Featured post

Contemporary Narratives - Photography: A Short Guide to History, Theory, and Practice: Online Course Starting April 27th 2022

  Sign up to my new series of talks on Contemporary Narratives - Photography: A Short Guide to History, Theory, and Practice .  Starts on Ap...

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Thank you 2018: Be Kind and Thoughtful 2019

I often wonder about the work of people like Bruce Gilden, Diane Arbus or a bunch of other people, the interplay between who they are, how they make their work, how they frame their work, how (if they're dead) their work is framed. It's something Joerg Colberg talks about here in the curation of Diane Arbus's show, a show where her pictures came with no captions or supporting information. this is what he says about it.

'So a photographer goes to social events at “residences for people with developmental disabilities” and photographs the clearly very unsuspecting subjects in ways that at times find an almost perverse pleasure in what the camera can do to people. Diane Arbus obviously wasn’t/isn’t the only photographer to go about this game (for example, a new Bruce Gilden book just came out). But well into the second decade of the 21st Century, that ought to be the topic for some serious conversations.'

Colberg's ultimate call is for a degree of  kindness in photography and I can wholeheartedly agree with that.

But at the same time, I'm simply not sure about anything in portrait photography. I'm torn between different ideas. I've come to embrace that idea of uncertainty in photography, especially when things get so polarised into clear and definite absolutes.

When I posted the picture above of the Bruce Gilden pictures at the Manchester Art Gallery on my Instagram account, I got a mix of reactions, most of which had a degree of anger.

The size of the pictures, the spectacle, the vulnerability of the subjects, the poverty of the subjects all came up. They were 'the most brutal, ugly and disrespectful pictures' one commenter had ever seen. Gilden was defended by somebody who described him as an insider rather than an abuser, while one great comment, deleted as soon as it went up (why did you do that SR?) laid into Gilden fanboys as 'sausages' - and you get the feeling that's very much linked to the weird machismo of his street photography as featured on old videos of Gilden flashing his thing on youtube.

I interviewed Gilden and some of the people (including Laura Dicken who was fixing for him) about the pictures a few years ago about the portraits above, all made in West Bromwich for Multistory. His basic line is that these are the unseen, the invisible people of Britain, and he's showing them because he comes from that kind of working class community. He could be one of them is the idea (and you can read the entire text below).

Whether I buy that entirely I'm not sure, but I do at least part of the way. I also have a visceral reaction to the control of images, especially when it comes with some kind of moral imperative that is unevenly applied. But at the same time I don't really know. I simply don't know what the long-term effect of these kinds of images is - and how it weighs up against the long-term effects of advertising images or not showing. I don't think anyone knows for all the fire and the fury and the anger. 

And I do think a lot of criticism is based on control, misogyny, class prejudice and a form of colonial moralising. Perhaps that's why sometimes I find myself agreeing with the content of what people say, but not the way they say it. There is a huge control of particular forms of representation and sometimes this is a good and necessary thing, but precedent also shows us the converse can be true.

One of my favourite readings in recent years is Frances Hatherley's thesis on Jo Spence, Richard Billingham, and Carol Morley. This has an abstract that begins

'This thesis reclaims and refigures negative stereotypical images of working-class femininity, proposing an “Anti-Pygmalion” aesthetics (referencing Shaw’s Pygmalion)in which pressure to conform to bourgeois notions of respectability is refused in favour of holding onto aspects of working-class female identity which have been treated as faulty and shameful. It examines a previously under-theorised dimension of the “female grotesque”: its formation under a process of classed construction.

Contesting the disavowal of class identity in much art writing, I explore how it shapes art reception, showing how images of the Anti-Pygmalion female grotesque can provoke sublime experiences in viewers who share an empathetic connection with the work’s presentation of class difference. Against Enlightenment aesthetic theories which associate the sublime with the lofty, this thesis conceptualises it from the perspective of working-class women, connecting it with an excitement and awe that comes from below and bursts up and out.'

Just this week, following the Raheem Sterling racism case, I saw this story on Sterling and the portrayal of  race and people with  learning difficulties in the UK press. It read, 'At the same time, it is not always easy to defend the newspaper industry. There was another jarring moment for me in those early years when it was pointed out that the red-tops didn’t tend to run photographs of people with learning difficulties'.

This idea of people being too poor, too disabled to show also finds a parallel in the American Ugly laws

'So-called “ugly laws” were mostly municipal statutes in the United States that outlawed the appearance in public of people who were, in the words of one of these laws, “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object” (Chicago City Code 1881). Although the moniker “ugly laws” was coined to refer collectively to such ordinances only in 1975 (Burgdorf and Burgdorf 1975), it has become the primary way to refer to such laws, which targeted the overlapping categories of the poor, the homeless, vagrants, and those with visible disabilities.'

Add the category of protest to those laws and could find it in action recently at the Lianzhou Photo Festival where photographers like Mark Neville had any image not of happy wealth censored from the show. They didn't fit the China Dream by all accounts.

That kind of censorship has parallels Ukraine where both the work of Boris Mikhailove and Sergey and Victor Kochetov (as seen in the excellent photobook Kochetov) made work that was in direct response to Soviet censorship and control of representation. This didn't just include the content, but also included how you framed an image  along with ideas of the body and going beyond ideas of Soviet respectability. Freedom of expression here, showing something that went beyond the politically respectable, was part of the process.

Some of this might be relevant in the criticism of policing. There is definitely a conflation of disgust that runs between Gilden and the people themselves. There is the idea of the correct photograph, the right photograph, the authentic photograph, the uplifting photograph..

On the other side you could add negative representations of  the marginalised, the ways representations of poverty have been, and are, used to debase human beings who aren't wealthy, who fit into some kind of Nazi anti-social element category (and the Ugly Laws link comes from this site on Eugenics survivors  in Canada).

There's a history to this, a truly horrific history that crosses over from anthropology to eugenics and complicates matters further. How one can be clear cut in one's thinking, so polarised that one can dismiss with absolute certainty this picture or that one with no nuance or doubt is beyond me.

One thing I am very much looking forward to (though also with some dread) is unravelling some of these ideas this in a series of posts for World Press Photo over the coming year. I don't think I will have any answers, that's not the point of it.

Rather I'll be looking at some of these questions of how  photography, history and ideas overlap, how contemporary photographers can address the problems of how their work is made, shown and disseminated. It will also look at how voices can be heard in different ways. It's about the powers that are embedded in the practices of making and looking at pictures, and how we can challenge those a little. It's about collaboration, agency and consent. It's about what pictures do, and how they work.
Ultimately, I think it will be about being thoughtful and kind. That's a very simple but very difficult thing. But sometimes it matters more than anything else.

Happy Holidays wherever you are. Be kind for 2019.

Bruce Gilden's Black Country portraits 

Bruce Gilden’s Black Country Portraits are direct in the extreme; close-ups of faces that have the hardships of work, life and family etched into the skin. These are pictures that do not pull punches and are not designed to be decorative. Some people don’t like them. Gilden, however, is unapologetic.

“These people that I photograph are out there,” says Gilden. “I didn’t invent them, I didn’t put make-up on them. They are who they are, pimples, warts and all. When you take a little camera, it becomes a threat. When the photographer takes a picture, it can go further, it becomes a document. But there’s something beautiful in how these people look, their soul, and I don’t believe you can change anything in the world that’s not right if you don’t look at it. It can’t stay invisible.”

The idea of making people visible is something that resonates with Laura Dicken, a locally born researcher who accompanied Gilden on his photographic rounds in the Black Country borough of Sandwell and beyond.

“You get some people and it’s harrowing what they’ve been through especially the drug users, the homeless people, and prostitutes,” says Dicken. “And then you’ve got single mums who are struggling to feed their kids or people who’ve been made redundant. It’s tough stuff all the time.”
“But they deserve to be represented, they are a part of a society, they deserve to be seen and they deserve to heard and the fact that these type of people exist and are struggling and strive for more and can’t get a better life needs discussing. And I think that Bruce’s images are a very powerful tool to open up those discussions.”

The question is how you make portraits in a way that is visually powerful and doesn’t rely on Benefits Street type polarisation.  It’s a tough call for a photographer who is best-known for an in-your-face form of street photography that connects directly to photographers such as William Klein and Daido Moriyama but also has roots in a childhood where his father was a gangster and his mother an alcoholic who committed suicide.

“I had a tough emotional upbringing with my family. You don’t realise how tough it is until you grow up because you think maybe everybody had the same upbringing but they didn’t so I guess that’s  what separates me from others in my photography.”

But with his recent conversion to colour close-ups and a focus on faces, new influences have emerged; Gilden is more personally involved in the people he photographs, and more interested in how they wear their lives on their faces and in their eyes. Now Gilden’s current work links in to the work of artists such as Henry Tonks or Lucien Freud. But where Tonks captured the facial scars made by weapons of war, and Freud used the intimacy of the studio session to capture the reality of his sitters through the texture of their skin, Gilden photographs the marks left on the face by living in a world of austerity; these are faces that wear the fatigue of hard labour, the fatigue of poverty, the fatigue of what can happen when redundancy, abuse or addiction strike.

These are not everyday people with everyday faces in other words. These are faces that know the meaning of hard work; they are weary or exhausted and sometimes spent. And they are not always easy to look at.

“I might also think that people don’t want to look at the pictures because that is something that might happen to them. For example, there’s one picture in West Brom. It’s the lady with one tooth. That’s a great picture. And the funny thing is I showed her the picture and said “What do you think?” And she said, “I’m beautiful.””

“Now I’m not a humanitarian in that sense. I’m human, but I’m not a humanitarian. But the thing is, if you look at that picture and you know that is the response that woman gave to me, you can see all about that woman. Because if you look, that lipstick she tries to put the lipstick on very neatly but she misses; I think it’s on the bottom part of the lip. But there’s an effort made to look good. She must know in her head that’s she’s missing teeth. She was probably a nice-looking woman at one point and now she’s lost it and is having trouble to deal with all that, but there is still that effort made. And she said, “I’m beautiful.” “

Dicken also recognises that effort to look good in Gilden’s pictures, in particular in the image of a lady with rollers in her hair. “She’s got quite a round face and she’s got ruddy cheeks and that is so Black Country. I grew up on a council estate round here, a really really rough one and all of my family are working class. And she reminded me of my Nan. She doesn’t look like my Nan but she reminded me of how my Nan would go to the hairdressers and get a perm, and the type of older women that I grew up around.”

As with all the pictures in the series, this lady is photographed frontally. The picture is made personal. By forcing the viewer to look into the whites of his models’ eyes, Gilden makes the viewer think about who they are and what has happened to them. And because Gilden is selective in the people he photographs, the stories are selective, told through faces that Gilden picked out from the anonymity of the crowds; this is not the Black Country, this is Gilden’s Black Country, a Black Country that echoes the toughness of his own Brooklyn childhood.

“All the people I photograph I’m comfortable with and I assume they’re comfortable with me because I do position their head and I’ll tell them you’re not good or you’re great or you have to do this. For example there was one guy in West Brom, he’s got veins in his face, a big nose. I mean, I thought about him and it breaks my heart. I see this guy coming and it’s relatively cold, maybe three degrees Celsius, and he had bare legs, very, very thin. I’m assuming he’s got cancer, and I took his picture. He could have stayed with us 3 days because what has he got to go back to his room, no-one’s there, no-one talks to him, and you see in his eyes the terror. Here’s a person who doesn’t have that long to live, he’s afraid and I captured what he is.”

“And that’s what struck me, because I’m afraid to die. At the end of the day, I’m photographing me. All these people are me. If you make the wrong choice, this is what you can become, this is what can happen to you. And lots of time it happens to people who are nice people, who aren’t bad people.”
The people represented in Gilden’s portraits have one thing in common; they are working class and they not wealthy. You can find the same people with the same problems in all parts of the UK; people who work hard but are struggling, people who have made mistakes, people who have been let down. But you will rarely see them represented in the press, on television, in novels or even in film or photography. There is no contemporary Cathy Come Home or Boys from the Blackstuff. There is a gap in representation here. Except as figures of scorn, poor people have become invisible in Britain. According to Dicken, Gilden and his Black Country portraits are a way of beginning to fill this gap, to begin a representation of what it means to struggle in contemporary Britain.

“Because of the area and the area’s history, it had been very industrial with very hard work when there was work. And now there isn’t very much work. And things are different. So I think it’s important because it shows people who have been left behind and they are important. They deserve a narrative, they deserve to be represented because they are people with hopes and dreams. They’re strong but they struggle and they’re doing the best that they can.”

“They’re very beautiful pictures about a very difficult subject and I think they do challenge you. It’s pretty close to the bone because you can see yourself in those people. And I found that. I found some of the pictures difficult, especially of the women who are of my age. And I thought, that could have been me really easily. Really easily. They went this way, I went that way. You can just see it makes people uncomfortable because it’s celebrating the all-encompassing human experience that we all have, but some of us have it better than others and it’s really easy to slip.”

 “A lot of the people we spoke to, they had a job and they had a family and now they’ve got nothing, and they’re on drugs, and they’re homeless. And then you’ve got the women who are my age,who have got 2 or 3 kids and they’re scrambling to do the shopping for the kids. They just want to do best for the kids, they’re going without food so the kids have got enough to eat. They’ve got these really difficult day-to-day lives and you just think: that could  really easily be me.”


Nils said...

Very nice article. While photography has definitely been stuck in a crisis of representation it is often overlooked that it us not always about the "who" is representing "whom". The most important issue to me is the "how". If we don't steal people's images with a sneaky approach, but collaborate and get to know the person in front of the lense, we can do good. Haters should also look at the person behind the camera before they criticize sharply.

Stan B. said...

These are questions that need to be asked (and in some way "answered") for sure. I don't think Arbus had any particular scruples concerning any of her subjects, she always strove to see just how much extra the camera could "reveal" about (ie- make weird) anyone and everything she photographed.

I currently work with (and have photographed) people with developmental disabilities. And as much as Arbus photos are exploitative, I often feel even more so about photos on the other side of the spectrum- those featuring the perpetual, over compensating smile where they are confidently overcoming all of life's trials and tribulations! It's not an easy subject matter to photograph- often exactly because of how they look, and how open to individual interpretation that is, can become, and can change; exploitation, and threats of, loom in whatever approach one can take.

One can even make the Scot Sothern (photographer and client of street prostitutes) argument- who else noticed these people enough to take photos of them at all? It is also the same argument, more or less, that Gilden uses. All these photographers walk a very fine line- some no doubt, think they've already crossed it Big Time. And as with any somewhat radical alternative (political, artistic, religious, etc), there are always those who'll enthusiastically defend, imitate and propagate the very easiest and worst properties these alternatives compromise.

San Francisco is drowning in homelessness, and photography has long ago drowned in images of the poor and downtrodden- does that mean we no longer turn our eyes or lenses to address it? I'm not saying I have the answers to any of this, but we must at least continue to try and make some sense of the questions- and perhaps more importantly, try to substantively address the actual people and situations, beyond the photograph...