Featured post

Sofa Portraits now available for pre-order

  1.          Sofa Portraits is now available for pre-order from my website (orders will deliver in October/November)   The pric...

Friday, 30 April 2010

Claus Stolz's heliographies

Claus Stolz collects sunburns. He uses various Heath-Robinson devices to make the sun burn his negatives. Stolz calls the resulting (big) pictures heliographies. This is from his statement.

"On a bright working day, he opens the aperture wide. He avoids a sharp focus by intentionally blurring. All too precise a focus would be as useless as a laser beam; it would only burn holes in the film. But he wants to shape regular figures, objects, and universes with the focus – worlds whose beauty he wants to wrest from the burning work of destruction.

As is well known, when one focuses, light is bundled on the film in the camera. Here it swelters and burns. Claus Stolz has ruined more than one camera this way. And he has discovered something strange thereby: Kodak film burns yellower than Fuji. Agfa produces blue tones. Slide film burns differently from negative film."

 I like it, especially the big lens he uses to burn the negatives and the obsessive tinkering he does with film and camera. Read more about Stolz and see his pictures here.

 View more images and his current exhibition here.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Body Parts

Mark Page at Manchester Photography reminded me of these pictures by Manabu Yamanaka.
Yamanake puts a religious slant on the portraits, labelling his subjects 'jyoudo' (the home of a Bodhisattva, or Buddhist saint).

He says:

I’ve always thought that those in this world born with deformities, or who lose freedom of
movement in accidents and mishaps, were living a life of continued suffering. Perhaps because
of bad deeds in a previous life, or because they’re pathetically unfortunate.

In a rest home I met a young girl. She was nothing but skin and bones, barely even breathing
while she lie down. Why was she born like this, and what are we supposed to learn from it?
To understand the meaning of her existence, I decided to photograph her.

People who gradually become smaller as the body expends all its water,
people whose bodies rot as their skin peels off and their figures turn red
and swell, people whose heads gradually expand from water that has collected within,
people with part of their feet or hands unusually large, and soon.

I’ve met and photographed many people like that, living with afflictions that
are not explainable, and for whom a cure is said to be hopeless.

Yet even in that state, when I looked upon them without cringing, I saw how
truly natural each one of their lives really were. I came to feel the presence of
Bodhisattva within their bodies. These people were the “Incarnation of
Bodhisattva,” the children of God.

Don't think so, but at least it is a representation of people who are not pristine and perfectly packaged and you don't get too many of those of people like this. In movies, the Farrelly Brothers are the only people who have consistently used and represented people with disabilities in their films. I wonder what the relationship is between the work of  the following photographers and the way they use their models; Scot Sothern, Marco Vernaschi, Manabu Yamanaka, Larry Clarke, Terry Richardson, Boris Mikhailov, Donigan Cummings, Roger Ballen and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. There should be some kind of map or diagram you could make interconnecting themes, ethics and practice. One for another day.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The Rape of Africa: Not on your Nellie

So David LaChapelle was all over the British press last weekend with pictures of his new political work, Rape of Africa - based on Venus and Mars by Botticelli.

The Independent noted that, for LaChapelle, Naomi Campbell '...in all her exotic finery, represents the objectification of African women, by Western culture, as their homes and countries are torn apart."

Ho hum, I thought. Then today, I read this story in the Guardian.  Here is an excerpt: 

"Campbell was spending the night at Mandela's house, as was Mia Farrow. I reiterate, it is not for humble mortals to query Mandela's social circle. The main thing is, something may have happened that night. Whether it did or not may not ever be fully known. But if it did, the UN-backed special court in The Hague would quite like to know.

Our story now fast-forwards almost a decade, and Farrow has just remembered something about that party round at Nelson's. According to her, the next morning Campbell came to her and said that in the middle of the night, some representatives from one Charles Taylor gave her a diamond. "I just thought, 'What an amazing life Naomi has!'" Farrow told ABC News.

Doesn't she just. You see, there was a small detail that I omitted about that 1997 slumber party: along with Campbell and Farrow, there was one other house guest – namely Taylor, the former president of Liberia who is on trial in The Hague for atrocities committed in Sierra Leone, including orchestrating the raping, torturing, killing and eating of hundreds of thousands of people."

All of which puts LaChapelle's Rape of Africa into a new light. Either the casting of Campbell is a knowing stroke of satirical genius or it is something else entirely. I do know the answer to this one; It's something else entirely.

Here's a little video of Naomi not being there for that kind of question.

Marco Vernaschi

 picture: Eikoh Hosoe

The reason I couldn't think of much to say about ethics in the previous post about Scot Sothern's remarkable Lowlife pictures is

a) photographers are only photographers, not preachers, charity workers or philosophers; if you want to help people, there are better ways of doing it than with a camera

b) Marco Vernaschi

Marco Vernaschi's "Excuse me, here's 70 dollars, could you dig up the daughter you just buried, please?"  Child Sacrifice story and pictures really lowered the ethics bar to a different level - though at least Vernaschi agrees that with hindsight his actions were wrong. The resulting responses here and here exposed a seam of comments, assumptions, questions and hypotheses that cover a spectrum of historical and contemporary prejudices.

Vernaschi's pictures  dramatise and exaggerate events but I don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with this. Why shouldn't Uganda be photographed bure boke, just as Greenland, Varanasi, Tokyo or New York have been photographed.

The question of the story being about a Ugandan child called Babirye Margret is beside the point (No, it probably isn't? I don't know). Would a website or newspaper show the same picture of an American child or a British child who had had some similar disaster inflicted upon them? No, they wouldn't. The question is should they? Perhaps they should. I'm not sure. It is often asked whether we really need to see more starving babies, more pictures of famine and war, on the pages of our newspapers and magazines. Maybe we do need more of those pictures - but only as long as the pictures have more than two dimensions and are accompanied by a half-decent story by a half-decent journalist that reveals something of the background to events and the real reason they are happening.

But how often does it happen that a half decent journalist will be accompanied by a half-decent photographer (like Vernaschi) to create a half-decent story? Perhaps one of the problems for Vernaschi  and others is that in the current economic and editiorial climate, he is not only expected to come up with the visual story but also the words that go with it, whilst simultaneously clamouring to every editorial outlet and NGO for a little bit of a commission to help him on his way - which is why he tweaks the captions to fit the pictures - and possibly vice versa. And with that comes a double duty of care, a double dose of ethics that is beyond many photographers (both from the past and present) who are working in the kind of environments that Vernaschi has chosen. Though at the same time, how many photographers would do something as intuitively unethical as pay somebody to dig up their recently buried child?

Is the answer to that question nobody, or is it more than one would expect?

Somebody posted on a comment on this blog recently telling me how little I know. For real! I really don't know. I haven't got a clue.

Here's an interview with Linda Polman,  who argues in her book, War Games: the story of Aid and War in Modern Times, that "..humanitarianism has become a massive industry that, along with the global media, forms an unholy alliance with warmongers."  Which isn't too far from saying that photography, both by Vernaschi and others in the field, causes more problems than it solves and is ultimately destructive.

And here's someone who doesn't agree.

Monday, 26 April 2010


"I personally feel Indian films are much more difficult to write than Hollywood films. Hollywood films can sustain interest, or can interest their audience with one track. You can have a bomb in a bus, a girl is driving the bus, and a man has to save the busdriver and the bus passengers. That is all. That is the whole film. We can't do a film like that. I wish we could - it's so straightforward! It can be one scene in a Hindi film, like the climax. It cannot be the whole film. These kind of films will not run here."

The words are by Sutanu Gupta, a Bollwyood scriptwriter, quoted in Tejaswini Ganti's Bollywood: a guide to popular Hindi cinema.There's a relevance to photography here, both in the evocative series shown above and on a broader level (how is this quote relevant to photography etc, etc - this seems to be my current modus operandi on the blog at the moment/since the blog began. Which is symptomatic of what?)

The pictures above are from Massimo Sordi's  Dreaming Bollywood  series and Jonathan Torgovnik's  Bollywood Dreams, both or which fit perfectly with Gupta's words. I love the antithetical washed-outness of Sordi's architectural studies, while Torgovnik's travelling cinema has some highpoints of that no-man's-land where Mumbai/Chennai meets the Boondocks.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Nadav Kander and Death

The most striking pictures in the British press at the moment are Nadav Kander's pictures for St John's Ambulance. They caught my eye because they reminded me of Walter Schels' wonderful, wonderful Noch Mal Leben series (one of which is pictured above).

But Noch Mal Leben is of  people who really lived and really died. I'm not sure if the people in Kander's St John's Ambulance campaign are models or really dead. If they are really dead, then who wrote the text, and if they are not dead (which seems to be the case), then they are just models and it's just an advert with a made up story line. A worthy advert with a valuable message that should be heard - but an advert all the same, and so a lie, even if it's in a good cause. I don't know if that should make a difference, but somehow or other it does.

The series is called The Difference, and it's five photographs that illustrate common situations in which people die needlessly when first aid could have saved them. The five situations are: choking, heart not beating, severe bleeding, heart attack and blocked airway.

See all the pictures here.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Death, Disease and Misery

Deathbed #8

In the latest edition of Mslexia, Tracey Chevalier writes about the dilemmas of competition judging.

"I had to read, reread, and read again to figure out which stories I was happy to snack on any time of day. Was I in the mood to explore the effect of a child's death on a parent. (There were a lot of those.) Or did I have a hankering to read about fathers leaving their families? (Quite a few of those too.) And what about mothers dying? (Yup, lots of those, too.) So, the big topics, death and loss. Doesn't anybody write about love anymore?

....It's curious that of the thousands of stories submitted (yes, thousands) there were so few laughs to be had. If you listen to the conversations of people around you - on the bus, in cafes, outside the school gates - you'll hear lots of laughter... But somewhere along the way writers seem to have got the idea that short stories need to be sober and po-faced. Maybe people worry they won't be taken seriously otherwise."

There are obvious parallels in photography here where the Sickness, Alzheimers, Old Age and Death story are in the ascendant and the sound of photographic laughter (sychophantic genre chuckles not included) are entirely absent. Some of the sickness and death work is wonderful, has warmth, humanity, insight and even humour but most of it is generic, repetitive, grim and earnest. But due to the subject matter, it is hard and heartless to criticize. But do we really want another cancer story? It's nice for the personal memories and as a family project but have we not  reached saturation point? (That being said, have we not reached saturation point on absolutely everything? Er, no as it happens.)

Tracey Chevalier's article ties in with the comedy research (is that right?) of Sam Friedman According to his studies, middle classes prefer comedy they regard as complex, even if it provokes negative reactions, the working classes prefer observational comedy that guarantees pleasure. This is what some of his interviewees said:

Among the middle-class interviewees, ‘Mark’ said of Stewart Lee: ‘He makes me feel like I’m in an in-crowd of comedy nerds. You go in and you know you’re going to be challenged, you know a few people in the audience won’t get him. Overall it makes you feel a bit smug, and it’s an awful thing to say, but it makes you look down on the people who don’t get him.’

Brian added: ‘I don’t think laughter is integral. It’s really irrelevant for me personally. I know a lot of friends who go to a lot of comedy gigs that they say they don’t really laugh at all. I mean they’ll say that comedian was really funny but I suppose you’re taking in the artistic value rather than just purely making you laugh.’

But working-class Karen said: ‘My take on comedy is that it’s got to make me laugh, it doesn’t mean to say I need to think about it, except for that split-second in the punchline. I’m not looking for them to educate me.’

And Pete added: ‘To be honest with you I see enough shit in the newspapers and the news every day, I’d rather see things that make me laugh, that I get enjoyment out of. I don’t want to see anything too highbrow or too morose. I just want to be entertained in a light-hearted way.’

Does something similar happen in photography. Do we like all those obscure photographers with their off-kilter shots and joyless examinations/explorations and investigations because we have something of the snob about us. What is the photographic equivalent of going to a comedy gig and not having a laugh? Is it going to a gallery and having a laugh? And is that a good state of affairs for photography to be in? 

Now then, who enjoyed the Deutsche Borse Show? Really? 

Monday, 19 April 2010

Unobtainium, Voom and the Punctum

I have mulled over the current posting for a few weeks and all I can come up with is some garbled nonsense about Avatar, Doctor Seuss and Roland Barthes.

The great conceit of Avatar ( Cecil B.DeMille eat your heart out in 3D on  IMAX) is that the evil American earthlings are after the valuable Pandoran mineral Unobtainium. Why Unobtainium is so valuable and what it is used for we don't know, but we can guess and anyway what does it really matters - Unobtainium is a mirror to our greed and venality.

Unobtanium is not a new idea. Doctor Seuss came up with his own equivalent in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. Seuss' magic ingredient was called Voom and and like Unobtainium it could do things we can barely imagine (including clear away pink spots in the snow) and is undoubtedly priceless.

All this got me thinking. What is the Voom in photography? What is the Unobtainium? And if such an idea exists, who came up with it, what is its price and what wondrous things can it do. The photographic equivalent of Voom is the punctum, and it was found under the hat of one Roland Barthes. The wondrous thing it can do is explain away why wondrous pictures are so wondrous. Which never really satisfactorily answers what the punctum is, where you can find it and what it can do. So what is the punctum?

Now don't ask me what the punctum is,
I never will know
But, boy! Let me tell you
It DOES make your pictures glow!

We all ramble on about what pictures we like and how great they are but really we haven't got a clue why the great ones are so great except that there is just something about them that makes them great. However much we theorize and postulate, we still end up with ideas like the punctum, a concept that is well beneath the level of Voom in its voodoo ability to transform the mundane into the magical. Can't we do any better than that?

Weeks of reflection and that's what my inner voice comes up with - thanks Jaron.