Sign up to my new series of talks on the History and Theory of Photography . Starts in September and it's perfect if you want an intro...
Wednesday, 30 September 2009
Tuesday, 29 September 2009
Monday, 28 September 2009
I keep on seeing this picture in magazines. It's an advertisement for Volvo and it's one of the very few advertising photographs that I recognise and remember.
It's strikingly strange - it has a Ryan McGinley theme, but is much more memorable with real people and a massive dash of oddness. I'm not sure if it would make me buy a car, especially not if the guy on the left (who I am guessing is about 52) is driving it.
Anyway, is there something odd about this picture or is it just me? What exactly is going on here, what is everyone looking at, and what is wrong with the second guy from the left? And why did Volvo choose this picture to advertise their car?
And who took the picture?
In Sunday's Independent, Michael Brooks looks at how Nobel Prize winners have been mocked on the way to their great discoveries. The new vaccine that reduces the risk of HIV infection was mocked by competitors in the field, ( "Everything I've seen about the Thai trial suggests that it doesn't have a prayer."), Crick and Watson's (and somebody elses's?) work on the structure DNA was scoffed at, Black Holes and Continental Drift were just fantasies until they stopped being fantasies and became new universal truths.
"Given that, you might wonder how science ever progresses. But that is the beauty of the system: unstoppable curiosity, coupled with a sheer bloody-mindedness and rhino-thick skin, can overcome the resistance. The stories of many Nobel laureates are of ridicule and persecution worn down by dogged persistence; the road to Stockholm is lined with jeering colleagues."
The same kind of thing happens in politics - any idea that brings something new, especially if it progressive in some way, is mocked at. In Britain, the idea of universal primary education was fought by many in the church and business, making child labour illegal was a violation of the rights of free enterprise, free health care, pensions and the minimum wage were argued to be counter-productive to the interests of wider society. The Race Relations Acts, The Clean Air Act, Laws against domestic violence, the Sexual Relations Act were all fought against as being some kind of invasion of privacy and limitation of our right to bully and batter and abuse.
Which brings me on to Rupert Cornwell on America's National Parks, a creation of government that is universally approved of. Cornwell asks, "...what might have happened to some truly famous places is no laughing matter. The idea of the national parks, in the words of their most famous presidential advocate, Teddy Roosevelt, was that such special places "should be preserved for all the people and not confined to the rich". As it was, back in the 1870s, before New York set up a state park in the area, you had to pay a private huckster for a decent view of the Niagara Falls. The same fate might have befallen Yosemite. As for the Grand Canyon, Burns speculates, it would probably be run by a gated community."
Thursday, 24 September 2009
pictures: Shoichi Aoki, Bruce Gilden and Peter Funch
Maybe it's not that photography is not as interesting as it used to be, maybe it's the people we photograph who aren't as interesting as they used to be. That's what Bruce Gilden thinks anyways:
'New York is different now, people are inside with the air conditioning on watching TV. And people aren't as interesting now - the world is smaller and Gap and Starbucks are everywhere. And everyone is playing with little machines so they walk at a different pace - in a catatonic fashion. I'm a speedy kind of guy, so that's unnatural to me.'
(Bruce Gilden in the 23.09.09 copy of the BJP focussing on street photography). The BJP also features, amongst many wonderful others, the work of Mirko Martin, Manuel Vasquez and Adam Magyar.
Mirko Martin's work, LA Crash series mixes film sets and street scenes in his pictures of LA car crashes (check out RJ Shaughnessy's Your Golden Opportunity is Coming Very Soon if you like this kind of thing - which I do). No such mixing takes place in Peter Funch's (thanks Tadhg)gruesome pictures of crashes.
I love Bruce Gilden's work, especially his Japanese book Go. I reviewed this many years ago together with Fruits by Shoichi Aoki - I don't find street fashion photographs interesting but I make an exception for Aoki's work, which doesn't rate highly in the subtlety stakes but is just about as much fun anyone can have with a photography book with clothes on - and if anyone has a spare leopard skin suit going, do let me know. Time I upped the glamour here in sunny Bath.
Lots of interesting things to chew on there, though not in New York maybe. Time to get off the little machines, everybody!
Wednesday, 23 September 2009
Five Kinds of Bad, but for what I can't recall
The previous post gathered lots of responses for which there are no easy answers. One poster asked about any academic papers/research into some of the issues posted.
So does anyone know of any research into how we view pictures (either analogue or digital). I know Modern Painters touched on Semir Zeki's research on responses to beauty 'in the medial orbito-frontal cortex' to beauty in the February 2009 issue but I think there must be academic research into how we look at different kinds of pictures, both on paper/canvas and on the screen.
I would also imagine there is extensive research done on the way words, text and image interact with each other. Certainly, great attention is paid to the exact wording that accompanies particular images both on screen and in newspapers. I love the way stock images are used repeatedly on television (over a period of years) and how they make us remember/forget, the lag/dissonance between word and image leaving some half-baked recollection in our brain (as in the pictures above). At various times, the BBC (just to take one example) lays down specific guidelines for its journalists on what language to use in particular circumstances and so to accompany particular images. This has a huge effect on how we view people from particular places. But this should come as no surprise - photography has served capitalism, communism, fascism and consumerism well over the years, playing a major part in making us vainer, greedier, dumber, fatter, thinner and altogether more lustful, selfish and short-sighted. We always talk about the concerned photographer, and mock him or her, but what about the bastard photographers who do help neuroticise women, who do help distort the way we see and experience the world. It's not just Leni and anyway, she had a mortgage to pay as well. I vas only obeying orders, don't ve all? Is it all just propaganda, as Martin Parr would have us believe?
Oh dear, I'm away with the fairies on this one...
So if anyone can point us into any research, aesthetic, pychological or neurological, it would be most welcome.
Sunday, 20 September 2009
Time for a ramble...
There's a great interview by Daniel Shea with Alec Soth on Too Much Chocolate.
Perhaps most interesting is Alec Soth becoming 'nihilistic about photography' and its failure to tell stories. He says,
"I also just think photography was much more interesting 50 plus years ago, and now there is just this overabundance of photography. It’s like saying “What type of art do you do?” “Oh, I do Twitter.” I just put these little fragments out in the world, but I would rather call myself a novelist than a Twitterist. And I sometimes feel photography is that."
I don't know if photography was more interesting 50 years ago - but we would certainly have viewed it differently. Robert Frank's and William Klein's work (just to mention two I like from 50 years ago) wouldn't have been remotely as well exposed as it is now. If The Americans was published now, it would have had its flash in the pan and then we'd all be waiting for what Frank was going to do next - which ( in terms of photography on a par with The Americans) is absolutely nothing.
But Frank has been parlayed up into a Great Photographer. Klein is a Great Photographer, all these people from the past whose work has been condensed into those defining images, are now Great Photographers.
The Great Photographer is as much a myth as the Great Writer with his Great Life that Coetzee writes about in Summertime. He doesn't (and sorry, but except for Diane Arbus, it is always a He) exist, He is not that interesting and his life is not that great. But distance, a lack of information and the blurring of time makes him seem so much more interesting.
What also makes him and his work so much more interesting is the lack of easily accessible pictures available to us. Even 10 years ago, if you wanted to see somebody's work, you had to buy the book or look in a magazine - which made buying a book or looking in a magazine that much more exciting and attractive. Now you just link to it and see it twittered and facebooked and blogged in a random stream of pictures that you have neither the time nor the will to linger on or contemplate. You can pretend viewing pictures like this is worthwhile in some way, but it's not and it doesn't allow for intelligent comment or insight to appear.
And if you want to buy a book, well everyone can make a book and we all know that buying a Blurb book is not an attractive thing in the slightest.
This doesn't mean that photography is any less interesting than it used to be. I think it is much more interesting, with a greater variety of techniques, voices and media employed across a wider area (in all kinds of ways). However, where photography is interesting is still unclear - it's not in the traditional areas of media, art, academia or fashion - in all these areas photography is pretty much dead and buried. So where is this latent burst of artistic blossoming of a hundred flowers going to come from.
Who knows? The problem is if the primary way of accessing that work is through a computer, then those pictures, that art is corrupted by the means by which we view it. And because there is so much of this new work, and publicity ( ie money, hype and sychophancy) is the means of getting your work shown, that corruption of what we see is exaggerated to the extent that we no longer really know what we see.
How photography is seen is in a virtual crisis - a crisis which makes it unclear exactly what we are seeing, a crisis that blurs what the distinction between what is great, what used to be great, what should be great and what someone else tells us is great.
Photography itself is healthy and thriving. And photography is still as interesting, nay is much more interesting (even though I'm not that old but come on, was the Family of Man that good) than it was 50 years ago. It's just not that interesting in the places it used to be interesting, and nobody quite knows where it's going to be interesting in the future - or how it's going to be interesting.
Mmm, better stop there. What do you, Dear Readers, think?
Friday, 18 September 2009
Andy Stanton (the J.M. Coetzee of children's literature) has his new book, What's for Dinner Mr Gum, out soon.
We'll be making the annual pilgrimage to listen to Andy spread his seeds of wisdom at the Bath Festival of Children's Literature (so much better than the adult version). I suggest you do likewise. And if you can't, you can see Andy on ativan reading from What's for Dinner, Mr Gum here.
Thursday, 17 September 2009
From Burlington, Ontario, Canada, a town full of liminal places. There, I've always wanted to use liminal, now I never have to use it again.
Second from bottom is the Riviera Motel, a classic fallen from grace. Next door is the Ascot Motel. The Ascot looks short-time, the Riviera very long-time. If anyone has ever stayed there, do let me know.
Wednesday, 16 September 2009
You never know quite how real or imaginary the book is (the fictional Coetzee is unmarried, unsatisfied, unloved, the real Coetzee is married with children...) but you get the feeling Coetzee has had what passes for fun in CoetzeeLand laying his real/imaginary soul bare - his inadequacies and vulnerabilities are frighteningly recognizable to any man from an emotionally stifled and physically muted (English speaking, Afrikaans or otherwise) background.
My favourite bits are the scathing comments passed by Adriana, a Brazilian dance teacher whose glamour and vivaciousness are at odds with Coetzee's flyblown disposition.
Adrianna on John Coetzee: 'I did not greet him. I wanted him to see at once that he was not welcome. What did he think - that if he danced before me the ice in my heart would melt? How crazy! And all the crazier because he had no feeling for dance, no aptitude. I could see that from the first moment, from the way he walked. He was not at ease in his body. He moved as though his body were a horse that he was riding, a horse that did not like its rider and was resisting. Only in South Africa did I meet men like that, stiff, intractable, unteachable. Why did they ever come to Africa, I wondered - to Africa, the birthplace of dance? They would have been better off staying in Holland, sitting in their counting houses behind their dykes counting money with cold fingers.' 'I have a question. It is this... am I wrong about John Coetzee? Because to me, frankly, he was not anybody. He was not a man of substance... I know he won a big reputation later; but was he really a great writer? Because to my mind, a talent for words is not enough if you want to be a great writer. You have also to be a great man. And he was not a great man. He was a little man, an unimportant little man.' ....................... Other narrators back up the flaws in the Coetzee character. Was he at ease with his black students - with black people in general? 'Was he at ease with anyone? He was not an at-ease person (can you say that in English?). He never relaxed. I witnessed that with my own eyes.So: Was he at ease with black people? No. He was not at ease among people who were at ease. The ease of others made him ill at ease.' .............. 'In the laughing department he is the last companion his father needs. In laughing he comes bottom of the class. A gloomy fellow; that must be how the world sees him, when it sees him at all. A gloomy fellow; a wet blanket; a stick in the mud.'
I wonder how many other writers could write that. How many writers lack the vanity (or have enough vanity) to face up to the fact that the great writer doesn't have to be a great man or woman, that they can be a John Coetzee, a man filled with physical and emotional coldness and distance, able to express themselves only on a page, living an ill-defined half-life between their real, fictional and literary celebrity selves.
Not many I would guess. That's why Coetzee's so special. I do think he had fun writing this book, looking down on himself and picking out the flaws of inadequacy, selfishness and regret about lives both lived and unlived - simple, universal flaws we all have in very similar forms but ones which we can't bring ourselves to mention.
At the same time, living out those flaws on the page throws down a challenge to the vainer writers of the world - the Great writers with Great Prose and Great lives and Great personalities. It's a challenge of honesty and relevation, of stripping yourelf at least partially bare. It's a simple challenge, but one he knows very few other writers can meet, essentially because they're not as good as him - for all their bluster they're not Great in any way. Coetzee is great, but with a small g - he's great in the simplicity of what he does, the way he holds his nerve and stays on the path he has chosen, one of a brutal (though not absolute) honesty where he is the man under scrutiny, he is the one who must wriggle beneath his delicious self-loathing.
If there is the myth of the Great Writer being a Great Man with a Great Life, how much more prevalent is that myth in photography, where self-aggrandizement is virtually a pre-requisite to success. And how many photographers could overcome their vanity and ego to say similar things about themself and their work?
all pictures copyright Edmund Clark
These pictures are from Edmund Clark's Guantanamo project, If the Light Goes Out:Home from Guantanamo (you can see more of his work on Lens Culture).
The work mixes pictures from the homes of wrongfully imprisoned Guantanamo detainees with the Guantanamo prison and accompanying naval base - showing how confinement informs the domestic spaces of the ex-prisoners. Clark's work is a kind of antidote to the visual/lexical string of terror suspect mugshot you see on TV and in newspapers here in the UK. Deadpan pictures of Asians tagged with terror, dirty bomb, Old Trafford bomb, carnage all wheeled out with what effect, only those who do research into these things know. But you can imagine the effect and you can witness it in Britain today both by talking to people, any people, or by looking at recent news stories here in the UK. You can see more of Clark's work here and read more about him at Prison Photography here.
I interviewed Ed during the summer for the BJP and this is what he said:
My last book was called Still Life/Killing Time and was about a prison in Britain. I'm interested in the themes of confinement and entrapment. Guantanamo Bay stands out as a symbol of confinement and my imagery is about the symbolism of that confinement. The starting point was going out with detainees who had been released and seeing how they were surviving. These people had been in prison for years, had never been charged but still had this massive label of being the worst of the worst stuck on them. I was interested in what their personal spaces said about them and if they were any traces of what they had experienced in Guantanamo.
Access was very difficult but started with their lawyers and slowly progressed to the point where I could photograph their homes. Once this was done, the second part was getting into Guantanamo itself. I applied to the Pentagon and made it clear I wanted to photograph both the American Naval Base side and the prison side. It took me 6 months to get clearance and then it was another 2 months before I went. Once I was there I Iwas fortunate enough to get paired up with Carol Rosenberg, a journalist from the Miami Herald who had been reporting on Guantanamo since it opened as a prison. She knew how to deal with the Guantanamo media team (who were new in their jobs) and how to get past their obstruction.
I spent 8 days there in total, including 4 days on the naval base. It was like so many expatriate places, more American than America itself. It was interesting to look at the schools, the shops, the restaurants. It was like a little bit of America in Cuba, with reflections both of America and of entrapment; models of old refugee camps, a shrine to the Virgin Mary where she almost seems to be imprisoned, A Ronald MacDonald statue surrounded by fencing and wire. It looks like he's banged up.
I don't have any images of the detainees except for one - which shows a guard reflected in the cell window. But that's not what my work is about. There is a lot of long lens imagery of Guantanamo showing the prisoners in their orange boiler suits, but I don't know what that's telling me. My work is about the spaces and what they evoke and how they relate to the spaces people live in once they have been released.
The work is about memory and control and dragging the work out of Guantanamo into where people are living now. I'm doing that through the edit of the 3 different spaces I photographed: the homes, the American Naval Base and the prison. When I got back, I started to edit the pictures in sequence as a narrative, but then I began to mix them up so you're never quite sure where you are. I juxtaposed images, put one things together so one image sets off ideas that enriches the idea of what it is both to have been in Guantanamo, but also to have that experience inside you.
There are also strange details that I'm not sure off, such as the picture of the Duress button. We were told this was in an exercise room but we think it was one of the interrogation rooms and this was a panic button for the guards. Another picture shows a row of Ensure jars with a plastic tube next to it. Ensure is an energy drink they used to force feed hunger striking prisoners and the Americans had it on display to show their 'duty of care'.
The detainees brought home and kept the strangest of things, a red cross calendar with the days ticked off. Only the best behaved prisoners would get this because there was a strategy of total disorientation. When prisoners first arrived they had no idea of where they were, what day it was or what time it was.
Then I looked at other bits of people's homes, especially windows because in Guantanamo they have no windows with a view. There are no views. Being released and being able to choose what to look at, to have a view, is quite a thing. Sometimes people chose not to have a view.
I'm working with Omar Deghayes on an edit of all the letters he received at Guantanamo. When people received letters, they didn't get the original, they got photocopies or scans of every page, even blank pages, including the front and back of the envelope, each page bearing a document number and a Guantanamo stamp.
Tuesday, 15 September 2009
There are some very familiar names in The National Portrait Gallery Portrait Prize Shortlist,
including Vanessa Winship, Michal Chelbin and Paul Floyd Blake. I hope Vanessa wins it, but Mirjana Vrbaski's portrait of a girl in a large-collared jacket is rather special.
I know photographing children in costume is a crime against humanity, but oh well...
Isabel at the Summer Halloween Party
Anne Higonnet on the five archetypal images of childhood.
"Yes, it is really astonishing to see how every single image of childhood to which we still cling at the beginning of the 21st century was invented or perfected in late-18th-century England and was already in place in the popular but unique oil paintings of mid-19th-century Victorian culture. All five types in some way proclaimed the innocence of the child, which meant concentrating on the body paradoxically in order to diminish its corporeality.
The categories are
- mother with child;
- child with pet;
- child dressed up in a fancy costume;
- angel child;
- children posing as adults."
Monday, 14 September 2009
Sunday, 13 September 2009
Friday, 11 September 2009
Thursday, 10 September 2009
Still on the holiday theme, Canada is such a polite and benign country, with such a marvellous health care system (it saved the life of my sister-in-law and host, the generous, loving and lovely Marianne) with an egalitarian education system (compared to the UK) and diverse migrant communities that get on much better than just about everywhere in the world. Ok, so the prime-minister looks like he's got Fisher Price Man Hair, but still, it's a large and wonderful country.
So heading down to the border and looking across at the US is a strange and fearful thing, especially at the height of the "Giving Poor People Health Care Will Kill Us All" hysteria which extremist factions in the US were engaged in this August. The lack of logic, sense, compassion or reason made it feel like looking across at North Korea, an alien land filled with drugs and guns and Detroit and Buffalo, where public health is a bad things and the millions who suffer every year due to the greed of the vocal few is seen as a cause of celebration. So when I got to Niagara and saw the Maids of the Mist and the hordes of sorrowful Americans in their yellow macs on the American side, it did look like a rescue mission. Then again, it was probably the other way round - the Canadians who elected Harper longing for a place of low taxes, where you can live rich and die young and never know there is another place in the world.
Thank God I'm back in Blighty where the only thing to look forward to an old Etonian as Prime-Minister. Rule Brittania, God Save the Queen, Tally Ho and all that.