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Friday, 30 October 2015

On Becoming Part of the Landscape: The Himalayan Project

Following As Dust Alights and Some Windy Trees, Dzogchen is the final part of Vincent Delbrouck's Himalayan Trilogy. 

It's an interesting series where several different things merge;  Delbrouck discovers both himself, the places he lives in (Kathmandu in particular) and the way in which philosophy, photography and ideology merge in a project where landscape, typology and the urban environment all feature.

At times there's a battle with the exotic, but by the time you get to Dzogchen you get the feeling that Delbrouck has won this battle and is getting into the soul of the place. In that sense, the book, the series even, is a meditation (and Delbrouck is into that ) on a particular kind of migrant lifestyle. It's a roll through the stages of being a stranger in a foreign land, and using photography and the visual to become part of it.

It's those parts that are interesting. In Dzogchen, Delbrouck photographs trees, rhododendron bushes and river valleys (these are the most obviously recognisable part of Nepal in the book). It's mostly shot in high Himalayan light with the chaos of dust, wiring systems and concrete setting the scene for the animated chaos that was (pre-earthquake) Kathmandu.

There are pictures of mountains and temples but these are second-tier offerings, pictures of pictures stuck on walls. Add to this the text which gives us an offering of Delbrouck's fluctuating view of Kathmandu life; a world where brain-eating amoeba, trips to the library, stomach problems, and photographic wandering tell you exactly where the pictures are coming from.

The title, Dzogchen, refers to the state of perfection of the natural order of things, so one way of looking at the book is to think of it as a series of random moments that have a certain natural perfection at their heart. But you can see it in other ways too.

Dzogchen follows on from two earlier books in the series, Windy Trees and As Dust Alights. Windy Trees is exactly that - a typology of sorts; pictures of trees in rural Nepal (I think_ that have been bent, stunted and shaped by the wind. As Dust Alights is an entry point to the project, a portrait of Delbrouck's arrival in Kathmandu, initial impressions of being in a place, falling in love with a place, getting a feel for a place.

The Himalayan Project can be seen as hitting the high points of biography, geography and metaphor. The autobiography and geography are those of Delbrouck and Nepal. And the metaphor of the three books is that of the new arrival, the migrant, the expatriate, the stranger. It's the stages of finding a place, both on a personal level and on a cultural level.

As Dust Alights is the initial love-affair of arrival, the curiosity, affection and excitement one gets. Windy Trees is the transformation of self, the shaping of one's world-view, and Dzogchen is the coming to earth, the realism of the transformed view.

Buy Dzogchen here.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Ai Wei Wei: "Self-censorship is insulting to the self. Timidity is a hopeless way forward."

Sometimes you see something that makes almost everything else seem a bit lame in comparison. The Ai Wei Wei exhibition at the Royal Academy  for example.

Ai Wei Wei fills eleven rooms in the exhibition and he hits all the high notes; surveillance, control, censorship, development and destruction, corruption, family, and justice.

Different materials are used, family history is invoked, social media is exploited and the work is both accessible and aggressive. It's not half-hearted. It hits its targets and it does have targets.

And in amongst it all there are some works that bring tears to your eyes. The first is Straight. This is a room filled with 96 tons of straightened rebars - these are the bars that are put into concrete and tied at both ends to add stability and strength to a concrete beam and so to a building.

And if you don't bother to tie the rebars off at the end, if you don't attach the ends of the rebars (and so the concrete beam) to a wall or another beam, they don't add strength to a building. The building becomes liable to collapse

So that's why so many buildings collapsed when there was an earthquake in 2008 in Sichuan Province. The most tragic thing is the buildings that were most likely to collapse were school buildings. In Sichuan school buildings the rebars weren't tied, the concrete used was substandard. Corners had been cut, standards dropped, money had gone into the pockets of corrupt provincial and party officials.

Children died because of it, almost ten thousand of them. That's the effect of corruption and greed. It's not a zero sum game. People die because of it.

That is what Straight is about. You go into the room, and there's a crowd of people standing around a television watching a twenty minute film showing the destruction, the bodies, the abandoned school backpacks (which made another Ai installation), the venal officials, the sobbing parents, and the appalling construction.

Then there's the work taken to reclaim the bent rebars (if they had been properly tied they would have snapped - the fact that they were bent is indicative of the corrupt building standards) and the banging of them back into shape. It's the documentation of an artwork that has its roots in the most tragic form of reality. It doesn't get more real than this. It's documentary art.

That was the film, which everybody who was there watched. There were some pictures of the ruins. There was the mass of rebars. And there on the walls are the names of those who died (Ai's team collected over 5,000 names. He was brutally beaten by police when these names were first published in China). For these dead children, the straightened bars are a memorial formed from the sweat of Ai Wei Wei's bar-straightening workers. For the provincial officials who traded the lives of children for  a new apartment or a designer watch, they are an accusation.

The other great work was SACRED. This detailed Ai Wei Wei's arrest and disappearnce for 81 days as he was held incommunicado by the Chinese state. He was imprisoned, interrogated, and watched in intimate detail, two guards standing over him for all this time without a break - when he ate, when he slept, when he showered, when he went to the bathroom. The guards would always be there.

So you go in the room, and there are 6 rusted metal containers. There are peep holes at the end, and peep holes on the top. Look in the peep holes and it's a diorama of Ai Wei Wei's imprisonment. You're made to work a little for your view - and it is quite shocking to always have these guards standing over their prisoner, who is rendered in very lifelike detail.

On the wall, there is Ai Wei Wei Twitter/Surveillance wallpaper. You're encouraged to photograph, to use social media, to tweet and facebook and Snapchat. Because for Ai Wei Wei that has made a difference (both in the past and right now). In that regard, it puts some other exhibitions to shame. No photography - and so no social media! Really? What exactly are you afraid of?

The exhibition is an art exhibition, and so it's about communication, and part of that communication is about using emotion, injustice, and striving for change to reach as many people as possible. It's activism on a grand scale, that works in the most direct and accessible way possible. There is anger in there, a sense of Ai Wei Wei  (and others - this is not a lone exercise) standing up for what he believes in. And he has suffered for it, so there's braveness in there, along with a healthy dose of aggression.

It's an example of what art can be. No bullshit, no compromise, no self-censorship. It's an example to us all.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Landscape is an Exhausted Medium! Oh Yeah! We'll Prove it Isn't!

'Landscape is an exhausted medium, no longer viable as a mode  of artistic expression. Like life, landscape is boring; we must not say so.'

That's from W.J.T. Mitchell's Landscape and Power.

But it's not. As all the speakers at Word, Sound and Landscape in Bristol on November 7th will be evidence of. Landscape isn't just landscape; it's biography, it's the environment, it's word, it's music, it's the entirety of our being.

But still, it's a question that Jesse Alexander, author of Perspectives of Place, will be raising during the day.

If you're remotely interested in how to think about, make or exhibit landscape work in moving and thought provoking ways, come to Sound, Word and Landscape.

Bristol, November 7th

Buy Tickets Here. They are going fast.

(And feel free to replace 'landscape' with any other word that takes your fancy. 'Art', 'Fashion', 'Photojournalism', 'Documentary' 'The Photobook' 'Academia' 'The Magazine' or anything you care to mention. See if it has a ring to it or not.

Here are Mitchell's Theses on Landscape (see more here)

1. Landscape is not a genre of art but a medium.

2. Landscape is a medium of exchange between the human and the natural, the self and the other. As such, it is like money: good for nothing in itself, but expressive of a potentially limitless reserve of value.

3 Like money, landscape is a social hieroglyph that conceals the actual basis of its value. It does so by naturalizing its conventions and conventionalizing its nature.

4 Landscape is a natural scene mediated by culture. It is both a represented and presented space, both a signifier and a signified, both a frame and what a frame contains, both a real place and its simulacrum, both a package and the commodity inside the package.

5 Landscape is a medium found in all cultures.

6 Landscape is a particular historical fonnation associated with European imperialism.

7 Theses 5 and 6 do not contradict one another.

8 Landscape is an exhausted medium, no longer viable as a mode of artistic expression. Like life, landscape is boring; we must not say so.

9The landscape referned to in Thesis 8 is the same as that of Thesis 6.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Stacy Kranitz In Conversation in Bristol

I'm in conversation with Stacy Kranitz next Monday, 2nd November. It's at IC Visual Labs in Bristol. Entry is £2.

Stacy Kranitz is the real deal in photography, somebody who puts her heart and soul into her photography.

I think we'll be talking about family, photography, education, skating, Appalachia, Leni Riefenstahl, various Bruces with various spellings, putting yourself into the picture, and much, much more. Actually, I'm kind of hoping Stacy will be talking about that stuff.

Here's a taster for you.

From an interview with Stacy Kranitz, 2013.

 “I’d get hit on a lot and people would ask me what is your heritage and then I’d say I’m Jewish, then they’d look at me and have a drink then have a think and conclude that “you’re still a woman” even if you are Jewish and still hit on me. Hatred fluctuates, it ebbs and flows and sometimes one thing will outweigh another. I was pushed up against walls and yelled at and called an Israeli spy, but I liked the fact that it was difficult and I had to gain people’s trust.”


“I grew up in a really violent house. There was a lot domestic violence from my father and later on my brother too because it’s all very much a learned behaviour.”

“I loved my father because he was trying to be a good father but he couldn’t control his anger. I grew up in an upper middle class house in an upper-middle class neighbourhood  so you wouldn’t expect it. The cops would come to our house every week, and it was very confusing and very insular. It became this dark thing we couldn’t get out of.”

“So I’m looking for these different levels of families where people create their own value system and sense of right and wrong and Skatopia is such a wonderful place for that. It is a very open place which is very accepting of people with cameras. I first went with a friend but later I had a boyfriend there for 3 years (every project I do I get a new boyfriend. I have a lot of projects on the go at the moment so I have a lot of boyfriends) and it infiltrated my life to the point where the personal and professional merged.”


“People dismiss anthropology for its dark history but I think they are doing the best job examining their own past to forge new ways of engaging with how to represent culture. Photojournalism is shamefully behind, there is so little self-reflexivity.”
Kranitz references Katherine Stewart as an influence on her work (which is also part of an MFA she is studying for). Stewart believes that over-intellectualising things gets in the way of understanding the incoherent and inexplicable elements in a society. “I see myself, like Stewart, making work that I hope destabilizes the very claim of knowing the meaning of things at all because culture isn’t something that can be gotten right,’ says Kranitz.

Galleries are Kind of Stupid Too

So there we were at the Richard Long exhibition at the Arnolifini as mentioned last week. And it was really enjoyable, especially the text works - which are simple word translations of walks Richard Long did. You look at them and little images click into your mind that combine with the basics of the walk.

After initially thinking about how great it would be to go on these massive walks (I can see the course of the Avon as I write), I start wondering about how exhausting it must be, especially if it's raining, Then there's  the struggle of walking along rivers with nettles and brambles and mud. There's  cows in fields. There's the cold.

Then I'm happy that it's Long doing it and not me, And it's one of those moments where the 'I could have done that' moment - because what is Long is not an 'I-could-have-done-that' artist - slowly turns into a 'No, I couldn't' moment because it's not just one walk he did. it's a lifetime of walks. Really long ones. In the rain, in the mud, in the cold. Fuck that!

So these text works are all about walking. Walking gets in your head and as you go round the exhibition there's more walking and things made whilst walking and references to rocks and the land and all the rest of it.

Then you get to the sculpture at the top of the page. It's made out of Cornish slate and it's lovely. It's a solid thing. It's an X, it's a path, it's a crossroads. It's something to walk on.

It's about walking then. But you're not allowed to walk on it. At an exhibition that is all about walking!

Why not?

I can think of a few reasons but they are all rather arbitrary. The most arbitrary reason, which is also the dumbest, is you can't walk on it because it's a work of art and that's not what you do.

Which is really stupid. But it's stupid in a bad way, because it's based on  made-up rules that the gallery, or artist, can break whenever you feel like it.

So why don't they feel like it?

It's a mystery because the arbitrariness of these rules, which we so universally cling to, are right up there with not walking on the grass, no women drivers, no ball games and no open collars.

Let's do a link in here to Sound, Word and Landscape, at which Paul Gaffney is speaking. His latest exhibition, Stray, took place at Belfast Exposed. It was an exhibition that evolved and developed as the exhibition went on.

From prints on walls, it became a show where multiple projections, darkened rooms and (if it had continued for another week) a floor covering of forest debris would have added to the immersive experience mentioned here.

It's an exhibition where, if there had been a slate crossroads, it would have been one that you could have walked on, a crossroads that coexisted with walking rather than acted against it. And that's what you want in a show about walking.

So how do you show work, how do you involve viewers, how do you develope an exhibition as it is shown, how do you go beyond the arbitrary rules of the gallery.

That will be talked about in Bristol on November 7th. And not just by Paul.

Buy your tickets here. 

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Sound, Word and Landscape: How we think about, make and show pictures

Robert Adams famously described how the best landscape photography is a combination of the geographical, the autobiographical and the metaphorical.

Which covers the speakers at Word, Sound and Landscape on November 7th in Bristol.

But more than that, their covers how word, sound, music and a collaborative approach result in work that goes beneath the pretty and pastoral - and takes us to the heart of the places we walk, live and inhabit in different ways.

It's the idea that landscape photography needs to go beyond the visual to have any kind of depth. The same could be said of all kinds of photography, but it seems that landscape is leading the way in thinking how sight, touch, materiality, sound, smell, body and mind can all come together in the making and the showing of work.

Word, Sound and Landscape is about more than just the making of pictures. It's the whole process. On the day there are speakers who have at the heart of their work

  • the raison d'etre of why we make pictures
  • the linking between place and the making of images
  • the materiality of the image and how that connects to place and our self 
  • the physical linkage between  arriving at a place, being in a place and making in a place
  • how traces of history appear and change our understanding of the places we inhabit
  • how emotion connects to environment, and how sound and music link the two
  • how the exhibiting of work can take us into the places where we photograph

It's a day that touches on how we think about, make and exhibit photography. If you are remotely interested in land, in place, in photography or the world in which we live, you should be there.

Speakers include Beth and Thom Atkinson, Esther Vonplon, Max Houghton, Jem Southam, fPaul Gaffney, Angus Carlyle.

Sound, Word and Landscape: Beyond the Visual is at the SouthBank Club, Bristol

November 7th: 12:30 - 19:30 (a buffet dinner will follow at 20:00)

Thursday, 22 October 2015

The Best Photographers are Stupid? Kind of.

Grass by Michele Tagliaferri is a book that combines the theme of the elemental with the fundamentals of thematic/geometric and colour sequencing. At the moment, I feel slightly saturated with the poetic and metaphysical so it's probably not the best time for me to review it. That being said, it is a lovely book, beautifully printed and hitting all the major elemental themes.

There's earth, air, fire and water in there, and there's human flesh - all pasty and malleable, more dead than alive. In that sense, there's a link to the marble torsos that appear through the book.

The book starts with clouds and soon moves on to rocks and water and horse hair. A stockinged leg leads to more horse, this time in the shape of a horse's head, an eddy of water finds an echo in a disco ball, a jellyfish, and an eyeball.

The end of the book is darker in tone - sidelit faces in a sea of black, drips of water, flashes of flame - before we return to the lightness of the sky and the clouds. There are pictures that shouldn't be in there, that mismatch and lead one in a direction I didn't want to go, but overall the feeling is strangely calming. It's a light book but with serious intent.

In this lovely interview, Tagliaferri talks about his influences, and in particular that of Jason Fulford. Fulford's sequencing is apparent in Grass, which is quite a lovely book with a beautiful flow and a sense of natural mystery that connects earth to image and back again, and may owe something to Tagliaferri's affection for the poems of Walt Whitman.

Sometimes in photography, there's a tendency to be too serious about things, to have conversations in what Bill Nichols calls 'the discourse of sobriety'. This is the kind of discourse where pictures become bogged down in language filled with jargon that is inappropriate to the subject. It's a complicated language that is complicated because  'complicated' is somehow supposed to be good. But it's joyless. Photography and the way it works is direct, quite simple and accessible. It's kind of stupid in the same that the best photographers are kind of stupid. Stupid in a good way. So the way we photograph or talk about photography should have that accessibility and that simplicity too. We don't need to overcomplicate things. You see, you feel, you connect. That's how photography works.

And that is also what Tagliaferri does here. He brings something beautiful and direct to Grass. It's grounded in the poetic and the metaphysical, one of many books published in the poetic and the natural world where clouds, and seas and rocks and fire all play a part. But it's also very simple, part of  that photographic seeking of where we come from, where we belong and, ultimately, where we are going.

Buy the book here. 

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

When Abba Was Ill by Adil Hasan

When Abba was Ill by Adil Hasan is a book about death.

It starts off with a quote by Epicurus.

Why should I fear death?
If I am, death is not,
If death is, I am not.
Why should I fear
that which can not exist
when I do.

So it's a book about death, the finality of death, but also about love and the struggle between life and death as it happens in front of Hassan's eyes. It's a beautiful book that comes in modest form and tackles a less photographed side of death in most undramatic form; what does it mean to die, what does it mean to see a loved one die.

It's his father, Mohammed Hassan, who's dying. He's got cancer and Hassan is photographing it, using his old film cameras as a distraction from the heartbreaking reality.

The pictures look like they're made on film, and they look as though Hassan isn't quite used to it.But he's not used to anything that is happening so it fits. The pictures are blurry, but in an artless way that mirrors the bewilderment that he must be feeling as his father's illness progresses. They're not beautiful or noisy or even quiet. They're more of a coming to terms with things, a negotiation.

There are views from the window of the home where his family live, all concrete stairs and dusty courtyards with leaves brushing down. There are hospitals interiors, and pictures of his family sitting and waiting, waiting and sitting, his mother in particular. There are exteriors too, views of the Tata steel works in Jamshedpur where Hasan Senior used to work. And there are key moments - his mother and father at the end of a hospital corridor, looking out of a window, their backs to Hasan, then walking back towards him.

India outside the hospital and home is run down and rainy. When it's monsoon season, the vistas are grey and unloved. The interiors have a functional air to them too, especially as Hasan's father moves from marital bed to hospital bed and back again. People visit, the family is in attendance, the father gets thinner. And sicker. And older. He's dying.

He gets weaker and the steel factory comes to life, its bright lights, searing flames, and white smoke rising above the debris of the city beyond its walls. And then its over, and the smoke drifts away and a blurry light is all that remains. Except for those who start the same process all over again, Life goes on and people live and people die, and there are those who are caught in between. That's what this book is about.

The book ends with another quote.

it's time to go home
we have wandered enough
in empty buildings

Buy When Abba was Ill here

Monday, 19 October 2015

Bristol Landscape Day: Visit Richard Long on the Way

Sound, Word and Landscape: Beyond the Visual at the SouthBank Club, Bristol

November 7th: 12:00 - 19:00 

Buy Tickets here

When you come to Sound, Word, Landscape on November 7th, be sure to stop in at the Arnolfini - which is a 10 minute walk from the Southbank (and exactly halfway between Bristol Bus Station/Bristol Temple Meads train station and the venue).

Richard Long is on show there with Time and Space. his Walks made into Textworks (see the examples above), his art made walking, photographs of sculptures made along the way, and his mud painting - made from mud from the River Avon. If you don't know about Avon mud, it's quite a thing and best seen from another 15 minute walk up to the mouth of Bristol's Floating Harbour where you'll also get the best view of Britain's most beautiful bridge.

As an added bonus, you can see his new sculpture made from Cornish Slate - which you're not allowed to walk on. 

Sound, Word and Landscape: Beyond the Visual at the SouthBank Club, Bristol

November 7th: 12:00 - 19:00 

Buy Tickets here

Friday, 16 October 2015

Tony Gentile and his Faces of Fear, Anger and Grief

Anti-mafia magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, Palermo 1992 by Tony Gentile

All pictures by Tony Gentile from The War: A Sicilian Story

The first time I saw the picture of the anti-mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino was last year when Giuseppe, a student from Sicily on the Doc Phot course at USW Cardiff, showed it to the class in a seminar. He talked about its significance in Sicily, how it had attained iconic status as an anti-corruption, anti-mafia symbol, how it had become more than a picture. It is a picture of people who made a difference that made a difference,

The picture was taken at the height of Sicily's mafia wars. Falcone and Borsellino had been part of a secret legal team standing up to the brutality and corruption of the mafia and the political, judicial and legal elites whose silence they had bought.

 And if they hadn't bought the silence, violence and threat of violence would do the same thing. Judges, police and prosecuting magistrates who signed arrest warrants for mafia bosses were likely to be killed. Bodies were found on the streets of Palermo on a daily basis. And because of that judges and lawyers stopped prosecuting and signing arrest warrants. That's how it works.

Palermo 1991

Palermo, mafia boss Michele Greco is released 1991

The killings of Falcone and Borsellion led to massive protests. In Sicily, the silence was broken and Tony Gentile's picture of the two friends laughing became a symbol of protest against mafia brutality.

So it's an iconic picture. But Gentile, who was working in Palermo at the time, took many more pictures of the Falcone and Borsellino and the other players in Sicilian and Italian politics. And it's these pictures (most of which have never been published before) that are the basis of his book The War: A Sicilian Story, .

A Sicilian Story is a reminder of the sheer power of photojournalism at its best and what a narrative means in the obvious story-telling sense. It's something quite transparent and it has a driving force that involves you in very direct ways.

On one level, this is a book of press photographs, It's photojournalism mixed with agency pictures of press conferences and public events. It's published in a traditional format, as a hardcover designed for a wider audience than bijou photobook land. It addresses questions of power and shows how meaningful images can come out of the most staged events. There are even huge elements of street photography in there with the wide angles, the crowds, the faces and the dress.

On a more complex level, and where it really becomes something great, A Sicilian War is a record of the alliances that underscored the mafia killings of the 1990s. It's a  history book that is also a study of faces; the fear, grief, and resignation of people who know the mark of death is hanging over them and live with it every day. And it's a study of how murder went to the very heart of what pretended to be a civilised state.

Palermo, politician and mafia associate Salvo Lima testifies during a trial against another mafia-connected politician 1991

Salvo Lima murder 1992

The book starts with an evocative short story by Davide Enia on the all-corrupting nature that killing with impugnity brought to Sicily. It's a story that links very directly to the images, to silence, to family, to killings, and it serves the pictures exceptionally well. So the book also becomes about parents who see their children growing up in a world where the lies of 'honour' are used to disguise violence, who see that rules and morality are just arbitrary tags that have no meaning beyond being platitudes to justify brutality.

Best of all the book is a brilliant study of faces. The faces in A Sicilian War are quite extraordinary in their expressions and they are expressions that Gentile understands and uses in his edit of the book. The pictures these faces appear in have been made by somebody who (like the great Letizia Battaglia) is part of, and knows the world he is photographing. You don't often get that in photography.

So there are gradations on these faces. When I saw the book for the first time, I wasn't quite sure who was who and what was what, but I could see it and I could feel it. There's a familiarity to the book (we've seen some of these faces in movies before now) but a gravity that goes way beyond the mafia cliche. Look at the anguish of Borsellino in the time between his death and Falcone's. It looks like he is waiting out a sentence and it is hopelessly sad.

There's the resignation of Salvo Lima as he testifies in court (Lima was an associate of the mafia who is shown in the next picture lying dead on the ground; he was killed by the mafia) and there is the face of the policeman as he holds back the crowds at the Falcone funeral. There is lots of sorrow in this book.

Giulio Andreotti and Salvo Lima, Palermo 1991

Most tellingly, there is the ultimate mask of Giulio Andreotti, the Italian prime-minister (implicated by Battaglia's photographs no less), and  the isolation of Falcone as he stands alone in a crowd.

There is no glamorisation here. None whatsoever. Quite the opposite.

Giovanni Falcone at judge Rosario Livation's funeral, 1980

Capaci, May 23rd !992 - where Falcone and his bodyguards were killed.

The funeral of Giovanni Falcone and his bodyguards (Francesco Morillo, Rocco Dicillo, Agostino Montinaro and Vito Schifani), May 25th, 1992

Caltanisetta 1992

Paolo Borsellion, Palermo, June 2nd 1992 (he was murdered on July 21st 1992)

These are very brave pictures. Sometimes you see pictures and you say, I could have done that (with the proviso but I didn't). Sometimes you say, I could have done that but why would I bother? I can't say that with the pictures in A Sicilian Story. They capture a place at a time through faces that live and breathe trauma, anxiety and violence.

June 23rd 1992

It's tremendous work!

Buy the English Version of the book here if you can't find anywhere better.

Buy the Italian Version of the book here.

Mafia boss, Giovanni Brusca, captured in 1996

Tony Gentile works for Reuters and is official photographer to the Pope. Follow his travels here.


Thursday, 15 October 2015

Mount Hermon: Where the Watcher Class of Fallen Angels Came to Earth

A few hundred years hence, in this same place, another traveller, as despairing as myself, will mourn the disappearance of what I might have seen, but failed to see. I am subject to a double infirmity: I am hurt by everything I see, and I constantly reproach myself for not looking as much as I should. 

Claude Lévi-Strauss, "Tristes Tropiques"

From Carly Steinbrunn  and The Voyage of Discovery

How do you sequence pictures? How do you tell a story with them through the page, across the book, how do ideas and images link and combine and make new ideas and new stories. There are more than a few great publishers around doing this in very conscious and direct ways. It's not always easy, but it is seeking an answer to the question of how pictures work. That gets skipped over most of the time. Sometimes it's a bit obtuse, with a plethora of waves, rocks and earthsides giving contemporary photography a very elemental air. But for now, this obsession with visual and conceptual sequencing feels fresh when it's done well.  The late lamented Akina did it with Federico Clavarino's Italia O Italia and, in a more gothic fashion, with Grand Circle Diego. Dalpine books are doing it with books like Ama Lur. Fishbar Books are more accessible quietly raise the bar with every book they make; Olivia Arthur's Stranger being a particular favourite of mine for the way the images seep together through transparent paper, the fictional and the actual combining in arctitectural and geographical highlights.

And then there's Mack, They publish Alec Soth, Broomberg and Chanarin, Joan Fontcuberta and Paul Graham. They are the big names. But beneath that you find other, lesser known books that really push the boat out on how pictures are put together. Porque Las Naranjas, Another Language, Elementary Calculus, Cosmology all use photographs and the histories behind them in original and dynamic ways.

tvod_parchment (Custom)

The Voyage of Discovery by Carly Steinbrunn fits right into that list too. But as well as looking at how colour, shape and category can be used to mould a story, Steinbrunn takes us on an archival journey where what we are seeing and how we see it is never quite clear. It's a journey into the image itself, built into a journey into the history of the planet on which we live.

The book starts with this quote.

 A few hundred years hence, in this same place, another traveller, as despairing as myself, will mourn the disappearance of what I might have seen, but failed to see. I am subject to a double infirmity: I am hurt by everything I see, and I constantly reproach myself for not looking as much as I should. 

Claude Lévi-Strauss, "Tristes Tropiques"

So things are not good from the start. There's an invitation to think about  a disappearing world and our failure to see it.

Failure to see what?

Well, we have to turn the pages to find out.

Once we're in, everything is quite enigmatic. There are cliffs followed by Mount Hermon (me neither), Australian Forest and Flints. The captions at the back tell us this.

It is all quite primeaval, a kind of documentation of the anthropocene era through pictures that appear to be a mix of the contemporary, the archival, the  found and the vernacular.

The energy of the earth is apparent in a sequence of waves, there are pictures of ancient texts to go with Mount Hermon. It looks religious - hold on, I'll Google it;  it's the place where the Watcher class of Fallen Angels came to earth and it's on the Israel Syrian border. Oh my God, that is like Buffy meets Armageddon with Realpolitic Characteristics so we're on the right track there.

It's the earth being born and our insignificance in the geological scheme of things. So we get the rocks, the earth, the sea, the clouds, all the elements, but it's an unnerving combination. Our pathetic attempts to shape this world are shown in images of Brasilia and a crash-landing Boeing. It's not good and as we get to the end of the book, the aridity and sense of mortality deepens. We're destroying ourselves, we're destroying the world. Or maybe that's just me.

But at the same time, perhaps we're not. In the grand scheme of things (and what is the Voyage of Discovery about, if not the grand scheme of things), we're just bit players. Cultures, peoples, languages and humanity itself may die out but the earth will live on.

In the midst of all this, there's anthropology, geology, zoology, and aeronautical engineering. There's a whole mass of photographies to sift and sort through, none of which leave one with an easy feeling. It doesn't end well needless to say. The last shows what happens to the crash-landing Boeing we saw earlier (they're probably not the same plane, but in Photobook terms they are). It crashes, explodes and burns. But in reverse. It's a test flight. But isn't everything.

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