something new, so everything has a raw sense of immediacy and energy.
My feeling is this energy won’t last forever. They will slow down and pay more attention to technique. Another factor is the government is starting to sponsor this type of show and as this happens art becomes less underground than it was in the past. It’s good because this get money and access to space, but originally they identified themselves as underground but as they join the government this may be compromised. They are not exactly censored, but they do not express themselves in the same way. It’s very subtle change. Another factor is commercial. this can also change an artist’s outlook. It’s a double edged sword."
Monday, 3 March 2008
Not only is Xiaolu Guo a wonderful writer, she's also a funny and intelligent speaker. I saw her at the Bath Literature Festival yesterday, talking about A Conscise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers and her new book, 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth.
The Dictionary is concerned with the detached nature of language, or more specifically the English language, and the way the emotional elements have been abstracted from the language and, as a result, from life. She contrasted this with Chinese, which has characters that represent a definite ideal (Chinese red is not the same as English red was the example she gave). I think the same is the case in English, though, and from Plato through to Kant, Wittgenstein and beyond, in whose philosophies words and concepts have their representational ideals existing in mystery worlds that root our transitory lives and language in some kind of solid and absolute entity.
Indeed! Most interesting was the dilemma of translation of the Dictionary - a book written in "badly written" English (and of course it's well-written "badly-written" English). How can it be translated into Chinese where the badly-writtenness is nearly impossible to translate. The solution is to have both versions in the book - one page English next to one page Chinese. Which makes the book impossibly thick. It's being published in Taiwan next month.
The writer is living in France now and commented that due to the obsessive French protection of their language, the Dictionary would be impossible to write in French, a language that doesn't have the open-ended flexibility that English has ( a flexibility that English speakers across the world accept in such a matter of fact manner).
I haven't read 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth yet (but will soon - my wife has it at the moment) , but it looks beautiful, with each chapter starting with one of Xiaolu's pictures of Beijing in the midst of development - art photography cliche. They're pretty good pictures and they set the scene and create a visual imagery for the reader to follow.