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Thursday, 14 December 2017

The Blog is 10 years old today

It's the tenth anniversary of my blog today, so to commemorate the occasion, here are some of my favourite posts from the last ten years.

Most viewed post: Dogs playing poker. Which says it all really.

Best video/best goal/best day: Oh this is simply wonderful by Mishka Henner. It is his tribute to his father on the day Manchester City won the Premier League in the final minutes of the season. Sadly, Henner's father died earlier this year so it serves as a kind of memorial which makes it both sad and beautiful.

Best Post: This interview with Sohrab Hura was fascinating in its own right, but inadvertently led to an outporing of hatred connected to sexual harrassment of one low-rent nobody in particular. Nice.

Best Post where Photography cuts through lies and empty rhetoric: This one on the horrific pictures of the Hillsborough Disaster.

Best Post on Photographic Taste: I'm a terrible snob in photography. Snobbery is everywhere in photography. This post will help you navigate through the taste culture of photography and explain why people pretend to like stuff when obviously they don't. It doesn't explain when people don't understand their avowed preferences and how those connect to the overall hierarchies of taste. But that's a different matter.

Best Post on Tory Cumfaces: Why did this ever stop?

Best Post I could repeat every day: It's this one to do with the drek of photographic musak. That's a good title too. 

Best Blog Post Title: I don't know if it is the best title but it's to do with Trump and  it's certainly the truest. It also gives me the opportunity to show him burning in the fire down below. Small is not always beautiful.

Best Movie: Om Shanti Om.  It's obviously not the best movie I have seen in the last 10 years, but it was a gateway drug for my wife. After seeing this she went on a three year Hindi Cinema binge, of which I partook gladly.

Best Documentaries: Let's have the Act of Killing for going in directly for something incredibly difficult and dangerous while ticking off all the Modes of Documentary. It's still brilliant and chilling however many times I watch it. And OJ: Made in America for its use of photography and its functions.

Best Crime Post: This was where the daughter of the man who took the Myra Hindley mugshot told the story of the picture.

But Photography, Amanda Knox and the Seven Deadly Narratives of Women Criminals was also good.

      image by Timothy Archibald

Best Projects: Tony Fouhse's Live Through This and Timothy Archibald's Echolilia have always stuck with me in a very big way.

Best Exhibition: I have not had as much fun at any exhibition as I did at Banksy's Dismaland. For a few weeks it transformed Weston-Super-Mare, it gave hope to Weston-Super-Mare. The visitors were a huge mix of everyone and it was piss-your-pants funny thanks to an incredible crew of deadpan fairground helps. Just brilliant.

                             Stacy Kranitz

Best Interview: There could be so many more but I'm going to go for Stacy Kranitz for the reasons stated here.

Best Sequence is not Narrative Post: Well it's not is it. This is the post.

Best Reviews: Lewis Bush's Haiku Critic. I hope he starts it up again. Bush shows that 15 syllables can do the job. This is him on Wolfgang Tillmans' Tate Modern Show this year.

It all means something,

Then it also means nothing.

Pastel nihilism.

Best Post that Exemplifies the Stupidity of How we Read Images: This one on a couple of pictures from Beirut and 911. And this is how we all read images most of the time. I've seen it in myself and I've seen it directly with others.

Best Projects that address that stupidity: Zun Lee's Father Figure and Joshua Rashaad McFadden's Come to Selfhood address the representation of the black male by showing something just a little bit different to the barage of imbalanced images that bombard us from all sides. 

Best Fucked-Up Pictures: My Broken Camera Pictures of course. The link is to another list but it's a good one and there are some Broken Camera Pictures in there somewhere.

Best books: These books by Charlotte Delbo and Primo LeviIf you haven't read these books, you should.

Best Talk: For the reasons mentioned in this post, it has to be Lina Hashim in conversation with Amak Mahmoodian. There were only 18 people there on a cold and rainy wintry night, but sometimes number don't matter and sheer class and the real deal shows.

Best Polaroids: Juliana Beasley's Lapdancer Polaroids. These should have a wall to themself somewhere. Or a book at least please.

Best Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is Photographic Protest: Jill Greenberg and her take on John ("I called my wife a cunt in front of reporters") McCain.

Best Stupid Collage: Four Icons in One Image. I'm half-convincing myself that this is a work of genius. But it's not. Even. Close. But then nor is most photography-collage. Or writing on prints. Which makes this good. It's a work of genius. That was easy.

    from L'Amoureuse by Anne de Gelas

Best photobooks: Ivars Gravlejs, Amak Mahmoodian, Anne de Gelas, Ignacio Navas and  Vincent Ferrane are the authors. You'll find the books here.

Best Photobook Festival: Gazebook. It's by the beach, it's in Sicily, it's in the Open Air. It's fabulous. The open air is a clue to why it's so good. That and the fact that you're not stuck in your chair listening to talking heads all the time. In fact you don't have to listen. So there's that. And there's the town. And the food. And the drink. And the beach. It's a pleasure.

   image by Lewis Bush

Best Campaign for a Photobook Festival: This one for the first Gazebook, Gazebook 2015. That was good.

Best Photobook Festival Song; The one that Mik Artistik sang at Photobook Bristol 2015. Brilliant. Oh, and the best dancers. They're in the picture.

Best Photography Event:  Three Days in Tharoul. So you end up in a small town in rural Belgium with the lovely Philippe Malcorps hosting. There is a wine cellar with fine wine and Belgian beer (Rochefort and Orval), there's Fabrice Wagner cooking dinner, there is a fire and Pierre Liebaert is playing medieval choral music, there is Philippe playing a hurdy gurdy, Paul Gaffney's taking photographs, I'm writing the text and then Pierre makes a book of it all. In three days. Simply wonderful.

Best Photography Festival Muse: Alex Bochetto above or is it Mathieu Asselin below or maybe Rocco Venezia even more below.

Best Fox: This one, shown at the top.

Best Thing to Happen to me in Photography: Alex, All Quiet and ICVL.

Best Photography Misapprehension: Photography is a kind of social work.

Best 3D dinosaur: Don't even think about not clicking on this if you haven't seen it.

Best Beach: Rhossili, thank you very much. That's where the fox is.

Best Photograph-judging app: This one.

Best Worst-of Best-of Photobook list: This one where family, friends and students condescend all over my favourite books.

Best Photobook List: This one by Blake Andrews remains pretty spot-on.

Best Best-List: The one for 2016 was pretty good. Any best-of list that has a worst shave must be hard to beat!

And thank you everybody who has contributed to this blog in some way, shape or form over the last 10 years, thank you to everybody who has read it, or commented or engaged with it in some way.

Here's to the next 10 years. Or next year at least. I'll be having a break for now, but when I come back I'll continue the same random mix as ever.

Remember. The moral of this blog is that I haven't got a clue what's going on. And nor has anybody else. And if they say they have, well they must be jolly clever. Or delusional. And that's a fact!

Happy Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year!

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Fear, Photography and ICVL

In Politicians want us to be fearful, John Bargh talks about how fear is used as a tool of control. It helps creates social, economic, racial and sexual injustice, both at a conscious and an unconscious level.

Bargh talks about how effective this unconscious communication is, that it infests our lives through images and ideas in popular culture and beyond. He talks about racism in US TV shows and how it is unconsciously manifested in even supposedly liberal broadcasts, and he talks about how gender bias is slammed on us from every corner. He talks about how the dominant culture message can overcome the personal message using an example of Asian-American girls who are convinced they can't do maths because they are girls.

“These Asian-American girls are not hearing at home that girls can’t do maths,” Bargh points out. “These are Harvard preschool kids; the parents are, like, tiger mums and dads. A lot of them brought the children into the study thinking that being in this Harvard study at age five would help their girl get into Harvard at age 18: that’s how motivated they are. They’re not the ones who are telling the girls they can’t do maths. It’s in the culture we soak up, without even knowing it.”

A lot of this negative bias comes from visual culture. You can see it everywhere from your toyshop to the children's department store, to the avatars selected for online games. It is absolutely all around us. I think we need to be aware of exactly how culture works, how images operate, and how they affect us at that subliminal level. We need to be our own adbusters in other words.

People in photography sometimes have the conceit that we are not affected by images, that we are immune to their persuasion. I think this is one of the most visually illiterate and most dangerous conceits that we can have.

I remember seeing Joachim Schmidt talk once and he had this great tagline that he's not going to make any more images until all the old ones are used up. I think there's something to be said for that in visual literacy. Until we start understanding the fundamentals of how images really work, on a basic everyday, functional level (which is not the same as the synthetic gallery/book/critical level), maybe we should ease up on creating a new languages. The danger being that you end up like Robert Capa, speaking lots of languages, all of them badly.

The other thing the article mentioned is that

'Conservatives have larger fear centres of the brain. They’re more concerned with physical safety than liberals. Once we feel afraid, our own fear can further distort our perception of actual danger. For example, research has found that when people become new parents of a tiny, vulnerable baby, they begin to believe their local crime rate is going up, even if it is falling. “That happened to me,” Bargh admits. “After my daughter was born, suddenly we felt that the neighbourhood was getting so dangerous that we had to leave.”'

I can empathise with that idea. There's a section in my book All Quiet on the Home Front dealing with that. I saw death all around. First of all the domestic space became a source of danger, so much so that I dreamt about death. And then as your child's environment widens, the rest of the world becomes a source of danger; the supermarket, the park, the streets. And people become a danger.

So part of being a parent is managing that danger, both for yourself and for your child. It's a kind of slow exposure to danger - physical danger in the form of the natural world, but also the threats posed by the kind of negative bias that Bargh mentions above. Being a parent, to a girl in particular, is about making your child visually literate, making the institutionalised misogyny of the visual world apparent to them.

Linked to that is the issue of managing fear and understanding fear. The point Bargh makes about fear relates to a low level background hum of fear, an anxiety almost. Here in the UK, we live in an age of anxiety. That's what this millenium is, the Age of Anxiety. And it's numbing and soul destroying.

I have often wondered on this blog if photography doesn't live in a perpetual age of anxiety. There is a sense of fear in photography, and even when people like myself say we shouldn't live in fear, there seems to be an underlying tone that is judgemental and limiting.

The challenge is how to recognise that fear and make work without fear. There are all kinds of fear; fear of ridicule, fear of not being cool, fear of being called unethical, fear of being too emotional, fear of being scolded. The last one is a big one. Photography can be very scoldy.

Because of all these fears you have a state where people are afraid to make work, are limited in what they can  make. You can feel it all the time, you can see it all the time in people shifting away from their vision, their idea of what really matters to put themselves in line with the world-view of their photographer mentors and peers.

 My blog is 10 years old this week and I'll be doing a random best-of list later in the week, but there is one thing I will mention here instead because it connects and it fits better here.

                            Image from The Great Bazaar by Alejandro Acin

It's meeting Alejandro Acin,  publishing my book All Quiet on the Home Front and hanging out with the super-talented people connected to IC Visual Labs at their HQ and othe venues in Bristol. All Quiet on the Home Front is quite an emotional book (at Gazebook Sicily in September I had a group of Italian friends expressing disbelief that an Englishman with a German mother could make such a book) and in a strange way did require an overcoming of fear.

And that is what IC Visual Labs is all about. Every time I go there, I see people who are all being fearless in some way, and making fantastic work because of it. When they make their work, they simply don't care about what other people say and that is what makes their work so good. It's not easy. There is a huge amount of pressure on them to do things in a certain way, to limit the political or the personal or the emotional or the creative elements. But in that environment at IC Visual Labs, there is a certain freedom of creative thought and freedom of creative expression, and a pleasure in that freedom, that you do not get easily elsewhere. And that is why Mr Acin and everybody involved in IC Visual Labs, you're top of my 10 years of the blog best-of list, the rest of which is to come on Thursday.

Monday, 11 December 2017

We are all arsenic eaters

    all pictures by Simon Brugner

 A couple of years ago I met Simon Brugner at Vienna Photobook Festival. He was a super nice guy with a fascinating project on the arsenic eaters of Styria. People used to eat arsenic it was odd and it was interesting and the pictures created a world that meshed dreams with reality in a way that reminds me of Tito Mouraz's House of the Seven Women. There's class in there, there's magic, there's old ways, there's a dead horse and there's a stable boy. The attraction. It gives you a buzz and makes the blood flow in all the right places as the following quote from this piece in the Scientific American shows.

'The ratsbane (arsenic) eaters belong mostly to the lower classes, wood cleavers, stable grooms, charcoal burners, and wood warts. They fall into that habit at the early age of fifteen, and continue it until the ages of seventy and seventy-six. Although the female sex is not averse to it, the majority belongs to the male sex. They are generally strong and healthy persons, courageous, pugnacious, and of strong sexual dispositions. The reason of this habit is very probably atiributable to the fact of its apparent favorable action upon horses.'

Reality is not stable as Simon says, and the way that he looked both at that old arsenic-eating world and the present-day world was a reflection of that perspective. 

The lesson of the arsenic eaters is not that they are something old and alien, but that they should help us reflect on who the contemporary arsenic eaters are. And they are all around us. We are all arsenic eaters.

Simon is now planning to publish a book which will be released next year. You can pre-order a copy of the book and see more work, and more on the history of the arsenic eaters, here.

Why did people eat arsenic?

People ingested arsenic in order to overcome physical limitations: to be strong and healthy, to look rosy, to boost their sexual potency. It made them more competitive. This makes sense if you look at the broader context: eating arsenic was common until the early 20th century among the rural population in the eastern parts of the Alps. Living off the mountains meant to be subjected to physical hardship. People were self-supporters, they did not have much. But they could get their hands on arsenic, one of the strongest mineral poisons.

When did you find out about arsenic eaters? 

In the region I grew up, there is a myth of a special substance people used to take in order to become strong and ruthless. I started to investigate in it and quickly found out that this substance was arsenic. My grandmother told me that it was still around when she was a kid. And she called me crazy for wanting to investigate the matter. Eating arsenic was a taboo.

Do people still eat arsenic?

Not as I am aware of. It lost its market in a way. We live in a capitalistic world where people can get their hands on a lot of other things to improve themselves: all kinds of legal and illegal drugs. Eating arsenic does not make sense anymore.

When did you decide to make a story on arsenic eaters?

When I started researching the topic I kept on finding material connected to the use of arsenic: on historic mining, on superstition, on medicine and on pre 20th-century rural life in general. And I visited the remote, still accessible arsenic mines dating back all the way to the 14th century. I was fascinated by how this almost surreal story was literally still accessible. And by how much effort was made to dig those mines in order to get hands on arsenic.

I wanted to find out how this story is connected to our present existence. I wanted to find out in what kind of reality eating arsenic made sense.

Have you ever tried arsenic? Are you tempted?

I managed to get my hands on the actual historical product. Its lethal dose is said to be very small: 0.1–0.3 grams (it is said that you start with the dose the size of a wheat grain). And I think that the arsenics full effect comes from its chronic use. It’s an experiment I did not dare to undertake yet.

Why did you decide to make a book on arsenic eaters?

I am a photographer and work on a multi-layered story. I think a book is just the most natural form for that.

What is the contemporary relevance of arsenic eating?

Eating arsenic is not relevant anymore. But the fact that it even existed – and it existed until the 1950ies – is. What once was common is now unthinkable. Reality is not a stable concept.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Two Millionth Page View Today

It's the tenth anniversary of my blog this week and today will be the 2 millionth page view, so that's good timing. It's a failing I know, but I like the numbers even when they are not that big and not quite right.

So whoever you are, thank you. You're my 2 millionth page viewer. Yay!

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

10 years of the Blog: Best Movie

Ten years of the Blog and the Best Movie Award goes to Om Shanti Om. It's not the best movie I have seen in the last 10 years, but it was one of the most enjoyable, and with its themes of screaming injustice, reincarnation and the Bollywood film industry, it was a gateway drug for my wife. After seeing this she went on a three year Hindi Cinema binge, and I went along for the ride.

It was a trawl through the language of cinema, and the ways in which it mirrors the political imperatives of its time, from the social realist influences of 1950s cinema to the optimism of the 60s, the anger of the 70s and the mass consumption of the 80s.

It was a trawl through a world where you start off with a 1950s world of evil landlords and oppressed peasants and end up with a contemporary world turned upside down with evil peasants and oppressed landlords - which is when we kind of lost interest. It was also a lesson in how to fuse two completely opposing messages in one perfectly meshed form. Yes we're reactionary misogynists which is a bad thing, but we're modern reactionary misogynists and we give a big speech before doing what  the father demands so everything's OK then because being modern is good but being traditional is even better.

Most of all, however, it was a lesson in the discourse of entertainment, and how important pleasure is in cinema, and how pleasure can be used as a vehicle to convey social and political messages so much more effectively, and enjoyably, than the discourse of sobriety - the default mode for some corners of photography. But not all corners it needs to be said. It's also a lesson in how narrative works, how music and dance can act as a fulcrum for the plot to turn on, how emotion can be teased and shaped in the pursuit of viewing pleasure and the language of love.

That being said, watching 150 Bollywood films you learn some things (namely that once you get past that top 150, the pickings get slimmer and slimmer) , but most of all you learn what you do not know. I don't even know the language the films are made in, I have no idea of some of the deeper references to Indian culture, politics and religious thought, and I don't have that deep emotional connection to the people and places that you see in the films (though I did meet Amitabh Bachchan at Bangalore Racecourse).

In effect watching 150 Bollywood movies made me more ignorant than I was before. Here is a visual language that was alien to me before. But even after watching those movies I remain ignorant. I'm learning Italian on Duolingo (which is no way to learn). Duolingo tells me I'm 44% fluent. Well, har har, I'm not even 10% fluent. If there was a Duolingo for the history of Hindi Cinema I would probably have been about 50% fluent in Duolingo terms, maybe 12% in real life. But the real significance of those figures is the negative space. If I was 12% fluent in Bollywood, I was also 88% ignorant. And ignorant not just of those unreachable social and cultural significances, but also ignorant in the basic ways in which words, song, dance, cinematography and all the rest work together. But to be fair to me, I'm not alone in that, because very few people know exactly how all those things tie together. If they did, you wouldn't have such a thing as bad movies. And there's nothing quite like a bad Bollywood movie, not least because they are so fecking long. Two hours of bad movie is bad enough, 3 hours is awful especially with bad songs and bad dance to drill down the pain into your inner core.

In fact I sometimes wonder if we shouldn't all be defined by our ignorance, if people like me who pontificate and proclaim things should qualify all our statements with an, 'Actually, I am a huge chancer who may sound like he knows what he's talking about but actually doesn't. I'm profoundly ignorant. Bear that in mind when you read these thoughts.'

I think that would be good not just for having a bit of humbleness and admitting that our arrogance might be founded on some kind of psychological quicksand, but also as a way of encouraging others to be more forthcoming with their own opinions and thoughts. Basically I'm saying Don't worry about talking nonsense. We all talk nonsense. We all make it up as we go along.

Earlier in the year I saw Thresholds, the VR exhibition of the first photography exhibition. It got me thinking about new photographic and visual languages. Now I know something about skeuomorphism, about the limitations of MKS based interfaces, about frameless spaces, and reduced cognitive loads.

It's a fascinating world and one we will be living in in 20 or 30 years time. So I was wondering about this language and how we integrate it into our understanding of photography because there is this huge overlap that will only get bigger as time goes by. I was wondering why we don't have more of this language in our writing, in our teaching, in our making of work.

But then I thought about my understanding of not just Bollywood but any cinema. I thought of my understanding of photography. Photography is nearly 200 years old and we have no understanding whatsoever. This August Sander was on show at Paris Photo and it just held the wall it was featured on; a supremely powerful portrait of one man, Heinrich Hoerle, a painter who died in 1936.

And I wondered what is it about this picture that so held the wall. I can look to visual theoreticians, I can ask people involved at the top of facial recognition, but nobody has an answer. The facial recognition people I ask just laugh in my face and say we don't know that. They admit their ignorance. They can talk about fuzzy logic, and recognition learning, and memorability and algorithms. That is their world, but nothing that ties it in to the emotional heartbeat of images. That's a different territory. The answer isn't tied down to any single logical process. It's something far more complex than that. It's something very human, very emotional, that is lodged somewhere in the hearts of our beings. That's why Heinrich Hoerle sticks in our mind, that's why it is a wonderful portrait that has a soul and a heart and a being of its own. It's an emotional picture.

So learning that new VR language is fine, but it needs to be balanced with the fact that we actually don't know the languages that preceded it. It's like me deciding to learn Spanish  because I have already learnt a few words of Italian. Great, it's another language but it doesn't mean I have a clue about Italian. It just means there are now two languages I don't know. So now I'm more ignorant than ever. That's what photography is like. There is not one language to learn, there are multiple languages. And if we focus just on one aspect or one language, we end up more ignorant than ever. We should always remember that. We should recognise it.

So there are emotional languages and there are technical languages. And they meet in the most surprising places The point was brought home to me earlier in the week when I saw a fantastic documentary on the Voyager spaceship called The Farthest: Voyager's Interstellar Journey. This tells the story of what is essentially a photographic assignment; sending the Voyager spaceship out to take pictures of the Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. And it was beautiful. And the most beautiful thing was the passion of the people involved in the project, and the ways in which photography, science and the sheer novelty of seeing something so distant for the first time, in images made with such relatively primitive and simple equipment, was wonderful. It was poetic too. The image above shows a picture Carl Sagan had made, when Voyager was turned around and the lens turned on Planet Earth, that tiny little white dot in the upper band, photographed as Voyager made its way beyond Neptune to the outer reaches of the solar system. Science, emotion, poetry and pleasure. They do go together.

And that brought me back to Bollywood. The thing about Bollywood is it's the cinema of love, it's the cinema of emotion, it's the cinema of pleasure. In Om Shanti Om there is a sheer pleasure in seeing the absurd dance sequence in the Pain of Disco song Item Number being used as a fulcrum to lever the movie into full reincarnation mode. Watch Amar, Akbar, Anthony  and the pleasure of seeing Rishi Kapoor camping it up in a green pixie suit while telling his girlfriend he wants to see the ace beneath the veil a delight to behold.

And maybe that's the ultimate language of classic Bollywood. It's the language of emotion, of love, and of pleasure. That is a language that is universal and runs deep.

More pleasure, and less pain! More love and less hate. That's the lesson, there you have it.  And it might be a lesson for the more joyless borders of photography. Because pain and hate, boredome and sorrow gets you nowhere.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Best Photography Event: Three Days in Tharoul

It's the tenth anniversary of the blog, so to celebrate I'm doing a series of Best of Posts.

Well the best photography event of the last 10 years has to be Three Days in Tharoul. It's an event where you have three days to make a book.

You end up in a small town in rural Belgium with the lovely Philippe Malcorps hosting. There is a wine cellar with fine wine and Belgian beer (Rochefort and Orval), there's Fabrice Wagner cooking dinner, there is a fire and Pierre Liebaert is playing medieval choral music, there is Philippe playing a hurdy gurdy, Paul Gaffney's taking photographs, I'm writing the text and then Pierre makes a book of it all. In three days. Simply wonderful. It's beautiful, demanding and incredibly involving. If you are ever lucky enough to be invited, don't even think twice. Just go.

But how about the best photobook festival. Basically they're all good as far as I'm concerned, but Gazebook Sicily is by a beach, in Sicily, started on a budget by three wonderful people called Melissa Carnemolla, Simone Sapienza and Theresa Bellina. And it is free and lovely. A real joy.

Read more about the 2015 event here, the 2016 event here, and the 2017 event here.