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Friday, 27 May 2016

La Forma Bruta: Made with Pleasure and Pain

The Photobook Bristol Blog ran two interviews with Martin Amis of Photobookstore and Andrea Copetti of Tipi Bookshop. These are two great booksellers who have an instinct and knowledge of books, what is good and what sells that is beyond compare.

Both answered questions on what are the biggest mistakes photographers make when it comes to making photobooks.

This is what Martin said:

"Thinking that the project/photos actually needs to be a photobook in the first place."

Which is actually really great advice. We like books but sometimes you shouldn't make the book. That's not the place for it.

And this is what Andrea said:

There are predefined rules for making a book, like paper, binding, ink.

But within those rules, they don’t play around enough. In an exhibition you can’t change the walls, they’re just there to hold the works. In a book there are no walls, it’s flexible, you can mould the medium. Also, people don’t do enough dummies during their work in progress.

Also, a big aspect in the self-published world is that you don’t have to make it all by yourself. The feedback of a graphic designer or a third eye is always valuable: different points of views, different actors in the field – but you have to balance all the reactions of people, people might find your images pretty but they might not think in sequence or paper or… The far biggest mistake is to make a book for a pre-defined audience. You should just work for the content of your story.

One of the key quotes here is that people don't make enough dummies. That people just make one or two and expect there to be a finished book. But making a good photobook is difficult. Making a really good one is really difficult. It is bewildering when people make books quite painlessly and expect them to be brilliant. Maybe it's a bit protestant of me, but I do sense that all really good books involve a certain amount of pain in their creation. As well as a certain amount of playing around. Pleasure and pain at the same time.

You get the feeling with Martin Bollati has had some pain but also played around plenty in the making of his new book, La Forma Bruta. It's not a safe book, and you can see  that he has gone through different stages of discomfort and doubt to get to the end result.

And the end result is something that stands out both in terms of the images made and the form in which they are presented.

La Forma Bruta is a series of images shot in museums around Spain, Portugal, the UK and other countries in Europe.

They are coded and modified to make a new narrative that is both a commentary on the way we gain knowledge from museums and other such repositories of knowledge, and a new story in its own right

The book starts with the picture below which looks like a sunrise over a rock or a pyramid of some form. It's all very 2001, but it takes us back in time to a primordial age.


The book continues with African heads - it's the birth of man - minerals, rocks, opposable thumbs, and images that speak of the discovery of fire.

The pictures are rich with reds, yellows and oranges. These are earth colours, so it's like we're going back into our primaeval self. This is a world of the elements, of fire, and magma, and people living lives at the beginning of our human time.

Slashes of yellow cut across the page like rivers of molten iron and the story continues as humanity rises into a consciousness seared with burning beams of orange and red.

It comes in file form, with the pictures printed on glossy card so it feels archival - very strange archival but archival all the same.

I always like photographing things in museums and it's a staple of the documentary world. But it can be a bit lame. Bollati has done something with those images and reshaped them into something new that is also a commentary of sorts on how we are fed and consume the exhibits we see in a museum. So it's a kind of Evidence (Sultan and Mandel) of the diorama. But he's done it boldly in a way that looks and feels great. It's one of those "I wish I'd thought of that books." Well, Bollati did think of it, but I get the feeling lots of other people are going to be thinking in a very similar way in the next few years.

Buy La Forma Bruta here.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Soviet Children's Books: Let's Have Fun with Uncle El Lissitsky

 If you want to know how bad it was to be a child in 1920s USSR, read this article on an exhibition of Soviet children's illustration in the Guardian here. And you can visit the exhition in London here.

The designs are wonderful, but, as this statement illustrates...

In 1925, Galina and Olga Chichagova illustrated a two-panel poster that called for a revolution in children’s illustration in the new Soviet Union. The left panel featured traditional characters from Russian fairytales and folklore – kings, queens, the Firebird, the witch Baba Yaga and, my favourite, a crocodile in elegant nightcap and dressing gown. “Out,” read the caption, “with mysticism and fantasy of children’s books!!”

...there was a downside. You get the feeling that kids books in the USSR weren't exactly Mog or Mr Gum or The Tiger Who Came to Tea. Literacy might have massively improved but the magic of childhood?

Although it should be noted that “The bourgeoisie, well aware of the force of children’s books, took advantage of them to strengthen their own power … We struggle and we die, but before we drown in our own blood, we must seize these weapons from enemy hands.”

So you get the wonderfully illustrated story of the revolution as seen in Alisa Poret’s illustrations for How the Revolution was Won

But then things can get a bit technical. A case in point is the splendidly abstract In About Two Squares: a Suprematist Tale in Six Constructions by El Lissitsky ("please dad, please, read me In About Two Squares: a Suprematist Tale in Six Constructions again"). It tells the story of a red square and a black square. And the black square is suprematism and red square is revolution.

 In the story, the black square joins a red square that represents communism and both head off on a dialectical space trip. The two flat shapes crash to Earth causing destruction in three dimensions – a kind of abstractionist depiction of the Bolshevik revolution – from which emerges a new Earth built in the red of communism.

You can read about it in much more detail in The Charnel House here.

Or there is a really nice Guide to the book here with translations of all the pages - reproduced below but do go to the original source for extra links to related materials. 

cover art

Front Cover: In a thin ruled rectangle in the top four-fifths of the page are three elements, the Russian word "PRO," meaning "About" or "Concerning," the arabic numeral 2, and a red square. Below the title is the signature of El Lissitzky, printed at an angle, with the first and last names sharing the letter "L."
Lissitzky was very careful with his choice of colors--the intensity of the red square is finely tuned for a psychological contrast to the black square and text. Your computer monitor might not render it as well as the printed copy. Note also the dynamically varying angles of the signature and the word "PRO".

Lissitzky wrote at about this time, "Today we have two dimensions for the word. As a sound it is a function of time, and as a representation it is a function of space. The coming book must be both." Since, he wrote, "the words on the printed page are learnt by sight, not by hearing," he chose number and image on the cover, and only used a word, "about," because he needed it to signify his meaning.


Dedication Page:  To all, to all children

The initial "P" (Latin "R") of "children" is a huge capital letter, emphasizing the sound. The words "to all" are repeated and angled, as if emanating from a radio broadcast. (Railing points out that war radio appeals always began, "TO ALL ALL.") Radio was a fascinating new technology.
This page is black and white; on the other side of the signature, the endpaper is all black. The space of the book is emphatically enclosed.

title page art

Title Page: El Lissitzky: a suprematist story -- about two squares. in 6 constructions: Berlin, Skythen, 1922.

The movement of the eye reading the slanted text seems to reproduce dynamically the sound as in a radio announcement. The emphasized similar parts to the Russian words for "two squares" (BA BA) is an example of Lissitzky's innovative letter typography. He wrote, "From the passive, non-articulated letter pattern one goes over to the active, articulated pattern. The gesture of the living language is taken into account." (Typographical Facts, 1925)

"Suprematist" refers to the art movement in early Soviet Russia that succeeded cubist-futurism and was associated with constructivism.

don't read


Don't read this book Take --
paper. . . .fold
rods . . . .color
blocks of wood . . . .build

In another zig-zag, we read the joke, but also receive a little summary of Lissitzky's artistic philosophy, one that was used at the Vitebsk institute and independently at the same time at the Bauhaus. It is more than Montessori: it is the leap from passive reading to active construction, from the two-dimensional paper world to the three- and four-dimensional real world.

2 squares arrive

Introducing Two Squares: Here are two squares

Below the red and black squares are the text in modern sans serif type, angled. The black square sits parallel with the margins, and the consonant "T" seems to be standing still. In contrast, the red square is tilted dynamically, and the letter "A" is emphasized and repeated, smaller each time. Lissitzky: "The pattern of speech becomes increasingly concise, the gesture sharply imprinted. It is the same for typography."

landing on earth

Flying from far away: From far away, flying towards the Earth

The red and black squares, both tilted and close together, seem to approach the Earth, which is represented by a large red circle, with some abstract constructions rising from its upper circumference.

Beneath, the type has an angled "flying" and "toward earth," and a horizontal "from far away." At the bottom right, the single vowel sound "and" points to the next page in time.

squares see 
black mess

And they see a black mess:  see black Chaos

The black and white picture is of miscellaneous blocks and rectangular or angled objects, all rendered without a unifying perspective or projection, so they seem to be floating in a gravityless space. It is chaotic, and also disturbing, because the eye can't organize the scene logically with light and shadowed areas, front to back, or in any other human order.

The text beneath is again in sharp contrast to the picture. It has become almost telegraphic, with emphasized percussive consonants, and the words "black" and "alarming" set perpendicular to the angle of the blocks.

crash and scatter

They crash and scatter everything: crash -- all scattered

The sharp corner of the red square falls down on the black and white worldly objects and scatters them. The impact seems already to have produced some sort of order, as the objects somehow are grouped by size and shape. A gray square provides a stable background to sharpen the impact.
The text beneath has the angled word "crash," with the consonant enlarged, and the word "scattered" set horizontal and some distance away.

red square organizes settlement

And red organizes a settlement on the black square: and on the Black was established Red Clearly

Here the large black square is a solid but moving base for the reassembled objects, which now are red and white, and organized like skyscrapers in a city. In the middle heights is a small black triangle pointing up.
The text below is stable and horizontal. The phrase "red(ly) and clear(ly)" in Russian, "krasno yasno," shares a suffix, joined in common to both words by two lines. This typographical device is repeated from earlier pages, emphasizing the way Lissitzky is able to transmute words and pictures. The consonants express sharp, energetic sounds, according to Railing. Again the words and images are congruent; Lissitzky's treatment of the letters brings out the sound quality embodied in the words while relating them to the figure.

end and keep going

Here it ends. . .and keeps going: Thus it ends -- further

The black square, now smaller, departs the black circle, with its colony of red-white objects. The larger red square seems to be floating above the Earth here. In the background is a series of cosmic arcs or circle segments, expressed as varying densities of a gray wash.

The text is now tiny. Starting with an angled "here" at the left, it has a horizontal "it ended" and, far to the right, an angled "more" beneath a longer angled line. Railing comments that Lissitzky must have carefully placed the words dynamically on the page after, and as part of, his suprematist construction. The world will not die, but a revolutionary fourth-dimensional change will energize it continually through infinities of time and space. (Well, perhaps Lissitzky communicated this more economically and artistically!)


Colophon: UNOVIS, constructed 1920, vitebsk

A red square inside a thin black line and circle stand for the art institute UNOVIS. Below, the words indicate that Lissitzky made this project two years before this publication.


Copyright Page: On the reverse of the colophon, verso, is the text in Russian, "assembled by the author for Sythian Press, Berlin, printed in Leipzig by Haberland Printers. 50 copies of this edition autographed and numbered." Below is the same information we supply at the head of this page.

End paper is black (not shown)

back cover art

Back Cover: The back cover art shows a quiet but energetic arrangement of three objects. A small black circle at the left is balanced by a large, long gray rectangle at the right, which in turn is shadowed and stabilized by a smaller black rectangle behind.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Carpe Carpo: The Culture of Carp Photography

The Miracles of the Internet. So yesterday I posted something about carp photography and a brilliant picture of a man holding a carp underwater (which was on the cover of a magazine that I saw in Morrisons).

I put it on Facebook and next thing you know Steven Phillips  has sent me the picture and named the man in the picture. It's  Lee Merritt.

Then Klaus Pichler sent me a link to the Carponizer Carp Calendar.

placeholder title

This erotic carp calendar is a real thing you can buy

The top picture is from this year's edition and the woman is clearly holding the carp more convincingly than in earlier editions.

Steven Philips also sent a picture of himself holding a carp - but, as he admitted himself, he has some way to go. Technique matters, even in Carp Photography. Which is really interesting and perhaps one of the best examples of Failure in Photography I have seen.

Next, Karl Raven pointed out the prevalence of men holding fish (including carp) on dating sites like Tineder.

And linked in to an article in the Guardian, Best fish for hook ups. which found that in the US:

'A recent study in Florida by angling app Fishbrain (“where fishing gets personal”) revealed that more than a fifth of men aged between 18 and 35 are holding a fish in their Tinder profile picture.'

Forget the Lizard Brain, go back a bit further and it's the fishbrain that matters.

Hester Keijser posted this and Sophie Boursat tells us that in Japan  'the good fortune power attributed to carps and the  phallus, is congruent to a happy sexual life.'

The octopus meanwhile is a sybol of prosperity.

Ania Nalecka linked to this book, Fishing with John


Here's part of the statement, which I'm not entirely convinced by, but maybe the whole book is needed for that.

'Zamojski makes conscious use of the power of the word ‘research’ in the contemporary world and plays with the freedom we attain as a result of observing the outwardly rigorous rules of academe. He perversely mocks political correctness and he involves world authorities in his meta-story.'


Carp Photogram by Ivars Gravlejs

And here's Kenneth Josephstone (thank you Stefan Vanthuyne) 

And some thoughts (also via Stephan) on fishing from Stephen Shore,and  his statement in the original Uncommon Places book (1982): 

'The trout streams where I flyfish are cold and clear and rich in the minerals that promote the growth of stream life. As I wade a stream I think wordlessly of where to cast the fly. Sometimes a difference of inches is the difference between catching a fish and not. When the fly I've cast is on the water my attention is riveted to it. I've found through experience that whenever--or so it seems--my attention wanders or I look away then surely a fish will rise to the fly and I will be too late setting the hook. I watch the fly calmly and attentively so that when the fish strikes--I strike. Then the line tightens, the playing of the fish begins, and time stands still. Fishing, like photography, is an art that calls forth intelligence, concentration, and delicacy.'

Also from Stefan - see below.

And if you haven't got enough fish in the picture, throw another one in for good luck by Alex Bochetto

And Snow Carp from Alejandro Acin

More carp here courtesy of pethelpful.com and  Simon Anstey. Did you know that a carp is the most expensive fish ever sold! 


Here's Fish Story by Allan Sekula 

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Fish Photography v My Kind of Photography

So Photobook Bristol is coming up and it costs £85 for the weekend, and it will be a sell out. There were some cheaper options but still, once you throw in transport, food, drinks and accomodation, it's not cheap.

We were wondering how you could do it cheaper. We have minimal sponsorship (nothing in four figures) and so 90% of the funding comes from ticket sales. We figured that if we did have major sponsorship, then we could reduce ticket costs. It doesn't always work that way; Photo London or Paris Photo get major funding, but they still charge an arm and a leg for people to get in to see a commercial sales room of people hoping to sell you stuff.

But if we did get funding, what exactly would be the point of reducing ticket costs. I don't think Photobook Bristol would get much of a bigger audience. We'd get some more photography students for sure, but not too many because even if the tickets were free, there is still transport, accomodation and food to factor in. But we could pay the speakers at least - that would be good.

There is the idea that pricing is a barrier to participation, but I'm not too sure about that. The Photobook world is a pretty niche world, and the pricing of events is not going to change that. It's fanciful to think otherwise. And possibly a little bit arrogant.

This is because it is such an expensive hobby. Forget the price of Photobook Bristol or Photo London, look at how much cameras cost, at how much imaging software costs, at the ranks of Macbooks on display. It is an incredibly expensive thing to get involved with - expensive in a way that it wasn't some years ago. And actually the photography world, in the sense that it is written about on this blog or in publications like Foam, the BJP, Aperture is a pretty niche place as well. Niche and vastly expensive.

I don't think any amount of proselytising is going to change that. Photography is hugely important in the world at large, and it's social, functional and, to borrow a phrase, useful. I can't see any reason why that should change. In fact, perhaps we could learn something from the direct, representational pleasures of evidential photography.

A case in point is the neighbour of mine who is a carp fisherman. He drives across the country at night to fish for giant carp. And when he catches them he takes pictures of them. He's got an album full of pictures of him at night holding giant carp. He showed it to me. It was great. You flick from one page to the next in a fish-smitten awe (I do like fish - I dream about them a lot), making insightful observations like "Look at the size of that one" and "How did you pull that one in?"

The day after I saw this album, I was in the local supermarket looking at the magazine shelves. There was not one publication (not even one of the imaging or kit-based publications) on photography. But there were three magazines on carp fishing. They all had pictures on the cover of blokes in waders holding massive pictures of carp. One of they even had a guy holding his giant carp underwater; I was seriously bowled over by that one.

So the upshot of that is on one level, fish photography is way more important that all the nonsense that I drone on about on this blog. And if it's not far more important, it's far bigger. More people make it, more people look at it, more people enjoy it. That last one matters.

I don't really believe that for a second. But I wonder why we think are meta-photographic world is more important. Imagine if it was applied to my poor neighbour and his album of carp pictures. He'd end up with archive images of people holding carp, algorithmic representations of carp, carp rendered as graphs, carp blanked out, they'd be pretend species of carp, stories about fictional explorers who died trying to catch mythical carp, they'd be stream of consciousness carp that would be all blurry and mad, carp folded into daft shapes, carp lit with streams of pink and blue, origami carp, accidental carp, photobook carp with fold-out maps and a poster to stick on the wall, or large format carp put into grids, each with a horrifying story to tell.

But if this happened I wonder if it wouldn't actually be exactly the same effect as the original man-holding-bloody-big-carp album. Except instead of wondering at the size of the carp, we'd be cooing at the coolness of the colours, the smartness of the folds, the ingenuity of the white out. It's exactly the same.

We value our kind of photography more because that's the hierarchy of taste we like to uphold and we like to think it is on a more ethereal level, but really, a carp is a carp is a carp is a carp. And a photograph of a carp is a photograph of a carp, no matter how much you bend it, blank it, or blend it.

Carpe Diem!

NB The joy of this blog is I can write things without thinking about them too much and I don't don't necessarily have to agree with what I've written. This might be one of those times. 

Friday, 20 May 2016

Grayson Perry and the Art of the Obvious

So where do you get your ideas from? can be an awkward question for some artists.

But not for Grayson Perry. I saw his Vanity of Small Differences tapestries earlier this year and the link to Hogarth was put out there for all the world to see. He's very transparent on where his images come from and they really are quite wonderful when transposed onto a 10 foot length of textile. The ideas are direct and actually very obvious, but Perry shows that the obvious is a great subject for making powerful and moving art that is both personal and political.

That obviousness was especially apparent in All Man, a series of programmes in which Perry met with cage fighters, disaffected young men, and bankers - and created art based on the masculinities he encountered; their hopes, their insecurities, their emotions, their fears. Most of the bankers didn't like that but the reactions of some of the other men in the series was really quite touching and revealing.

The first episode, on fighters, was especially touching because it went beyond the cliches to look at the loss of working class male identities and the depression and suicide that follow. There was a directness and an honesty and a tenderness to Perry's approach and this resulted in some touching introspection both by Perry and the people he talked to.

The end result of each episode was a pair of artworks - two-dimensional, one three-dimensional, with the most touching being those from the first episode; a Perry version of the union banners (which Perry described as one of the great forms of folk art) carried at the Durham Miners Gala, and a pot

that featured a picture of Daniel, a young man who'd killed himself out of the blue at the age of 30. The picture was of a tattoo one of Daniel's friends made after his death. There was a deep sadness here, of a man who had died because of his maleness, because of his silence, because of his inability to cope with being a man in a place where being a man has lost its roots in home, family and especially labour.

So where does Grayson Perry get his ideas from? From the people that he meets, from the world that he sees, and from a deep emotional intelligence that goes beyond face value and always looks for an added dimension.

Read a review of episode one here.

See all the episodes here, if you're in the UK.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Neat, Tidy and Organised? Dig a little deeper and you will find a wreck of a being!

I was sitting on the side of Solsbury Hill the other day looking back at the west side of Woolley Valley. There was Larkhall Athletic Football Club, the allotments, the farm with the alpacas, the rec, the field going up to the worst pub in Bath, all divided by fences and gates and roads.

And all those divisions reminded me of Mishka Henner's Feedlots, which I'd written about for the current edition of Foam Magazine. Here again, there are the divisions of land; the fences, the gates and pens control the landscape.

It's marking season in British universities so that took me back to essays I'd read on farming, and how the English landscape was shaped by the agricultural revolution of the 18th century, the enclosures act and the apparent taming of the landscape. As this happened so we went from having a mindset that is part of the land, is even subservient to the land, to one where we tower over the land. It is something expendable, to be consumed and exploited in the name of economic growth and the wealth of the nation. That's the mindset we still have now. In the UK at least.

And it occurred to me that what is interesting about Henner's Feedlots are the places where the control of the landscape, where the grid system through which we see the land (and just about everything) falls apart. They reveal the essential instability of that grid. Behind those ordered line, everything is literally being turned into a toxic wasteland. We are destroying the land, the life that lives with it, and ourselves through a psychotic imposition of imaginary systems of control. Just because we put perpendicular lines running across the land doesn't mean we understand it, or care for it, or are not destroying it. Those ordered lines are rather symbols of our destruction, our stupidity and the contempt in which we hold the land. They are symbols of a rationality that is both arrogant and ignorant in equal measure.

I think Bruce Connew's new book, Body of Work, fits into this category of revealing what lies outside the grid. I don't like the cover, but that aside it's a quite special book that touches an emotional spot that very few other books on farming or livestock will visit.

In the case of Body of Work the grid is made of the  pens in which stallions and mares are coupled in thoroughbred racehorse breeding (I think they are racehorses - they look like it). And the instability comes through the coupling of the horses, through the fluids and the movement of these horses, through the dark eyes of the mare, through the dark recesses of their horse hair coats.

Body of Work is a book that shows the process of a stallion impregnating a mare. It's a controlled event and, if you know anything about horseracing and thoroughbreds, then it is quite a destructive one. It's also incredibly controlled. There's are the interiors of the stable at the stud where the 'cover' takes place, the bits, the reins, the halter, the shoes and the hands that guide everything into its correct location, all set against the erect horse penises, vaginas, streams of horse piss, and torrents of water, mucus and sweat.

It's a physical book then, and the message it sends is emotional, and really quite a dark commentary on the failings of, by extension, our treatment of livestock, of the land, of the way we distance ourselves from the world we are part of. With its emphasis on the physical and the soulful, it stands against the systems of control it sees these matings take place in. It's a sad book, a judgemental book that use the near black tones of the horses' flesh, and the highlight dashes in the mare's eyes to make a case for something better.

With its inclusion of what lies beyond the frame, you could also see it as a critique as the way in which we see the world. That might be stretching it, but what is a blog for if not stretching it. So Body of Work is about our whole method of organisation and categorisation and keeping things neat and tidy. The idea here is that look outside that ordered box and chaos reigns. There is chaos beneath our ordered landscapes, there is chaos beneath our ordered houses, there is chaos beneath our ordered minds. We can keep it at bay for a little while, but this is a self deception: one day we will wake up to find ourselves smothered by the sea of madness that our little lines and squares can't keep at bay.

See and Buy Body of Work Here

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

They Complain, And Complain And Complain...

It's great at the moment. Everyone is having a go at the institutions of art, photography and literature. There's a whole bunch of complaining going on at the moment.

You have

Philip-Lorca diCorcia Article in ArtForum

'Artists hardly even qualify as whores. Contemporary art is a cock ring on a giant erection pumped up by capitalism and keeping the masters of that game from cumming. I think they like it. I think the artists like it, too. They get to pretend to be profound. Some are. Most are hemorrhoids waiting to happen. The blood that pumps it all up is money. Green blood.

'Who has a problem with that? We all want some of it. Just please don’t take it seriously. No, actually, do take it seriously. If you did, I would be impoverished, and maybe my life would have been worth more.'

Which is great. He does hedge his bets a little bit in there. It would be interesting if he started laying into some of the people who collect his work, but alas, that would be going too far. The sentiment he expresses is enjoyable though.

 in the same way, Jessie Crispin isn't going to cost herself her living when she describes the Paris Review as boring in the Guardian.

'It’s not that she doesn’t understand these writers’ reasoning. “Everything is so precarious, and none of us can get the work and the attention or the time that we need, and so we all have to be in job-interview mode all of the time, just in case somebody wants to hire us,” Crispin added. “So we’re not allowed to say, ‘The Paris Review is boring as fuck!’ Because what if the Paris Review is just about to call us?” The freedom from such questions is something Crispin personally cherishes.'

Teju Cole started the latest Steve McCurry hatefest. in the New York Times It's not a tricky target though.

'In McCurry’s portraits, the subject looks directly at the camera, wide-eyed and usually marked by some peculiar­ity, like pale irises, face paint or a snake around the neck. And when he shoots a wider scene, the result feels like a certain ideal of photography: the rule of thirds, a neat counterpoise of foreground and background and an obvious point of primary interest, placed just so. Here’s an old-timer with a dyed beard. Here’s a doe-eyed child in a head scarf. The pictures are staged or shot to look as if they were. They are astonishingly boring.

And then McCurry  (or one of his interns was or somebody) was caught doing bad Photoshop and so people leapt to his defence in various places including in Time
'In the criticisms of McCurry, there were a lot of loaded words like ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ being thrown around. I don’t really believe in these words. I’ve never met two people with the same truth, nor seen true objectivity ever demonstrably applied to anything. They are nice words, but remain aspirational and cloud a more nuanced interpretation of reality and history. We shouldn’t mistake something factual for something truthful, and we should always question which facts are employed, and how.'

Which is nice enough, but McCurry's exoticism has a market and it is not too far off that of the travel brochure and I'm not sure where truth or objectivity comes into it anyway.

It's interesting to see where all these complaints appeared - in Time, in ArtForum, in the New York Times, in the Guardian even. If you think in a particular way, these publications are the vanguard of Conservatism dressed up with liberal credentials.

Basically photography is the sugar that sweetens the bitter flavour that these essentially conservative publications might otherwise provoke. Even The Guardian fits into this category, despite its outwardly liberal status.

Here's a snippet of Chomsky on the liberal press from this interview with a very young Andrew Marr: “Well I would call the press relatively liberal. Here I agree with the right wing critics. So especially The New York Times and The Washington Post, which are called, without a trace of irony, The New York Times is called the ‘establishment left,’ in say, major foreign policy journals. And that’s correct, but what’s not recognised is that the role of the liberal intellectual establishment is to set very sharp bounds on how far you can go. This far, and no further.

There's white-washing, there's green-washing, there's blue washing, there's also arts-washing. the use of the arts and photography to gloss over your essential establishment credentials.

So maybe as well as questioning the art markets, and the 'ethics' of representation and image manipulation, we should also question the publications our work appears in. But that's difficult and besides which Brecht and Kracauer were doing that 80 years ago so it's a bit to much of a repeat of history.

And whilst we're at it, we could question the educational establishments we work for. Just don't do it too closely or again, we might hex things. Yes, let's move on from that. It's too close for comfort. Missile anyone? And don't even mention the f- word.

None of this complaining makes any differenc. It's self-contained in an insulated little critical space. Apart from the pure trading nature of social photography, pretty much all photography is compromised by its galleries, its publications, its institutions, and its lickspittling to the wealthy and the powerful, or simply serving the market by being part of the market. Most photographers are so poor that one sniff of cash and they will twist their principles up into a little knot that they can stick up their backside and sit on until such time as it is safe for it to come out.

Complaining about matters, or pointing the finger when that complaining or that pointing comes at no cost to you, is very easy. It's a kind of photographic institution. We all love doing it. It's a bad habit, like picking your nose or scratching your arse. But it doesn't really do anything except make you wan to scratch some more.

So rather than complain about things beyond our control, why not do something useful or productive or create something different that lies outside those institutions we all like to complain about. Which makes those institutions rather irrelevant.

I wonder if that isn't happening already. I've been interviewing people for a feature on workshops and education and you can feel people committed to creating something out of nothing, filling places where once there was nothing with communities of photographers, designers, artists. And these people are linking up and supporting each other and creating new outlets for ideas and work, and new networks of support. These communities (schools, galleries, publishers, workshops, networks) aren't really financially viable, and the directions they are going in are uncertain, but you can feel the energy and you can see the results. .

So there's something that's more constructive than moaning. But if you do moan, at least do it with a little bit of spark. Like Philip Lorca di-Corcia. Two thumbs up!

Monday, 16 May 2016

Clavarino's Castle and the Essential Paranoia of The Grid

The Castle by Federico Clavarino is a smart book that is a visual overview of the state of play in contemporary Europe that is told with layers of inscrutability, double-dealing and paranoia added. It's about the heritage of the institutions and thought processes that rule the continent, and how that manifests itself both physically and psychologically.

The idea of Europe shapes and fuels the history of a considerable part of our planet, starting from ancient Greece and the Roman Empire on to the great colonial powers of the last few centuries. The aim of this series of photographs is to follow the traces these ideas have left upon the surface of things and people in post-WW2 Europe, as well as on the walls of its cities, in the galleries of the museums in which its history is conserved, and on the barriers that are raised to define and defend the borders of its territories

So as you go through the book, you'll see those references; to Greek thought, to Roman power, and then beyond to the Holocaust, to conflict, to division, to a state of exclusion and the creation of a place that, like Kafka's Castle, is impenetrable and impermeable. 

It's divided into chapters which, according to the statement, have the following meaning. 

The Castle is a building made with images and it consists of four parts. Its first chapter, “The Dead”, refers to its modern founding myth: the events that led to the contemporary European order. Chapter two, “The Organising Principles”, deals with the ideas of power and authority that are at the basis of European societies. Chapter three, “The Castle”, explores the resulting building by evidencing its elements of separation and control. Finally, the fourth and last chapter, “At Twilight”, is at the same time a prophecy and an exhortation.

I think that is over-complicating and distancing things and that the last chapter in particular is not as clear as it could be. Because for a book that is so heavily abstract and based on symbols and signs, The Castle is  a direct and transparent book. The thing that comes across most is the referencing of  Kafka's  novel, The Castle; the story of K., a man struggling to get permission from the Castle to authorise him to live and work in the village which the Castle has summoned him to survey. The Castle is all-seeing, all-knowing place that nobody from the village has ever been into. It's distant and it's imprenetrable, it's amorphous. Most of all it has a low-level malevolence, a low hum of suspicion to all those outside it that renders K. both paranoid and helpless, 

So we see borders, barriers and fences throughout the book. There is a sense of blockage that mirrors the defensive architecture both  of Europe's urban centres and its outlying edges. There are symbols of surveillance, of somebody, something seeing but not being seen, and this is compounded by the constant layering of images throughout the book. They hint of someone looking out but at the same time trapped.

Unfurled rolls of paper point to bureaucracy and suited figures at the bureaucrats who run it. There are crossed arms that constitute more blockages; there is no entry to the Castle here and if you didn't know it the grilles, the security, the earphones and the repeated images of the architecture of power and exclusion will say it again for you. The world of Clavarino's Castle is, like the Kafka version, an unwelcoming, paranoid place.

It is the recreation of that paranois that makes Clavarino's book so special. In that sense, The Castle follows on from Italia O Italia in using the essentially hostility of grid-based architecture (and mapping) to express fear and control. It layers its story through repeated connected symbolism. So it's a book of signs. But it's a very direct book of signs. It has something to say, and it says it very well. 

Buy the Book Here.

Read Gabriela Cendoya's Review Here

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

It's Wrong and It's Bad

Hans Bellmer: Wrong and Good

My not-very-alter-ego wrote this on the Photobook Bristol Blog yesterday in reference to photobooks and what can go wrong. It's actually quite a short list, but here goes.

You get books where the cover is wrong, where the title is wrong, where the typeface is wrong, where the text is wrong, where the edit is wrong, where the paper is wrong, where the pictures are wrong, where the story is wrong or there is no story. You even get books where everything is right and then you come to the last picture – and they’ve saved it to the last possible moment to make a mess of it all. Goddamn it, the last picture is wrong.

The idea of photobooks being wrong did touch a nerve, with many people expressing the idea that it's not a matter of wrongness, but a matter of subjectivity. It all depends on what you like or you dislike, it's all a matter of taste.

Maybe so, and in certain circumstances (in education, child-rearing, while hostage negotiating) the word wrong might be the, er, wrong word.

When I do book reviews on this blog, I don't use the word wrong or bad. The reviews are gentle and understanding and try to ascertain what the photographer is trying to do.

Perhaps the reviews are too gentle. Because of course there are books that are wrong. Of course there are books that are bad. Everybody who has gone through the process of making a really good book knows that. They have been there. I have been there.

Sometimes you don't know what is wrong about your book because you're learning how to make it, how to communicate it. So the wrongness is based on ignorance. Just because you are not aware that it's wrong doesn't mean it's not wrong. Learning how to make a book is a process and mistakes are something you need to go through along the way. That, as was mentioned yesterday, is why people like Kazuma Obara, go through 16 dummies before getting at the most effective one.

Chairman Mao: Wrong and Bad

This doesn't mean there is such a thing as a perfect book, or an ideal book. There are an infinite number of possibiliteies of possibilities for a book and there is no absolute right one. There are many more wrong ones and generally they come about because people are taking short cuts, being lazy, are unaware of the errors of their ways, or are judging themself by standards lower than those with which they judge others. 

I have done all of those things, everyone I know has done all of those things - including the people who make really great books (or really-good anything else for that matter). Innoculating myself against my essential laziness and self indulgence is part of the process of actually getting round to making something really good. I hope to get there soon.

Dentists: Right and Bad

Anyway, enough of books, what about food. I remember making a Steak and Guinness pie when I was living in Queens Court in Bristol. It was the first time I'd ever made one and I did it without a recipe. I got the idea that the more Guiness you had the better it would be, so I added a couple of cans and then reduced it to a thick sauce.

I still remember that pie. I didn't eat much of it but I remember the taste.

And this year, just a few months ago, my wife made a dessert for us. It was a chocolate and avocado mousse (chocolate and avocado is a thing). She didn't tell us about the avocados though. We thought it was a chocolate mousse.

We still remember that mousse. We didn't eat much of it but we remember the taste.

Freudian Slippers: Right and Good

Like the Steak and Guinness Pie, it was wrong. And it was bad. And we should embrace that wrongness and that badness so that we never make the same mistakes again.

So perhaps in describing the original paragraph should be rephrased. Perhaps it was too gentle. I think this reads better:

You get books where the cover is wrong and bad, where the title is wrong and bad, where the typeface is wrong and bad, where the text is wrong and bad, where the edit is wrong and bad, where the paper is wrong and bad, where the pictures are wrong and bad, where the story is wrong and bad or there is no story. You even get books where everything is right and then you come to the last picture – and they’ve saved it to the last possible moment to make a mess of it all. Goddamn it, the last picture is wrong and bad.