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Monday, 23 December 2019

Goodbye 2019. We will look back on you as a great year.

Another year comes to an end and another year begins. The picture above shows how the year began, and that is basically how the year continued. And my brilliant Oracle Vision tells me that  is just a taster for what is to come. We will look back on 2019 as a great year and yearn for the stability and sense of completion that it brought. The shit is just put into the bucket, and the fan hasn't been turned on yet.

Enough of the politics, I'll come back to those later next year when we'll all be closer to the brink, on the brink or over the brink. So, in photography and writing, thank you to everyone I have worked with this year at Photomonitor, Source Magazine, Vogue Italia,  World Press Photo, Magnum Photos, PH Museum of Humanity, the BJP.

Perhaps my favourite things I've written of the year are this intro for Vincen Beeckman's beautiful and simple Claude and Lilly. And this article for my World Press Photo Witness series; it sums up the generic commonplaces of photography, writing about photography, photographic education, and everything else.

Thanks also to Andy for helping me to get to Romania and see how beautiful, weird and wonderful (and dysfunctional too in places) it is. It was a revelation to me. And sorry, but the scene from the supposed birthplace in Sigisoara is a sight to behold.

And thank you also to everybody at SEAD, the Mekong Cultural Hub and the British Council for the start of a really wonderful fellowship where the process is what matters. How rare is that. It was and is absolutely wonderful, challenging and mind expanding in equal measure.

Finally, thank you to everybody who came to my Writing and Photography workshops. It's been so great to share ideas with writers, curators, photographers, journalists and teachers - I've been truly bowled over by the range of people who've come and the energy and enthusiasm and original talent that is out there in the world, and the diversity of voices with which they tell stories.

The next workshops are scheduled for March and April 2020 in Bah, and you can learn more and see some feedback here. 

Have a great Christmas, Holiday, New Year wherever you are. I will be back in January, smaller and better.

Monday, 16 December 2019

The Election Post-Mortem

Here's a summary of the election gleaned from various agonised commentators. Condensed here so you don't have to read it all.

Jeremy Corbyn - He's an honest man, he's not a leader, people don't like him, he's a principled man, people don't vote for him. He's worked wonders. He's lost two elections and he's stuck in the past. But he won the argument... well, he didn't, because the election was the argument. He shifted the narrative. What is this media studies GCSE Module 1? He's a fucking saint... etc etc

Brexit 1 - if we had backed Remain in 2016, we absolutely wouldn't be where we are now.

Brexit 2 - we should have promised to just get it done. like the Conservatives. Then we would have won the North. The North don't like Europe. How would that have worked out in London or Bristol or anywhere else?

Lexit - remember that, the left wing renaissance that Brexit would bring. How's that working out for you? But the EU is racist and lets migrants drown in the sea.

Europeans resident in the UK - we love them. It was Johnson who said they outstayed their welcome. What about the Lexiteers who said they queue jump. Three and a half million people in the UK definitely remember this...

Anti-semitism - Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins want to join the Conservative Party and they're not anti-semitic, right? Yeah, right.

But the Labour Party are anti-semitic - But Jeremy Corbyn has spoken out and marched against anti-semitism throughout his entire life. So why didn't he say sorry on Andrew Neil. Thank God Jews can live safe in Britain under the Conservatives who are only homophobic, anti-European, racist, Islamophobic, but not anti-semitic whatsoever, no sirree, bob...

The Media - How long have you got? The lying media, for the last 30 years on Europe. The only reason Corbyn lost was because of the media. What about Blair then. He's the only Labour winner in the last 40 years. Because the right-wing press supported him. He would have won anyway. Oh no he wouldn't. Oh yes he would...

The North - voted Tory, thick as pig shit except in the cities. If you've got magic beans to sell, head up north, they'll buy anything. It's post-industrial, it's gritty, it's northern, they had miners' strikes, it's northern heartlands so they're bound to vote labour. Except they're not. Unless you're in Liverpool. But that's a different country They don't like London up north. They don't like the metropolis. The metropolis isn't white. Ah, I see what you're saying, can we patronise and generalise about the north some more, that will help solve the problem. Sure let's go ahead - everything in the UK happens in London. The money goes to London. That's the real reason. And that's why they don't like the EU and voted for Leave. I've seen videos on it. That's why Brexit. And parachuted politicians like David Milliband who couldn't mark his northern constituency on a map, now getting £600,000 pounds a year in the USA to tell people why Corbyn failed. So it's Blair's fault again. No, it's Corbyn. He's North London metropolitan elite. Because he stands up for justice and is anti-racist and stuff... etc. etc. etc.

Scotland - canny bastards. I wish I was Scottish. You think the Conservatives are prejudiced against Europeans, just wait and see. English establishment nationalism is deepseated and has been around a long time. Why didn't they vote Labour again? Let's not think about that, what about Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland - the same as above with knobs on but we had 30 years of a small war and there's sea between us and them. As long as they don't bomb the City of London again. But they don't have Labour in Northern Ireland. Or Conservatives. So we'll leave that till later. Agreed? Agreed. Didn't Jeremy Corbyn go on picnics with Gerry Adams? Where did you read that? It's the media again.

Winning arguments - the only argument worth winning is the election. It was lost. Overton doors? It's not doors, numpty, it's windows. Overton Windows. We've shifted the narrative and opened the Overton Window a bit. Fuck the narrative, we lost the election. But we'll win the next one because the window's open.

Momentum - Incompetent at running a campaign, too many messages, secretive plans, not involving people who have experience of winning elections, alienating centrist members, alienating young members, telling people what they should think, telling them to fuck off when they don't think it, getting surprised when that doesn't work out too well at the polls. But remember when Labour MPs were voting for Bedroom Tax and Austerity. We've got principles and we've shifted the narrative. But you didn't win. It's the Overton Window. What about the membership...

The Crowds - nobody gets crowds like Jeremy. Yeah, to watch him lose. He got battered!

The Young - they overwhelmingly voted Labour. Ooh, so they did.

The Old - they overwhelmingly didn't vote Labour. Oh shit...

The Policies - which one, they were so many? And they were all great.

Understanding the electorate - the Tories did this, that's why they had one message, one message, one message, one message. Yeah, but who wants to do that. It underestimates the electorate's intelligence and their understanding of complex policy issues. Exactly, because that works. Who wants to live like that. Better than living under 10 more years of Tory rule.

The Next Leader - Can't be a remainer, the North don't like remaining. Can't be from London, that's a metropolitan elite. Can't be a woman, is that a northern thing or is it just our own misogyny? We need somebody to build on what Jeremy has created. He's created nothing, he's a serially loser, can't be Momentum, that approach has failed. No it didn't, Jeremy got more votes than Brown or Milliband. Yeah but against what...

Boris Johnson - so who thinks we're going to see the liberal, One Nation face of Boris Johnson now he's got a stonking majority and doesn't have to really on crazy right-wingers to get Brexit done? Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha. Fuck me, you agree on something.

Sunday, 15 December 2019

Films of the Year

I've done my photobooks of the year, so here are my films of the year. Of what I've seen which isn't much, but then I'm kind of picky. And most of them aren't even from this year, so films of the year?

So there's Border which is a brilliant and odd film about special woman and her relationship to herself and the land and her people, whoever they might be. There's a lot to be said for odd and this is odd. Not much is odd. This is. Have I mentioned that.

The Chambermaid (which is said to have been inspired by Sophie Calle - but it wasn't really) which is about the roles women play, and how class and gender and relationships all intersect in the very separate spaces of a Mexican hotel.

Women of  Ryazan with live organ accompaniment. Great Soviet film from Olga Preobrazhenskaya all about love, rape and hypocrisy in a small Russian town in 1927 Russia. I love the scene where the woman decides to live with her lover without getting married (her parents don't approve) and he says something like, but what will the village say, and she says something along the lines of fuck em,it's our lives, who cares what the village says.

Bangsokol, which was a screening of sequences from recent Cambodian images accompanied by live music and a soundtrack featuring Buddhist chanting, environmental soundscapes and song.It's composed by Him Sophy and the film is put together by filmmaker Rithy Panh in a sequence that runs from the US bombing campaign through to the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge and the mind-blowningly cruel and stupid attempt to transform Cambodia into a world-beating rural economy. It was devastatingly powerful to see this in Phnom Penh with people who had suffered huge loss during the Khmer Rouge years.  I'll be writing about this more at a later date.

Catsticks by Ronny Sen which is a brilliantly moody and beautiful meditation on drug addicts in Kolkata. It's a beautiful film but it's also a sophisticated film where relationships, hopes, dreams and the downfalls of the protagonists are set against a rapidly changing urban landscape.

Director Ronny Sen comes from a photographic background as well, and this is his first film which is just astonishing. It's beautiful, striking, but most importantly has an emotional depth that intensifies as the film goes on. I really didn't want it to end and I can't wait for what he does next (though seeing the amount of work he has to do just to get this shown is a revelation in itself).

Thursday, 12 December 2019

England: A Shitstorm of Ineptitude

It's election day in the UK - there's a whiff of hope in the air, with the fear that over the horizon there's a blazing bush fire of disappointment.

Anyway, it's the perfect day for my review of John Angerson's English Journey (my photobook of the year) to go up on the Ph Museum website. Here's a snippet....

A new England was created, one where a burgeoning multiculturalism came up against a racist England bathing in an overwrought nostalgia filled with Spitfires, stiff-upper lips, ‘two world-wars and one world cup’ exceptionalism and little else. Very little else.

And that is essentially why people are voting Conservative. The little England hegemony that Mishra writes about here has won. We’re wallowing in a dream of a dream that never existed. We are the spectacle, the simulacrum, the medium-become-message all wrapped up in British irony and a sense of humour that is second to none! Fawlty Towers. Just amazing, except for the racist bits.

This idea of Englishness is what John Angerson’s book is all about. It’s controlled and good-natured but it still has bite. The outsourcing of industry, the nostalgia market, the pursuit of impossible dreams the undertow of a deepseated denial are all there. It’s a book where Englishness is a shadow of a Platonic shadow, a structure on the verge of collapse, where even the foundations of fox-hunting and country homes seem worn-out and shabby.

Read the whole review here....

Buy the book here...

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Best Books 2019, kind of

Covers of English Journey by John Angerson

It's best books time again, so here is my list. I don't know if it's a best-of list, because I haven't seen everything, because I find it difficult to look at books at fairs or bookshops because of the sensory overload, because some of them are from last years, and simply because there's just so much that escapes the relatively parochial surroundings of the southwest of England (the England part being the parochial bit).

But these are all books that gave something to me that has remained with me, that have a human element, that have kindness and understanding at their heart (or maybe not). Anyway, here's the list in all its massive imperfection.

Apples for sale by Rebecca Sampson

Your maid wants a day off? Your maid wants a room of her own? Your maid wants her own clothes? Your maid has Body Odour. Your maid has sex? The problems of maid ownership are laid bare in Rebecca Sampson’s wonderful Apples for Sale.

Photobook Belge 

The chapters in Photobook Belge have sections on 19th-century photography, The Congo, Word/Image, Belgitude, The World seen from Belgium, and Artist’s books. It’s a serious book with a serious voice then, but one where there is a merging of the photographic with the historical, a feeling for why images were made and how they reflect a nation that is divided by language, class, and geography, but still manages to retain a defined sense of identity (however split it might be) despite having France, Germany, and the Netherlands as neighbours.

Enghelab Street

Enghelab Street, edited by Hannah Darabi, is another book of photobooks, and magazines, and pamphlets and tracts made between 1979-1983. It's a book about how images create history, feed on history, destroy history. And how a country's very identity and origin story is rooted in the cannibalisation of photography. The book was made in a ridiculously short time frame and as such it's a beginning not an end. But isn't everything. Except the ends.

The Coast by Sohrab Hura 

I like this for the 'flashy pictures' and he multiple layered narrative that stretch along the Tamil Nadu Coastline. Here Sohrab Hura is moving away from his domestic life to show an India that is at odds with its present, its past, its everything. And how you represent that is the question. Coast is a question that has no easy answers, that puts photography centre stage and then shifts it to the shadows again.

English Journey by John Angerson

I was blown away by the design of this book when it arrived unheralded in the post. That never happens. Angerson's English Journey is a reinvention of the book of the same name by J.B. Priestley. It's a book of faded empire, disappointing nostalgia, and lifelong disappointment. But in an uplifting, resilient, English kind of way. It's miserable. But chipper. Especially with the design.

Sweat by Reiner Riedler

Sweat is a book of faces, bodies, breasts, limbs, and hands that have been marked out on sweat sensitive material and then photographed. The book itself is a beauty, a fold-out extravagance of full Saint Veronica sweat-based weirdness in tactile form.

The story of Sweat began when Riedler found his body marked, in Turin Shroud style, on the t-shirt he was wearing. Intrigued by this example of pre-photography with spiritual overtones, he got in touch with the Fraunhofer Institute in Munich.

Family by Masahisa Fukase

In the summer of 1971, the great Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase began making studio portraits of his family. Over the next 20 years, he made portraits that became monuments to failed relationships, to death, and to the power of photography to both record and destroy life.

Claude and Lily by Vincen Beeckman

Vincen Beeckman first photographed Lilly and Claude in 2015. He made pictures of them holding hands, kissing, embracing. They were pictures for Lilly and Claude, simple pictures of love and togetherness. In the 23 years they were together, Lilly and Claude led difficult lives in Brussels, moving from small flat to street and back again. In June last year, Lilly passed away, and Claude was left alone. This book was made for Claude, for his memories of Lilly and the years they were together. It is also made for everybody, a reminder that love is for everyone, everyone. This is the story of Lilly and Claude, this is A Love Story. My little text is in this, so it's a bit of a biased view.

Rise by Alexa Vachon

Best football photobook ever? Alexa Vachon’s Rise is a book about a group of refugee women who play football. It’s also about life, love, home, family, dress, friends and finding a space that is free from male violence and control.

Here, Waiting  by Maroussia Prignot and Valerio Alvarez

I got this in the post the other day and alot of it is familiar territory. Painted on, drawn on, decorated pictures of refugees - but there are nods to another life, to the bureaucratic motherload that being a refugee carries, to lost identities. And it's got photocopy pictures in!

Miki hasegawa Internal Notebook

I remember opening this a couple of days after seeing the film Shoplifters. That's a film about the neglect of a child in Tokyo, Internal Notebook is about the neglect and abuse of children across Japan. It's from the Reminders Stable and an example of the layers of meaning working to devastating effect.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Mark Duffy: A Case of Gross Misconduct

Mark Duffy used to be the in-house photographer for the Houses of Parliament in the UK. If you buy newspapers you will have seen his pictures on the cover in the UK and indeed across the globe. 

His picture of politicians petitioning the speaker John Bercow (the man who shouts Ordaaahhh) is a particular favourite. 

The problem with Duffy is he doesn't like Brexit. Because he's got a brain basically. And an Irish passport. He doesn't want to be in the Boris Johnson transports I guess. 

And so he made, in various stages, works on Brexit outside his parliamentary practice. Here's one of his fun installations at Derby's Format Festival.

And then he lost his job for 'gross misconduct.. 

A photographer bringing the UK parliament into disrepute because of gross misconduct (and lack of impartiality) is beyond irony, a case of killing the messenger when it should be JRM, Dominic Raab, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Priti Patel or any number of scum-sucking groundfeeders getting the narwhal horn up the arse treatment. 

It's really interesting on so, so many levels. I might write about it. 

Anyway, he lost his job and made an in-house exhibition called,  Brexit House .
Co-curated by Duffy and his partner Briony Carlin, it shows the signage of parliament, the layers of photographic functions it is represented by, the iconography of Brexit, the artefacts, the state of mind and the psychosis of Brexit, the control of images by parliamentary button pushers, and the complete absence of any kind of control at any stage anywhere. It is all a big dog's bollocks of an affair. 

The work is shown on a room by room basis around the house (and it's a nice house). It's kind of messy, but it looks great, and messiness fits the theme in a big way, and the way the images fit into the nooks and crannies and drawers of the house fits the mass psychosis of Brexit and the way the house (both Duffy's house and the House of Commons) and all its corners works as a metaphor for all our damaged psyches. This element combined with the layers of management and control - and everything that connects to - is what is interesting, Freud meeting Foucault and forgetting their lines somewhere in the middle. I'm really sorry I didn't get to see it in the flesh. But isn't that always the way. 


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Thursday, 14 November 2019

In the Morgue

A morgue freezer; images copyright Arun Vijai Mathavan

Thanks to \Prashant Panjiar for the pointer to Arun Vijai Mathavan who has made this work on Indian morturaries in Tamil Nadu and Andra Pradesh. It's a story about the dalit people who work in the morgue, the people who do post-mortems, it's stuck with me because it's so unexpected and the images are all about the people, the space and the little details like where they sleep and what they eat, and the poverty and prejudice that comes with their work.

Morgue stories usually focus on the dead and either how peaceful they look, how artful they look, the transformation of face to mask, and the conflict between symbols of life and symbols of death and the natural entropy that overtakes us all.

There's a curator of a museum of death in London who once said that we are never more alive than when we die, that our living body is a mechanism of defensive strategies for limiting the species that live in our body. Life, to her, is a controlled farming exercise where the human cells that make up 10% of the body's 100 trillion cells control the 90% of the  viruses, microbes, and bacteria that are not human. When we die however, these cells are allowed to flourish, as are the mass of other microbes, flora and fauna that devour our body. For her, a human body is never more alive than in the few weeks after death. Which is a pretty good perspective for a curator of a museum of death to take.

By the same token, here it's the life that surrounds death, that is created by the death of these morgue inhabitants that is the essence of the project. The bodies are not irrelevant, but they are a side detail. And that's an interesting perspective to take.

Here's a description of the story from Chennai Photo Biennale.

What we do with our dead, how we regard them, is dependent on the specific conditions into which we are born—belief, religion, language, place, sect, caste, gender and, in recent times, science. In India, those classified as ‘untouchables’ or ‘Dalits’ have been forced to handle the dead for centuries. The manner in which they are compelled to do this in modern, state-run hospitals has gone unnoticed and undocumented. My project proposes to shine a light on an unknown, shrouded world.

We live in a time when unnatural deaths are subjected to investigation. Before a surgeon handles the body, a team of trained staff prepares it. There are elaborate procedures relating to how the body should be handled and what the qualifications a technician should have. After the autopsy, highly skilled work is performed; the corpse is wrapped; the ventilators are removed; no visible incision is left to be seen; the viscera are carefully handled; and the body is reconstituted by sewing it back together. In all this, the coroner is assisted by a team of lab technicians.

In India, the reality of this process is shockingly different from our perception. In almost all hospitals in India, a range of tasks, sometimes even the opening of the torso with the Y-incision, is done by semi-literate, low-level staff. They belong to the Dalit communities. Official identity cards designate the men as “Sanitary Workers.” Much like other stigmatized work in a society organized by caste, such as handling all manner of waste (including human excreta), the cleaning of sewers, or the skinning of animal carcasses, this modern work too has become hereditary. The ill-equipped workers, with outmoded refrigerators and crude implements, perform heroic tasks in dismal conditions. They suffer from several occupational ailments and work-related infections from handling the decomposed, verminous bodies. Tasked with endowing dignity on the dead, they face a social death. The untrained, underpaid, Dalits cannot tell their friends and neighbors what they do for a living.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Human Sites of Memory: The Story isn't Simple

image from Enghelab Street 

Hannah Darabi, Dragana Jurisic and Maria Kapajeva spoke at a symposium I chaired in Bristol the other week. 

Hannah spoke on her book Enghelab Street (which won the Best Catalogue prize in Paris Photo the other week - even though it's not a catalogue) and the ways in which conflicting narratives have been squeezed out from the 1979 Iranian Revolution by the idea of an over-arching Islamic Revolution.

Except it wasn't an Islamic Revolution - in the same way the American Civil War wasn't a war to free the slaves and Britain didn't stand alone against the Nazis. Myths are there to be made.

It's a false narrative where images, typography and design are used to claim and counter claim individual, national and symbolic histories in the name of a post-memory Islamic Revolution. She told stories of counter-memories and micro-memories that are stored in books, in bodies, in minds, that have a latent energy that can potentially shift histories and maybe even ways of thinking.

Image copyright Dragana Jurisic

Dragana talked about the history of Yugoslavia, the wars, the death, the ordinariness of it all, and the way that nationalisms creep into our lives, seep into our every pore, there right in front of our eyes but somehow invisible. 

Maria Kapajeva talked about how personal narratives cut through and intersect with dominant political and economic storylines, and in particular how women's experiences of family, work and space overlap in her project  Dream is Wonderful, Yet Unclear.

These came in her project on a former textile mill where her mother used to work. It closed down after being bought by a Swedish company. They bought it to close it down because it was a competitor. That narrative is repeated across many former Communist countries and maybe a little closer to home as well.

The commonly held notion that Soviet Bloc economies collapsed solely because of inefficiencies and incompetence and corruption is appealing because it indicates our western superiority and the power of capitalism to bulldoze over any belief or value system that runs counter to its destructive force.

The narratives that Kapajeva unearthed in the textile mill are simple, they are filled with life, they are embedded in personal histories that we can all understand and relate to, and are also complicated with nostalgia and an over compensating post-memory. Nothing is clear.. The narratives come from more micro-narratives, from altenative sites of memory that were lived rather than conceived, from the diary of workers who wrote of how to avoid pregnancy, how to lose weight, how to cope with a punishing workload - and a family - and domestic work - and still have a life. 

They come from the memories of the women who worked in the mill, memories that are laced with a nostalgia that is at times candy-coated. They come from idealised visions of textile mills in Soviet cinema, visions that overlap with concrete memories of community, achievement, and sense of belonging. 

On one level moving from a single  nationalist economic narrative to fragmented personal narratives is moving from the simple to the complex, from the single over reaching story arc to something that is more nuanced.

On another level it's moving from the  complex to the simple. The narratives of national identity are abstract and metaphysical in nature. They lack a voice, a grounding, they seek to find their place in ever more fanciful conjectures. They are made up. They lack substance. They are smoke and mirrors. 

The narratives Harabi, Jurisic and Kapajeva are interested in  are personal and  link people, place and economics. They are not simple, they are not moral, they are black and white, they don't make sweeping generalisations, they don't even fit into one simple story arc. But they are sited in human bodies, in human flesh, in places that have a life beyond abstractions of ideology and economics.

They don't necessarily make some grand conclusion. They simply are. 

The same idea in a slightly different way comes from Riffae Tammas  who talks about the difficulty of being a refugee who is expected to fit into some preformed story package.

How many stories do we hear about the challenges of young people adapting to a completely new education system? The difficulty of finding employment? The joy of discovery in a new country? If we are genuinely interested in supporting refugees, then we should focus on stories about their present and future, not just their past.

Which again is about human sites of memory that don't fit into pre-conceived narratives or story arcs however well meaning. 

Monday, 4 November 2019

Some rules about how to take great pictures

 How do you know if a picture is any good?

My latest piece on World Press Photo looks at many things, but especially the idea of what good photography is and the rules that we generate to uphold our idea of good photography.

The idea of good photography is tied up with linear ideas of the grid (there is nothing more panoptical than an image fitting into linear frameworks), of orthodox framing and use of light, and a whole range of  taste questions that run across genre and media.

And so you have any number of ways of telling what is a good photograph or is not a good photograph. There's EveryPixel (I've written about this before), a really stupid but addictive app that rates the chances of your photograph being awesome.

On a photojournalistic-conceptual level, there's Max Pinckers' and  Dries Depoorter's Trophy Camera. This uses World Press Photo winning pictures to analyse the likelihood of your picture winning a World Press Photo. And beneath the surface of all this, there is something that is a bit too close to the bone going on. We make pictures that look like other pictures. We make pictures that look like documentary pictures, or photojournalistic pictures, or to get a lot of likes on Instagram. At a supposedly higher end, we make pictures that we think will sell in the art market. We add a graph or a blue dot, or use a blue gel, or turn the picture into a sculpture, because... that's what makes it good right, or will get us a show or a bit of attention, or make us some money. Is that a good thing, a bad thing, or something to run away from.

And if it is, where should we run away to?

There's Ivars Gravlejs' Useful Advice for Photographers, a collection of  Photography Rules (the book was so popular it sold out) which looks at the basic fundamentals of what makes a good photograph - which are actually quite bad, but then are actually good because they are conceptual art pieces. And they also point to what taste evaluates as good or bad so you can see the places where the opposite of good has become good in a particular sub genre or functional area of photography. And of course when the bad becomes good, it becomes orthodox and so is bad again - think the blurred, grainy, out-of-focus thing which Takuma Nakahira was saying was exhausted moments after it was invented.

Nakahira's is just one of many ideas of the exhausted language of photography, and then there are do's and don'ts, cliches to avoid, and there are books that tell you things like>>.

Read this if you want to take great photographs
Image result for read this if you want to take great pictures

Obviously there's only a 1.8% chance of that book being awesome considering the images they chose.

You can Google search for how to take great photographs and arrive at Kodak Moments@

Then grab your camera and start shooting your way to great pictures.
Look your subject in the eye.
Use a plain background.
Use flash outdoors.
Move in close.
Move it from the middle.
Lock the focus.
Know your flash's range.
Watch the light.

Or you can find Petapixel rules which includes stuff I never knew...

35. Hold your camera properly

You might not know it, but there is a right way and a wrong way to hold a DSLR camera. The correct way is to support the lens by cupping your hand underneath it. This is usually done with the left hand, with your right hand gripping the body of the camera. This helps to prevent camera shake. If you are gripping your camera with your hands on either side of the camera body, there is nothing supporting the lens, and you might end up with blurry photos. To get an even stabler stance, tuck your elbows into the side of your body.

But it does have this excellent rule.

18. Charge your batteries

This seems like a simple one, but pretty much every photographer on the face of the planet has been caught out before. Including myself. The trick is to put the battery onto the charger as soon as you get home from your photo shoot. The only thing then is to make sure you remember to put it back into the camera after it has been recharged… 

Er, and there's more as well, and to be honest, most of it is great advice most of the time. The trouble is if you follow any of it, you'll end up making pictures like everybody else. Perhaps that doesn't matter even. The point is to tell a different story to anybody else... and you can do that with exactly the same pictures. So maybe the rules are good, who knows, it's Monday....

Anyway, you can read the article here. 

And if you're a painter, so you don't feel left out....

Baldessari tips to sell paintings

John Baldessari, "Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell," (1966-68). Acrylic on canvas. 68 x 56 1/2 in. (172.7 x 143.5 cm). (Courtesy The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica / © John Baldessari)

Sunday, 27 October 2019

An English Journey

I went up to Northumberland last weekend, to the strange town of Allendale where my sister lives. We went for a long walk in the countryside, through the pissing rain because that suits the landscape.

It's a landscape of sodden moors, old lead mines, flues and chimneys. There are stone walls, fences, and sheep. And then you come off the moor and go into the woodlands and there are pheasants, partridges and grouse; millions of them.

There are tubs of feed stuck at intervals in this private land, feed that keeps the birds fat as well as stupid, to slow them down enough so that pissed up  city boys in landrovers, or country boys in landrovers, can outwit them with a Purdey, a game dog, and a full-house of beaters.

History is written beneath the land throuigh these mines, through this ownership, through where you are allowed to roam and where you are not. There are divided loyalties, ancient grudges, and diverting claims over this land. You can feel it.

It's feudal country and all around you can see weird marks of this feudalism that run full intoWicker Man (without the fun bits) territory; shot crows hung up to on tree branches, rows of moles strung along fences (go to the bottom for more on catching moles), scores of ferrets heaped in bloody piles.

It points to a different idea of the English landscape than that we are accustomed to. It's bloody, and brutal and you're not quite sure who's being threatened by lines of dead crows and moles. Is it to warn off the moles and crows, or just a reminder to dumb city folk like myself exactly who owns the land.

And who owns the land , and how they own the land is the thing. My friend Deborah Parkin lives here  and has had convoys of 20 land rovers skimming along her road with Prince William waving as they passed. That's a convoy that is burdened with so many assumptions.  Or here's a map showing pheasant densities in England, along with details of who owns what and the environmental costs and contradictions of gamebird farming. And it's all very complicated, right from the question of whether a pheasant is livestock or wildlife (it depends on if you want a tax break or if you want to shoot it. Even law is written for some people's convenience).

So that was where I spent my weekend and then I headed back south and stopped off at services and came back to earth with a a bucket of  man-breast chicken. From one England to another, or are they two sides of the same thing and how do they connect and what does it all mean?

I don't know. But J.B. Priestly wrote a book about England in 1934 called English Journey.

J.B. Priestley’s English Journey is a portrait of England in crisis, a unique document made at the point in history when the prosperity of the Victorian age which had been propelled through the second decade of the Twentieth Century by a war economy, tumbled into the abyss of worldwide economic depression.

Political extremism stalked the south while mass unemployment and the grim desolation of boarded up factories and silent shipyards haunted England’s northern regions.

Priestley’s account of a nation in decline was to influence political thought in Britain for decades and inspire photographers as important as Bill Brandt and Humphrey Spender to venture to the unfashionable north to capture on film the industrial landscapes and the lives of the working people.

Priestley was asking the kind of questions that would still be relevant now. And John Angerson has asked those questions again in his book English Journey.

This is a book where Angerson follows in the footsteps of Priestley and finds his own answers to English identity.

Angerson's England is not a rural-urban polarity, it's not north v south, or rich v poor, it's mixed, it's confused, it's a hotchpotch of denuded semi-industrial landscapes that appear in a really beautifully designed book (and isn't it great to see something with design that doesn't look like it was learnt on a youtube  video) that mirrors but diverges from the original.


The pictures are made on a five four Wista, and are then pasted into the book as glossy prints of a size corresponding to the original negatives more or less, and flipped 90 degrees so you need to turn the book to look at them. You have to work a bit to see them in other words. I'm not quite sure why they are printed like this, but it works.

These are quiet pictures, quite flat in their content, but they have a power that goes beyond the surface of the image. There are pictures of docks, hotel chains, American football, a KFC franchise. Liverpool F.C.'s pitch gets a look in - we see only the turf and halfway line. There are images of war, of migration, of Britain's fading glory, of industrial sites repurposed as retail parks or parcel delivery warehouses.


There are migrant workers, wannabe models, call centre workers, and the Adelphi hotel in LIverpool, where passengers for the Titanic stayed before its journey to the bottom of the sea.


Each image is accompanied by a short bit of text that is laconic and cuts to a deadpan chase. These texts add to the images and create a momentum as the book progresses. It's a momentum of questioning and doubt about what it means to be English. Angerson doesn't really give us any answers, but instead takes us on a journey that questions Priestley, himself, and all the assumptions we have about Englishness.

It's direct and it's hard and it goes to places, very quietly, that so few books of English photography do. There's no reliance on the great image, or a well-worn nostalgia, you don't feel like you are looking at something either pre-conceived or from the past. It's contemporary in the extreme, it's unforgiving, and it's beautifully printed and designed.

But you can buy it and see more images here with a selection of 20 different covers .

Oh and if you're interested in mole catchers, there's a whole nother world out there....

Mole catchers.

'On a blustery Sunday morning, I met Rob Atkinson near his home in Ludlow. Atkinson is the former chief scientist for the RSPCA and author of the natural history book The Mole. Although he corresponded with Nicholls while at the RSPCA and has supported research on mole traps, he came to realise that they had different goals. For Atkinson, it wasn’t enough to find nicer ways to kill moles – he didn’t want them to be killed at all.

Atkinson is a soft-spoken, thoughtful man who has wavy grey hair and a downy white beard, and I couldn’t imagine him harming a single creature. He admitted to me, however, that he was once tasked with clearing moles out of his parents’ garden. He still remembers the excitement he felt when he would see a sprung trap. But, he added, “even, then, there was this sadness”. The landscape, once dynamic and alive, soon grew still. The rain washed over the molehills and they gradually flattened out. “You’ve done what you intended to do, but there’s a feeling that something is gone that was once here,” he said. Moles are in no danger of becoming extinct, but they are a reminder of Britain’s ancient natural history. Unlike other species, such as the grey squirrel, which were introduced by humans in recent centuries, the resident mole has lived in Britain for more than 350,000 years.

In the late 1980s, Atkinson studied the lives of moles while working on his master’s degree at the University of Oxford. He interviewed farmers about their impact, and tracked the movements of moles in the field. He came to the conclusion that mole catching was, for the most part, useless – a practice that should have died out years ago. In fact, scientists believe that moles benefit vegetable crops by turning the soil and eating pests.

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Carmelo Stompo and Kindness in Photography

 all pictures copyright Carmelo Stompo

I interviewed Max Pinckers the other week. We were talking about originality in photography, apps and the idea that everything has already been photographed, it's already been done. We talked about the idea of the good photo, and what that even means.

The idea of a 'good' photo is insidious. Most 'good' photos are not very interesting or original or even good. And then people start trying to make deliberately 'bad' pictures to be creative, original and break out of the 'good' photo mode. They make them blurred, or grainy, or off kilter, or burnt out. And then the bad pictures become the 'good' pictures and we're back where we started because who wants to see another set of overexposed, or purple, or blurry pictures.

There are good good faces, good backdrops, good people to photograph, good tonal ranges, good materials, good themes. Everything fits into a pre-ordered template - but as soon as something becomes 'good' it becomes a bit of a cliche right. Just go to Paris Photo or Photo-London and you can see that, you can see where people are making work that fits into something that fits the market, that ticks the critical boxes. It's soul destroying.

And then there are good photobooks. You see them, they have nice paper, nice design, nice covers, nice everything. And they are so good that maybe that goodness is just a mask that shields the fact that they might be not that good. There's the idea that what makes them good has become a bit of a trope and that we're all being blinded by tropes. Some of my favourite books are made by Mack, APE, Akina, RPS, Ceiba, Eriskay etc etc, but sometimes the books are so good I don't know if they are good anymore.

The same thing applies with critical ideas. There are the right ideas and the right themes, and there are smart people who  work with those to make work that fits into particularly critical niches (the really smart people just make interesting work that critical ideas apply to).

I've been looking at some great books on migration recently but I wonder if the rhetoric that applies to them isn't a bit rehashed sometimes, isn't said because that is what you are supposed to say. It's defensive theory to block off criticism that dehumanises and objectifies. Perhaps ideas that restaging and collaboration, and giving people cameras, that scratching and painting and writing, going all the way back to Wendy Ewald and beyond, aren't just a bit tired. Is it just something we say to make ourselves feel less guilty or does it actually mean something. i don't know.

Or is giving somebody a camera or asking them to draw on their pictures or make a collage aren't the most patronising and colonial thing ever., more concerned with the photographer as moral hero than with anything else. Or perhaps the whole calvinist tone of so much of this theory shares more with a colonial era vicar ministering to his flock and lecturing them on the evils of this or that. It shuts out so much, and can be joyless in a way that belongs to a particular geographic and economic privilege. It's like watching what I imagine a Church of England sermon would be on a small British colonised island (oh, and there is theory that thinks the same thing - the greatest legacy of British colonialism is its shitty, condescending moralising voice)

But at the same time, why not, what the heck, talk about broad brushstroke generalisation! As long as it's fun and it's nice and you're not claiming to much. But if you're claiming too much, I don't think so.

Anyway, this is a preamble to Carmelo Stompo's book, Never Stop. It's a book abour Arouna, a Senegalese migrant who Carmelo ran into in his hometown of Catania, Sicily. It doesn't claim too much, and it's kind.

I saw the work at a workshop I ran there and it was great, a mix of images that Carmelo spoke of with great kindness and affection towards Arouna. It told the stories of Arouna's journey from Senegal, his arrival in Catania, and the limbo he found himself in. It's a story of the multiple near deaths he experienced along the way, adn the one he is living through in limbo in Catania.

And within that limbo, the one consolation for Arouna is the people he met along the way, the people he is surviving with, and Carmelo himself. The pictures are great, the story goes beyond the trope of the journey (although I think the story is still continuing, it's just beginning), and Carmelo published the book to raise some funds to rent a flat for Arouna in Catania.

The problem with Carmelo  Never Stop is there isn't really a problem (aside from the text which helps tell the story is almost impossible to read and could be used to much stronger effect). It's a book of kindness because Carmelo is a very kind man, it's a book of hope, because he's an optimistic man It's a beautiful book and it's human. It tells the story of Arouna, the Senegalese boy who ended up in Catania, Sicily, Stompo's hometown. Stompo befriended him, hung out with him, ate with him, helped him find papers and shelter. He's still helping him find shelter. That's part of what the book is about.

He photographed his whole story in fictionalise form - his departure from Senegal and Gambia - his journey across the desert, his arrival in Libya, his escape from Libya, his journey across the sea, and his arrival into the limbo of Catania.

It's a story where Arouna came close to death four times - in the desert, in the badlands of Libya, in the Mediterranean, and perhaps a living death in Catania. And the pictures are great.

But it doesn't fit the theoretical migrant project mode, because that's not how it was made or what it was made for and that's not who Carmelo is. It's an honest book then that doesn't tick theoretical boxes with a nod to collaboration and consent (even though that is exactly how it was made), even if most of these theoretical constructs are arbitrary and contingent. Carmelo helps Arouna, and he does, and that's in there, he's kind to Arouna and that's in there, and photographs him through images that are cinematic ni quality.

And I love that. And I look forward to the ongoing story of Arouna, and how he survives in Catania and beyond, and the pressures of living in Catania and beyond, and if he can ever make a life for himself in Catania and beyond. Because in the story so far, Stompo has humanised and visualised a journey, a brutality, and the quagmire of asylum in images and words.

Buy Never Stop here.