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Sofa Portraits now available for pre-order

  1.          Sofa Portraits is now available for pre-order from my website (orders will deliver in October/November)   The pric...

Friday, 25 January 2019

Rear Window, Dirty Windows, High Window

Conhecidos De Vista by Leticia Lampert is a lovely folding book of apartment blocks in Porto Alegre in Brazil. It's an inside-outside book. One side folds out to show the exterior of the building, the other side shows interiors.

It's a book that is curated by the apartment caretakers. They are the people who gave Lampert access to the apartments. No appointments were made, instead Lampert turned up and tried her luck. And she got lucky.

The images of the outsides spread across the accordion fold so one building merges into another, the anonymous shutters, balconies and ac units blending into one homogenous mass. But it's the people who make the project; they dine, they clean, they change, they look, they smile.

So it's Rear Window Dirty Windows, High Rise (Window), with  Ed Ruscha, and Montparnasse thrown in for good measure.

Flip the page over and you get the interiors, dark lounge rooms with sofas, tvs, and tables and chairs. Again the pictures move over the lines, one folding into the next to show (less successfully than with the exteriors) the communal, shared nature of life. The images come with quotes, of lives shared, bodies seen, allegiances followed; the neighbours who supported the same football team, the woman who invited herself to a neighbour's party when she saw the plates being laid out, a clothes line strung out (and then taken down) between two facing apartments, the 96-year-old who never leaves.

It's a thick solid book, but one that is surprisingly easy to handle and open, an affectionate book on how we live in cities, how we manage (although surprisingly there is no outright hostility in there, and very few mentions of noise) our curiosity when we live in a hive.

Buy the book here.

Friday, 18 January 2019

What can photography do? Famine and the photograph...

Grain destined for export stacked on Madras beaches (February 1877)
I've started writing a series of posts on photography on World Press Photos Witness site. It's a series where the ideas of what photography is, and what it can be are examined through the lenses of history, theory and practice. It's a series where I seek to iron out my own confusions about what the purpose of photography is, how we see it, how we understand it, and how it can, just possibly, might be able to change the way we see the world. For the better... That's an optimistic hope, but I think it's one that's realistic, and I think a lot of people are working in that way already. 
 The first post looks at famine photography and the idea of photography fitting into a spectrum of awareness and activism. The post focusses on this image of Amal Hussain by Tyler Hicks, an image that fits into a familiar famine trope - except it's a trope we haven't seen for a long time and it can be seen as a first step in a course of visual based action. (I'm not sure that the New York Times is consistent in its use of images, but that is something that will be written about more later - consistency is so important.)
The images below are by William Willoughby Hooper, of the Madras Famine of 1877, part of the collective visual memory of famine and made . The illustration above shows grain stored for export on Madras Beach during the famine, part of the ecology of famine. And that perhaps is really what the whole series will be about. How can we extend photographs out from what's in the image.
The medical aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières have the idea ‘témoignage’ to justify their use of images and reports of suffering in their promotional materials. These are the ideas of giving voice, speaking out, advocacy, legitimacy, and resource mobilization. Seen in this light, Tyler Hicks’ image of Amal Hussain becomes a different proposition because it is an example of speaking out, part of the notion of advocacy often found in the tradition of concerned photography. There was also resource mobilization with many messages of ‘How can we help?’ from concerned readers. It is an example of photography, at some fundamental level, doing something good.
With the New York Times publication of the Hick’s photography, I felt two sides of an argument. Depending on which way I looked at it, both made perfect sense. Rather than being a clear-cut case of, in crude polarised terms, being an exploitative image we should be outraged by, or a heroic bearing of witness, it was a little bit of both. Or actually, it was neither of those. It was somewhere in the middle. It was the beginning of a process, not the end of it.
I wondered at this and thought about the absolutes we use to think about, write about, and talk about images. For something so uncertain as photography, we use the definitive language of absolutes, and we get outraged as though outrage is the only response we have to images that we find questionable.
The example of Tyler Hicks’ image does serve a constructive purpose, though. It made me think about the thought that had gone into the picture (the making, the publishing, the captioning, the intent). I thought about the history of images of famine, how the starving are portrayed, whether their voices are ever heard, whether pictures of suffering really do ever have an effect, or if they just serve as a salve for wealthy voyeuristic consciences....

Willoughby Wallace Hooper [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Li Zhensheng and the Cultural Revolution

 Over the holidays I got Ma Jian's massively enjoyable China Dream as a Christmas present. It tells the story of a party official who wants to fulfil the China Dream of Xi Jinping. To this end, he imagines a way tapping into the dreams of Chinese citizens to make sure they are spiritually and politically pure so the China Dream will be realised.

Unfortunately for him, his own dreams, and then his waking life, a life where he juggles mistresses, corruption and the eviction and destruction of a village  for commercial development  are infested with his memories of the death of his parents, mass graves, and extreme violence during the Cultural Revolution. However much he tries, he can never forget. The memories are always there.

It's a satirical novel that works on the themes of how we remember the past, how we reinvent the past, how we forget the past. And then do the same with the present.  It's about forgetting then. But also about how we can't forget. We can try to shut the memory down but up it will pop in some unexpected place.

I read the book and then saw this story on Li Zhensheng's brilliant Red Color News Soldier - an amazing series of pictures shot during the Cultural Revolution and his troubles on showing them in China. Again, it's a story about forgetting, about obliterating the past. But luckily we have Li's pictures to remind us. And what pictures they are. This is why photography matters. 

And this is an interview I did for The Far Eastern Economic Review when Red Color News Soldier was first published. 

When Chinese photographer Li Zhensheng was at film school, his teacher Wu Ying Xian (the respected Chinese photographer) told him, “Photographers are not only witnesses. They are recorders as well.”

“It made me realise,” says Li in an interview in London, “that when we record history, we have to record it completely - not only the positive images but also the negative ones as well.”

Soon after Li began working as a photographer at the Heilongjiang Daily. It was 1963 and Li’s brief was to capture glowing images of the party, peasantry and workers of China’s most northerly province.

Then in 1966, Mao Zedong announced the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s aim -  to halt China’s slide towards revisionism and re-establish Mao as the nation’s unquestioned leader.

For 600 million Chinese, the next 10 years were a nightmare of persecution and paranoia. Purges of ‘class enemies’,  capitalist roaders” and ‘counter-revolutionary’ communist party leaders led to fighting between rival groups of Red Guards that claimed millions of lives and brought the People’s Republic to the brink of collapse.

There to record it was Li Zhensheng. Acting outside his brief of presenting only the positive side of proletarian China, he captured the violence and chaos in an archive of images that constitutes the most important body of Chinese photojournalism ever created.

As the Cultural Revolution gathered pace in 1966, temples, churches, monasteries and mosques across China were destroyed in part of the campaign to destroy the ‘Four Olds’ - old thought, old culture, old customs and old practices. In Harbin, Heilongjiang’s provincial capital, Li photographed the desecration of a Buddhist Monastery, and the humiliation of monks forced to stand before the mob holding a banner that reads ‘To hell with Buddhist Scriptures. They are full of dog farts.’

The real aim of the Cultural Revolution, however, was to purge Communist Party officials suspected of reformist tendencies. In one incredible sequence, Li shows Heilongjiang’s Provincial Governor, Li Fanwu, being denounced. Head bowed, and standing on a chair, his head is shaved by zealous Red Guards, their eyes full of ideological fury.

Other Cultural Revolution photography does exist, but it is almost all of a propagandist nature. What makes Li’s archive unique is he was perhaps the only photographer to record in detail the violence that was happening during the Cultural Revolution. Shooting such material was regarded as both politically suspect, and, with film supplies extremely limited, a waste of film.

“When I took these images,” explains Li, now aged 63, “photographers from other newspapers just stood there. They said, “what’s the use of taking these photos - you will be criticised for wasting film”, and would only shoot the positive propaganda images.”

To get better access to political events, Li formed a rebel group and got his rebel armband - with Red Color News Soldier emblazoned on it. As a Red Guard, Li soon became the target of rival groups - as did his growing archive of politically suspect negatives.

“Before I realised it was risky to take these photos,” he says, “I only put the negatives away so my colleagues wouldn’t see them. In 1968, when our rebel group was about to be criticised, I realised I had to do something about the negative images. I transferred all the negative images from my office to my home. Had they been found, they would have been burnt.”

Li’s images became grimmer as the Cultural Revolution descended into chaos. He shows us factional fighting between rival groups and, in some powerful portraits, the resulting injuries and deaths.

Most moving is a sequence showing eight people being executed. One of the condemned is a ‘counterrevolutionary’ technician. As he is taken to the place of execution he closes his eyes for the last time and cries out, “This world is too dark!” Then he is led away to be shot, his eyes closed tight against the world he will never see again.

Li also suffered personal tragedies. His girlfriend and first love, Sun Peikui, left him after her mother was denounced as a ‘dog landlord’ and killed herself.  ‘It’s because I love you that I don’t want to destroy you,’ wrote Peikui in her farewell note.

Li’s personal journey through the Cultural Revolution is revealed through an incredible series of self-portraits. Filled with Li’s charismatic presence, they have a theatrical tone that contrasts the harsh realism of his photojournalistic work.

“The reason why I have so many self-timer pictures is I was a soldier,” says Li. “I always left one negative in my camera in case something surprising happened on the way back to the office. If nothing happened, I’d take it back to the office, and not wanting to waste the film, I’d do a self -timer. I had 2 cameras, I had a medium format and a 35 mm camera, and many of the pictures are number 12 from a medium format camera.”

These self-portraits also reflect Li’s personal fortunes. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Li portrays himself as a true believer in Mao’s cause, posing in imitation of a movie hero with bared chest, his blazing eyes ready for the ideological battle to come. In May 1967, he stands behind Sun Peikui, his face beaming as he photographs her in a mirror. Two months later, Sun Peiku has left Li and we see Li holding his Rolleiflex, his face strained by the tortures of the love he has lost. In August, Li photographs himself with a new girlfriend (and future wife), his smile and natural vigor gone, a touch of bitterness intruding on his normally animated face.

In 1969, Li was criticised and spent 2 years’ hard labour at a ‘rectification’ school near the Chinese-Soviet border. Li survived -  and so did his negatives, wrapped in oilskin cloth and hidden under the floorboards of his one-room home.

The Cultural Revolution came to its official end when Mao died in 1976. China moved away from revolutionary communism and reform began. Even so, Li’s photographs were not made public until March 1988 when 20 won first prize in an exhibition in Beijing. “In December that year,” says Robert Pledge, cofounder of Contact Press Images and editor of Red Color News Soldier, “I met Li and he told me his story. I still hadn’t seen his images, but he was so convincing that I agreed there and then to work with him on a book and exhibition.”

The 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing postponed proceedings until 1996 when work finally began with Li placing 50 images with Contact Press in New York.

“They were very impressive,” says Pledge, “but Li’s images were cropped. I was intrigued to see more, but uncropped. So Li made a selection and showed me them in New York. They were quite extraordinary, but I wanted to see more. He said how many more. I said everything. He said that’s not possible - I’ve got over 60,000. Well, he edited them down to 30,000, and brought them over bit by bit.”

But even this wasn’t easy. “The first time I went to New York,” says Li, “I didn’t dare to bring negatives for fear they would be confiscated. The next time, I carried a small amount of negatives each time, which I hid in my wife’s feminine products. After two times, there had been no problem, so I became bolder and carried more.”

The 30,000 negatives Li carried to New York were gradually edited down to the 285 featured in the book, all of which are shown uncropped and in chronological order.

“It’s very exciting,” says Pledge. “I don’t know if in the history of photography there has been a single photographer who has covered a series of events over such a long period of time. Li represents those events in such a coherent form, and it’s the only such record.”

“I’m hoping that when Li’s photography is published, any other material that might exist will surface. Sometimes photography can stimulate ideas, debate and bring out new material. It shows photography can be used as an important historical tool.”

As for Li, his main goal is to show young Chinese what happened during the Cultural Revolution. “I hope this book will show what happened in that period,” he says, “in order that this tragedy will never happen again.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Qajar Gurning, Ugly Laws and the Censorship of Images

I really love this picture from the Qajar court (in Iran) showing members of the harem gurning for the camera. It was made in the 1880s by Doust Mohammad. Ingres it is not.

Doust Mohammad was the son-in-law on Nasir al Din Shah, who took a huge number of pictures to document the women in his court, women who are visually defined by their moustaches (often painted in) and monobrows that make Frida Kahlo look like a wannabe model from the 1990s.

There are many readings of why he did this; to further subjugate the women by having them eternally within his photographic gaze, or as proof of his virility. At times there were long gaps between chidren and his use of the camera may have been a way of proving, via the photographers the vast number of women in the harem, his virility.

There are multiple readings and multiple functions, but just because you operate a camera doesn't mean you have control of it. Pictures live beyond their making and the relationships contained in it. And beyond any of that, the pictures are full of life and provide hidden clues to life led that go beneath the surface of the images. They have a life and a soul in other words.

And they give a visual life to people who would not otherwise have one. Staci Gem Scheiwiller writes how a photograph of these women in the 19th century '...was able to transform one from being meaningless, one whose story could not be told, to one of a face etched in time.'

This individual look fed into political life Scheiweiller argues, creating a consciousness in which women's faces, bodies, emotions, lives were visible. But that changed and women became invisible, deliberately so. These women of the harem have personality and soul and that was a problem for a male society which sought a less vocal and visible feminine identity.

There's the idea here that simply by showing these faces, by having these photographs exist, by having representation they are making something a statement, they make what was invisible visible and that can (and did in 19th century Persia) lead to political change. You don't want women to be active, you don't show them. You don't show them, they don't matter, they cease to exist.

That idea of having people visible or invisible, of what people should look like and the moral failings of those who fall outside that look is also apparent in my last post of 2018, a post which looked at the Ugly Laws and how appearance and wealth are conflated with social usefulness and the provision of full citizenship (and there's definitely a link to Azoulay's idea of the flawed citizen here).

Photography can be very prescriptive about what we can and cannot show, it is quite astonishing how often ugliness is used as a pejorative term, is used at all, the idea that to photograph somebody respectfully one must not show their physical flaws. It's an idea that has embedded within it a very particular idea of how we should look. It has an almost moral idea of what should be shown, what should be seen. Very often this prescription comes dressed up in the language of ethics but really it is reactionary in the same way any censorship is reactionary. it is a kind of Ugly Law in its own right.

I favour a more open approach and enjoyed reading Frances Hatherley's thesis on recovering the grotesque, and celebrating the body in  photography. It's basically the idea that ideas of ugliness, feminine ugliness in particular are class based and the aesthetic judgements that we make (and the ethical conclusions we draw from those judgements) are part of a moralising hypocrisy based on control of minds, bodies and souls by institutions of power.

And by extension we as photographers very much direct that power in the judgements we make. We turn people who are full citizens in non-citizens. We deny their existence and we become our own censors. And aren't there enough censors in the world as it is

 Here's a snippet of hte intro and you can read more here

This thesis’ reclamation of negative stereotypical images of working-class femininity, described as grotesque, ugly and shameful, hinges on an argument that aesthetic as well as gender categories are classed constructs.
Designations of “ugliness” are not neutral. Ela Przybylo writes in “The Politics of Ugliness” (2010) that, ‘ugliness is political in at least two ways: it denotes and bookmarks inequalities and hierarchies, serving as a repository for all that is “other” in our culture and ugliness is a necessarily contingent and relational, it is never an individual concern but rather exists because bodies are compared to one another, and because they are evaluated in accordance to the “norm”’. (Przybylo 2010, p3).

Monday, 7 January 2019

The Face of 2019

This is how I spent the first minutes of 2019 and for some reason I'm reading it as some kind of portent for  the year ahead.