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Tuesday, 26 February 2019

It doesn't have to be boring

A few weeks ago Danny Blight (he writes on photography and is into theoryin a big way) got hammered on Twitter for saying Don McCullin is boring.

So I did a Twitter quiz on what is more boring....

What is the most boring thing in photography? You can only have four things otherwise, good lord, it would have been a long list. This is like an itch I shouldn't scratch but...

The Old British Photography bit didn't win, and it is more than just Don McCullin. There's a whole bunch of stuff up there, but still it only got 8%.

Personally I really like Don McCullin's work.He's one of the greats. I've seen it in exhibitions here and there, I've read his biography and seen his films. I've shown them students and had students coming out going, that's amazing, but where the fuck is Biafra and what's with the hero stuff. Which is good because it means you can do some history (on average 10% of students have heard of Chairman Mao - for example!) and address the hero element.

So I thought when they did a big show at the Tate, it would be an opportunity for people to come out of there learning about the world, about the period these images were made, about the monumental historical shifts they recorded. And to go beyond that photographer-as-witness-hero rhetoric. I actually quite like that rhetoric, I have a soft spot for it, but  it's a bit limited and superficial  ultimately and you need to leave it behind quite quickly when you have the right stage.

Maybe Tate was the right stage but I'm getting the impression that it's not. Anastasia Taylor-Lind expressed her frustration not just with the hanging of the images (all the same size in frames), the constant rhetoric of the heroic photographer, but also the lost opportunity to do something epic with the pictures.

The curation focused a lot on the war photographer as tragic hero and myth creation. One text read “ I want to create a voice for the people in those pictures” It’s 2019- time to start taking about passing the mic, not giving others a voice.
Another section intro read “I’ve been loyal by risking my life for fifty years” another “I dream of this when I’m in battle. I think of misty England...”
It honestly feels like I travelled back in time 20 years to see this show the curation is so outdated and poorly framed.

Because they are historically huge pictures that are of this world, and it is up to somebody else to realise their importance, and their role in UK publishing in particular, and take them outside the more limited frameworks of a super-talented individual to make us not just bask in their compositional brilliance but also understand something about the pain, heartache, suffering of the world, and the names under which wars have been fought and continue to be fought. Because that is the key message I choose to take from Don McCullin's work. I ignore the elements that don't interest me (the hero, great man stuff) and focus on the ways in which the images have a life beyond McCullin and the more hagiographic perspectives - which are the least interesting thing about the photographs, and perhaps have little to do with the photographs. The pictures have a life of their own, they are part of a larger visual field and that is what I have not seen recognised in any McCullin exhibition I've been to. And perhaps it's not recognised in this one.

I actually love old British work so it's a shame to see this show is a bit same-old, same-old. with a lack of imagination and maybe a cheapness about it (and it does cost a lot to enter so you should be getting alot). I don't know, I haven't seen it so maybe everything written here is wrong. And maybe it doesn't matter that much. I know that many of the things my photography friends moan about are completely irrelevant to the real, more-fully-functioning world. The show's doing well, getting great press, who cares? But I felt the urge to write this before doing something else that I really don't want to do...

But even when you there are economics at play, if you have some imagination, then you can be brilliant. I just reviewed Chris Killip's four part newspaper of his old work from the 1970s and 1980s from the Northeast of England. It's printed on newspaper it's printed brilliantly with a real design element that highlights vital historical work that doesn't feel reheated, that feels fresh and in its mix of images, feels like it is shedding new light on what it is to live in the communities where he photographed.

So yes, that's good!

Monday, 25 February 2019

Laura Dodsworth's Womanhood

Perhaps the most viewed pictures in the UK  this year have been Laura Dodsworth's Womanhood. It's a series of 100 images of women's vulvas and it follows her other series of images on penises and breasts.

The pictures have featured here there and everywhere including a tv programme dedicated to them but interestingly they don't quite figure in the worlds of photography that this blog is concerned with - art, photobooks, festivals, documentary, photojournalism.

The theme is there. Magazines and galleries have dedicated issues to the Girl Gaze and ideas of reclaiming the body that go back to the very powerful ideas of Carolee Schneemann and beyond into the distant, distant past.

It fits a particular theme and articulates ideas of the body, gender, agency and how perceptions of self are formed and can be changed. It's a good thing then, but still it doesn't quite hit the mark. It might well be because the photographer doesn't quite speak that same language (if it is the right language), is too mainstream, has a past career in publishing and marketing that has kind of stuck, or simply has bigger fish to fry. Or doesn't care.

Maybe it's because her pictures of breasts, penises and vulvas are so descriptive. There's the idea that is endlessly repeated that all the stories have been told (and they have), and everything has been photographed (and it has)... the conclusion of these ideas is that you can't photograph something without ending up in banal repetition. That perhaps is the cause of the endless overcomplication of things. I do sometimes end up looking at photography projects wishing that I was better at puzzle solving, because that is what so many books read like. They are a mystery for the viewer to solve, with the subtext that the more pain the better.

There isn't any mystery in Dodsworth's projects. Perhaps that's the point. And the point is also that even though the story has been told, it hasn't been told in this way. Dodsworth latest project focusses on vulvas. They have been photographed by photographers (and written about and exhitbited) and you'll see them in porn. All Dodsworth did was photograph them slightly differently, possibly not all that 'well' - and they don't fit into a typological grid because that's not their concern. Their concern is to show something unadorned and unfiltered. That's waht made them appear new to people, to women in particular, and in various publications they were accompanied by interviews and confessions that felt quite liberating.

It's a kind of stating the obvious. Anyway, I like them I think. I'm still struggling to grasp exactly why they don't really figure in the micro-photographic scheme of things. She just has the wrong voice, she's not an artist, she's simply operating in that world. I think that's interesting on so many levels, and indicative of so much, not of Dodsworth, but of the failings that shut her work out. It's indicative of a definite conservatism, quite a limited way of thinking. I  wonder what little twitch of visual, verbal or personal expression would change her work from something that has been viewed by millions to something that could garner the praise from photography's more precious, if less-visited, worlds. Not much I'm sure, but then if you're getting shows on mainstream television, why really would you bother?

I remember when I was a kid and there were certain records you could buy, and certain records you couldn't (even if you liked them). It's that basically, but in photography...

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Rembrandt: No comparison with our own Mr Rippingille

'Rembrandt is not to be compared in the painting of character with our extraordinarily gifted English artist, Mr Rippingille.'

John Hunt, 19th-century art critic' on the work of Edward Villiers Rippingille, whose Young Visitors you can see above or at Bristol Museum.

My wife used to quote this to me all the time when she saw people agreeing and nodding their heads to some absurdly mistaken opinion stated as face. And then we saw some Rippingilles in real life. It ain't nice.

Friday, 15 February 2019

Charlie Surfs on Lotus Flowers: There's too much to choose

I've got a vested interest in this book because Simone Sapienza used to be my lovely student and b) he was one of the three people who started Gazebook Sicily. Gazebook Sicily was a photobook festival by the sea in Sicily. For three straight years, that's how I began every september.

It was free and, if you're looking for a model on how to organise a photobook festival with food, drink, music and free access to talks and portfolio reviews and all the rest, well Gazebook might be the one. So because of that I kind of love Simone. That and quite a lot more including the fact that he's a brilliant photographer and human being.

Charlie Surfs on Lotus Flowers is a book Simone published last year. It's avisual stream of consciousness through Ho Chi Minh City, through Vietnamese capitalism and all its contradictions. It's a mix of still-lifes, portraits made in a pop-up studio. backdrop heavy street images, and disjointed fragments of the alienation of everyday life. How do you manage to live in a country with such a history, and such a present and so many contradictions, Simone is asking. How do you make sense of it all.

You can read a really good review of the book here.

And here is my short video review of the book.

I got the book just after reading The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen. The Refugees is a collection of short stories about the lives of Vietnamese refugees living in the United States, about people who left Vietnam after the end of the war there or in the late 1970s.

It's a book about people who are living between two worlds; one is the violence, dysfunction and tradition of Vietnam during the war years, it's a world where people are at ease with themselves and their families, where they own the dysfunction around them, where religion, family, food, community and the contradictions and psychosis that accompany those things are internal to their lives.

And then they get to America and everything changes. A simulacrum of family, community is built into their new lives but it's built on quicksand, it doesn't quite take; the dysfunction is not familiar.. Attempts are made to recreate the old life through political organisations but without the unifying sense of place of Vietnam, these are just deluded and corrupt.

In one story, the main character#s mother  has a shop selling groceries to Vietnamese migrants. She faces the challenges of making money from customers who question every price, who wonder why it's more expenensive than back 'home', who are in denial about the deaths of their missing family members, and who threaten to blackball the mother's shop if she doesn't pay money to fight the Communists back home. The mother knows what will happen if she doesn't pay. She resists, but can't resist enough. In the end, she pays money that she knows is at best a waste, for a futile cause.

And as she pays, she realises that the old life, the life in pre-Communist Vietnam, is over, that she lives in America now. And with that, she gives her son, for the first time ever, a $5 bill to spend as he likes. He goes to the local shop, a shop run by Sikhs, and he looks in wonder at the comics, at the sweets, at the chocolate. 'While the clerks chatted in a language I did not understand,' the final line reads, 'I hesitated, yearning to take everything home but unable to choose.'

And that is what Charlie Surfs on Lotus Flowers is about! It's a wonderful book.

Buy the book here.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Abu Ghraib: Who is in the picture?

I feel like I'm missing something here and this has been written about before in lots of places but so it goes. The question of who is in the picture, if anyone (it is only a picture after all) is so complex.

We can fetishise images so much that we become like some cave-dwelling community adamant that photographs steal our souls. But that's not necessarily the case and here are a couple of examples of that. I don't know what's right here or even if there is a right. But I can see some wrongs, and that is what is most interesting.

I watched this video the other day of Ali Shallal al-Qaisi recounting his experiences of torture in Abu Ghraib prison. He aslo claimed he was the man in the famous hooded man picture but apparently he wasn't, and it was determined that he wasn't some years ago. I'm not quite sure how this was determined, but it was by all accounts even if the people giving those accounts might be less than reliable.

He had been in Abu Ghraib prison though, he had been hooded, he had been tortured, he had been electrocuted, but he wasn't the actual man in the picture. The man was apparently Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh.

It does matter that al-Qaisi wasn't the man, but the man who it was has not been found. You're left with a gap between iconic image and what lies behind it. The man who was apparently in the picture has not been found, perhaps he is alive, perhaps he is dead, perhaps he doesn't exist. He is not there to speak from the other side of the image (or the images) from Abu Ghraib - which leaves us with al-Qaisi who is very able to talk from the other side of the image of the humiliation, torture and lasting psychological damage that was done to him.

By claiming to be that man (and why not, every person who was tortured in Abu Ghraib could be that man), he crystallised his citizenship, he called out to the spectator what happened in that prison, how he was violated on every level. He also moves the image away from the politically and geographically limited American perspective (Peggy Phelan describes it as the "what these pictures say about us" view) and also remove at least some of the blind spots that have existed in the reading of these images.

And that's what matters. It's curious to see the comments on Errol Morris' views on the piece, in which Morris classifies the question of  who exactly it was in the image (which does matter) as a 'who-is-under-it, rather than a who-dunnit?' and notes on the ways in which images do not exist independently of theories and presuppositions but feed off them and gain their own momentum.

The comments also reflect a particular way of thinking and seeing the world. They drill down into the photographic, into the minutae of sports reporting and cinematic and miss the real point of the image and Ali Shallal al-Qaisi's claim, a claim that is everything to do with that idea of the spectator as an active participant in viewing the image, and the photograph as a fluid entity that is not fixed by its makers or its history.

It all rather misses the point in other words. Photography so often misses the point by fixing on closed ways of seeing the image and the world. By fixing on the supremacy of the image and its supposedly indexical relationship to a defined world, you miss what really matters which is the before and after for the man in the picture and everything that touches upon. And if not the man in the picture, then the man under the hood. And for now, al-Qaisi has claimed the role of the man in the hood. He's not that man, but he was a man, and until the real man comes forward then he can stand as proxy for him

Maybe, I'm not sure. Ariella Azoulay (who I'm re-reading at the moment because of this series of posts) mentions the case of Mrs Abu-Zohir, volunteering her legs, injured by rubber bullets fired by the Israeli Defence Force, to be photographed (but not by a man). There's a debate as to whether the injuries will be newsworthy enough, but she insists the picture is taken. The photographer, Zvi Gilat, asks to see her legs. She refuses. They are her legs, he cannot see them.

The conversation goes like this:

Photographer: Show me your legs.

Mrs Abu-Zohir: I won't show you my legs. You're not going to see my legs.

Photographer to translator: Explain to her that this photo is going to appear in the newspapers, and the entire world is going to see her legs.

Mrs Abu-Zohir: A photo's a photo. I don't care if the photo is seen, but you're not going to be in the room with me when I expose my legs.

Instead, Gilat sets up the camera for the female translator to photograph her legs. The photograph is taken but 'nothing has concluded.' ... 'the photo, existing in the public space, will not allow photography to end, nor will she alone dictate its course... Nothing has concluded, though the hour of photography has passed.'

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Marc Garanger and the Power of the Gaze

image by Marc Garanger

There was a social media conversation last week about writing about photography and the right to check what somebody has written about you. The photographer was putting his case for the right to check what is written, but also that the writer conforms to the 'right' interpretation.

I can understand that in a way, especially when there are technical aspects to the work (as with this work by Liz Orton - I am not really an expert on clinical imaging) or it's of a sensitive nature.

All this makes for extra work for the writer of course, and very often that is essential to getting accuracy out. At times however, there are occasions when the writing or platform (as with this blog) is more incidental, when time and money pressures kick in and there simply isn't time to check everything.

I have worked in circumstances where photographers have checked what is written and it is nearly always beneficial. On occasions though, it is a case where they want something rephrased, or they say something interesting and challenging - and decide that actually they didn't say that and they would rather be less interesting and challenging. They blandify the writing or their thoughts (I had one photographer take out the phrase 'human rights violations' once because they thought it 'too dramatic').

And then there are times when photographers are simply are unwilling to acknowledge that the work is going out into the world and will be examined and spoken about in ways beyond their control in the same way as when a person has their picture taken, they never (even when they think they have) have control over where it will end up, be reproduced or be understood.

It's a lost opportunity. Writing about your own work opens it up to different forms of understanding. Having other people write about your work, interpret your work, make connections can be terrifying and wonderful opens it up to even more levels of understanding. It makes new links that go beyond photography, creates new relationships. In the best of worlds, it means you start to see new things in your own photographs. You don't get that if you want someone to regurgitate your particular version of events.

It also recognises that images are not pinned down, that they do not operate in closed circles, closed ways of seeing, That's why research matters in photography, why if you just say something is great without research or questioning then you are operating at a trivial level.

Letting others read meaning into your photographs also shows a certain humbleness. It moves photography away from the smoke and mirrors of contemporary practice in bookmaking, curating, exhibiting and places them into a wider context. It acknowledges there is more than one way of seeing and that time is a great leveller, that can open images up to ideas that go beyond the original function in which images are made.

There are gaps in photography, the meaning of an image is never fixed. Even photography made under the most difficult circumstances  isn't fixed - it can be renewed, recontextualised, re-evaluated.

This gap is what Ariella Azoulay writes about in the Civil Contract of Photography, the idea that a photograph has its place in a world that exists beyond the moment in which the image is made, beyond the functions that endowed the image with a particular meaning. Sometimes the purpose of looking at photography is to undermine and question those particular meanings, to find new meanings and expand the world beyond what the photography was supposed to be.

You can see this in particular in Marc Garanger's images from Algeria. As Teju Cole so rightly points out, you hope that pictures aren't made in these circumstances again. You hope that those circumstances don't happen again, but of course they do happen, they are happening, they will happen.

Unfortunately pictures did get made in these circumstance serving particular functions for empire and war. But despite this, the life they attained when they went beyond the power structures of French colonial archives is an example of...

''...the multiplicity of memories and responses they generate, even outside of the specific moment of their production. As such, they can aid in mobilising what Michael Rothberg termed a ‘multidirectional memory’ — a type of memory that engages with parallel memory strands.'

The photographer did not have total control in other words, the considerable framing powers of the identity  archive and those who press-ganged him into becoming a photographer in Algeria were not enough to bound how the images were seen (and indeed Garanger's sympathies may be evident in how the images are ultimately being seen).

What gives these images power is the women themselves. The gazes these women give are not just directed at Garanger and the failures of photography (both of which are relatively inconsequential in the scheme of things), they are directed at something much larger, the injustices of colonial rule, the brutal oppression of the French.

They are such powerful images and there is an agency there that is monumental. It was agency that was initially closed off. The making of the images was one where these women were non--people, flawed citizens made a statement with their eyes, with their expression. There is anger, confrontation, indignation, but also sadness, sorrow, and feat. Collectively, it provides a manifesto in some form, an emotional manifesto that is directed not just at Garanger-as-photographer (he returned to the village to interview and rephotograph the women)  and the French military authorities responsible for making the work.

Tied in to that idea is the notion that the spectator is implicated in the work, they are not passive recipients of the image. Photography is not a controlled thing in other works, images are not controlled, they have gaps and can attain a life of their own. And the life that lies beyond the image is not in the hands of the photographer, or the archive, it goes beyond it. In that sense, photography is a redundant thing, it's the passive element in all this, the marginal recorder of things. It's not the thing, it's a symptom of the thing, if even that; maybe it's only a symptom of a symptom, who knows.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Liz Orton: Humanizing the Medical Gaze

all images copyright Liz Orton

These images are from Liz Orton's investigations into the medical gaze and her attempts to rehumanise a way of looking at the body that is depersonalising and comes with a barrelful of fetishised and dominating ways of seeing that date back to the photography of Charcot, Duchenne and Diamond back to the time of photo illustration. 

The illustrations come from different editions of Clark's positioning for radiography (an incredible guiide filled with off-kilter, sexualised images - health and efficiency with added radium if you like), while the scans are Orton's attempts to rehumanise the body, reclaim it from the data that it has become under the medical gaze. It's not entirely successful as Orton admits but here, more than just about anywhere I can think of, it's the process that matters. And still the images are amazing. 

  Liz Orton uses medical imaging and clinical representation to focus on the medical gaze and its power relations. Through collaborative portraits, co-opted algorithms, and appropriated and cropped images from medical textbooks, she seeks to reclaim what makes us human from the hard facts and figures of medical imaging and the ways of seeing that accompany them.

It’s work that humanises images that are seen as evidential, scientific and objective yet come with a history that is tied to ideas of institutional power, surveillance and male dominated hierarchies. In that sense, her work is not just about the medical gaze, it’s about the history of photography and the ways in which it is used against people.

It’s also work that has a personal edge, its roots sunk in Orton’s experience of a ‘non-invasive’ MRI scan her 13-month-old daughter had to undergo at Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

The Mirror Chair Project

My review of The Mirror Chair Project by Agus Prats is up on Instagram TV. You can watch it here. 

It's a book which shows Agus's meanderings through the streets of Barcelona, with images of the doorways, shop fronts and windows he photographed to remember the attack that left him paralysed and the recovery that saw these pictures made.

See more about the project and buy the book here.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Cleansing the Photographic Palate

I spoke to Alec Soth yesterday on photographing without the burden of the project, without the weight of expectation of the grand narrative, on using photography to connect between photographer, person and place in a manner uncluttered by the idea of the epic.

"It was a cleansing of the palate," he said, "a cleaning of the system and getting back to this fundamental experience of being with another person, looking at them, wondering what’s going on inside them."

I love that idea of the photographer with no destination, wandering nebulously to create a visual map of what it is to photograph people, a template of visual being, of some kind of emotional truth. Because that is what photography is all about really. Except when it's not of course.

And it does beg the question of where else the photographic palate could be cleansed.

I'll post the full interview later but it's in connection with this book, I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating.

The title comes from this poem by Wallace Stevens, a poem that is all about distance and closeness, finding beauty in this gray room, finding consolation in the essential separateness of life. Which is what Soth's book is all about

The Gray Room

Although you sit in a room that is gray,
Except for the silver
Of the straw-paper,
And pick
At your pale white gown;
Or lift one of the green beads
Of your necklace,
To let it fall;
Or gaze at your green fan
Printed with the red branches of a red willow;
Or, with one finger,
Move the leaf in the bowl--
The leaf that has fallen from the branches of the forsythia
Beside you...
What is all this?
I know how furiously your heart is beating.