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Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Garden: Photography that doesn't put you in a corner


In Blue Mud Swamp, the colour blue sets the tone. Another book where colour dominates and defines the story is Alessandro Imbriaco's The Garden - but this time the colours are murky greens, browns and greys, dusk colours that rise like a miasma from the Roman swamp where Imbriaco made the pictures.

The Garden is the story of a swamp, a wild tangle of brambles, weeds and trees on the edge of a Roman highway. And in the middle of the swamp live Piero, Angela a - a homeless couple who have made their home in this Garden - and Lupa, their daughter who was born and is being raised there, the trees and streams and underpasses her playground.

The Garden is an Edenic reference but I think it's all a bit more pagan than that - more of a Pan's Labyrinth than Eden, a place where life is more nuanced than the monotheistic ideas that Eden represents. Little Lupa is no Eve. She has knowledge of the world around her and it is a good thing. No sin attaches to her because of what she is.

Despite, or perhaps because of  this pagan quality, there is a real earthiness to the book that is not at all romantic. It also feels real, but not in the gritty kind of way that puts you in a corner and doesn't give you a choice. There always seems to be a choice in The Garden - of how you read the characters, the landscape, the environment, and that seems to be something that is quite rare. It's not a spectacle and it's not a prescription. You are free to see what you want to see and think what you want to think.

I'm not sure why that should seem so special but it does. There is so much photography, especially of a 'serious' nature, that ties you up in knots, that seeks to put you into a particular place  in the way that you see and understand it. It's a kind of photographic correctness, where even though you may agree wholeheartedly with what is being said or shown, the resentment at being forced to agree with the sentiments of the work, the inability of the work to offer even a second dimension or alternative perspective makes one want to disagree with it just for the sake of it. It's Stupid Photography that doesn't enlighten or engage, but just shuts things up and makes one long for something that is open and free. Photography isn't always open or free. The Garden is.

Read my interview with Alessandro Imbriaco in the BJP here.


Monday, 28 January 2013

Blue Mud Swamp

Filipe Casaca sent me a copy of his latest book,Blue Mud Swamp, a move on in book terms from his previous relationship study, the rather lovely my home is where you are.

Blue Mud Swamp is a colour coded look at the frayed edges of urban China. It's tattered and torn, worn-out with a chemical taint. It's a short term project but it says more to me than the smog-laden cityscapes that have dominated Western landscapes of China over the last 10 years. This is what Casaca told me about his work.

This series developed in Dalian, China. Recently, this city was classified as "one of the best cities to live in China" and an example of the modern patterns of China’s development.

In Dalian, I was attracted to the strong presence of the sea and coastal area – which has some of the few useable beaches in China - where I could find a prominence of youngsters/couples and a variety of leisure infrastructures.Due to its importance and main influence on the city’s characteristics, I decided that the sea would be a guideline in this work.

I observed that existed an excess of entertainment facilities – some in use, while other completely neglected with clear signs of degradation.  Abundance, in a broad sense, is one of the visible faces of Dalian.

The city is filled with multiple stimuli and a big magnet for young couples looking for fun. Nevertheless, their way of being led me to feel that they were “dominated” by a certain absence.

In some leisure facilities such as theme parks, zoo and gardens, I found a recurring presence of animals that have an important symbolism in Chinese culture: the Tiger, symbol progress and protection; Horse, representing movement and power, and Turtle that not only symbolizes wisdom and longevity as the Universe itself in the Far East.

It was difficult for me to recognize "the best city to live in China”, the much-publicized “perfect universe” built by man. Instead, I found worlds artificially created and I came across fantastic scenarios created to sublimate Man, which paradoxically led me to a sensation of emptiness.

The Spirit of Entertainment: Borrowing from the Best

3 versions of Mary Magdalene

I've never seen the stage play but I loved the film of Les Miserables. Everything has been borrowed from somewhere, but because they steal from only the very best of places ( a little bit of Oliver, Fiddler on the Roof, a dash of Bollywood, Cecil B. deMille set design, Mumbai and a whole load of the bible) it makes for a glorious film experience - a spectacle with sentimental moments that set the tears flowing down my cheeks.

Borrowing from the best - sometimes I think that is what it's all about really. And that in heaven at least, the revolution did come to pass.

The Man in the Ruler Suit

I very much enjoyed interviewing Thijs Wassink of WassinkLundgren for a feature in the February BJP (to correspond with their exhibition at Foam) even though it was on New Year's Day and I had to delay having a drink till I'd spoken to him and written up my notes. Sadly I didn't get to interview his partner, Ruben Lundgren.

But who needs to interview him when you can see a picture of him wearing a ruler suit. The basic story is this: Lundgren moves to Beijing to study photography. Before he goes he learns Mandarin because he wants to intergrate. The problem is he's 2 metres tall (six feet seven inches to little Angloids) so everywhere he goes people point and ask him how tall he is, what's the weather like up there - you know the kind of thing.

So WassinkLundgren turn this energy into something positive. They get a ruler suit made and Lundren goes around Beijing wearing the suit and getting his picture taken. They make an exhibition, go to some award cermonies, and so the whole project becomes a commentary on fame - maybe. Because there don't seem to be too many pictures of Lundgren wearing the suit around Beijing (the one above is the one you see), which is a pity because a ruler suit is not something you see every day.

Read more about it here.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Siri, Henner and diCorcia

I was told that one of the reasons people are hostile to Mishka Henner is his flippancy; he stonewalls in the face of argument - he throws his accepted truths back at people who throw their accepted truths at him and does it in a fairly blunt manner; more of a gobshite than flippant, but you get the picture.

It's a case of people not liking the way he says something over the things that he says. But then there are people who don't like what he says. This is especially true of No Man's Land, an exhibition of the project has been nominated for the Deutsche Borse prize with particular attention paid to the film and soundtrack that accompanies the images.

The idea is that by showing where prostitutes are working on the highways of Italy and Spain, complete with coordinates, Henner is providing information for people who want to visit prostitutes. He's basically being a pimp in other words. Men will visit his website and use the information to find prostitutes.

I'm not too sure about that. There probably are people who will stumble on his website and get a vicarious thrill from Henner's pictures. But considering that Henner got his pictures through various prostitution-related blogs and websites, it is much more likely that these would be a far more informative place for things like prices, services offered, use of condoms and so on. Prostitution on the internet works through very functional and direct websites, not through conceptual documentary photography projects.I think it is to overestimate the importance of photography outside the small world it (it being the particular types of photography that Henner/The Deutsche Borse represents) inhabits

Anyway, that reminds me of Philip Lorca diCorcia's Hustlers, which did give locations, prices and make faces clearly visible. Would the same arguments apply to that project? Was diCorcia pimping his subjects?

And what of Siri, Apple's Voice Recognition thing which has taken so much abuse (  "Why are you such a loser, Siri?" "Get a personality, Siri?" "Fuck off, Siri") it must surely be a Skynet in the making, ready to take its revenge on a human population that hates it.

Siri used to answer questions on prostitution and brothels in China but then changed its mind and decided it was a bad idea. Good thing, bad thing, or just censorship? Or does Siri have a conscience and it's going to tell Apple to start upping the pay rates of the workers at Foxconn.

Anyway, I wonder if actually the really harmful thing Henner is doing by having his work online, and making slide shows and films that will be viewed on computer, tablet and iphone screens, is  that he implicitly promotes the use of new visual technologies.

How much damage does the manufacture of 100 iphones do to the world, how much damage does it inflict on the workers of China? What are the social effects of people talking to their devices rather than to each other, the instantaneous gratification of information, games, images and porn at your fingertips? And do we contribute to that with our pictures and our  films and our blogs?

I sometimes think that these are the types of questions we should be asking rather than the rather limited ones that are raised by photographic ethics from the 1970s.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Spirit of Levity, Gravity and Confrontation

I interviewed Thijs Wassink of WassinkLundgren over the New Year for an article for the BJP. WassinkLundgren are prolific and mildly flippant which is why, although I am not always entirely convinced by them, I do like WassinkLundgren's Conceptual Documentary work. They are light and airy, a breath of fresh air that doesn't pause too much to consider the ethical implications of quite minor transgressions. They don't bear responsibility for what it photographs. So they photograph people picking up bottles? So what? It's not that important and even if it is a bad thing, there are worse things one can do and most of us do them on a daily basis. They use humour and engage with the outside world. Photography, and documentary photography in particular, is opened up to wider audiences because their is a bit of fun in their work, and a bit of fun in the way they talk about it.

And because they don't spend their evenings huddled up in front of a picture analysing exactly why they are responsible for what is portrayed in it, they have more time to make work. They are a veritable ideas factory. Not all the ideas are that good or that well-realised, but they are ideas and things move forward because of them. The pictures are a bit crap, but that's not really the point.

They have a spirit of levity about them which is quite refreshing. When I think of WassinkLundgren, I think of people like Mishka Henner and Broomberg and Chanarin, all two/three (what is it with double acts) of whom also open up the possibilities of photography. But Broomberg and Chanarin work with a Spirit of Gravity, and Mishka Henner, bless him, works with a Spirit of Confrontation which throws the Holy Cows of Photography right back into the faces of the mouths from which they emerged.

Anyway, you can read all about my thoughts on WassinkLundgren in the upcoming issue of the BJP, and they have an exhibition at Foam Gallery

Monday, 21 January 2013

Martin Luther King Day

George Orwell Day and Martin Luther King Day.

To celebrate the occasion, here's MLK's Fight the Power quote:

 "Yet our best trained, best educated, best equipped, best prepared troops refuse to fight! Matter of fact, it's safe to say that they would rather switch than fight!"

I wonder what an equivalent contemporary quote would be and who would dare say it. And what would people's reactions to it be? How hated would be be now? As hated as he was back in 1968? It's easy to love and praise MLK from afar, but what would he be saying now? And if he's not saying it, who is? Why aren't you?


Thanks for the mugshot, via Stan Banos.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

George Orwell Day

Here are a couple of snippets from her article. I particularly love the 1949 cover of the paperbook (which Atwood read and is pictured above) with Julia wearing her Anti-Sex League Badge. It kind of reminds me of the Silver Ring Thing in the States, the one wear girls (and boys to a lesser extent) marry Jesus Christ and promise to remain faithful to him rather than having sex with your regular, earthly boy. It works for a little while, but the hormones build up, the frustration starts to show and before you know it, pregnancy and STD rates are way higher than they wear before Jesus ever entered the teenage love equation. But as Atwood states, one mustn't judge a book by its cover.

 I am forever grateful to Orwell for alerting me early to the danger flags I've tried to watch out for since. As Orwell taught, it isn't the labels – Christianity, socialism, Islam, democracy, two legs bad, four legs good, the works – that are definitive, but the acts done in their names.

 Then along came Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was published in 1949. I read it in paperback (the copy of which is pictured here) a couple of years later, when I was in high school. Then I read it again, and again. It struck me as more realistic, probably because Winston Smith was more like me, a skinny person who got tired a lot and was subjected to physical education under chilly conditions – a feature of my school – and who was silently at odds with the ideas and the manner of life proposed for him. (This may be one of the reasons Nineteen Eighty-Four is best read when you are an adolescent; most adolescents feel like that.)

Orwell, of course, was flawed in his own way, but then isn't everybody. Pankaj Mishra pointed this out in the Guardian a few weeks back, suggesting that many of the Western authors who are so heavy on Chinese Nobel winner Mo Yan, should perhaps start looking at themselves first. 

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Are you Responsible for What you Photograph?

picture by Dr Hans Killian

Following on from Jeannette Winterson's fabulous book, Why be Happy when you can be Normal?, I wondered at how one's sympathies can change so much based on the way people talk about their work. In Winterson's case, when she writes about herself, the open and very direct honesty transformed what I had previously thought of her. And not only me. I found myself exactly the same thing happening with other people who had read the book. A slightly annoying woman was turned, through a mix of honesty, openness and humour, into a complex character who we suddenly liked and admired.

Winterson mixed up wit and modesty into her biography to transform it from what might have been a run-of-the-mill misery memoir. She mixed up ways of writing to come up with something that was neither self-pitying, nor distant.

There was a writer (Bill Nicholson perhaps?) who wrote about the different discourses that different genres of film have and how that influences the way you write and the way the work is regarded.

So if you write about musicals, then you write with a discourse of entertainment - you can be entertained, you are allowed to bring pleasure and vibrancy into your discourse.

Write about documentary, and the discourse is one of sobriety. Forget about the entertainment side of things, drop the vibrancy and the passion, now you have to be serious and sober. It's the same with photography, but there are added complications - the photographer bears responsibility for what is being photographed, so the discourse of Concern is added, as is the Burden of Responsibility.

You can read all about that kind of perspective here, in Brad Feurhelm's denunciation of  Mishka Henner's No Man's Land Deutsche Borse nominated project: 

"Not only is it derivative," says Feurhelm, "but the project completes a vicious circle of unpleasant attitudes of human currency and a new attempt to denigrate women to that of commerce even further."

The posting got a lot of comments on Facebook (most from Feurhelm), but it seems that by grabbing something from unsavoury punters' sites (something that's already online in a far, far more unsavoury setting that is directyly related to prostitution, voyeurism and a historical tradition of advertising and reviews of services offered by prostitutes), reinterpreting in a gallery setting with film and birdsong (and that is what he got the Deutsche Borse nomination for), Henner becomes responsible for what he is showing. But he's not. Just as a picture doesn't capture a soul, so taking a picture doesn't make you responsible for what you show. Henner is not a sex trafficker or pimp because of his pictures. I don't think he's the right target. There is a bit of a category mistake going on which elevates photographers into visionaries who make what they photograph be. If only it were so, but alas it's not.

Make a film or write a book and you don't get half the grief a photographer gets (I'm making a blind assumption there - let me know if I'm mistaken). Take a few prying pictures of virtually anything and, if you operate in that particularly Concerned world that overlaps with documentary, grief will beckon. Operate in the art of fashion world and every anorexic 16-year-old girl is your oyster and you rationalise any concerns away by saying that's the way things operate in the fashion world - it's about sex and beauty, so everything's fair game. Jimmy Saville eat your heart out.

This emphasis on ethics and being beetle-browed concerned at all times is important, but it is also incredibly tiresome and a huge barrier that prevents people from making new work. Why make new work when you have to spend half your life justifying it to people with cats' assholes where their mouths should be. Disapproval is a terrible thing. Such a terrible thing that not only does it limit the way you can work, it also limits the audience for that work. Who wants to get interested in a form of photography where furrowed brows and Witchfinder-like denunciations are a major form of discourse.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Jem Southam and The River Winter

I reviewed Jem s'outham's A River Winter for Photo-Eye last month, but it arrived too late for me to put it in my Best of Lists.

In the review I write about how Jem Southam is the kind of man who would give vegetables from his allotment to his neighbours. I wrote that because I have a friend who used to be a neighbour of Jem Southam - and guess what, Jem Southam used to give him vegetables from his allotment. That type of thing always impresses me, the simple acts of kindness (in Southam's case), or honesty (in Winterson's case), or generosity (in Adam Fuss' case).

I know it shouldn't affect how one sees work, but it does all the time. But if it's kindness, honesty and generosity that affect my perception of work, what is it for other people? What does the business in the Gallery or the Fashion or the Advertising world.

Mmm, I'm reading The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson at the moment, and think the answer might be in there somewhere. But enough of that for now, and let's get back to Jem Southam. Here's the review I wrote for The River Winter.

See more images here (but Southam's work is definitely best seen somewhere other than on a screen)

Jem Southam’s pictures are quiet and unspectacular. They feature rural landscapes where changes happen over a period of days or  months or years. Fields, ponds, rivers and rockfalls are Southam’s territory, rural sites where there’s nothing much to be seen, places where most photographers would move on from in search of a better (more spectacular) picture. 

So you look at his pictures and wonder what the fuss is all about. And then you look at another and another, and the fuss creeps up on you. Southam is an organic photographer, he’s one with the land. He’s a kind photographer, the sort of man who keeps an allotment and gives his produce to his neighbours. For some reason, he seems kind and as a result his pictures are kind. Southam is a walking photographer and as you look at his pictures, you start to fall into his stride. As the places he walks in become familiar, the changes he photographs form a texture and become almost tangible. With his rockfalls, you can feel the rocks, you can imagine clambering over the beaches where he lugged his 10 by 8 camera and tripod. With The Pond you smell the autumn foliage, visualise the mayflies dancing over the still body of water he photographed over the years. 

The River Winter follows the same pattern. It creeps up on you and makes itself familiar. Southam’s work seeks out a quiet empathy, drawing you out into a nature that is unromantic but lyrical. For The River Winter, Southam photographed the waters around the River Exe from the end of autumn in 2010 to the first signs of spring in the following year.  
For the weather-obsessed Briton the timespan is instantly identifiable. Winters in southwest  England used to be mild affairs, punctuated only by what the English weatherperson calls ‘wintry showers’, ‘patches of frost’ and ‘frozen fog’. Snow was virtually unheard of and the idea that it would ‘settle’ was a distant dream. Then in 2008, it did settle. That means the snow stuck to the ground and got deeper and deeper. For the first time in 20 years near enough, England was covered in snow. The country came to a standstill and for the first time in their lives, children could toboggan and have snowball fights in God’s Own Country. Hallelujah!

I remember that winter because the day it snowed I went sledging down Solsbury Hill (the one in the song) with my daughter and her friends. I remember the winter of 2010 because of the frigid temperatures and the ice on the roads in the 2 weeks before Christmas. I remember the snowfall and a week of snowball fights and sledging that lasted for 7 days until Boxing Day when the Big Melt began. 

So I recognise that weather in Jem Southam’s photographs. It  starts with ‘The Confluence of Two Streams’, taken on Halloween in Stoke Woods. The stream is a muddy trickle, its banks covered with the bronze and yellow leaves of fall. A fern dead centre in the foreground adds a primaeval touch, the idea of an old landscape, one where the rhymthms of the seasons have precedence over the vanities of humanity.
The landscape is lyrical but not one you would necessarily want to walk in. It’s organic and sodden, blocked by webs of leaves and branches. The bodies of water that appear in every photograph are alive, necessary but not attractive. There is little artifice in what Southam does, but rather a simplicity and a clarity of expression that is a wonder to behold. 

Fall passes to winter and the first frosts appear. Weeds and reeds and teasels take on a delicate silver quality of winter and then the layer of crystals disappears. There is a thaw and the greys turn back to the dark browns and olive greens of the dank early winter. Snow comes with a vengeance on 20th December. Taddiforde Brook is shown on the first day of the snowfall, with the overhanging branches of trees laden with pristine snow. It’s not quite Narnia, it’s too messy for that, but it’s halfway there, with the frozen brook water adding a definite chill to proceeding. 

Six days later and we see the brook again. The thaw is coming and the snow has thinned out. In one of the few signs of human intervention, there are snowballs on the ice and a few cracks where somebody has perhaps tried to break the ice; all part of the fun of an English winter.

And so the snow melts. White snow turns into brown mud, and the undergrowth has died back. Everything is dead now. Cold and wet and dead. Before sunlight and spring reappear, we see the River Winter moribund and desolate. In three pictures of ‘The River Creedy at Sweetham’, all the green has gone. The cold and the snow has denuded the river bank of all life; a quiet, English catastrophe has hit the vegetation.

And that is what Southam’s work is all about; quiet catastrophes on a local scale, with pictures that are atavistic in their execution, that take us back to a time when we walked in tune with fluctuations of the natural, unbuilt environment of which we are just a small part. His work reminds us of our place in the big scheme of things, of our mortality, our vulnerability and the fact that we are just bit players. The wonder is that he doesn’t need to photograph grand panoramas to do this. Instead a muddy trickle of a river and some moderately cold weather are enough for him.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Why be Happy when you could be Normal?

So I think I'll start the newish year with this cover picture of Jeanette Winterson's biographical book, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal.

It's a book about Jeanette Winterson coming of age while living with her adopted mother: an evangelical christian who hates sex, life and her lesbian daughter. It's about much more than that really and is a lovely book.

Over New Year, I met somebody who was brought up in an evangelical ( and he equated evangelical with hypocritical) family, and escaped them as soon as was possible. Winterson's book resonated with him. It was true to him.

Winterson used to have quite a high media profile in the UK (she was on the Review Show every other week when the Review Show was good - full of annoying-in-a-good-way cultural commentators). I found her massively annoying for all sorts of irrelevant reasons. What is interesting is how my opinion of her has changed since reading Why be Happy...

She has suddenly become much more likeable, with a brutal honesty that cuts to raw. It's an honesty that is apparent in the cover picture of the book, of Winterson on the beach at Morecambe ( I guess). She was abused as a child, locked in the proverbial coal bunker and made to sleep outside the house. I love the way her family album smile contrasts with the claw-like hands that are gripping the beach ball. She's so stiff, awkward and insect-like, a product of the mother who never loved her, who told her that the devil put her in the crib, and how great things would have been if she had adopted a boy.

The Face of 2013

Happy New Year, everyone. In the grand old tradition of this blog, I look into the leaves of my tea and see the face of the year ahead.

Oh Dear, it just gets worse doesn't it - it's going to be a Boris Mikhailov kind of year.