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Tuesday, 28 April 2009

How not to Photograph: Street Credibility

picture: Colin Pantall - Does my bum look big 0n this?

First of all, I love street photography. The history of photography is powered and invigorated by the street. If it weren't for the street, photography would collapse under the weight of its essential vanity and self-regard. Walker Evans, Robert Frank, William Klein, Henri Cartier Bresson, Garry Winogrand, Daido Moriyama, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Trent Parke, Paul Graham believe-it-or-not, Bruce Gilden, Mark Cohen (and I could go on ) are all fantastic examples of the broad spectrum of photographers who have used the street as their location.

At its best, street photography has an energy and vitality of its own, the photographer fuelled up on adrenaline and fags flits around the city capturing the nervous edge of the people and spacial politics of the city. The photographer becomes one with the street, personal, private and public merging into the amorphous mass that is the urban zeitgeist of a particular space.

The street photographer maps the psycho-geography of the built-up environment in other words. That's the idea anyway.

But it doesn't always happen like that. The street photographer has the street as his location for a reason; the street is anonymous, amorphous and impersonal. And sure, you can pursue your obsession with the amorphous for years and years, and if you are obsessive and hard-working enough you might end up producing something as great as the photographers mentioned above.

But most of the time, having the street as a location is an abdication of responsibility and choice. We forget the hard-work bit and use the street because we couldn't be arsed to do anything better. We don't have to choose, we don't have to focus, we don't have to relate to anything beyond a second. We photograph whatever comes into our rangefinder and rationalise it away with some mumblings about...? About...? About what exactly? I'm not sure really. Most of the time street photography is a cop out, a simple expression of our dysfunction as human beings, our failure to relate to each other, our limited attention span.

We can be in-your-face like Gilden and Cohen (and I love the work of Gilden and Cohen, but one of each is enough), but what is that apart from a photographic invitation to be at the end of a slapping. We can do the blurry Daido-thing (and I love the blurry Daido-thing), but then doesn't everywhere end up looking alike.

If we live in a really big city where lots goes on (aka New York or Tokyo) we can search out those random locations where shop displays, loading bays and wealthy women of a certain age collide to provide us with Winogrand-lite visions ofa lovable, huggable but essentially crappy Whimsy City. It's low rent slapstick, the photograph equivalence of the film scene where someone walks across the street holding a giant pane of glass.

Or we photograph the light, we try to do what Trent Parke did so brilliantly in his black and white work of Australia. We lurk on street corners waiting for the sun to come round and shine on the faces and bodies of those coming towards us. We can borrow some ideas from Philip-Lorca diCorcia's Heads and mutter something about "the individual" and "isolation" and "the loneliness of the long distance commuter".

But our pictures will be pictures of patches of light - because that's what all pictures are. Unless you tie them together with a visual web where environment, history, people and place combine to make a beautiful and cohesive whole (as Parke did with his Australian work or di Corcia with his heads).

And I haven't even mentioned typography, signs, or advertising hoardings. Or flags. Or dogs. And I'm not going to because that would be to go into such a dark place that I would never emerge into the daylight again.

Street photography is the ultimate cop-out. It's for people who are too lazy to engage with the real world, for people who are scared of the intimacy of meaningful photography so seek out the sequential one-one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth-second-stand of the street, for people who just want to hang around on street corners snapping strangers, smoking fags and drinking coffee with fond imaginings that they will be the next Cartier-Bresson/Winogrand/Parke.

I know this because I am lazy and think this every day. I forget the foot-slogging, brow-beating unrewarded drudgery of it, the endless rolls of film wasted hanging around waiting for something to happen even if it's nothing much at all.

I forget all that and think how I'd love to be a street photographer!

Monday, 27 April 2009

How not to Photograph: The random backdrop

picture: Colin Pantall - Isabel standing against memorial mural of Ben Foster, murdered behind Grosvenor Place in the dumbest drug deal ever (except I thought it was James Dean until Robin told me it wasn't)

Who you photograph is problematic, so is where you photograph. We choose the location we photograph in; the forest, the street, the home, the urban landscape, the empty lot or the industrial wasteland.

Or it could be none of these. It could be whatever catches one's eye on a particular day. This is the random location, the location that often serves as the backdrop to the picture that's going to happen in front of it.

At one extreme, there is the spectacular random. You know the kind of thing, the picture where someone is walking along and there in the background rises Ayers Rock or The London Eye. If it's in a foreign land, the random background picture will be some poor sod harvesting wheat or rice while just by chance the Taj Mahal, Borobodur or a volcano rises in the background.

Then you get industrial or urban random where the backdrop is something out of the Bechers reject pile. Pylons might be involved, chimneys are good, and if you have a full-on smelting tower, you're on your way to photo-nerd nirvana. We all have our favourite locations, those little places where everything looks good and a little bit more real than our normal surroundings. Sometimes these locations look ugly-good, sometimes pretty-good, but in our heart of hearts we know they are always random-good.

And random-good=bad, because if the backdrop is random, then how is it going to join up with all the other pictures in our series. We can pretend there is some geographical, political, psychological or temporal connection between our random images - what after all is the roadtrip for? But if there is no intertwining and overlapping of visual themes, then all our pictures will stay self-enclosed items of randomness. Perhaps some captioning/artist statement sleight of hand will transform our set of dislocated landscapes into a cohesive commentary on the whatever-it-is we are cohesively commentating on? Perhaps, but probably not.

That counts double if we have a figure in there. Our opportunist glee at finding this wondrous backdrop to photograph against will need some mercurial alchemy to tie in figure and ground, to transform the random location into something where subject and location exist in a manner that ripples with layers of meaning and emotion.

If we don't succeed in this, we don't just end up with a random location, but with a random subject too. Random location, random subject, random picture, Flickr here we come! I'm going to have to just throw away the cameras and die!

Thursday, 23 April 2009

How not to Photograph: Dr Frankenstein's Make Yourself a Monster Workshop Clean-Up Shoot

picture: Colin Pantall - I'd lose my head if it wasn't attached

The town of Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvannia will always have a place in my heart. Partly because the Bechers made some of their loveliest industrial landscapes there. But mostly because Mark Cohen made his Grim Street pictures there.

By day, Mark Cohen is a gentleman, a gentle gentleman. By night, he transforms into a photo-psycho, flashing his rangefinder into people's faces in true shoot-and-run style. This isn't big city in-your-faceness, Cohen does this in a moderately sized town where there is little anonymity and no camouflage from the big crowds (see him at work here).

The results are marvellous disjointed affairs where limbs, torsos and heads are lopped off in the name of Cohen's art.

I love it because Cohen's decapitations and dismemberments are a pyschological depiction of both Cohen's own neuroses and fears as well as a portrayal of industrial America as a fractured, dysfunctional society. The pictures are part of a package in other words - a package where the photographer, the location and the subjects and their body parts all fit together in a coherent, if somewhat mysterious and bleak, discourse. It's Frankenstein photography, with Cohen as the body-snatcher, cutting off bits of people with his camera, only to unite them in his Dr Frankenstein moment, when that little spark of Cohen psychosis is enough to bring the monster of the parts to terrifying life.

For the rest of us, those of us who aren't photographing in this manner as a way of life, dismembering your subjects so you end up with a series of pieces of arms and legs, bodies and heads is an exercise in Frankenstein photography - but the kind where there is no lightning spark, where all we end up with is a bin full of rotting body parts - random fingers, eyes and legs that have all been cut off for no reason discernible to man or beast.

So we should all do ourselves ( and each other) a favour and stop with the photo-mutilation. Enough already! No more cut off hands and legs. Except when they have rings on them, or they belong to babies. Because that's different!

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

How not to Photograph: Hasn't She Grown Part 2

pictures: Colin Pantall (from Seven Stages of an Idealized Childhood)

Forget that last post. What a load of twaddle!

Photographing children, especially if they are your own children, is great. It cannot be recommended enough. Instead of gallivanting all over the place photographing bridges, tribesmen and dead pigeons at great personal and financial expense, you get to spend time with your family and kids.

You can see how they grow up, how they change. You can photograph the tears, the fears, the trauma and the joy. You can make series of them doing different things and relate this to different theories of child care and development, capturing them as they climb up from squawling newborn to egocentric toddler and burgeoning self-awareness. While you do this you get closer to your child and learn something about yourself and the footsteps of your life.

You can give your series a title - "The Seven Stages of an Idealized Childhood" is the one for me - and then you can edit your work right down to the 40 images that will be the perfect portrayal of what it is to be a child - because that's the thing we are all trying to capture.

Childhood is tender, beautiful, brutal and traumatic - so there is an emotional gamut you can capture. The environment you photograph in may be domestic, but what you photograph can be extraordinary, the glances, postures and poses that show the physical and emotional side of becoming a child, an adult, a human. At it's best, photographing children is honest, raw, physical, emotional, psychological, cultural and incredibly political.

What could be better, more worthwhile or more valuable than that?

How not to Photograph: Hasn't She Grown Part 1

picture: Colin
Pantall - Isn't she Gorgeous #1 (from a very, very long and ongoing series of ooh, I've lost count)

Kids next! Because obviously there is only one thing worse than the Vacation Slide Show - and that is the kiddie slide show.

Those of us who are parents are fascinated by our children, by their language, their art, their actions, their vendettas, all those little politics of childhood that stir in us memories of how we used to be. We are so fascinated, we decide we will photograph our children for posterity, to strip back and reveal the psychology of growing up. Yes, we decide, ours will be the first real look into what it is to be a child because there is no on-the-nail documentary or photography of childhood, just the odd glimmer here or there.

The first obvious problem is who cares? If you don't have children or you have little memory of your own childhood, you almost certainly do not care. There are grown up things like drink and drugs and going out and having fun that are much more interesting than children. And if you don't have children you can do worthwhile things like travel to foreign lands, get out of Somerset or wherever it is you inhabit and live life to the full. That will expand your horizons much more than the navel gazing claustrophobic world of people who photograph children and don't get out enough.

Next up. The problem with people who photograph children is when you become a parent, and you spend a lot of time with your children, your inner lizard brain kicks in and you resort to type; mothers become cave-mothers, fathers become cave-fathers. We grunt alot, eat for two (women because they are feeding the baby or feeding themself, men because we don't like to miss out) and begin to mimic our child's behaviour. When children are young they are called babies. Babies are little ASBO people who shit and spit and vomit where they like. They wail and scream and are wake up at unreasonable hours of the night. They can't speak so scream when they want something. They can't see or use their hands. They can't even walk.

And this is what we copy. We move to their level in the dustballs (sorry, is that just me?), in our snot-stained top and vomit streaked jeans and begin to see the world from their perspective. To the new father or mother, this is a miracle of life and indeed it is. And because we have a camera handy we start to photograph this miracle of life from the little miracle's perspective; so down and dirty we get with the dustballs, the textures, the little things that exist at toddler-eye level.

Great, except there's just one problem. Dustballs and the texture of smear stains on the window (my own personal favourites!) are of no interest to anyone except babies and OCD clean-freaks. Babies grow out of this way of seeing and they do so for a reason - because as they grow older they find there are more interesting things to look at. There are more things to see than the dust beneath our feet. They know it, so why don't we?

The next level of tedium comes as the child grows up and starts to explore. This is where they become cute and lovely. They are Innocent Children ( little Noble Savages if you like), unspoilt and unsullied by civilisation, tabula rasa that need to be captured on film for all the world to see.

Except they are not innocent and they are not unsullied. Small children are feral creatures, wild and untamed and completely selfish. The first words they learn are "more" and "again" and they do things like have tantrums in supermarkets when they don't get what they want. If they were adults they'd be Father Jack (the priest from Father Ted whose discourse mostly consists of "Drink! Feck! Girls! Arse!").

But you have to be pretty hard-hearted to focus on that. Photography is so much about making things look good and that counts double when it's your own children. Who photographs their children crying or screaming or sick? The father in Peeping Tom, that's who, and see what a sicko his son turned out to be!

And if you take the naturist interpretation to the feral child and photograph your child in their natural state, then God help you because you will be damned by the Neo-Taliban that inhabit all shores and regard a child's bottom as something out of Sodom and Gomorrah - Cover Up, Cover Up, they scream. And well they might, because on the other side lies the attention of those disgusting people who find an uninteded love interest in our pictures. We can pretend it isn't so, but it is. There's no escaping it.

So we ignore that side of things and we focus on the Innocent Child - an 18th century vanity, Lord Preserve Us. Look at film or literature and there are plenty of children who live in savage worlds filled with vengeance, guilt and shame, worlds filled with evil, bile-spitting nazis-in-boy form (The White King, a wonderful novel by Gyorgy Dragoman is my favourite, current example of this) . But in photography, it's dignity, beauty and grace all the way.

And that's what we end up with - the beautiful child, the innocent child, the child untainted by adult life and the adult world, living in isolation from society and the outside world, deadpan fakery scrawled across their face, their daily lives a simulacrum of tasteful disorder.

The photographer of children produces a glorified baby slide show, genres mixed, shaken and stirred. The photographer of children can't be bargained with, can't be reasoned with. He doesn't feel reason, or pity, or shame. And he absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead from the boredom of seeing all his goddamn pictures of his little darling.

And the only way around the dilemma - see How not to Photograph: Hasn't She Grown Part 2. That's what I do. Easy!

Monday, 20 April 2009

How not to Photograph: Make Like a Native and Weave

picture: Colin Pantall - Lijiang: Death by Tourism

There's one photographic tendency to portray other people as victims already noted in the Do Mind That post. The general idea is that these other people live in faraway lands of which we know little. The little that we do know about them tells us that these people are primitive people living lives that, in true Hobbesian form, are nasty, brutish and short. We know this because we have seen the pictures of skeletal men and screaming babies. They are helpless infants leading terrible lives only we, the people of the developed and civilized world, can provide a solution to. If only they would do as we said, then everything would be alright.

The flip side of this version of events is the Noble Savage, the Never Mind That version of events. One of the most memorable things I ever overheard whilst travelling was in Sapa, Vietnam. An Australian tourist educated to postgraduate level bemoaned the fact that the young Hmong girls would go to school and learn to read and write, thus taking away the oral tradition inherent in learning to weave, dye and embroider the Hmong clothes. The clothes are great and there are many thing wrong with Vietnamese education, especially with regard to minorities but that took the biscuit/cake; a classic example of Noble Savage relativism.

The Noble Savage is uncorrupted by civilisation, consumption and materialism. He is naturally happy and lives his life in the forests and jungles and mountains of faraway lands of which we also know little.

The Noble Savage wears colourful clothes and fancy hats. He uses feathers for decoration, plays ancient atonal music of the forests/woods/mountains. He has a good sense of rhythm and can run through the jungle like a deer or climb a mountain like a billy goat.

If he lives in the jungle, he doesn't wear many clothes at all, but if he lives in the mountains, his womenfolk weave and embroider colourful clothes that they wear on market days.

Because the Noble Savage lives outside the world of consumption, he has a simple and happy life and knows little of the evil worlds of which we are part until the loggers, miners and tourists come to visit, destroy and corrupt.

The Noble Savage looks great in a photograph and often takes part in the Vacation Slide Show. That's why it is important to photograph him, because then natural nobility shines through and it raises awareness of the threat that consumption, materialism and deforestation, mining and cheap T-shirts pose to their world.

And then they can carry on with their weaving and their foraging and water-hauling because there is nothing they like doing better. Except for posing for our pictures. They love that.

And so on...

In the 19th century people used to photographic "natives" in this manner, enthusing about their unspoilt childlike manner, so making it easier to rationalise away the abuse, enslavement and humiliation of colonialism. But that was over 100 years; people are more than the sum of their cultural token parts just as people are more than the sufferings they are forced to endure. That the truth is more complex than either both the Hobbesian and the Noble Savage ends of the spectrum portray.There are few newspaper, magazine or TV editors who are happy to show this complexity so for the time being it seems we're stuck with being shown a simplistic state of affairs in the world.

But there are lots of photographers who have cottoned on to the fact that the world is not such a simple place and try to portray a different front to the world. Perhaps the rest of us should follow suit, wherever we are, whoever we are and whatever we do. And then the world would be a better place. Perhaps.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

How to Photograph: Maurice Broomfield again

picture: Maurice Broomfield

All this How-not-to-photograph cynicism is bringing me down, not least because I'm talking about myself all the time with the snide comments. And I haven't even got onto pictures of children yet. But I'm on a run with it and can't really get off the trolley quite yet.

So as a respite from the sarcasm, I'll return to a favourite picture of mine, by the marvellous Maurice Broomfield (the maker of epic industrial imagery and Nick Broomfield's father - you can hear Father and son talk about their relationship here).

Broomfield has a collection of his photographs coming out this weekend called Maurice Broomfield: Photographs. You can buy it here. And you can buy a print of the picture featured above for only £30 here. Bargain, but I'd like a big one. Size matters in this case.

How not to Photograph: All White People look Alike

picture: Colin Pantall - All white people look alike

Another popular choice in choosing subjects is the one where everybody looks the same. In Ryan McGinley's case, this means everyone is young, skinny and white and up for a fun time gallivanting around picturesque parts of the USA in their holiday Scooby Vans.

Everybody looks the same, everybody is the same, nobody is memorable but the things they get up to make up for it. McGinley's world is Norman Rockwell sorted for Es and whizz. McGinley's endless summers stick with you in a way that indicates that something else is going on beyond the all-white-people-look-alike schemata he's working with.

Imagine if McGinley's models didn't have quite such a fun time. Imagine if they stayed at home, hanging aimlessly around their oversized and tastefully decorated homes. We can pose them how we like, pretend they have indigestion or mild depression which the pills can't quite cover up. We can ask them to look vacant, scatter them around the oversized room like chess pieces and try to set up some kind of dynamic of glances that will convey an air of mystery about our subjects.

But at the end of the day, after we've gone to bed and have nothing better to do than think about the pictures we have taken, we will realise that the significant glances aren't so significant after all, that there is less dynamism in our pictures than there is in the bag of old socks that we photographed for our typological metaphor of our feelings of inadequacy and loss.

It doesn't really matter who our group of people are. If they are portrayed with one common, overriding feature that defines them above all else (and especially if the photographer shares that common feature), whether that feature is class, age, gender or income level, then we end up with a series of images that are no better than waxworks of stereotypes trying to look good for the camera.

Which is no good at all because the photography then becomes an exercise in self-congratulation. We show these people as we like to be seen, they become an extension of us, a glorified self-portrait even if we try to show the little cracks behind the facade of civilisated decency they portray. We're telling photographic fibs in other words. Nothing wrong with that, if they were no photographic fibs, every photographic industry would collapse overnight. But if we're going to make the effortto tell a lie at least we should do it convincingly and show the real cracks beneath the surface, the real neuroses, the real psychosis and not just our pretend anguish and fake irritation. Just because fake rhymes with cake doesn't mean it's a good thing.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

How to Photograph: Vanessa Winship Q&A

pictures: Vanessa Winship

As a brief respite from How not to Photograph, here is a question and answer that Vanessa Winship very kindly answered. File it under How to Photograph.

How did you get started in photography?

I suppose I was first drawn to photographs when I was a small girl.

I loved looking at images of my family, especially the ones from the past. They were from a different time to the one I inhabited. I liked and was fascinated knowing my grandmother as this elderly lady who made our fish and chips on a Friday, juxtaposed with an image of a strange other worldly young woman dressed for a wedding, that was also her.

I also loved the pictures my father had brought back from his time doing his military service in Hong Kong. It was a time and a place that seemed to have had a great impact on his life, and I never tired of him telling me the same stories over and over again.

I didn’t actually pick up a camera until quite a long time after during my time at Art College. I guess I felt a little lost there.I couldn’t quite find my place but there was a photography option and as soon as I entered the darkroom and saw that latent image appearing from that tangy solution, I was transfixed. It felt comfortable somehow.

Owning a camera also coincided with the birth of my son….I needed to photograph this new person so strange and so new.
When and how did you have the idea of Sweet Nothings?

The idea to create Sweet Nothings came at the point that I’d decided to leave Turkey and return home. I’d been living outside of the UK for quite a long time. By then I knew and understood something of the people who lived there, and I’d also begun to grasp an idea about the politics of the country.

It’s a hugely complex place of course and one that is so often misunderstood, and not really appreciated fully. It took this length of time before I felt I could begin to tackle and express how I felt about the place.

I’d been to many different places and seen many different things in Turkey, but one enduring image was that of the small school children in their royal blue uniforms. They’d appear like fleeting apparitions, and there seemed so many of them in every city and village.

But I also knew that for some girls, going to school hadn’t always been possible.It was mainly in the rural areas where traditional values hold fast, but also in the area of the low level conflict that has blighted much of the region of the east and southeast.

As young girls they are complete innocents, and yet they seem sometimes to bear a gravity beyond their years, I was touched by this, so I decided that I would set about making a series of portraits where they could have a small moment of glory.

Why do you think it has been so successful?

I think perhaps because they seem to buck the trend of a lot of today’s portraiture, where I think there is a kind of emotional disconnect. I feel that the girls in Sweet Nothings express themselves in a way that is emotionally very raw. The young girls in my pictures really are without guile or conceit.

I wonder whether they have taken people off guard by touching them in a way? They are so very direct, but also quietly insistent.

What has the effect of the success of Sweet Nothings been?

I am not sure in the end what success means in real terms; it’s a tricky one for me personally.
I think probably the biggest effect has been the realization that an image/s really does take on a life of its own. They are of course my images, but they are also outside of me too.

In terms of projects, I continue to do my own thing. I suppose in terms of commissions I’ve allowed myself to think that there might be a possibility to go for one or two. I have better access to the ears of people who might otherwise not have had time in the past. This is a nice thing.

What makes a photograph convincing?

Delicacy and lightness of touch.

Why do you choose to work in Eastern Europe and Turkey so much? Do you want to do any UK projects?

It actually started in Albania. I’d seen a couple of images of this obscure small country that was actually relatively close to my own, and yet had been so far from the consciousness of Western Europe’s gaze. I wondered how this could be. I was curious about this border that had been created, and what this meant. How was it that I had an idea about Greece and about Italy and yet knew nothing of their close neighbor, its poor relation if you like.

I guess once you dip your toes into a region you almost inevitably get drawn into the surrounding areas, and their histories are so intertwined, the actually physical borders are mere border posts. Of course their own individual telling of those histories were diverse and different, each had their own truths to express. I began to explore ideas around fiction in the telling of history. I’ve only really scratched the surface to be honest.

Yes I do have a desire to work in the UK, it was something I was comfortable with before I left, and I’m keen to make something connected with where I’m from now as well.

How do you fund your work?

I haven’t actually figured this one out very well. I guess when we (my partner, George Georgiou) first left the UK we spent what was left (and it really wasn’t very much) from the sale of our small apartment in London.

It felt important for both us to be able to work to our own agendas. It’s been a bit of a wing and a prayer really and maybe somewhere in all of it there’s been bit of confidence in what we were doing. I wouldn’t really recommend it as an easy option.

How do you travel? Where do you stay?

Mostly by car, but sometimes with local transport. I like the process of getting to a place, and prefer it if I get to where I’m going slowly. I like the way time seems expand and contract with different kinds of transportation.

In terms of accommodation, it really depends where I am; I think I have experienced every form of sleeping arrangement possible. I stay with people I’ve met along the way, with friends, camping in the car itself, and of course in Hotels. I particularly like Turkish hotels, they really know how to look after you, and the beds are nearly always great.

These things start to get important when you travel a lot.

What is your next project going to be?

I have a couple of parallel projects in mind and on the go. The first is in Georgia. It’s another portrait series, but with some additional elements, that of landscapes and interiors. I hope to make these additional elements similar to the portraits of the people if that makes sense.

The second is a project based here in the UK. It’s about being home in one way and also about how I feel about the society I come from. Having been away has kind of concentrated and crystallized what I see around me. So I will locate some of the work in my actual hometown and some of it here in London.

I don’t want to be more specific than that because I’ve not yet begun to make the images for this one yet.

Who are your photographic influences?

Probably too many to list mainly because I’m constantly discovering new and wonderful works from people I didn’t know existed. I really do love photographs, and am a great consumer of imagery. We are so spoilt these days, in accessing pictures, perhaps too spoilt.

So for me early photographic influences were the ones from those early childhood memories…often-anonymous authors. But once I actually began to make my own pictures my influences were from the photographic books I had access to at the time.

From the early days I appreciated the work of Frank, Koudelka, Evans, Arbus and Sander, some of the early Farm Security administration from America…it seems like a long time ago now. Of my contemporaries I like the work of Paul Graham, Anders Peterson, Alec Soth, Stephen Gill, Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits are really touching.

I recently discovered and got excited by Mike Disfarmer and Ingar Krauss, I have begun taking in some beautiful photography from Japan. . I still have a soft spot for works by Cristina Rodero Garcia and of course my partner in life, George Georgiou…..

I could go on all day.

What are your favourite books?

My favourite novelist at the moment Ismail Kadare.

But if your talking about photographic books there are loads.The Americans has to be one of the all time greats although I don’t actually own a copy.

I have several versions of Koudleka’s work from scrappy old copies of books found in charity shops that have needed adoption to his most recent Prague 68 which as a book itself I’m not that keen on, but the work remains wonderful.

I was recently introduced to a book called Negatives are to be Stored, a set of wonderful portraits from the 1920s and 1930s Poland. I discovered Mike Disfarmer’s work by chance walking passed a bookshop on my return to London.

I have beautiful copy of a book only published in Greece of images made during the Ottoman Empire called Portraits from Kastoria at the time of the Macedonian struggle.

A have a copy of tiny little book called Wake by the Danish photographer I’ve only just discovered, Adam Jeppesen, it only has a few images in it, but it’s enough. I really like the fact you can have it in your pocket, I like the Photo-Poche series for this reason too.

How Not to Photograph: The Freak Show

picture: Colin Pantall - Only a Two on the Ballen Scale of Freakiness

Diametrically opposed to the Man of Average Height is the Freak Show. Diane Arbus was the mistress of this, showing both her regular freaks as well as flipping things round and imbuing the ordinary with a freakishness that belied their apparent conventionality.

In other words, you can photograph freaks as freaks and ordinary people as ordinary people, or you can photograph freaks as ordinary people and ordinary people as freaks. It's like a circle of life that swings from the ordinary to freaks and back again.

We are all freaks in the end, just as we are all ordinary. The only question is where you end up placing your photography on that circle of freakiness/normality. One thing that isn't any good is photographing ordinary people as ordinary people because then you just end up with a load of pictures of men of average height as mentioned in the previous post.

Photographing freaks as freaks is one of the great cliches of photography. Photographing the oddities of human nature as oddities is as insulting as calling them oddities (or freaks) in the first place. There is nothing intrinsically interesting about giants or little people or transvestites beyond the simple act of staring. Freak show photography is a trivialisation of the human condition.

It is a trivialisation that has many forms. The worst kind of photojournalism or NGO reportage, where the starving and the suffering stare big-eyed and helpless at the camera is a kind of freak show. We see people in their passive state, afflicted by conditions beyond their control, conditions that they have no power over or ability to change (only we have that power, by pledging only £5 a month, we can save...). They have no power over their starvation and disease because it is shown as intrinsically part of them. They are different to us. And because they are different to us, their afflictions are not quite the same as ours. It doesn't really matter what happens to them. They are different to us and we can stare. So we stare. But at the same time, if photography is not about staring what is it about?

The best kind of freak show is that where the freak is shown as ordinary and human. The most successful example of this from recent years are Pieter Hugo's pictures from Nigeria. He blasts his hyena men at us in full freakovision, but then undermines the effect with his muted colours and fifth-flyover landscapes. Throw in the fact that the hyena action is taking place in Africa, where you're not supposed to show that kind of thing, add the bloodshot, musclebound power of the hyena guys and you end up with a sensation of flipping between the ordinary, the exotic and the outlandish, ending up in a space where you are neither here or there. Somehow, between all these gaps other aspects of African life seem to shine through. Or am I thinking about it too much and is it just a darned good freak show?

That is Pieter Hugo (and more recently, there are photographers who do a similar, but lower-key thing admirably as well). However, most of us who attempt to do this aren't so successful. We try to show something freakish as beautiful/ordinary but this is only because we have chosen beautiful subjects in the first place, subjects with a symmetry of figure and face that belies their condition. We are choosing our freaks for their beauty in the first place and ignoring the ones who are, in conventional terms, too ugly, too scarred, too defeated, too unsymmetrical - the ones who are too freakish for our good taste. Which kind of defeats the purpose of the exercise and reveals it for what it is - an exercise in having your cake and eating it. But then what is the point of having a cake if you don't eat it.

There is also the danger of the freak becoming the slightly-odd-looking-person which also defeats the purpose of the exercise. However, many of us live in such a conformist world with such an overflow of images of distorted beauty and normality that this becomes something visionary and almost empowering - almost but not quite.

Some photographers are not remotely interested in the slightly-0dd-looking person, and his name is Roger Ballen. His cast of characters look anything but normal and the viewer can project his own genetic, physical and mental illnesses onto Ballen's subjects and the puppies, wire and scratched world that make up their photographic universe. I don't know if these imagined conditions and syndromes are any kind of reflection of reality. Perhaps Ballen's subjects all have Phd's in Rocket Science, nibble on Heston Blumenthal cuisine and dress in Prada when Ballen's not photographing them. Perhaps, but I suspect there's a bit of a South African country thing going on. That and the fact that Ballen's Hasselblad has a special Freak setting (that goes all the way to 11 and gave the name to the scale by which freakiness in photography is measured, The Ballen Scale). We don't have that kind of Hasselblad - just one reason why we shouldn't try to copy.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

How not to Photograph: Character of Average Height

picture: Colin Pantall - Mr and Mrs Average Get Dressed

So who gets photographed. Pretending that photography is democratic, that everyone has a voice and a right to be photographed is a mistake. It's a lie. It shouldn't be, but it is. Those who sit the extremes of a variety of scales get photographed much, much more, especially if they lie at the skinny-pretty end of things.

The same goes for income - they will photograph just fine if they are stinking minted and even better if they are stinking skinted. God help us if they fall in the middle income section because only the ghosts of Bill Owens and Martin Parr will dare to look you in the eye.

And if you consider appearance. Photographs of people of average height and appearance (to borrow from Howard and Mittelmark), photographs of people with no outstanding features, people who have with blank eyes and expressions are one of the great pointlessnesses of photography. They are nondescript and nondescription doesn't really do it for anyone. When was the last time you saw a magazine called Whatwasyournameagain Weekly or the Nondescript Times?

Our conceit when we show our ordinary pictures of ordinary looking people is that ordinariness is everywhere and deserves to be portrayed, examined and reflected on in great detail. Which is true but doesn't mean that our pictures should be ordinary, banal or boring.

Many of us have tedious, humdrum lives. We work too much, we don't get out enough, we interact with gadgets and machines rather than people. But just because we have humdrum lives doesn't mean we are average or have nothing interesting to say, show or share. Most everyone can transcend the averageness of their lives with a look or a glance, a dropping of the mask that people use to hide their hopes, delights and terrors from the camera. Parr and Owens photographed this beautifully in their different ways. They photographed the ordinary and made it extraordinary.

In other words, nobody is average, you just have to look close enough. If we choose to show people as simply average, that is really a reflection of our failure of imagination or our failure to understand the world we live in, it is a part of our pursuit of tedium and the average, not that of the outside world.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

How not to Photograph: The Olivetti Hour

picture: Colin Pantall -From the Series, What People Don't Understand about Komodo: Over 3,ooo people live in Kampung Komodo, an increase of 2,000 on 1992 levels. Immigration due and reduced rainfall has produced pressure on Komodo's natural resources. Poaching of the island's deer by hunters from mainland Sumbawa together with unsustainable fishing practices and corruption amongst local officials has led to environmental degradation and a fall in the deer population of 37%. This together with encroachment on their natural habitat has caused a fall in the local Komodo dragon (Varanus Komodoensis population of 26% over the last 7 years, resulting in increased attacks on villagers including last months death of a foraging villager. It's all in the picture, look, kids' feet and everything.

In How not to Write a Novel (the book which, er, inspired this series), Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark mention The Kodak Moment where the writer describes a character through a photograph.

As he passed the mirror, Joe noticed the blond hair and square-jawed features that had always won him attention from the girls. Then he saw, wedged in the mirror's corner, a photo of Melinda. Her pretty face was lusciously framed by long straight cinnamon hair and medium-sized by perfectly shaped breasts.

The description is second-hand, devalued and unrealistic according to Newman and Mittelmark. We don't need to see a picture to describe a person and if we do, it's rare that the description will be that evocative.

In photography, the equivalent is the Kodak Moment's flipside, The Olivetti Hour. This is where the picture doesn't really do the work it is supposed to do so the photographer gets tip-tip-tapping away on the typewriter and hey-presto, the picture is transformed from an image of a sombre middle-aged man with a case of indigestion to an expose of the use of empty bed typologies in the torture of innocent terror suspects in North Africa.

Many of us do this kind of captioning, but few of us get away with it, our captions taking on an extravagance and length that enables us to make the leap of faith that is necessary tol persuade us that, yes, these are important pictures and they say everything that the words say underneath. And no, it's not just about the caption, it's about the picture which really does show what it says underneath and if it doesn't, then it doesn't matter because there has always been a strong relationship between writing and photography and this is an example of that.

But there is a massive difference between photographers (Bill Owens for example) whose captions nail the photographs and those who use words to fill in the gaps where the picture doesn't go, quoting facts, figures and factoids to make the point that is hopelessly missing from the picture. We can make all kinds of justifications for doing this (time, budgets, relationship between words, pictures etcetera etcetera) but we all know the real reason we do this - because we didn't get the pictures in the first place.

The solution to the Olivetti Hour?: Get the pictures in the first place.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

How not to Photograph: Genre Switching

pictures: Colin Pantall - Kiss, Patsy and Fantasy from the series Empty Beds and Flyovers

Roger Ballen, the American photographer of South African weirdness says that he shoots square. because you don't have to choose between landscape or portrait and that's one less choice to make.

The idea being the less choices the better because photography is infected with choices; who, what, where, when, why, how. Large format, medium format, 35mm, digital or analogue, colour or black and white, deadpan or daidopan, art, fashion, editorial, commercial. And who are your pictures for, or are they just for your family, or yourself? And if they are just for yourself or your family does that make them any worse than if they are for your gallerist, editor, art director or your assessor? Why are you making the pictures you make? Why am I making the pictures I make? And are we doing it for love or money, or love and hoping a bit of money will eventually follow, or money and hoping the love will follow, or are we just complete whores and doing it for money and no other reason; one of the lucky ones who is rolling around in photographic lucre from a photographic day job while the rest of labour teaching/writing/serving/cleaning all week, with the project on the side we do in the evenings and on the weekends in the hope it will get us somewhere?

Choice is important because photography is a promiscuous art. We don't have to make choices if we don't want to, we can just point our camera and shoot away, have a drink, swap cameras shoot some more then drink some more, find another camera and imagine that we can make the choices later and a messianiacal coherence will shine through.

Sometimes we shoot with a Rollei and then with a Ricoh and a Holga. We make a little bit of black and white and then a little bit of colour. Some people make something for our commercial portfolio but then they are artists too, goddamit, so they need the project on the side. And we imagine that we can make the choices later.

And then we start making those choices but it is so difficult because either

a) We haven't got enough that's really good/really fits

b) We've got too much that we think is really good/really fits

c) We don't really know what's really good/really fits

d) An unholy combination of all of the above

So we edit a bit and then edit some more, and break it down until only our darlings are left but we still have a problem because we just love these pictures and they're colour but there's this black and white one and it's so great and it adds a special something. So we slip that one in, and then we slip in something experimental because we like that one and we want to show that we can do that, and then we have a few from of the family album, the vacation slide show, the empty bed typology and that time we tried doing cupcake photograms on the flatbed scanner and before we know it, we have a big, fat mess that doesn't make sense and just plain hurts the eyes.

There are places for this sort of chaos. Blogs are a good place because they are semi-written and random places full of semi-written and random thoughts, and so are scrapbooks which are essentially higgledy-piggledy artist's books where a little bit of typography and design can go a long, long way - and where the more rules you ignore, the better. Even if you don't get the scrapbook right, you still have a book that speaks to yourself. That might be a case of photographer's solipsism but so what, it's a good thing.

But there are also places where this genre switching doesn't work, where the message is confusing and disorienting, where our train of visual thought is flung hither and thither on a slew of mixed-up pictures, themes and messages. And those places are everywhere else.

The only thing worse than genre switching? Genre monogamy!

Friday, 3 April 2009

How not to Photograph: Oh, and also - Reminiscing

picture: Colin Pantall - New Year's Day, 1956
Larkhall Map
Campsite Map

Larry Sultan's Pictures from Home is a wondrous mix of snapshots from the family album and stills from old home movies and Sultan's own portraits of his mum and dad. Larry Sultan gets away with using all these images because he's using them for a reason - to connect the social, economic and personal histories apparent in his family's move to California. Everything looks great in Pictures From Home, especially Sultan's large format portraits of his parents. These could stand alone and Pictures From Home would still be a great book. They are lovely and full of insight and the snapshots fade into the background to create a foundation for the Sultan family's varied perspectives.

For the rest of us, it's the other way round. We have our portraits and pictures of contemporary life and then stumble upon a snapshot from an old family album. And snapshots from old family albums have a habit of looking good because they are more than snapshots: people took more time making them than they do now, people wore better clothes than they do now, people didn't necessarily know what was expected of them in front of the camera and if they did, they performed their task with more dignity, conviction and self-belief than they do now.

It's old, it's black and white if possible, it's connected to whatever you are doing in a vague way, because everything is connected really isn't it and a bit of creative captioning and a creative artist's statement can work miracles for sneaking an outsider into your project? Just mumble something about archives, family albums, vernacular and in it goes. Then say it out loud, and again, and louder and soon you'll believe the transformative powers of your own alchemy. Ooh, and there's another one, and another one, and another one. The problem is if all the informing from the past overwhelms the informing from the present, if we end up looking too much at the pictures of our parents and grandparents' lives instead of our own, then the snaps from the olden days become decorative addenda that overwhelm the tedium of our own pictures.

We can rationalise the importance of the pictures and their inclusion in our book/project/series/whatever, but deep down we know the only reason we are including them is because they are more interesting and evocative than the work we produce ourselves.

Reminiscing with the odd found photograph is great, reminiscing with too many turns the project into some kind of weird scrapbook - great if we're making a scrapbook, not so great if we're not unless you approach the thing with the brashness, chaos and rigour of Peter Beard or Ed Templeton for example.

The real problem comes when our solipsism becomes so great that we don't just include the pictures from our past, we include the debris of our lives, the stuff we find at the bottom of pockets, bags and in small piles gathered by the side of our desks. Old receipts, bus tickets, notes and doodles that we once thought was so insignificant that we couldn't even be bothered to throw it away.

Sometimes these insignificances can add up to more ( as in Keith Arnatt's Notes From My Wife), but most of the time we are trying to flesh out a project with something banal and humdrum, something that doesn't illuminate anything except the tedium of our lives both past and present.

The only exception to this rule is maps. They tell us where things are, what happened where and if they're drawn by hand, it's even better. Maps are always good.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

How Not to Photograph; The Playing Possum Portrait

picture: Colin Pantall - Playing Possum #1 (from a series of 1)

These posts have an order, so after dawn of the dead and deadpan comes death. There is a great tradition of portraying death in photography from Victorian vernacular memento mori to the great work of Wisconsin Death Trip, Jeffrey Silverthorne or Walter Schels and many, many more.

Death features large in war, disaster and famine photography and for all the complaints (including the ones in this series of posts) made about its use in photography, the best portrayals of death punch through our fatigued retina to find their way into that tiny, tiny part of our lizard brains that tells us something that really matters is being shown to us.

That's why people come up with all kinds of reasons not to allow death to be shown in pictures, to censor images of death; because we don't like death, we know it's a bad thing and there's nothing like seeing it in pictures to tell us it is happening and showing us directly that it's a bad thing. And if we see it happening we can't pretend that it's not happening, especially when it happens to people who are close to us or people we have sympathy for. Surprisingly, most of us have sympathy for most everyone if we are allowed to - sympathy for people of all nationalities, religions, ages and all backgrounds. So when we see these people suffering, or dead, we feel sympathy for them and want to stop their suffering and death in some way. Which you think would be a good thing.

Mmm. That's one kind of death. The other kind of death is the staged death, the playing possum death. This also has a long, long tradition going back to 1840 when Hippolyte Bayard portrayed his own suicide by drowning. People were playing dead in photography before they photographed the pyramids, empty beds or shipbreaker's in Bangladesh. It is the oldest cliche in the book in other words.

Bayard's suicide by drowning is a classy picture, but he made it 169 years ago, with a 12 minute exposure, to express his grievance at not having his photographic process recognised as the bee's knees. Nowadays, it seems, playing dead has become a theme in photography designed to show.. to show... to show, I'm thinking hard here, but nothing's coming.

To show what?

Ok, the photographer's decided to have people in the picture, that's an advance at least on pictures of empty beds. Perhaps they've even tried a few poses where they tell the subject "to think of nothing" (see previous post). Maybe that doesn't quite work, or the subject is still a bit too unempty, so what comes next. Make them sick a little, tell them to imagine they have a sore belly, that they've had a donut too many. That's a strategy that seems to work for some photographers - making pictures where the subject stares into the very near distance with a pained expression that seems to mourn the fact that they had that extra donut, golonka, or tub of Ben and Jerry's for breakfast that morning - it's called the indigestion portrait and you see it everywhere.

But perhaps this isn't enough, perhaps a little gas pain doesn't satisfy the photographer's cravings to strip their subject of their last whisp of humanity. Then what happens? What happens then is the playing possum portrait. William Eggleston's woman on the grass picture is the supreme example of this, but this being Eggleston (deadpan in every way) you're never quite sure if she's not really dead after all.

Aside from stripping the subject of their humanity, what does the possum playing portrait achieve? It keeps the subject still, making them inanimate and so easier to photograph, especially if they close their eyes because everybody knows that the best corpses have closed eyes, unless it's Cindy Sherman playing dead. The dead person becomes an inanimate empty bed in other words. Photograph them in a real-life empty bed and it's like two empty beds in one. Emptiness abounds!

At the same time, playing dead is great fun, especially if you have kids because there's nothing kids like better than playing dead and it's one of the great ways of getting a bit of peace and quiet for a while. The game, Trappist Monk, does this as well (the winner is whoever stays quiet the longest), but you never get good pictures out of Trappist Monk.

You can extend the play acting if you stick a knife or blunt object near the body and pretend that your subject has been killed. Splash a bit of ketchup around and it adds to the effect.The danger if you do this too much is to find the right line between making something light and amusing and just becoming deranged and psychopathic. A whole line up of beautifully clad female victims, lying with their legs at right angles might seem a good idea as you like awake in the middle of the night thinking of your next big thing, but in the cold light of day when it's been photographed and titled (Ripper Victim #1, Son of Sam #2, and so on) you do just end up looking like a bit odd and we've all seen Peeping Tom and know where this kind of thing leads.

So there is a time and place for play dead pictures and that time and place is here - play dead pictures.

Send them there and save us all the trouble.