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Tuesday, 31 March 2009

How not to Photograph: Deadpan

picture: Colin Pantall - I said be serious!

From Dawn of the Dead to Deadpan, the apparently neutral style used to describe particular kinds of landscape and, less commonly, portrait photography.

I don't know who first used the term for photography, but it certainly appears in Charlotte Cotton's handy book, The Photograph as Contemporary Art. I don't really like the word in the photographic field. It brings to mind stone-faced comedians like Buster Keaton and, er, well I'll stick with Buster Keaton. But the term does serve a purpose; you see a deadpan picture and you know it's a deadpan picture.

In photography, the great deadpan portraitists are August Sander and Rineke Dijkstra, though the emotional undercurrents in the work of both these artists is so immensely political and emotional that deadpan doesn't even begin to cover what they show.

The way they work is what matters though and that's where the choice kicks in. Dijkstra employed a look-this-way, click-and-that's-it strategy for her Beach Portraits, the power of the images coming from the subject herself and the situation she finds herself in.

That's the look-at-the-camera, I'm-not-doing-too-much-even-though-I'm-doing-a-great-deal work dealt with. And she is doing a great deal, especially when finding subjects who have a non-generic way of responding to the camera. Dijkstra's models are interesting in other words, they perform for the camera, and the way Dijkstra photographs makes them even more interesting. We want to know about these people.

The problem arises when the deadpan artist wants to impose his vision on the world, where control in all areas is paramount, especially the question of where the subject should look and how they should look and how to get the subject to look in this particular way.

And that's when you get the weird looks you find only in photography. The did-I-just-have-an-accident-in-my-pants look, the has-someone-farted look, the what's-that-coming-over-the-hill-is-it-a-monster look, the why-am-I-looking-over-your-shoulder look, the hurry-up-and-take-the-picture look and of course the this-is-not-a-look look.

All these looks are a simple combination of bad direction from the photographer and bad performing from the subjects. We all know when we see somebody acting badly in a film, but the same thing can happen in a photograph. We also know when this happens, but somehow people never mention it. Probably because it's not polite.

We all know these looks, we see them all the time in our own pictures and in other people's. We take pictures of these looks, wonder if we can get away with it and cut the pictures into pieces and throw them away when we discover we can't. Except for the ones that we don't cut up, because let's face it, a good have-I-had-an-accident-in-my-pants look is a rare and glorious thing and should be shared amongst the world.

Worst of all is the last look, the this-is-not-a-look look, the one where the photographer says something like "Be expressionless"or "Empty your mind" or "Think about nothing?" This is not the same as thoughtfulness or introspection or attendance-elsewhere, this is an attempt by the photographer to portray the subject/victim as an empty vessel upon which the photographer can project their own thoughts, ideas or desires.

To what end I'm not sure. There's not much happening up top for most of us at the best of times. This doesn't make us interesting people, quite the opposite. Emptying our minds of everything makes us even less interesting, even if we do it convincingly.

It makes us less interesting in real life and it makes us double-less interesting in a picture. Unfortunately, few photographers ever capture this look convincingly. It is difficult to empty one's mind, it takes years of training and fasting and pilgrimages to the Himalaya to be halfway believeable. But again and again and again we see this attempt at emptiness photographed, as though a feigned vacancy of feeling, thought and personality will reveal some inner truth about humanity, how we're all empty and vacant.

The only person in this scheme of things who is vacant is the photographer. Asking one's subjects to be empty reveals a failure of the imagination that can only come from somebody completely bereft of ideas who is trying to copy somebody else because that's always a good thing, right.

The only solution to this state of affairs is the removal of these people from polite society. A Thomas Ruff Memorial Retirement Home should be established. There, the photographer can stay with his/her fellow guests, deadpanning themselves to death by photographing each other and anything else that is empty - empty beds, empty houses, empty spaces, empty anything. And at the end of every year, they can have an exhibition of their pictures of emptiness, with massive prints and a cabaret and guest lectures by some of the giants of emptiness, and they can have print sales and slide show nights and portfolio reviews where people with earnest hair and serious faces can talk meaningfully about nothingness and nothing. And they can make a magazine with high production values and it will be called Emptiness and when can I book myself in because it sounds just perfect!

Monday, 30 March 2009

How Not to Photograph: Dawn of the Dead

picture: Colin Pantall - Where have all the Golfers Gone?

The Fifth Flyover was about how empty beds, empty buildings, barren flyovers and sparsely vegetated fields can be overused. This is especially true when all the empties come together in one body. Everything is empty; the streets, the parks, the shops, the houses, as if nobody lived there, as if the whole town or village or country had been denuded of people in some kind of Dawn of the Dead zombie flick.

Where have all the people gone? They can't all be in the Mall, because if there are pictures of the Mall, that'll be empty too, and they're not under the electricity pylons because there's never anyone there. Either the photographer has a nasty smell about him or the absence of people is very deliberate. Most of the time it's the latter. Unpopulated landscapes become a synonym for a visual fascism, a way of seeing that makes people invisible and removes them from the interplay of the environmental, social and economic equations that make a place what it is.

Why is this? It used to be that people would pick up a camera to overcome their shyness, to give them an excuse to talk to girls or boys, to engage with the outside world. Marc Riboud used to be shy and but he started snapping people and was transformed into a maker of iconic images. Alec Soth used to be a nervous wreck who could barely look anybody in the eye, but give him a large format about and he had everybody getting their kit off in no time - himself included.

Now it seems that picking up a camera is an excuse, not to engage with, but to retreat from the world. We show the lived in environment but without the living, we show the built environment without the builders, the houses without the inhabitants, the roads without the cars and so on all the way down the line; we show a world in which life has been exterminated, as though it's been hit by a photographic neutron bomb.

What is the source of this anthrophobia? Why are so many photographers so scared of photographing people? Are we such a bunch of shrinking violets that we flinch whenever a human enters the viewfinder? Do we find the notion of digital or chemical interaction with human form so repellent that we would rather photograph a world of interiors and peeling paint? Has our lack of social skills and general dysfunction reached the nadir where we would rather lock ourselves in the cellar than be mocked and abused by the outside world.

Or could there be another reaon? Could it be that photographing empty things is easy, and photographing people is hard. Houses don't move, empty beds stay still, they don't jump up and down, pout or smile inappropriately. Flyovers don't tell people where to go, suburban houses don't stare menacingly however many pictures you take. You don't even have to talk to them, they stay in the same pose, unchanging, unmoving wonders of emptiness.

So it's laziness that makes us do this, a collective case of boneheaded idleness reinforced by corner-cutting professors and copycat curators. We can rationalise it away however we like, but we all know it's true - we should try and get out more and meet some people.

The sarcasm of these How not to posts is killing me. So is the cynicism. I'm on a rollercoaster of doom with this series. There is no hope! But alas, I was daft enough to get on and now I can't get off, so the sarcasm and cynicism will have to continue for a few more months before I can return to my rightful place and lighter things like Origami Cats.

Friday, 27 March 2009

How not to Photograph: The Fifth Flyover

picture: Colin Pantall - Empty Estuary and The Fifth Flyover

The Fifth Flyover is different to the typological approach but similar. It's about repetition within a wider theme, where the photographer feels the need to show us the same thing over and over again, but they think they are showing us something different each time. Robert Frank had juke boxes running through The Americans, Alec Soth had empty beds running through Sleeping in the Mississippi, but they were always different and always served the purpose of helping to illustrate the much more interesting aspects of human life which these photographers explored with their pictures.

Too often we find ourselves photographing an empty bed simply because we are attracted to empty beds, we know it'll make a nice picture and we think we can slot it into a wider body of work. Why not, everyone loves an empty bed, especially if it's stained and unmade, but nicely composed! If we are really attracted to them we might try an empty bed typology (which has been dealt with already in this series) which is always a bad idea because that will remind the viewer where they are heading after flicking through a few empty bed images.

Most times, the empty bed, empty building, barren flyover or sparsely vegetated field becomes a visual trope that resonates throughout a photographer's work. By the time we have seen the eighth one, we've got the picture. Empty buildings are really empty, barren flyovers are really barren, and sparsely vegetated fields are, er, sparsely vegetated and there are a lot of them about if you care to look for them. Critical mass is reached at an early point (scientific research shows us critical mass is reached at 8 pictures) and if we see any more than this number it is like having one, two or three drinks past the point where you are absolutely legless. Nausea kicks in and vomitus follows soon after.

The illusion is that the similarities of the emptiness/sparseness ( or whatever other lack or absence you choose to mention) will neutralise each other and illuminate the differences so that, if we look, really, really hard our visual understanding will transcend the tedium of what we are seeing. Maybe so, but who could be bothered. It's just not that interesting. Most of us would rather boil our ankles rather than look at work of such unremitting emptiness.

The only exception is when it's my (or your) own work - and then this kind of emptiness takes on a miracle transformation. It becomes endlessly fascinating and engaging. But only to me, which is no good at all, because I have an audience of one and I'm back in the solipsist nightmare of talking to myself, alone again in the darkroom of my soul .

Thursday, 26 March 2009

How not to Photograph: Mr Sandman, on second thoughts bring me a gun

picture by Colin Pantall - Does the Fish have Chips?

We all dream but most of the time we forget our dreams; they fade away back into the seething pot of unconscious desires and random detritus where they belong. This is a good thing. I dream about fish, vampires and North Korea with an alarming frequency. I would love to be able to combine these dreams in a surreal photographic form. It would be a revelation to me, my inner soul revealed through my passion for art and photography. Unfortunately I don't have the time or energy to set up the lighting, buy the fish, paint the papier mache or cast the Kim Jong-il lookalikes.

Thank goodness for that! It would be a revelation to me, but an exercise in eyeball-churning tedium for everyone else, solipsist self-indulgence that would turn every right-thinking person's stomach to milk shake. We should endeavour to keep out dreams to ourselves, our neuroses under control, to lock it in, not let it all hang out.

Of course, there are people that are good at getting under the skin of the human condition. They have an irresistible momentum that comes from being older, wiser and more crackerjack than the average photographer, with more time, money and talent to hand. There is a place for this kind of thing in other words, and for me that place belongs to Gilbert Garcin ( and Teun Hocks, but if we were all Everyman, who would be left to inhabit the real world?). The rest of us should make like the English, keep the upper lip stiff and hide it all away.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

How Not to Photograph: Do Mind That

picture by Colin Pantall - Remembering the 77 terror attack with Frank 'Whatever he Might Have Done' Gardner victim of terror attack, and they're coming coming to get you terror, terror, terrorist attack terror, Pakistan, Saudi, Afghanistan, burqa, everybody talk about pop terror, MI5 will save us all

The opposite of Never Mind That is Do Mind That! This is where the photographer, often in collaboration with charities and fund-raising NGOs, does show us the misery, horror and misfortune in great detail, again and again and again.

The important thing here is to get the message across that things are really, really miserable and awful. More often than not the pictures become indistinguishable from each other and we are left with generic misery that could happen almost anyplace that it could happen.

One place you get a lot of misery is Africa. I know this because I've seen a lot of pictures from Africa and the situation is really bad, the entire continent a blacked out Heart of Darkness where plague, famine, disease and warfare are endemic and death stalks the earth.

Often the Do Mind That pictures will be linked in a before/after kind of sequence showing exactly what can be done if you provide money to build schools, buy mosquito nets or provide running water for the hell-on-earth that is Ethiopia/Somalia/Sudan/Biafra/Sierra Leone or wherever the current war/famine/massacre happens to be taking place.

There are photographers like Tim Hetherington, Guy Tillims, Roger Ballen, Marcus Bleasdale, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin who assure us that this is not entirely the case and that the situation is more complex than depicted, but I'm not too sure they're right if only because their work is simply overwhelmed and beaten back by the portrayal of the continent as the Nine Circles of Dante's Inferno.

And if the word terror is ever invoked, best mind that as well, because you can be sure the end of the world is becoming nigher by the second.

Monday, 23 March 2009

How Not to Photograph: Never Mind That

picture: Colin Pantall - Enjoying the Views at the Harold Shipman Memorial Gardens

Never Mind That is where the photographer has examined their subject in great depth, but has completely ignored the massive elephant in the room that comes to mind whenever we think of the subject. Embedded photojournalism, propaganda, public relations, the BBC News at Six and travel photography are all examples of this, and so is documentary photography which, as often as not, is a variation on one of the above, though don't say that in mixed company because obvious though it is (you travel, you photograph = travel photography) it's not polite.

Obvious examples of Never-Minding-That include politically motivated depictions of a country where the photographer becomes a mini-Riefenstahl or Rodchenko, capturing the dignity and honesty and smiles of a place in a myriad different ways, but missing out on the oppression and coercion and corruption that is going on just out of shot. It's a bit like writing about Josef Fritzl and his love of scrabble and the Paso Doble, then missing out all the horror bits because that's been done to death already and it's time we heard about his good side and he's just a regular bloke, except that he's not. Or writing about North Korea and talking about the happy Koreans singing while they voted, but not mentioning some of the other bits (which can get you into all sorts of trouble and deservedly so).

One excuse is the photographer is showing how normal life continues amidst the control/fear/terror. Sometimes that might be enlightening with the 'normality' (as with Henryk Ross's Lodz Ghetto) reinforcing the horror, but most of the time it is not. Here the absence of the nasty stuff or the real story is not remotely accidental, and the cumulative effect of constant incidental depictions of normal life at the expense of what's happening underneath the rocks amounts to a Public Relations triumph for the wherever's Ministry of Information.

All kinds of photography are guilty of this, it's part of the disposability of the image and the assumption that it doesn't really matter too much if we don't take responsibility for the pictures we make and where they lie in the greater visual discourse.

We're all guilty of this, but at the same time, lighten up. I mean, come on, how great is China with its skyscrapers and streaming rivers of nightlit highways, how exotic is India with its sadhus and its spices, how amazing is Afghanistan with its deserts and often uncanny lack of people, and how traditional and great is England with its seaside colour and cricket and warm beer and George Orwell. Except it's not. But never mind that!

Friday, 20 March 2009

How Not to Photograph: The Zig Zag

picture: Colin Pantall - from the series: Er, something or other about the child sex industry in Sapa, will this do?

Following on from the Everything Matters approach of the previous post is The Zig-Zag where Everything Matters but you can be damn sure the photographer isn't going to show you what that everything is. This happens a lot in documentary and editorial photography where the captions tell the story but the pictures don't. It's for followers of the work of people like Smith and Richards and Nachtwey, the hardcore mongers of misery and guts who did always capture exactly what story was about, with maybe a little bit more on the side.

The wannabe photographer of misery and guts wants to let the world know about the violence, the abuse, the drugs, the corruption and the downright injustice of it all, but unfortunately they are not up to the job, they simply don't have the obsession, the pictures or the vision of a Smith, Richards or Nachtwey. And why should they? Not everyone, thank god, is suited to getting those kind of pictures. Or has enough money to do it because the rewards are not going to be too great, if there are any at all. Who wants to see that miserable stuff?

So instead of showing us the story through images, the photographer zigzags us through a series of miscaptioned side issues, that are a touch easier to shoot and indirectly touch on the story they are supposed to be looking at.

On a more domestic level, Nan Goldin got away with showing us pictures of herself looking accusingly at Brian from her bed, but she could do that because she had the other pictures to put those glancing blows into a powerful context. Pictures of people looking mournfully out of windows, street scenes of people looking vaguely menacing or moody landscapes of semi-derelict buildings tell us nothing.

Jens Liebchen did a book about it - read about Stereotypes of War here.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

How Not to Photograph: Photographers' Psychosis and The Long Runway

picture: Colin Pantall - from the Series, Jakarta: Everything matters, The Truth is Out There

Next up in How Not to Photography is The Long Runway. This, for Howard and Mittelmark is the one in which a character's childhood is recounted to no purpose. It is especially apparent in photography of children where the process of recording a child's life becomes obsessive and uncontrolled and every little detail has to be recorded and it becomes a lifetime's work that will never be finished because it will take a lifetime and everything just becomes unmanageable and out of control.

Here, the long runway just goes on and on and on - it's a runway without a destination about a subject that holds little interest to anybody else except for the besotted parent.

That's why, for all the photography of children made in both an informal and formal sense, there has been no satisfactory holistic depiction of the essence of childhood; partly because this is something that is so hard to depict visually, partly because the photography of children that does exist focusses on particular aspects of childhood in controlled and stable environments - so losing the emotional and physical chaos of childhood that is essential to a child's being. To make something meaningful, you have to get snippets and hope they resonate off each other, or else you are completely doomed. Instead of the Long Runway which goes nowhere, you have a series of day trips which you hope will present some further insights.

The Long Runway doesn't just apply to children though, it applies to anything one loves, anything where a degree of psychosis and OCD kicks in. And when the obsession kicks in, so does the need to explain, to provide the backstory of how this place, these people, these things came to be. I used to do this in Jakarta, photographing everywhere and everything, because what people really need to understand, and will obviously really be interested in (because I'm interested in it) is well, everything about the place - the transport, the people, the housing, the politics, the food - on the macro-level, the micro-level and the interaction and the outside world, because once you understand that, you understand everything. Because it all matters, it's all essential and how could you not be fascinated by it.

The idea is that by piling it all in, by revealing every aspect of a place and documenting it through the power of photography (and some pretty lengthy captions) , some grand and shining truth will beam out through the fog of randomness. My obsession is the key to everything!

Eugene Smith's amphetamine fuelledPittsburgh psychosis is the obvious example of this, but that is just the extreme of extremes. You can see it everywhere, we all do it, no matter where we are or who we are, just not as well as Smith, who did do it rather well. And the solution is simple enough - it's called editing. That and writing a book about it, rather than making photographs. Oh, and getting out more. That's always an important one.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

How not to Photograph: Pictures Fail Me

picture: Colin Pantall - Fly found on Sarwo Edhie's Dress Uniform - from the series 1965

Next up on the How Not to Photograph theme (which will go on for some time - think of it as a kind of photographic spring cleaning, an end of winter sweeping out of all the detritus that is a side effect of this blog's natural everything-is-great positivity) is Words Fail Me - for Howard and Mittelmark this is where author just says everything is "awesome", where the failure to communicate is made evident by the use of words like "amazing" and "unbelievable".

In photographic terms, this is where every picture is spectacular, where light and shade dominate, where violence erupts, where the sheer joy or misery of the event shines through, but in a meaningless catch-all generic way. It is the kind of work that makes war and hunger and poverty generic, because once you've seen it once, you've seen it a hundred times and in any case who wants to see that kind of stuff because lifestyle and celebrity sells much better in any case.

The antidote to this kind of thing is to blame images of the spectacular for what they represent, which is a chronological leap of faith. Instead, there is an emphasis on the use of the subtle, the background scenarios that created or emerged out of the poverty/hunger/war in the first place - think Tomatsu's Nagasaki and the broken watch and the melted bottle that I think looks like a hare in a butcher's window. That's the approach at its most poetic, descriptive, essential and heart-wrenching. But this approach could also be labelled Pictures Fail Me - these background events, these details are unreadable if you are not aware of exactly what they are pointing to in the first place, and the series of interiors, details and bits and pieces that are shown will leave you none the wiser. Essentially, they rely on you the viewer being familiar with the events they are documenting, a familiarity that emerges from the fickle words, available film and spectacular images they are supposed to undermine. The Pictures Fail Me approach is strictly for Preaching to the Converted. There's nothing wrong with that, in fact it's a good thing, but so is Preaching to the Unconverted.

Monday, 16 March 2009

How not to Photograph: The I didn't go on Vacation Slide Show

picture: Colin Pantall - from the series: I really should get out more

Even worse than The Vacation Slide Show (see previous post) is The I-didn't-go-on-vacation Slide Show.

Aka: The Stay at Home Slide Show.

Aka: The I Can't Really be Arsed Getting Out of the House Too Much Slide Show.

This isn't too much of a problem if you live somewhere interesting and exciting like New York or Paris. After all, William Klein made
New York: Life is Good & Good For You In New York! and Brassai made Paris by Night from their own homes sort of. But note that it's Paris by Night, not Peterborough by night and it's New York Life is Good and Good For You In New York, not Bridgwater: Life is Good & Good For You in Bridgwater.

If you can't get somewhere interesting or find something interesting to photograph in your hometown, do at least try to get out of the house. And if you don't get out of the house, don't make work based on how interesting the wall looks if you look at it closely enough and really explore the way that we really see. A wall is still a wall, and that goes for pictures on wall, cracks in walls and wallpaper on walls, especially the cracked pictorial kind. We all know Aaron Siskind made wonderful pictures of flaking paint, that's no excuse for you to make endless pictures of flaking paint as well. And it's no excuse for me either.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

How not to Photograph: The Vacation Slide Show

picture: Colin Pantall (from the series, What People Don't Understand About Komodo Is... )

Next up in the series on How not to Photograph is The Vacation Slide Show - where, to paraphrase Howard and Mittelmark, the photographer substitutes location for story.

Yes, it's all about location, location, location. Something that is new to you the photographer, that is unfamiliar and full of surprises, by extension has to be of interest to your viewers. But if all you are doing is substituting the more colourful street detritus of Tirichirupalli for that of Trowbridge or Totterdown, then your pictures will inevitably fall flat.

Just because you can go somewhere doesn't mean you should. A lack of familiarity with an environment, culture and people is unlikely to provide new visual revelations to wow your audience.

As Howard and Mittelmark put it: "There was a time when a book could be sold purely because its author had been to distant climes and had returned to tell of the exotic sights he had seen. That author was Marco Polo, and the time was the thirteenth century."

With pictures, the photographer was Francis Frith and the time was the nineteenth century.

Closely related to the Vacation Slide Show is the Pointless Travelogue. I used to love nothing better than to travel the back of beyond of darkest Indonesia. I'd hang out in places like Sibulusalaam, the poison capital of northern Sumatra, and wonder at the miracles of the wildlife of Komodo. And when I got home I would start conversations with finger-clicking gambits like, "The thing about Aceh is..." or "What people don't understand about Aceh is..."

And then the pictures would come up and the glazed over eyes of my audience would droop and fade into unconsciousness.

So just because you can go there doesn't mean that you should, or that your pictures will be interesting. This applies to undergraduate documentary photography students in particular. Photography is not a competition to see who can go to the most obscure destination, even if you are minted and have a trust fund. No, on second thoughts, if you are minted with a trust fund, loads of stuff still happening if you get off the beaten track in Helmand and Somalia - get out of here.

How not to Photograph #1: Monkey Art, Slight Plots, the Bechers and McGinley

Colin Pantall: Dead Pigeon #77 (from the project 100 Dead Pigeons)

In their book, How not to Write a novel, Newman and Mittelmark say that there are lots of books on how to write a novel, but none on how not to write a novel. With their blessed sarcasm, they say "...if reading Stephen King on writing really did the trick, we would all by now be writing engrossing vernacular novels that got on the bestseller lists." Which isn't the case, so Newman and Mittelmark decided to provide the service of offering observations on how not to write a novel.

It's the same with photography. There are loads of books on how to photograph. They will tell you how to use long exposures, how to be creative using fancy things like multiple exposures (double the exposure and double the meaning), how large format will really bring out the detail, and so on and so on. In other words, the simple functional How to... books of photography pretty much cover the heady world of art photography from top to bottomus.

It's simple stuff, but simple is good, especially in photography, which is basically a monkey art.
Writing isn't a monkey art. You can give a bunch of monkeys typewriters and it'll take them a squillion years to come up with the works of Shakespeare. Give a bunch of monkeys (or better still bonobos) an old Yashica, an unlimited amount of film (and some orang-utan assistants to change it) and presto, you'll have the works of Ryan McGinley in no time at all.

Ryan McGinley's work has been critiqued very nicely here on the grounds that his subjects are all a bit too young and white and well-to-do and perky in an androgynous kind of way.

Which is all true, and of course his work is about lifestyle and Water Babies and the Never-Never in more ways than one, but that is what makes it somehow memorable. His cast of characters are indistinct, they are uniform and have a shared identity, they are McGinley's Stepford children. Nothing about them is memorable and that's what makes them special, that's why they stick in our craw, why we can't just shake them off. They are anonymous nonentities slotted into these timeless, generic scenarios who fit with a time and a way of thinking, they are a fantasy, part of a bubble that has burst. They are already part of the past, a visual footnote to the boom before bust.

I personally despise McGinley's subjects for who and what they are just out of blind prejudice for young, white, rich (though not always ) Americans gallivanting around naked in water and fireworks and having more fun than me - and I think that is half the point of the work. We are supposed to have a little bit of envy because they are having such a fun and nice time and they are so young and carefree and seem so sweet and nice. Would I want to do the McGinley road trip if I were a little bit younger? Fuck yeah! Wouldn't you?

And the other big thing is McGinley does it in a way that breaks free from the charm-free earnestness that predominates in the art and photography world. And for that we should be thankful.

Anyway, back to Newman and Mittelmark. Their first observation on how no to write a novel is 'The Plot is too Slight'.

Which says it all really. This is trying to tell a story where there is no story, or not enough of a story or a story that isn't interesting to anyone except the writer, or in our case the photographer.

We can all think of examples of this. I photograph my daughter. This is interesting to me, but to others it may not be. Indeed, as a genre, photography of children is definitely a case of The Plot is too Slight. What is interesting about my child, how she plays, how she dresses, how she sees, how she watches television, is possibly only interesting to me. Maybe there is no story, so move on, find another subject, join the real world.

Take the Bechers as an example. The Bechers have a lot to answer for. They make beautiful pictures of industrial architecture. Their images resonate off each other, the care and attention paid to figure and ground creates a visual grid where the whole amounts to more than the parts, there is a reference point that extends into a mysterious ether where the formality dissolves into something quite different. Their pictures are interesting and beautiful because they are the Bechers.

Which doesn't mean your or my pictures are remotely as interesting, unless we have the same time, dedication and sectionable obsession to photograph the objects of our affection. Yes, we can photograph every kind of egg whisk, or bathtub, we can typologise every aspect of our waking and sleeping lives. We can capture the vernacular of consumption, of fashion, of the human, but ultimately who cares - the plot is too slight. A picture of an egg whisk is still a picture of an egg whisk and nothing more, and most times 100 pictures of egg whisks are just that, 100 pictures of egg whisks. Which is worse than just the one picture. Similarly a picture of a water tower is still a picture of a water tower, and nothing more, and 100 pictures of water towers is just a one way ticket to sleepsville. Unless you're the Bechers of course.

Paul Graham's Best Shot

Paul Graham talks about his best shot in the Guardian (link here for all the best shots).

"This picture is actually part of a sequence of photographs I took on the first evening of a two-and-a-half-year trip around America, starting in Pittsburgh in 2004. I was just travelling with no particular purpose, taking photos along the way. This was in the car park in front of the motel where I was staying, and there was this guy cutting the grass of an entire huge field with a very loud old push-mower.

A "great shot" is the antithesis of what this work is about. It's about appreciating the flow of the moment, the rhythm and currents and eddies of life, rather than neatly packaging the world into perfectly formed little jewels.

He saw me and lifted his hand at one point, but he didn't really care. So I kept on taking pictures, with the sun shining directly into the camera. (It's lovely to do everything that Kodak tell you not to.)

In one image from this sequence, he is to the left, then he's to the right, then he's wiping his face with a cloth. Then this beautiful moment happened: the sun burst through and the rain came down, and all the raindrops were illuminated in the shaft of light. It was quite extraordinary.

I like this shot because, besides the obvious reason of its beauty, it confers a nobility on what the man is doing. He was working with dignity on this unbelievable task - and, with perseverance, he was probably going to get it done. Many moments are mundane and seem worthless, but they form and shape our lives. They are quite different from the Herculean labours and extraordinary moments that photographers are addicted to."

As he says in the interview, Paul Graham is not really a best shot kind of photographer. He works with an apparently incidental ("I was just travelling around with no particular purpose" my arse!) cack-handedness and makes it into something intelligent and new, and still references the history of photography in a hundred different ways. It's beautiful-ugly.

Graham's Best Shot comes from Graham's book, A Shimmer of Possibility, which is up for the Deutsche Börse Photography prize. It is surprisingly rare for photography to create something really original or influential, something that will stand the test of time. A Shimmer of Possibility is one of those somethings.

You can read my interview with Paul Graham here.

Also up for the prize are Emily Jacir, Tod Papageorge and Taryn Simon. You can read about the best shots of Tod Papageorge here and Taryn Simon here.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Tarred and Feathered

Whilst I'm on a Crime and Punishment theme, these are pictures of Jock Nelson, tarred and feathered on the streets of Belfast for dealing crack and heroin to teenagers.

Arguably it's the community taking the law into its own hands, more likely,as one local druggy puts it, "... it's because they (the paramlitaries) want to deal all the drugs. I don't think it's because of that. I think it's just because they like violence - and I mean really like it. We wouldn't stand a chance if we sold drugs. We'd be dead within a week."

Whatever the reason, it's hard both to feel too much sympathy for Jock Nelson, or any respect for the people who did this. Worse things than this have happened in Northern Ireland at the weekend, but violence and murder doesn't emerge out of a vacuum.

Read the story in the Daily Mail here. Sorry about that.

Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women

The Sri Ram Sena have defended Indian and Hindu honour this year by attacking women doing various un-Indian things, such as drinking or wearing un-Indian clothes. Sri want to uphold Indian culture, which in Sri Ram Sena's case means beating up women. Here is the video of one of their early actions, the Mangalore pub attack.

In response, a group of Indian women called the "Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women" have created the Pink Chaddi Campaign (Pink nickers = pink chaddi), and started the Pink Chaddi Campaign Blogspot.

Good luck to the pink chaddis and God Bless India. You can hear about the campaign on this Radio Four interview here.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Welcome to Pennsylvania: Jailed for Myspace

Jailed for a MySpace parody, the student who exposed America's cash for kids scandal

Hillary Transue was 14 when she carried out her prank. She built a hoax MySpace page in which she posed as the vice-principal of her school, poking fun at her strictness. At the bottom of the page she added a disclaimer just to make sure everyone knew it was a joke. "When you find this I hope you have a sense of humour," she wrote.

Humour is not in abundance, it seems, in Luzerne County, northern Pennsylvania. In January 2007 Transue was charged with harassment. She was called before the juvenile court in Wilkes-Barre, an old coal town about 20 miles from her home.

Less than a minute into the hearing the gavel came down. "Adjudicated delinquent!" the judge proclaimed, and sentenced her to three months in a juvenile detention centre. Hillary, who hadn't even presented her side of the story, was handcuffed and led away. But her mother, Laurene, protested to the local law centre, setting in train a process that would uncover one of the most egregious violations of children's rights in US legal history.

Last month the judge involved, Mark Ciavarella, and the presiding judge of the juvenile court, Michael Conahan, pleaded guilty to having accepted $2.6m (£1.8m) from the co-owner and builder of a private detention centre where children aged from 10 to 17 were locked up.

The cases of up to 2,000 children put into custody by Ciavarella over the past seven years - including that of Transue - are now being reviewed in a billowing scandal dubbed "kids for cash". The alleged racket has raised questions about the cosy ties between the courts and private contractors, and about the harsh treatment meted out to adolescents.

Alerted by Laurene Transue, the Juvenile Law Centre in Wilkes-Barre began to uncover scores of cases in which teenagers had been summarily sent to custody by Ciavarella, dating as far back as 1999. One child was detained for stealing a $4 jar of nutmeg, another for throwing a sandal at her mother, a third aged 14 was held for six months for slapping a friend at school.

Half of all the children who came before Ciavarella had no legal representation, despite it being a right under state law. The Juvenile Law Centre has issued a class action against the two judges and other implicated parties in which it seeks compensation for more than 80 children who it claims were victims of injustice.

The prosecution charge sheet alleges that from about June 2000 to January 2007 Ciavarella entered into an "understanding" with Conahan to concoct a scheme to enrich themselves. The two judges conspired to strip the local state detention centre of funding, diverting the money to a private company called PA Child Care which it helped to build a new facility in the area.

In January 2002, prosecutors allege, Conahan signed a "placement guarantee agreement" with the firm to send teenagers into their custody. Enough children would be detained to ensure the firm received more than $1m a year in public money. In late 2004 a long-term deal was secured with PACC worth about $58m.

In return, the prosecutors allege, the judges received at least $2.6m in kickbacks. They bought a condominium in Florida with the proceeds. PACC's then owner, Bob Powell, who has not been charged, used to moor his yacht at a nearby marina. He called the boat "Reel Justice".

For a man who has agreed to serve more than seven years in jail as part of a plea bargain, Ciavarella comes across as remarkably unflustered. He invited the Guardian into his Wilkes-Barre home where he remains free on bail pending sentencing.

Though he pleaded guilty to conflict of interest and evasion of taxes, he insists that he took the money in all innocence, assuming it to be a legitimate "finder's fee" from the private company for help in building the detention centre. He denies sending children to custody in return for kickbacks. "Cash for kids? It never happened. People have jumped to conclusions - I didn't do any of these things."

He says that he regarded his court as a place of treatment for troubled adolescents, not of punishment. "I wanted these children to avoid becoming statistics in an adult world. That's all it was, trying to help these kids straighten out their lives."

As evidence, Ciavarella claims the percentage of children he sentenced to custodial placements remained steady from 1996, when he was appointed to the court, until he stood down from it in 2008. Yet the facts suggest otherwise.

For the first two years of his term his rate of custodial sentencing was static at 4.5% of cases. In 1999 - shortly before he allegedly began the racket with Conahan, according to prosecutors - it suddenly shot up to 13.7%. By 2004 it had risen to up to 26% of all teenagers entering his court.

Ciavarella hopes that with good behaviour he may spend only six years in jail.

Hillary Transue, meanwhile, is now 17 and in high school. She spent a month in detention for the parody. For many months afterwards she was ostracised by friends and neighbours, labelled a delinquent.

"It's nice to see him on the other side of the bench," she says of Ciavarella. "I'm sure he understands now how it feels."

Friday, 6 March 2009

Format Censorship

From the BJP's blog.

"Last week, we reported that curator Yasmina Reggad was asked to remove a video and photography montage designed by Brazil-based artists collective Cia de Foto because it included sexual imagery. Reggad is curating an exhibition in Derby’s Guildhall gallery as part of the Collectives Encounter project showing during the Format festival, which opens next week.

Read the full story here and the Derby's City Council's response here.

See the offending work here - it's beautiful and touching work.

New York Photo Awards

Submissions for the New York Photo Awards are now open.

Submissions: Only works produced or published between January 1, 2008 and April 15, 2009 are eligible for submission. Please visit www.newyorkphotoawards.com for more information on how to submit.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Don't Sleep, There are Snakes

I love Martin Schoeller's picture of Daniel Everett and a piraha boatman (read a New Yorker article on Everett here). The book is by Daniel Everett, a linguist and missionary who learned the Piraha language so he could translate the bible and convert them. The general idea being to first make them feel bad about their lives and then present Christianity as the solution to all their problems.

Unfortunately for Everett, the Piraha have an almost academic aversion to accounts that they have not either witnessed themselves or had the speaker witness. They lapped up Everett's accounts of the miracles of Jesus until they discovered he hadn't seen them with his own eyes.

Everett goes into great detail in the book about the Piraha language and its incompatibility with Chomsky's theories of universal grammar (there are no universal colours or numbers for example). The one thing he doesn't mention, until right at the very end, is that his work with the piraha ultimately led to him becoming a non-believer and divorcing his wife and gaining a new way of thinking.

Which is a bit of a shame because he springs a completely different ending to a book that is interesting enough but, except for one passage about his wife's near-death experience with malaria, rather impersonal and uninvolved.

Springing a surprise ending on the reader is one of the categories in the marvellous How Not to Write a Novel, by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark. Ok, the Everett book isn't a novel (and the surprise ending was probably at the insistence of Everett's editors). but we can assume there are elements of the fictional in there so Newman's and Mittelmark's comments apply:

But a Meteor Could Land there, right? (in which the author cheats)

"...by introducing a previously unmentioned element to resolve situation, the author is suddenly changing the rules of his fictional world. This is as much fun as when somebody suddenly and unilaterally changes the rules of a game you are playing. It is as if the author had said, "Oh, I just realized that the plot doesn't work, so I'm going to add something from outside of my plot, okay?

Okay! And we're going to add something to the recycling.

This particular blunder is know as deus ex machina, which is French for "Are you fucking kidding me?"

A while back, Alec Soth posted a piece on his blog on Charles Traub's Dos and Don'ts of Graduate Studies which was great as a checklist for what you shouldn't be doing in photography(I fall at the first don't). It's also good for wondering where he's kidding and then finding exceptions to all the rules.

For me though, the high sarcasm of How Not to Write a Novel is compelling - there surely must be photographic equivalents for categories such as The Average Day (where mundane detail fails to bring a character to life), The Clone Entourage (Wherein friend characters proliferate into an indistinguishable mass), The Puffer Fish (Wherein the author flaunts his vocabulary) or even The Crepuscular Handbag ( Wherein the author flaunts somebody else's vocabulary).

Some plagiarism ideas for flaunting some Newman/Mittelmark vocabulary in my future posts....

Monday, 2 March 2009

Prison Photography and Stephen Tourlentes

Prison has featured heavily in the history of photography ( images of the Maze, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Carl de Keyzer's Zona are just a few more recent examples ) while Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon is a staple of photographic debates on seeing and surveillance.

So it's only fitting that there is now a Prison Photography blog. On the blog, Pete Brook gives this interview with Stephen Tourlentes. In Pete's own words.

"Stephen Tourlentes photographs prisons only at night for it is then they change the horizon. Tourlentes depicts the spectres of society’s fears. Division and fear contributed to America’s rapid prison growth; the light-sources of Tourlentes’ haunting works are metaphors of psycho-social fears, ignorance and denial. Tourlentes’ prisons are our collective bogeyman. His subjects lurk.

Tourlentes’ prisons glow in (and encroach upon) our otherwise ’safe’ environments. They buzz with the constant feedback of our carceral system. They are the afterglow of a collective & captive menace ever reminding us of its presence.

Designed as closed systems, prisons illuminate the night and the world that built them purposefully outside of its boundaries."