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...
Tuesday, 30 September 2008
Position and Hold!
If Vanessa Winship and others are at one end of the spectrum, then Gregory Crewdson is at the other. He presents a fictional world entirely of his own creation and if you are convinced by it, you are convinced by it and experience the Crewdson Weltanschauung. If you are not convinced by it, well you're not convinced by it and you come out of the experience a little confused and sullied.
I saw Selected Works by Gregory Colbert on the photoeye website. I think Colbert might be gilding the lily a bit too much with the book coming in a collector's box "...handcrafted from Nepalese paper coated with beeswax, and tied with thread stained with hibiscus tealeaves and Nepalese beads."
But then I saw the work (the exhibition of which "...has received over 10 million visitors in 4 continents making it the most attended exhibition by a living artist in history") and I thought, well why not. He reminds me of Crewdson in a perverse way - all that delving into the subconscious to come up with a parallel universe of new relationships and redefined anthropology that would have Edward Said farting in his grave. But if you buy into the work, then you buy into it and it's beautiful and all the rest.
Which is a big if.
Anyway, I apologise for making the point because the audience is obviously elsewhere - but I must say I had a few George of the Jungle moments in there with the orang-utans. Weird is the word.
The book is available in a limited edition of er, 1,500, at, er, US $7,500 a pop, which is something of a redefinition of limited.
And that's a take!
Monday, 29 September 2008
Connected with the previous post, Vanessa Winship talks about her work with Simon Bainbridge in the latest copy of the BJP.
Working "off-radar", with no safety net of editorial or commercial work, she kept on producing work that produced no income of even a survival standard. "You survive on your desire to do what you are doing, and you find litle ways to do this and that. Before I left to work in the Balkans, I worked in Silverprint. Before doing that, I worked in a bar, and I worked in a cinema selling ice-cream. I don't mind doing that kind of work... It has a sort of purity about it in many ways."
It's a purity that comes across in her work, her portraits of schoolgirls typical of a modus operandi in which the artist theoretically absences herself from the image. "It was about making the whole process slower. I really wanted to creat a space, and when you arrive with a large format camera and a tripod it's a kind of event, it's a small piece of theatre. I could be very controlling in that way, but what actually happened in that space had nothing to do with me. And that was the real beauty."
I'm not sure I quite agree with that, the act of absencing yourself, of not being there, is an act in itself and elicits a response - a great response in Winship's case (or Soth's or Dijkstra's or..) But the images are beautiful and the Black Sea series she has on her website also a have an incredible, nostalgic beauty to them.
Friday, 26 September 2008
A while ago, Lexi at Subjectify mentioned a Jan Banning quote that said "Your subject is your main enemy". I took this to mean the subject is the person/thing whose essence must be subjugated to the will of the artist, the person/thing who in turn resists the artificial pixelated/celluloid self imposed on them by the photographer.
The general idea is that that everything would be just perfect if only the subject would do as we say, if only they could perform to the ideal we have in mind, if only they could be what we want them to be, show what we want them to show.
Except that it wouldn't. Flip that quote around and the artist is the enemy. The subject is who they are and they do not want to be pigeon-holed into some limited typolological ideal of whatever the artist has in his/her head. Even when the subject is being represented as him/herself, there is resistance to the simplification of their holistic self to the reductive level of 2 dimensional piece of plastic or paper (with text, slide show, audio or whatever other media is used to capture reality and encase it in pixels or soundbytes).
So there is conflict between the subject and the artist. The artist wants the subject to be someone they are not, and the subject resists this by a variety of means - even when they are trying to be helpful and do as their portrayer would like. By so doing, by adapting to the subjectivity of the artist, they lose themself.
It seems that the photographer who tries to capture the inner essence of a person, that ideal of humanity is doomed by their own endeavour - all he or she can do is capture an image tied into the nostalgia of photography's back-story.
And if the photographer is the one imposing his/her view on the subject, by inveigling them into their own constructed take on the world, then what are we to make of that. Is the artist such an philosopher or poet that we should take their portrayals of the world at all seriously. And if they are, why aren't they doing philosphy or poetry instead of the great trivia we all love (But then again, why swap one trivia for the photographic one that we all love and admire and write about so much. It is always good to remember that photography, poetry, philosphy and art is trivia, and to humble ourselves accordingly.)
There are photographers who short circuit this conflict by not seeming to expect anything , so the projected self of the subject almost collapses in on itself - the subject doesn't know what they are expected to do, they don't know who they should be and so something else of their persona appears in the gaps. And perhaps these people are the ones who succeed most in their portrayals - a real sense of self falls through the gaps of the conflict between subject and photographer.
But then there are photographers for whom the conflict of self becomes the raison d'etre of the whole work and others for whom a mediated dissipation of the dramatic sets the scene for a neutral portrayal of their version of reality.
In any case, as a prime example of the artist as enemy I present Dr Barnado's (who founded a famous children's home in England) pictures of Florence and Eliza Holder. I love these pictures. They show loving sisters clad in clean but threadbare dresses, wearing shoes, arms around each other. This is how they arrived at Barnado's home, brought by their mother. The second shows one of Barnado's publicity pictures, the before picture depicting Florence with unkempt hair, with barefeet, looking distinctly unhappy. This is Barnado's version of her "before" she came to his home. No wonder she looks pissed off! The artist is the enemy.
I was thinking of photography and Buddhism, how we need to humble ourselves and empty ourselves of avarice and desire in our image making (you'll get seen by....) when Sonja Engdahl sent me a link with exactly that subject. It's called Shoot the Buddha and it ties Buddhism into the working practice and much more besides.
image: Colin Pantall
Thursday, 25 September 2008
Tuesday, 23 September 2008
Monday, 22 September 2008
Wallace believed the world needed, "...some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching" and "risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness."
As Christopher Taylor wrote, Wallace was, "...always looking for ways to short-circuit his and our embarrassed self-consciousness about serious, large-scale statements on "what's really important - motive, feeling, belief". "How," he asks in a piece on Dostoevsky, "to get up the guts to even try?"
The Guardian published a speech of his which struck a chord and told me something of what we might be missing and why we will be missing it.
"A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.
I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUVs and Hummers and V12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just 20 stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks ...
If I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do - except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default setting.
But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: the only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.
The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the "rat race" - the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing."
Read the whole speech here.
Thursday, 18 September 2008
It never rains in the Lake District in the same way that it never rains in Wales - never. The nice thing about the Lake District and Wales is the mountains they are classy in an understated kind of way - . Snowdon or Scafell Pike, the tallest mountains in Wales and England respectively, do not have the vulgarity of the mountains of India, Nepal or even France. They stand a modest height, 1,000m or so, and you can climb them in morning. Which is why I found myself up Scafell Pike this summer, sitting in the mist on a pile of rocks with Chris Bonnington and 200 other people next to me.
Henry Iddon's Spots of Time project captures the remoteness of the Lake District while also pointing to the lack of a real English wilderness. Shot at dusk, they show the Lake District at peace, without visitors, a recollection to a time when only a poetic few walked its pikes and fells.
Wednesday, 17 September 2008
pictures: Colin Pantall
Everything gets better when you cross the Severn into Wales. Our summer was spent in Wales, in Snowdonia, St Davids and the Gower, where the sun shone for one glorious day.
Tuesday, 16 September 2008
Here is the shortlist for the NPG portrait prize - portraits by Lottie Davies, Hendrik Kerstens, Catherine Balet and Tom Stoddart. I like the Lottie Davies picture, Quints, best so hope that wins.
My favourite from the whole competition is of course my entry, not shortlisted but in the show and below.
Jill Greenberg's McCain images are still tame compared to what cartoonists get up to. Above is Jonathan Shapiro's, aka Zapiro, picture of the ANC's party leader Jacob Zuma - that appeared in The Sunday Times newspaper. The picture refers to Zuma's alleged interference with the South African judicial system, a rape accusation from a few years earlier - the shower head refers to Zuma's penchant for showering away the germs as a protection against HIV rather than use a condom.
Following the media uproar, Shapiro told the BBC. "The primary issue is there's a figure about to rape the justice system with the help of his political allies," he said.
"It is derogatory, yes, it is demeaning, yes, but that's the intention."And as Jacob Zuma said, "It is only in dictatorships and autocracies where criticism is viewed with contempt," but I don't think he was talking about Zapiro there.
More on the cartoon here. Visit www.zapiro.com for more cartoons.
Monday, 15 September 2008
But Hirst is of a particular time and a particular place, he's the Tony Blair of the art world - all smoke and mirrors, style and no substance.
Hirst has hit back, labelling Hughes Luddite and pompous, saying he "...probably cried when Queen Victoria died."
I think they're probably both right.
There is one extra thing Hughes missed out on in his savaging. . Hirst paid the artists who made his spot paintings £7.50 an hour - the tightwad!
Friday, 12 September 2008
A few months ago, somebody said to me "What can we learn from these pictures?"
It's a bewildering question that presupposes so much, in particular that the purpose of photography is education learning.
But it's not. Photography doesn't teach us anything. It can show us things, it can make us revel in the beauty and the horror of it all, it can create emotional links between what we see and the lives we lead, the world around us, but why should we
expect it to teach us something. Even photography that comes in a book, with words, like Larry Sultan's Pictures From Home, doesn't teach us anything. But it does make us feel, it ties in ideas of land and home and family and creates a historical backdrop against which we can conjure up our own version of the truth.
Martin Parr once said that "All photography is propaganda" and he's absolutely right once you flip that round so that it becomes "All photography is true". But it's a truth that is visceral, emotional, non-rational and connects to a socialised visual reading, the same kind of reading that made Pieter Hugo say that "If you really want to know about anything - a war, a place, a person - you go read a book, right? You don't look at a photograph."
So if you want to learn the nitty-gritty of post-war migration to California, the who, where, when and why, go search the history section of your local library or do the simple thing and google it.
But that won't tell you about the cultural history of the migration, about the home, work and family and the disappointments of success or even what success really is. Larry Sultan's book won't tell you about that either, but it will lead you into places where you can feel the history in a way that words and statistics never can.
And it will do that because a photograph or a painting can touch us in places words can never reach. Pieter Hugo's hyena pictures, for example, don't teach me anything apart from a little footnote that guys in Nigeria make money with hyenas - I didn't know that before he came along. But the images have a level of uncertainty, a power and an elemental sense of rawness that combines with the post-apocalyptic nature of developing urban environments that carries them way beyond the bare socio-economic bones of how these people lead their lives.
And that is the way with all photography. It doesn't teach us anything, most of the time what it shows is blindingly obvious - teenage girls worry about their bodies, industrial structures are both ugly and beautiful, alcoholic parents create domestic mayhem and so on.
The work doesn't teach us anything, but why should it. It takes us to places we might normally not go and interweaves unconscious elements in ways that are far richer than any linear written narrative can do.
Thursday, 11 September 2008
'There are two Americas - separate, unequal, and no longer even acknowledging each other except on the barest cultural terms. In the one nation, new millionaires are minted every day. In the other, human beings no longer necessary to our economy, to our society, are being devalued and destroyed'
In the Guardian Magazine, David Simon (producer and writer of The Wire) speculated on why urban juries in Baltimore were 30 times less likely to find defendants guilty of the most serious charges as suburban juries, he wondered why 100,000 people out of a population of 700,000 were arrested in one year and why those people were almost all black.
And then he wondered why this was barely discussed in either The Baltimore Sun or the national press or even the presidential election.
So why is it we avoid the blindingly obvious, why can't we see what's in front of our eyes.
Wednesday, 10 September 2008
Christien Meindertsma provides the next link in the Francis Bacon-Billy William III chain with her new book Pig 05049.
The book is a typological examination of the relationship between a raw material, Pig 05049, and the manufactures said pig goes into - a little reminder of where things come from.
Meindertsma's work seems as earnest as can be but at the same time I do think she is having a bit of fun with it/herself and us. Her previous book, Checked Baggage was excellent. For this, she bought a crate full of sharp implements seized post-911 at Schiphol Security, photographed them and then gave them away with the copies of the book. Gimmicky but fabulous-gimmicky, and fun in a Dutch kind of way.
And she's a designer not a photographer.
Tuesday, 9 September 2008
Indeed. Previous posts have mentioned the viscosity of flesh and the distortion of the body and the disgust with which people behold it. They have touched on the veneer of respectability and rationality we slather over the supparating masses of flesh that ultimately is the human condition, the bad faith and false consciousness that has us denying the stench and decay essential to our decomposing organic states.
So I should be posting something on John Coplans or Jenny Salville, perhaps return to the contortions of Roger Ballen or the examinations in pain of Doctor Killian or go to the pseudo-scientific experiments of Duchenne or a hundred other physician-photographers and their dark arts of discovering exactly what lies under our skin, and will one day emerge out of it.
But instead we'll return to Bacon's horror of "the meat on the plate" and feature the bones and spleens of Billy William III, the filthiest butcher in town and side-kick of the irrepressible Mr Gum, anti-hero of the fabulous series of books by Andy Stanton.
Thursday, 4 September 2008
Three Studies of a Self Portrait
Robert Hughes writes on the estranged realism of Francis Bacon in the Guardian as well as his relationship with photography, while Michael Glover connects Francis Bacon Bacon with disgust, Sartre and the organic in the Independent.
Robert Hughes recalls Bacon saying in an interview:
"Some people think that my paintings are horrible. Horrible! But then you only need to think about the meat on your plate."
Bacon has not only a horror of religion (never forget that he was born and raised in Ireland), but also an acute dislike of narrative painting. His purpose is not storytelling. It is sensation. "Some paint comes across directly on to the nervous system, other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain." That distinction, between "brain" and "nervous system", thinking and feeling, was always of capital importance to him. It lies at the root of his lifelong denial that he was in any way an "expressionist"; to him, his paintings were realistic, rather intensely so. Like certain still lives by Goya, or like the more recent and no less extraordinary masterpiece of a skinned rabbit by Antonio López García, they make you think about the meat on your plate.
...the famously filthy mess that was Bacon's studio at Reece Mews - the piles and sticky avalanches of photos, books, clipped newsprint, booze-stained scribbles on the verge of becoming drawings, squished paint tubes and every imaginable ingredient of clutter that covered the horizontal and vertical surfaces, tables and walls, like some illegible compost in which, like moulds or somewhat alien life-forms, his future pictures were brewing and his past ones decaying. This stuff was more than rubbish. It was an archive, admittedly a staggeringly disordered one. And fortunately, instead of throwing all this crap out, Bacon's heir, John Edwards, saw to it that it was all collected and given to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. At first one greeted this news with scepticism: wasn't it some kind of joke, the artist so famous that even his shit is adored having years of excreta preserved in one of the principal museums of his native country? But no. The rubbish was a precious archaeological record. This becomes clear when you read the Tate catalogue, whose authors delve often brilliantly and always inquisitively into its resources. Of these, the chief is photography.
There is scarcely an important western artist of the past hundred years around whom a book could not be spun, and a show constructed, with the title "Fred X and Photography". Perhaps one or two, such as Mondrian. Even Pierre Bonnard, once thought of as a rapturous apostle of the unmediated eye, used snapshots. But Bacon's resort to photography, both still and cinematic, was constant, obsessive and over-the-top. Its sources and results have an enormous span, from the relatively familiar - Dr Goebbels orating, terrified crowds scattering from the tsar's police, or the bloody face of the nurse on Eisenstein's Odessa Steps, peering hysterically through her broken spectacles - to the utterly obscure. There are bits of Picture Post and images from those resources of gay porn, the body-culture magazines of the 50s. Sometimes the obscure details lie within images themselves famous. For instance, there is a well-known photograph of a racing-car at Le Mans, in which the speed of the machine and the panning camera movement turn the wheels into forward-leaning ellipses, distorted cartoonwise. So striking is this effect and so dominant the machine's image that few people so much as notice the figures in the background, on the verge of the track. But Bacon did, and he stole a pair of them, enlarging them for the right panel of Crucifixion (1965), where, in their odd soft hats, they look threateningly like a pair of Australian yobs leaning on a bar.
There are also photographs that Bacon's paintings made famous, but few except insiders knew about before Bacon swiped them. Obvious examples are the images from Eadweard Muybridge's Animal Locomotion of the 1880s, albums of sequential shots of human and animal movement - wrestlers, a trotting dog, or the haunting "paralytic child walking on all fours". Muybridge is such a classic figure in the history of photography now that it's hard to imagine a time when his work wasn't recognisable, but that was the time when Bacon came in. Analogous to these are some of the extraordinary images in KC Clark's Positioning in Radiography, a medical album published in 1939, in which the bodies of hospital patients are twisted and spraddled to display their tumours and other malformations to the searching gaze of the x-ray lens, calling to mind the words of Bacon's favourite modernist poet, TS Eliot: "The wounded surgeon plies the steel / That questions the distempered part". All this was grist to Bacon's mill. It enabled him to find new configurations in the body that were not the result of "artist's licence", not formal distortions gained from invention, but real, actual and corporeal. They had something to do with the traumatised flesh of accident victims, and something to do with the froggy postures of sex, but fully partook of the nature of neither.And from the Independent, Michael Glover on the viscosity of Francis Bacon
"Fundamentally, man is alone with himself, and that self is not a pretty sight. We must never forget that there is a skull beneath the skin, and that the flesh – though capable of prettification – is, in the end, so much raw meat. What is more, we live in an ever-shifting world, a world of shifting values, a world – like Bacon's paintings – in which everything appears to be unstable, even the flesh that slathers across the face of the bony human skull.
It is the exact same vision that Sartre the novelist gives us through the character of Antoine Roquentin, the autodidact hero of La nausée (Bacon too was an autodidact). The world is viscous, disgustingly treacly in its perpetual instability, forever slipping away from us. The self, too, is disgustingly unstable, perpetually posed to be refashioned by a wholly unpredictable future.
Bacon's vision, as he summarised it in 1964, almost 30 years after the publication of Sartre's novel, is at one with this. "I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events as the snail leaves its slime," he said. Yuck."
Francis Bacon opens at Tate Britain on 11 September, and runs to 4 January 2009
Wednesday, 3 September 2008
The good news from the summer is for the second year I have a picture up in the National Portrait Gallery Taylor-Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize show.
Last year was Sofa Portrait #3, this year it's this version of Isabel smelling camelias on Easter Sunday - from the Flora series.
It's lovely to be up there.
Tuesday, 2 September 2008
Welcome back after the British Summer.
The only thing that kept me going through the wind and the rain was this Q&A from Slovenia's very own Prince of Laughter, Slavoj Zizek. All round miserabilist and everyone's favourite cultural commentator, Slavoj rates the Sound of Music as his favourite film, Father Ted as his favourite TV series and Bruce Weber as his favourite photographer (something might be true in there, but I'm not quite sure what).
What is your earliest memory?
My mother naked. Disgusting.
Aside from a property, what's the most expensive thing you've bought?
The new German edition of the collected works of Hegel.
What do you owe your parents?
Nothing, I hope. I didn't spend a minute bemoaning their death.
What is the worst job you've done?
Teaching. I hate students, they are (as all people) mostly stupid and boring.
picture: Colin Pantall