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Monday, 30 April 2012

Shut up and drink your gin!

I remember seeing this unlikely video of a Chinese pickpocket last year. Despite looking incredibly obvious, it reminded me of Philip Jones Griffiths pictures of Vietnamese kids picking the pockets of lumpen GIs - the Vietnamese have a touch more elegance though.

So I forgot about pickpockets for a while then saw two films last week. The first was Robert Bresson's Pickpocket.

The hero of Bresson's film is perhaps the most uninteresting character ever. His conceit is that of the existentialist hero, that certain people are outside the rules and so can do anything they like - namely go on the Paris metro, pick pockets and generally be miserable about things. There is supposed to be some kind of redemption through love, but really there isn't and the female character through whom the redemption will come has so few dimensions that you'd have to roll back String Theory to work out where she came from. My God, it was a pointless film and a pointless character, pointlessly directed to the highest controlled degree to no visible end except for a few delightful pickpocketing vignettes.

So then I  saw Jack Wild in the musical film version of Oliver!

The song's introduced with one of the great lines of any movie, one that gets replayed in our kitchen near every dinner time. 

Boy: These sausages are mouldy!

Fagin: Shut up and drink your gin!

How much better was this affirmation of narrative through song, dance, crime and life; from the discourse of the auteur to that of entertainment.

And from there I swing round to a final pickpocket picture from Ernest Cole. Ernest Cole was a South African photographer whose book, House of Bondage, is an angry indictment of apartheid era South Africa ( and in terms of tone and layout, it also seems to be very much of an inspiration for Griffiths' Vietnam Inc.). It was photographed at about the same time as Billy Monk took his nightclub pictures - but Cole's pictures are rather different, presenting the nasty underbelly which are the foundations on which Monk's work is built.

I know lots of people who have no clue about South Africa or what apartheid is, or the Orwellian language and legal games that were used to uphold it. I don't know of a better visual and verbal explanation of what apartheid is than House of Bondage.

I read the intro to House of Bondage and was stunned to hear that such a thing as 'boysmeat' existed - 'boysmeat' was the low-grade meat that was sold at butchers to be given to domestic servants in white households.

House of Bondage goes through the litany of injustices that made up Apartheid-era South Africa; land rights, the mines, commuting, the pass laws, domestic servitude, education, alcohol, hospitals right the way through to banishment to the homelands and the effect this removal of rights had upon a society ( in many ways it's very similar to Griffiths' Vietnam Inc., which was published 4 years later, in that respect).

To make House of Bondage, Cole got himself reclassified from 'black' to 'coloured' so he had more freedom to shoot. The people who ran the Classification Board of The Bureau of Census and Statistics  had a number of tests to check on if you were really 'black' or really 'coloured'; one was the 'pencil test' - "If a man is black, according to the theory, his hair will be so wiry that it will be impossible to run a pencil through it. If he is merely brown, the pencil will pass."

The final challenge was the height question. Joseph Lelyveld tells the story here:

""How tall were you, " he asked, "when you were eight?"

A Colored asked this question does what any Westerner would do - that is, stretches out his hand to the appropriate level, palm down. Africans indicate height with their palms up. The examiner assumed that this esoteric piece of information was know only to the Classification Board. But Ernest had been waiting for just that question. "I took all the time in the world to answer," he says when he tells the story. "I stood up so I could really do it properly." From that moment until he left South Africa, Ernest Cole was a Colored, palms down." 

Here's the pickpocket - and there's no subtlety or elegance here - along with some other Ernest Cole pictures. This is the discourse of information, anger and wit and I can't think of anything better to tell people, even today, how information, language and power conspire to control, humiliate and disempower.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

New Formalist Holes in Pictures

Following on from the Mishka Henner post, J.Wesley Brown pointed me in a few directions that he writes about in this post, connecting Henner's work to that of the New Formalists, work that questions what photography really is?

I can see the connection but think Henner's work is more about what a 2-dimensional representational picture is. It's about how we see and what we see and the relationship between the two. 

Wesley also points me in the direction of these punctured pictures by  Lisa Oppenheim and William Jones, two projects that reincarnate FSA negatives that were 'killed' with a hole punch.

"In ‘Killed Negatives, After Walker Evans’ (2007), Oppenheim uses Walker Evans’ unpublished photographs from 1938 found in the National Library of Congress. Evans was commissioned by the Farm Security Administration to document depression era rural America. These negatives are ‘killed’ because they had holes punched through them to prevent publication. Oppenheim printed them and conceptualises the holes as a space of potential contemporary interpretation."

 Punctured, Jones explained, is about the “Interface between image making and power…  what images authority gives us and what we do with them." Jones’ effort is to unsettle those relationships and to this end Punctured is articulate in its explorations of the way that archives are constructed, of the FSA archive specifically as the product of Stryker’s judgments, and of the possibility that an image, even when ostensibly rendered unusable, may still have a second life if any remnant of the image remains."

Mmmo, but is it though?

See the work here. 

More interesting circular Spaces from Broomberg and Chanarin's People in Trouble here - and I do like these because they are very different but I also wonder when saturation point is reached with dots and dead negatives. I feel my attention waning.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Mishka Henner and Erasing

This month's BJP is  a special one with interviews with Roger Ballen and Boris Mikhailov. It also has a feature by myself on Mishka Henner's Les Americains. 

Much of Henner's work uses Google imaging and other digitally referenced material. This kind of thing, together with multiple exposure work is what Wired's Bruce Sterling calls New Aesthetics. Others are not so sure and think it is  something else entirely.

As Pete Brook points out, Jason Savalon and others have been doing  multiple imaging for a long time. Pete also gives an overview of a series of Google Streetview projects (including Mishka Henner's No Man's Land) here  and here, with comments on authorship here.

And here is Pete Brook's conversation with Mishka Henner on the validity or otherwise of Google Street View Projects. Rather than being hostile to GSV, I enjoyed them at first, then began to get annoyed by them - they are, as both Mishka and Pete admit, anaemic, and as such they have a definite sell-by-date - and I think we've passed it. That doesn't mean they're not valid, though. They're as valid as you like, but anaemic.

Less Americains is something quite different to GSV, however, and is part of a body of works that focus more on what erasure does to a picture - something that Henner points out in the linking of his work to that of Rauschenberg's erasure of a de Kooning picture .

I find all the erasure works quite fascinating in the way they highlight things that have gone and draw one's eye to what remains - in a variety of ways that relate to blank space, white space, negative space as well as things like facial recognition.

Here are some examples:

The Erased Lynchings of Ken Gonzales-Day remove the victims of the lynchings and move our gaze to the specators.

This is what Gonzales-Day says in his statement;

 The Erased Lynching series (2002-2011) sought to reveal that racially motivated lynching and vigilantism was a more widespread practice in the American West than was believed, and that in California, the majority of Lynchings were perpetrated against Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans; and that more Latinos were lynched in California than were persons of any other race or ethnicity.

The images derive from appropriated lynching postcards and archival materials in which the lynch victim and the ropes have all been been removed; a conceptual gesture intended to direct the viewers attention, not upon the lifeless body of lynch victim, but upon the mechanisms of lynching themselves: the crowd, the spectacle, the photographer, and even consider the impact of flash photography upon this dismal past. The perpetrators, if present, remain fully visible, jeering, laughing, or pulling at the air in a deadly pantomime. As such, this series strives to make the invisible -visible.

More on Erased Lynchings here.

Josh Azzarrella removes the central figures from iconic photos (and there is a lynching picture here), moving the gaze to the now empty space. 

Pavel Maria Smejkal removes all the main protagonists from his Fatescapes turning iconic pictures into landscapes where what was once background becomes the central point of fascination of the picture.

And finally there are Gregor Graf's Hidden Town pictures. Here Graf removes all the people, cars and graphic content from cityscapes - making everywhere look like Pyongyang and Prince Charles' Poundsbury. 

I think Henner builds on this work ( all of which is fascinating) in Less Americains. And in that sense, it is more about visual salience and what we recognise in an image - and how we recognise it. That is not something new, but it is something thoughtful and considered that helps us to understand how we read photographs.

And with the glut of images, the multiple media and momentary attention spans that have very suddenly engulfed us, I think that is essential to helping us see how we understand photographs and their contents. It's not so much New Aesthetics, more Slow Photography.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Lauren Simonutti (1968-2012)

"The misfirings of my beloved/despised mind that conspire to convince me to destroy all have rendered me housebound and led to a solitary life. I am a creature of past, proof, memory and imaginary friends."

"I have reached the point where if I do not have a photograph of something I cannot be certain it happened. So, locked inside the house with nothing else left, I shoot this"
Lauren Simonutti was a photographer who made handmade books. Sadly she passed away last week at a far to early age - this is what Catherine Edelmann, her gallerist says in her touching tribute.. 
"Through her photography, Lauren gave a voice to those that suffer in isolation. Her life mattered, and her legacy has yet to be written.  She will forever be in my heart, and while she may have felt alone, she always believed that her photographs would be her lasting memory – the one gift she would leave."
I bought one of her books last year and was interviewed her by email a short time later. Her work was profound and expressive and her books were both thoughtful and touched with a real dark humour. There was freedom in the way she made them, they were liberating. She had a special talent, a different talent and she struggled to make her work which was so loved and appreciated by those who were lucky enough to see it.

The 28th March 2006 is when Lauren Simonutti began to hear voices.”Three of them, quitedistinct. Two are taunting and the third voice is mine, as I have heard it externally, on a tape recordingor answering machine. That voice has some reserve, it seldom makes itself heard. The others are a constant. They all live in my right ear which rather makes sense as I spontaneously went deaf in that ear a decade ago and it has been vacant ever since. As time and treatment progressed they have stopped screaming and contribute only a dull murmur. Except at bedtime, at bedtime they like to sing.It presents itself as a sing-song - Rapid cycling, mixed state bipolar with schizoaffective disorder.

The problem with madness is that you can feel it coming but when you tell people you think you are going crazy they do not believe you. It is too distant a concept. Too melodramatic. You don’t believe it yourself until you have fallen so quickly and so far that your fingernails are the only thing holding you up, balanced with your feet dangling on either side of a narrow fence with your heart and mind directly over center, so that when you do fall it will split you in two. And split equally. So there’s not even a stronger side left to win”

You don’t leave the house? What does this do to the way you see the world – both the world that you still inhabit and the world that you don’t inhabit?

For several years as I was trying desperately to find someone to help me get the bipol under control, (a pursuit I refer to as the uninsured hospital monkey dance) I lost all the people in my life.  When you are ill in that manner, mental illness, people do not rally around you - it is not a reflection of their character - they simply do not know what to do.  They do not understand, they get embarrassed, they get frustrated, and they leave.  So I decided if I was going to be alone with this illness then it would just be the two of us and I sequestered myself in my house.  I created imaginary friends and conjured world's to keep from feeling all alone.  And I photographed it all.

Do you see things differently because of this? Do you find yourself looking at things differently?

I always have.  Not because of this, just because.  I believe I was born that way.

What are the effects of your domestic perspectives (ie being in your house) on your photography?

 I would not have survived without the house.  I work here because I made it to be model, backdrop and haven.

It is what I have.

You mention that you used to hallucinate? How does this affect the way you see your world, the way you interact with it and the work that you make?

An added bonus (shizoaffective disorder) worked itself into the mix.  This results in visual as well as auditory hallucinations.  I don't much use the visual hallucinations in my work - my mind's eye is much keener when I am well.

You work with large format and chance is a large part of your working practice? Why do you work with chance – is it an active choice or pragmatic due to technological limitations?  

You work with large format and chance is a large part of your working practice? Why do you work with chance – is it an active choice or pragmatic due to technological limitations?  I find very few technological limitations to large format.  The glass, the movements, the range, the size, the cameras themselves offer a world of possibilities.  They are cumbersome and require patience, but being forced to slow down and genuinely contemplate the image before you I believe adds much to the image.  They not only record a subject but stopped down to a long exposure they can record time.  Hours, minutes, seconds, the passage of light over an object and the darkening of a shadow as the sun shifts.  That is their gift.
Chance comes into more as since I am the subject of all my photographs (I do not consider the majority of them self portraits, it is simply a matter of convenience for me to act that the character in the image where a character needs to be).  I can set the stage but where I place myself, where and if I choose to move, and the fact that I have a great deal of difficulty holding still means a large part of the image is reliant on instinct - and chance.

You have said on your blog that “The discipline of bookbinding is an ideal counterpoint to the restrained chaos of my shooting and printing” – How do the two combine? Why do you make books – are they the ideal form for your work?

I make books for the discipline, as a counterpoint and because a book can be closed.  One can be haunted by images for years, extending and adding ad infinitum to a series that was thought to be complete some time ago.

Once the selection is made, the images are placed and the pages are laid in the binding the project is complete.

It is nice, from time to time, to know that you are done.

You sometimes sketch outlines for your prints? But you say you can’t draw. There seems to be something liberating in doing things you can’t do – is this theme apparent in other areas of your work? And I mean that in a good way.

I would say no.  I do random sketches because my memory is fractured and I have lost too many images along the way.

You shoot in black and white but colour has importance for you as mentioned below. 

“One book has pages infused with blue cornflower-blue is for memory.
The second: infused with Mughal Rose petals-red is for passion.
The third: infused with yellow star flowers-yellow for hope + promise.”

Why did you choose memory, passion and hope and promise –how are these replicated in the book?

Blue, red and yellow are images that work well with black and white photography - complementing the paper base of a cool tone gelatin silver print, the richness of selenium and the warmth of sepia.  These papers infused with flower petals both offered a strong background against which to place the images as well as a symbolic stance - flower petals strewn for a wedding, or laid down for the dead.  It is best to cover all bases.

As for memory, passion, hope and promise?  What else is there?

Why is No Such Thing as Silence a confession? 

People do not much talk about mental illness.  I have never felt there is much point in feeling shame for something to which I was born.  And I do not hesitate to use it in my work.

There is no wrong order to the book? Why not? Is order over-rated by some?

The order of  a series dictates the direction the story will take, once someone acquires a work it no longer belongs to me - it belongs to them and I cannot begrudge anyone the opportunity to make their own direction and dictate their own ending.

Why do you have bells and feathers?

The bells are my small gesture to interfere with the silence to which most people have access.
I began to put black feathers in all my packages years ago.  E.A. Poe has been a strong influence of mine for decades and now that I live in the city that saw his demise I felt it appropriate to give him his due.

Silence is the Secret to Sanity
See the pictures in sequence here.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Picture of Last Week: Trayvon Martin's Team

Picture by Evan Vucci

This picture by Evan Vucci jumped off the page when I saw it in The Guardian last week. It shows Tracy Martin, centre, and Sybrina Fulton, the parents of Trayvon Martin, as they talk to family lawyer Benjamin Crump, left, and Al Sharpton, centre. They are watching a news conference in which charges are announced against George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon and had never been arrested.

It looks like a team of operators circling the parents, the sharp-dressed man in the top left, the reverend and the lawyer; the sharp-dressed man seems a bit too sharply dressed for the occasion and doesn't seem to serve any picture, Sharpton seems to be visibly moved and expressing condolences and sympathy, and the lawyer is saying whatever it is lawyers say on occasions such as these.

Then in the middle there are the parents. From the picture, the father is just devastated, a broken and haunted man, wondering at what kind of a world he lives in where his son can be shot and the perpetrator go unpunished. It is quite different to his disposition in video clips, where he seems to be functioning well, where it seems almost as though his son's death hasn't hit him. In this photograph, he is shattered, there is both despair and disappointment on his face, but also a touch of fatalism, the sense that this happens all the time, somewhere to somebody; that it's a kind of reverse lottery and the chances of winning are just multiplied a hundred times if you are black. Perhaps he is also thinking of the legal system and the media circus surrounding it - he just wants everything to be over, to go back in time, to retrace his son's steps and keep him away from Florida's gated communities. Sharpton is talking to him and perhaps that's why the words are those of some form of condolence or consolation.

The mother, in contrast, is mad. She is filled with contempt and anger. Video clips show she is a religious and forgiving woman and you know she wants to be good, to do the right thing, to tread in the footsteps of Jesus and use Trayvon's death to make the world a better, more understanding place. But here she is a mother first.  She knows exactly what is happening and that is why the lawyer is talking to. She's the business end of things, a woman who wants justice but who knows, that whatever happens, it will not come. Her son is dead and there is no justice that can recompense her that loss. But still, she is ready to fight.

 and I must confess I am painfully ignorant of the lives of the people featured in the photograph but that's what the picture says to me. There's a short clip of  video from which this came, which says something different, as do clips of Trayvon's parents speaking at rallies like the Million Hoodie March but still, it's the picture that will stick with me; a picture of a broken father and an angry mother. And perhaps that is still the power of photography, that it can isolate a moment among the chaotic flow of everyday life and create a narrative that, while it might not always be real or true, is still the right message for the right time.

You don't look like a victim

Jonathan Jones writes on the meaning of Thomas Hoepker's 911 picture of people sitting in the sun here.

This article is partially in response to what Frank Rich wrote about it in the New York Times. "He saw in this undeniably troubling picture an allegory of America's failure to learn any deep lessons from that tragic day, to change or reform as a nation: "The young people in Mr Hoepker's photo aren't necessarily callous. They're just American."

The idea is that one should look a certain way in the face of tragedy, part of the simplistic narrative that is expected of people when they are part of a photograph - a simplistic narrative that does not have an equivalence in writing. Here it is easy to explain the contrast between the glorious sky and the casual dress, the trappings of the picnic and the relaxed poses. These are all allowed to happen, but when it comes to a photograph, God forbid if anybody is caught doing anything that lies outside a very narrow band of expected responses.

Walter Sipser is the guy on the right - he comments here. 

"We were in a profound state of shock and disbelief, like everyone else we encountered that day. Thomas Hoepker did not ask permission to photograph us nor did he make any attempt to ascertain our state of mind before concluding five years later that, "It's possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it." Had Hoepker walked fifty feet over to introduce himself he would have discovered a bunch of New Yorkers in the middle of an animated discussion about what had just happened. He instead chose to publish the photograph that allowed him to draw the conclusions he wished to draw, conclusions that also led Frank Rich to write, "The young people in Mr. Hoepker's photo aren't necessarily callous. They're just American." A more honest conclusion might start by acknowledging just how easily a photograph can be manipulated, especially in the advancement of one's own biases or in the service of one's own career. Still, it was nice being described as a young person. I was forty at the time the photograph was taken."

I think the same inability to cope with something beyond the simplest of narratives happened with this 2006 World Press Photo Winner of a Beirut neighbourhood after it had been bombed by the Israeli Air Force.

It's all about looking and one view has it that the voyeur is Spencer Platt, the photographer. He's the middle man in the chain of looking. The girls look, the photographer looks and then we look. Of course, the real crime is that these people don't look like people living in a Hezbollah neighbourhood are supposed to look. They look secular and westernised and really a little too fit for orientalist labels to apply. And they're driving a mini (which has a story of its own). I think that is the real problem. And it was a problem for some of the people who saw them driving by as well.And it was also a problem for the people in the car. This is a great article from the BBC website in 2007..

"Four of the young people in the group are actually residents of the area and had to flee during the shelling.
This was the first time they returned to the suburbs and they were eager to check on their apartment and their belongings.
The driver was Jad Maroun, his sister Tamara, is the blond girl sitting in the front, in the winning picture.

Picture by Kim Ghattas
The friends in the car got to know each during the summer's conflict
She isn't in this group picture. She couldn't make it to the interview because she was getting ready for her engagement party. 

 Bissan, Jad's other sister, pictured here second from the right, was sitting in the back of the car in the winning picture, taking pictures with her mobile phone.
She recorded a short video of their drive. On it you can hear people commenting on their appearance and the girls screaming back: "We live here!" 

Although Christians, the Marouns actually live in the dominantly Shia southern suburbs and their apartment block is now surrounded by flattened buildings.
Liliane Nacouzi, on the left, is a friend. A Christian, she's the only one who had never been to the area before. 

She held a tissue to her face in the winning picture because of the fumes from the fires still burning in the rubble. 

Nour Nasser, the only Shia in the group, is wearing a pistachio green top here but was hidden behind Liliane in the car. She also lives in the southern suburbs of Beirut. 

All the people in the picture, except Lana Khalil (second from left), were displaced by the war and were put up by their employers in the same hotel in the centre of Beirut, where they became friends"

Sally Mann said something about all photographs being at the expense of somebody. I think that is more the way that we see them. We are still not very sophisticated in our visual way of experiencing the world and want to reduce things to black and white and right and wrong dualities.

But that's not the way that we experience the world. Walter Lipser might have been in shock in the Hoepker 911 picture, but even if he had been laughing, so what? Maybe it would have been inappropriate, but then isn't so much of what we do inappropriate. Why must our behaviour be policed so much all the time, why can't any leeway be given for our nervous tics? Just as we should be allowed to wear what we want so we should be allowed to express ourselves how we want. 

Monday, 16 April 2012

Roger Ballen in Manchester

Over the holidays, I enjoyed the Roger Ballen exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery . The exhibition  is laid out as a chronology of Ballen's work - from Dorps, Platteland, Outland, Shadow Chamber, Boarding House and ending up at his new Asylum work. In essence, the work is a timeline of the decline of a community and a culture - of sorts.

Each stage of his work is given an equal showing; so we see Casie and Dresie move into the highpoint of his Outland theatre and then the slow decline into Boarding House and Asylum. Not everything is equal in the show in other words, and why should it be? Ballen is showing the chaos and disintegration of a narrow community chosen by Ballen that was debased by definition, that was upheld by its own propaganda and also destroyed by it. The final tail-off of Asylum might be seen as the disintegration and fading into oblivion of the old Afrikaans identity and culture (as put forward by Ballen) - and also the limits of what Ballen was able to do with his version of this before he got bored. Or it might not - I really don't know enough about it to say, and Ballen's own ambiguity on the subject doesn't seem to help. But I don't think he wants to help, he presents us his pictures of old Afrikaaners falling into a Ballenesque decripitude and doesn't tell us what to think.

Sometime the work is human, sometimes it's fun, there's more than a hint of a warning on the dangers of inbreeding, there are all kinds of things going on - with a veritable glut of monsters, masks, wires and scratchings all taking a central position.  Ballen says his work is a reflection of ourselves, of how we are if we look in the mirror, if we get under our skin and discard the thin veneer of the civilisation that surrounds us, a world where shoes and phones and skincare products really do determine who you are and how you are regarded.

Perhaps his work is a pointer to our own hypocrisy; a world where we worship at the altar of high-end electrical products, while we half-ignore (while recognising the injustice of it all and that something should be done, but hey...) the people who slave to make them, where we shop at supermarkets and Amazon, but praise the local grocer and the bijou bookshop just as we destroy it. Maybe with that whole mask thing, all he is doing is saying how full of shit we all are, himself no doubt included.

One of the most interesting things about the show is the video showing some of the people Ballen photographed  being interviewed; it's not happy families here, but rather all about children being chained up, sons jumping on their mothers and bursting their lungs, all done against a diet of porn and watching your parents have sex. This makes his pictures so much more real than the half-fictions that Ballen creates. And it's a reality that is also more fictional. I wish there were more of this, I wish that his fictions were more rooted in the real world. Somebody looking halfbred checking out a toy dinosaur is fun, but the reality (I know, I know) would be so much better. I'm guessing that the stories that could be told are so much better (and also less believable) than the ones Ballen makes up. But perhaps with those stories, the pictures really would come at somebody else's expense. So here I'm also guessing that Ballen is holding back and showing a good degree of kindness with what he chooses to make up and  show, as well as obligatory cruelty and a touch of a messiah complex.

But I think we have come full circle on all that selective fictionalisation of the subjects. Sure, we can say it's all a fiction, but now that so many of us inhabit a world where the fictional has become real, why not just flip everything round and say that the fictional is real as well. The simulacral works both ways. And that goes for Ballen himself as well. He has his real side and his fictional side as well and they're both part of the same whole (Sean O'Hagan has a few reactions to this here)..

But the good thing is Ballen always moves on, building and shifting from what came before, creating a catalogue of a community and its infinite failings. Ballen's catalogue loses its edge as it passes the Outland stage, but that is a good thing. He does something and he moves on. The new work might be in  the same kind of area but he moves on. And just as he starts to become stale, so he is revitalised by the  energy of Die Antwoord, fellow purveyors of a distorted and synthesised culture. (and I would have liked to have seen the fun video he did for them but I must have missed it. Either that or it's not there),

And that's what I liked about the show  - that he encompassed this life and death of a community, but also its rebirth, albeit in a fictionalised and distorted form. 

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

What Ashoka! Happy Easter.

Time for the blog to have an Easter break. Here's an old picture of mine of Ashoka's Pillars, in keeping with the situation and all that.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Billy Monk and his Three Wise Monkeys

I had good fun describing this Billy Monk picture for Fototazo. What's going on? I haven't got a clue. This is what I wrote..

A book that I can’t get enough of at the moment is Billy Monk by Billy Monk. It’s a simple book - a collection of nightclub photographs taken in Cape Town in the late 1960s, mostly from a seedy club called The Catacombs. The Catacombs was a place where the apartheid era Immorality Act didn’t apply, where illegal activities such as prostitution, cross-dressing, mixed race coupling and homosexuality were permitted, where a Filipino sailor and a white woman could happily drink, smoke and kiss in public. Billy Monk is a collection of pictures of this kind of activity, pictures where the narrative leaps out of the page. We see the people Billy Monk photographed and they take us into domestic dilemmas and suburban secrets, into lives and habits and peccadilloes that remain secret outside the confines of The Catacombs Club and Billy Monk’s pictures. These stories are given an edge by the racial politics of South Africa, by the politics of The Catacombs, a place where apartheid still applies in some forms at least (we see 'coloured' people there, but no 'blacks'). The stories are given a further edge by our own ignorance of exactly what is going on, exactly how the rules apply, exactly what goes on in the club, on the street, in the homes or on the ships of the people that we see. We know something is happening but we don't know exactly what; a situation that leaves us free to project our own prejudices or fantasies of the characters that Billy Monk has chosen to photograph.

And they are characters. In the picture I have chosen there are three characters. They are sitting at two tables, both made from plywood and covered in a kind of mosaic plastic. The picture's in black and white but if it were in colour, the plastic would be a chemical mix of reds, oranges and browns; cheap and nasty colours that can be easily wiped clean of cigarette ash and the brandy and coke that everybody seemed to drink at The Catacombs.

In the middle of the picture a woman stares straight at the camera. Her blue eyes are bright, she's performing for the camera, being elegant and refined, not smiling but doing her best to have an air of contentment about her. However, there is also a sadness in her eyes, a depth that takes one to a life of stoic suffering. She has a Latin look about her, but also perhaps a touch of Englishness, a dark northern beauty transported to the delights of white Cape Town life. And if you were white, it was a delight - unless you look too hard or think too much and then the delights wither and die and the ugly truth is revealed.

To her left is a man, a very English looking man. He's smartly dressed in a gold-buttoned blazer and pinstriped trousers and waistcoat. Does he always dress like this or has he been to a wedding? He’s not too happy about the camera being there but still he looks straight into the lens, the dead centre flash bouncing off his pupils. He looks hard, a touch of the street about him. Who is he and what is his relationship to the woman in the middle? He's sitting between the two tables so perhaps he's just chatting them up. The woman in the middle certainly seems to distance herself from him, and he doesn't seem entirely at ease in her company.

Then comes the mystery of the picture. The woman on the right. Or is it a man? Let’s call him or her a woman – that's who she is in The Catacombs and probably outside as well. She has a blonde beehive, the roots showing black, her eyes are heavily made up with mascara and eyeliner that matches the woman in the middle. She's leaning down, reaching under the table, so her face is obscured by a coke bottle, a bottle scratched and scraped from a million returns. What she's reaching for we don't know. It seems like she is stretched out, so it might be that she was lying down and is now getting up, or perhaps she's dropped her cigarettes or a lighter. It could be that her hand is on the leg of the woman in the middle, that she is caressing her thigh as Monk takes the picture. It could be that she works at the club. She seems to be sharing a drink with the woman in the middle, the same woman who has got a Rothmans from the man on the left. Cigarrettes and alcohol bringing people together.

The first time I saw the picture, I thought the woman on the right was smiling for the camera, her eyes laughing, but now I'm not so sure. She seems to be biting her lips, her eyes have a sadness about them, a wistful remembrance of what might-have-been of what-might-yet-be. Or perhaps she's just tired and drunk.

These people all perform for the camera in their different ways but are visually disconnected from each other. But despite this disconnect we want to, or I want to, put them together, give them homes and relationships and families that tie them together in some way. But if I do that, the visual disconnect translates to those homes and families and relationships I have invented. The story becomes sad, little domestic tragedies that can only find solace in the brandy and coke and sordid couplings of The Catacombs Club.

Who are these people? Where do they live, who do they live with, who do they want to live with? What has happened to them, what are the stories of their lives? We can make up a story, be a South African John Cheever or Richard Yates for a few minutes and wallow in dysfunction but really we don’t know, we will never know. But with this picture, with all his pictures, Billy Monk posed the question. He gives us the raw ingredients that we can use to make stories for ourselves, stories that reveal our ignorance of domesticity, relationships, politics, culture, sexuality and race and how they apply in a particular environment in a country and time that are so very different to our own. He tells us what we do not know.
And see more Billy Monk here.