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Writing is Easy, Writing is Difficult

The  December 14th workshop is now full. The next one will be in March 2020 Email me at colinpantall@yahoo.co.uk with any questions ...

Friday, 28 June 2019

Real Face, Sad Face, Fake Face?







My latest article for  Witness is on faces and emotion, how it's communicated through expresssion, gesture, space, history, oh and electric wires. 

The thing I love is it gives me a chance to talk about some of my very favourite work by some of my very favourite photographers as well as touch upon ideas of faces, masks and heads. The images below are by Krass Clement. If you don't know Krass Clement, it's a beautiful learning experience...





It also gives me a chance to revisit some older work, as in a few years older. I think because photography moves so fast, we don't really give work a time to settle. There's a flurry of activity for a couple of years and then it passes.

This is very true of photobooks which sometimes seem in a kind of visual concept race where one idea is worked to death for a year before another one comes along and then another and then another. And the substance and heart and soul of work gets lost in the process. 


The substance is what matters. That the case with Laura El-Tantawy’s In the Shadow of the Pyramids, which I revisited for this piece. 

It's a series of images from Cairo’s ill-fated Arab Spring (and that fate was always written into the work. There are lines of protesters, ranks of police, people fleeing, rocks being hurled, all under the orange glow of Cairo’s sodium lamps. And then people are arrested, they’re injured, they die. And because people die, their mothers, their fathers, their family, their friends grieve.

El-Tantawy shows this grief. But rather than showing the intensely performed grief that you so often see, she shows a more private grief, one that runs deeper that comes through simple gestures that are tightly cropped and intensely personal. 

It's direct and it's simple and the emotion runs into and beyond what is happening on the streets of Cairo. 

Pretty much all the writing on photography is about its authenticity. Even people who write about how inauthentic and fake it is have at the heart of their thoughts some inner ideal world where authenticity reigns supreme.

It's the real-notreal, true-nottrue cycle. And the answer is a bit of both, and it depends, and maybe. There are no absolutes. The nice thing about photographic criticism is people write in absolutes - 'the photographic is a neurological pathway to a collective consciousness..'  or  'the image of disaster and war is a catharsis for our collective guilt...' 

People come out with this stuff, with no proof whatsoever, and then it's taken as fact and regurgitated a million times. It's a notch above Photography is good v Photography is bad, but not too much of one.

And which is true? is photography good? Is it bad? It depends on several things? Including is the photograph real or is it not real? And how do you know that? Well that depends as well.

Christopher Anderson's pictures from Stump are real (all photographs are real, wherever you find them), and what they show is real as well. Not authentic, but real.  The faces that Christopher Anderson photographed in his book Stump, are as false as you can imagine. The smiles are more like grimaces, the upturned lips or gazing eyes expressions of gravity and power. These are faces where emotions are all on the surface.


It’s the visual version of Oliver Sack’s story, The President’s Speech. This is a story where a group of aphasia patients (who can't understand the individual words too well in isolation, but understand the emotional content of the speaker) are watching Ronald Reagan give a speech. And they are pissing themselves laughing because... he's such a bad actor. They get beneath the language. 

That's what these pictures are about. 


And then the final person I look at is Soham Gupta and his pictures from Kolkata. These are harsh pictures, I'm not sure about them, they're shock images which doesn't always bode well. But I remember seeing them for the first time and there was something about them that resonated beyond the shock. 

I'm not a complete believer in the idea that to make a picture of a people or place, you have to be of that people or from that place . But, like everything, maybe sometimes it's the case, maybe sometimes it isn't. Maybe very often it's a good idea. (And I'm looking forward to attending a workshop next week that will touch on that issue and migration - part of which will go into the next piece)

It's very much a good idea with Gupta, who is at the same of the place and the people, but perhaps also not. His work comes from both the people he photographs, but also stretches into ideas of asymmetrical urban development, neglect of mental health services, and the history of Kolkata as a place of publically owned displacement, distress and death. 

“It’s like punching the wall. I want to shake up the people [who] are living in their comfort zone. I want to shake their world and show them that this is also a world that exists and it’s not that far away from their world. It’s in the same city but different.


People don’t acknowledge their existence, they don’t look at them, they don’t care. They are not the vote banks for politicians so you don’t need to do anything for them. It’s very sad.”
“There are two sides to this work. On one side it’s about these people’s suffering, about their rotting away on the streets of Kolkata, on the other side it’s how I see my life, the prime of my life. It’s for my own understanding of how I see the world.



Most of these people develop mental illness over time and because getting treatment is very difficult, they leave the home. Or if they are women and being abused they might get kicked out and then they end up living on the street. And that’s where the problems begin.


I’m not an outsider in some ways, but in other ways I am an outsider. And they are outsiders. Mental illness is a big stigma in India and I experienced that so there’s a lot of anger in me so that finds a way of being expressed in my photography. I empathise with them and I see myself in them.”


Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Jo Spence: Domesticity, Genre and the History of Photography


                                                    (Image from Jo Spence's Final Project)

One exhibition I'm really looking to this summer is Jo Spence and Orjeet Ashery at the Wellcome Collection in Misbehaving Bodies.

It's an exhibition that '...documents Spence's diagnosis of breast cancer and subsequent healthcare regime throughout the 1980s. Her raw and confrontational photography is shown alongside Oreet Ashery’s (b. 1966) award-winning miniseries ‘Revisiting Genesis’, 2016. Ashery’s politically engaged work explores loss and the lived experience of chronic illness in the digital era.'


So there's that, but it also gives me the chance to fanboya bit over Jo Spence, a photographer who is so overdue a major retrospective, dedicated monograph (there isn't one. How unbelievable is that) and primacy of place in British photographic history.

If you're wondering who Jo Spence is, imagine Cindy Sherman, but with her soul laid bare, with everything out on the surface, without the miasma of cultural-economic superstardom to mystify things. Imagine Cindy Sherman, but working-class English and poor and never really cool, enigmatic or successful, engaging with and directly questioning the orthodoxies of art, photography, gender and class. There you go....

For the longest time ever I had difficulty really getting her work. On the one hand, I really like work that disrupts photography and that disrupts the accepted stylistic flickers that we have come to believe make good photography, a meaningful project, a challenging project and all those things that tie in to all those traditonal ideas of what good photography is, all those things that people still, almost without exception, work with. Photography can be critical, but the questioning stops in particular places. There are lots of formulas at play.

On the other side, I love those formulas, I love that tradition of the epic image, the classic photo essay, the wonderful photobook, all of which come pre-packed with certain assumptions and really serve our informational expectations more than anything else. I love that side of photography. Which is a good job really, because try as I might, I don't see that being challenged too much anywhere, especially by people who say they challenge it. Being challenging is a formula. Anyway, enough of that, it's all good.

The great image, the heroic essay, the idealised portrait, the formula, the singular voice, the stylistic mannerism is not  where Jo Spence is coming from. That's what she worked against. She was disruptive and not selectively disruptive.She was a very strange photographer, a photographic polymath who worked against the grain, who got stitched up by photographic communities on various occasions, who doesn't quite fit into some of the histories of photography because... possibly because she was and still is working ahead of her time. 

Essentially, Jo Spence worked in the 1970s and 1980s on projects that looked at how identity was formed by photographs and how identity could be transformed by photographs. She looked at multiple gazes (the familial gaze, the medical gaze, the domestic gaze, the male gaze). She examined ideas of invisible motherhood and unrecognised labour in pursuit of acknowledgement and change. 

She was the most important photographer of the domestic in that sense, working with ideas of collaboration and activism that are still relevant now. Even more contemporary was the way in which she undermined the supremacy of the image. She made pictures that didn't quite fit what a picture should be, that still doesn't quite fit what a picture should be. She was making all those images of the body, of the self, of awkwardness that you see now - the difference being that her images were awkward, were off-kilter, did not conform photographically or subtextually, to a softening visual narrative.



She worked on the history of photography (with Terry Dennett), visualising domestic anthropologies and questioning the history of photography and the ways it reinforced ways of seeing and thinking about women, domesticity, the family, the world. 

Working with portraiture in family albums  she examined how photography and traditional hierarchies of power overlapped, how photography could passively fit into existing class, economic and gender structures and fossilise negative identities, and how photography could be actively used to disrupt those social structures and transform identity.  

Feminism, social justice and questioning of power were central to her work. Her knowledge emerged from practical experience in advertising, wedding, child and social photography, so it wasn't just empty rhetoric. It came from somewhere - and that generic questioning is still a place that very few photographers are willing to go - basically because it kind of destroys the image, and the art, and the marketability. Now she's long-since-dead, Spence's work is eminently marketable. It's disempowered somewhat by that. It's the classic Catch-22 of any art. 

So hers was a very empirical practical where the personal and the political are expressed in a photographic voice rooted in experience and an underlying ideal of the authentic - an idea of the authentic which comes by way of the inauthenticity of the traditional photographic image in all its functional manifestation.



Her curating of images, her disruption of genre and style, her consideration of pose and facial expression in images as a creator (and destroyer) of identity is a forerunner of  Gender Advertisement (Goffman, 1979) and Gender Trouble (Butler, 1990) and is still relevant today. 

Her domestic work connects to the idea of both the domestic interior and the idea of the geography of the home and labour. It also ties to idea of class, sexuality and the spectacle of the body, especially the way in which the female body is portrayed and understood, and the way it has been both commercialised and vilified. There's a melding of the body, home and art that is made from within the domestic space, from within its gendered power boundaries. That is so unusually powerful and connects far more to the conceptual work of artists such as Mierle Laderman Ukeles who examined the hierarchies of domestic labour as well as how change could be affected through art, rather than the purely photographic. 

And then she died. And of course she made work about that, which is what the Wellcome exhibition is all about, with reflections on the body, the self, how that body and self are seen by doctors and hospitals,  and how these are seen and recovered through both the medical gaze and through her ( and Rosy Martin’s) photo-therapeutic approach. 

Read back on what she's done and it reads like a deconstruction of  the functions of photography, with all its histories, its powers and its  knowledges. But he work is also about how genre, voice and Identity overlap with ideas of visual power and  - most importantly - how that power can be undermined.  

We all like to think we undermine power and the like, and many of us do up to a point. But up to a point means up to a point. But Jo Spence, one feels, was a bit of a real deal; in the intensity of her obsession, her exposure of the self, her mass of visual energy, and the anti-photographic nature of her work.



Monday, 17 June 2019

Writing is Easy, Writing is Difficult

The  December 14th workshop is now full. The next one will be in March 2020

Email me at colinpantall@yahoo.co.uk with any questions



I'm a photographer. I'm a writer. I teach photography and I have a background in teaching writing.

Writing is difficult and it's made more difficult by limited expectations of how you can write, what you can write and where you can write. 

But writing can be made accessible. Everybody can write. 

And when it's made accessible, when it has a directness and a voice, it can make a huge difference to how photographs are understood. It can help the writer change the view of what photography can be, of what photography matters. 

I write a lot. I write in different formats and different styles. I write for magazines, I write this blog, I edit books, I write on Instagram.

Because of this, I get a lot of people asking me to help them with writing . Sometimes I will help people out with writing because it's interesting, or I love the work (see this piece here, or this piece here), sometimes I will give advice. 

I get asked so often I decided to start a workshop: Writing and Photography.

It's designed to give participants a voice, to make writing accessible, to open new perspectives on what to write and how to write. It's designed to create a structure for writiing about photography.

It's for anybody who's interested in writing about photography, including those who think they can't write. Learning to write is a process. This will start you on that process.

It will be lovely, interactive and confidence building. 

Here are the details below. Or go to my website for another view.




Colin Pantall Workshop: Writing and Photography

Book this workshop on writing and photography in Bath, Saturday 7th Septemeber

£100 - payable via paypal –  https://www.paypal.me/colinpantall (NOTE - THE SEPTEMBER WORKSHOP IS NOW FULL)

The next workshop is on October (date tbc)


WHAT

Writing and Photography is a one-day introductory workshop on the different ways you can write about photography – both your own photography and other people’s. Using interactive examples, the workshop  will examine different forms of writing, the different voices it can be delivered with, finding your interests, how to start writing and finding a structure for your work.

If you have ideas you can write, if you lack confidence in writing, this workshop will help you gain confidence.
   
WHO’S IT FOR?
 It’s for anybody who is interested in writing about images..
Writing develops ideas, it makes connections, it enriches photography. This workshop is for people who want to expand how they think about and see their own photography. It’s for people who want to write about their own work and find ways to connect their way of seeing with viewers through writing.

It’s for people who want to write about photography, who think there are areas that are neglected or ignored in photography. It’s to give a written voice to those areas. If you think photography is controlled by a small circle of gatekeepers, this workshop will help you become your own gatekeeper and create an active, positive written representation of what you think photography can be.  
  
HOW AND WHY
 One of the major blockages for people who want to write about photography is thinking there is one way of writing. There are many ways of writing about images. It does not have to be formal, academic, or an essay.
 Using interactive activities with images, texts and key examples, participants will identify ways of writing that match their personal style. They will identify barriers to writing, find ways to overcome them, and will also look at starting points for getting your inspirations and ideas in a variety of written forms. By the end of the workshops, students will have a writing plan that they will be able to work on in the coming days, weeks and months.

WHO AM I
 I am a writer, photographer and lecturer in photography. I write regularly for publications including the British Journal of Photography, World Press Photo Witness, Magnum Photos, PH Museum of Humanity, Photomonitor, and Source Magazine. I co-edited and wrote Magnum China and have also written and edited texts for photographers including Cat Hyland, Laura El-Tantawy, Vincen Beeckman, and Amak Mahmoodian.
 In addition to this, I have a background in teaching writing to learners with language barriers. Building confidence and developing both short-term and long-term strategies and frameworks of writing for participants of all levels is my speciality.

WHEN, WHERE, HOW MUCH
 Saturday September 7th:  10:00 – 17:00

 New Oriel Hall
Brookleaze Buildings
Larkhall, Bath, BA1 6RA

Maximum number of participants: 8

(Regrettably, due to booking the room on this occasion is not accessible. A later workshop will be in an accessible room)

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Sweeping generalisations and repetition



This post came up on Hyperallergic the other day. It's about which artists get into the Whitney Biennale...

How do artists get into the Whitney Bienniale?

In order to ascertain what the participants shared, I broke the spreadsheet down into these initial categories, which became more focused as I went along: gender, racial and ethnic identity, place and date of birth, undergraduate and graduate education and degree.

Afterward, I decided to add the following categories for reasons that will become clear, as I detail them. Where do the artists live and work? How many of them have gallery representation? Where are the galleries located? What shows have they been in?



What do these 68 people have in common?


In terms of geographic locale, 38 of the artists spend at least part of their time living and working in New York City. Two live and work in Philadelphia, and one lives and works in Baltimore. Two other artists live within commuting distance of New York, in Somerset, New Jersey, and Germantown, New York. This means that 43 out of the 68 individual artists in the Biennial live in or near New York, or along the Northeast Corridor (what William Gibson would call the “Sprawl”).


The basic gist of is although there is diversity in some forms, in regional terms there isn't and, with the concentration of participants from particular educational and artistic environments (and with a particular way of thinking and talking about art), the diversity is actually really limited. 

It's an idea that certainly struck a chord in any country which has a economically and culturally concentrated arts community. It strikes a chord in the UK where the same focus on a particular kind of voice and way of seeing is often at play and London dominates  in a huge way.

It makes everything a bit dull, like an extended artist's statement, with everything aiming to play that cultural capital into some kind of economic benefit - a tricky thing in the UK, a country where the arts aren't exactly valued, photography even less so.  It also makes things quite parochial with a limited number of people and organisations shaping what we see, but also how we see it and the way we talk about it. Probably including me to be fair.

That huge regional and institutional weighting limits voice and it limits any kind of work that diverges from a very time-specific set of cultural values. Everything comes from that one very sober, very rational, very considered framepoint.

It also calls into question the liberal values that are supposed to exist in the arts because that sober, rational voice is one that is defined by class, education and networks. It's very sober, it's very controlled, it's very consistent. None of which correspond to the way any of us really talk, live, breathe or anything.

In the UK it's also defined by London. And London, in sweeping anthropomorphising general terms, is not the most self-aware of places. It doesn't really understand the rest of the UK, it doesn't understand how much it is envied and despised by so many people.

But the happy thing is the relationship is reciprocated. The rest of the UK doesn't really understand London. I'm not sure I do. But then I live in Bath, a city of 100,000 people, best known for being the home of Jane Austen, and I haven't got a  clue how this city works. It looks nice though and it's always gratifying when people tell me that I must live in some Georgian mansion with neighbours who keep ribboned pet sheep on their lawns. Perhaps, if we're making generalisations, it would be truer to say that nobody understands anyone in the UK. It's so divided by class, region, politics, income, ethicity, nationhood that nobody has a clue what's going on anywhere. Instead, we're just riven with envy and petty jealousies at why somebody is getting more than us and doing better than us. That's why we have a government that destroys people in power. Because at least those people aren't us and they must deserve it in some way.

Back to the rest of the UK, and let's call it the North now. The North does understand how much it is despised by so many in London, it's part of the lifestyle practically. Hence, so many things.... And instead of London, just say the south, simplify things. North-South. They don't get on.

Wow, the sweeping generalisatons are coming thick and fast here... and the happy thing is they are international in nature. Swap London, North and South, and you could be talking about anywhere almost.

The important thing is to be seen to be liberal, for the values to adhere to the particular values of the time that trigger ideas of liberalness. Within that idea of liberalness there are  multiple blindspots in there, many of them related to class and -brows (highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow) but they're blindspots that have always existed, so the poor, the uneducated, the female have always been valued less when there is a clash of ethical imperatives. You could see that in the 19th century, you could see it in the 1970s, you can see it now. Nothing is quite as liberal as it seems once the sniff of filthy lucre comes into play. The question is understanding what those liberal blindspots are now. And there are plenty.




Tuesday, 11 June 2019

There's nothing interesting about photography


A few weeks back I wondered what the face of contemporary photography would be if we look back at it now. It's kind of difficult to tell because history gets shaped by mythologising and we haven't mythologised the present yet.

But what is really refreshing about the present is how so many contemporary photographers are framing their work using different voices, modes, and generic nods to create narratives that recognise how we read and understand images.

An example of this is a series I'm writing for Magnum on inspirations. It's a kind of loose title but essentially it's a way for photographers to talk about their work and the way they work without talking about photography. In and of itself, photography isn't interesting, it's really boring. There's nothing more tedious than talking about photographic nuggets on technique, on lens, on lighting, on post-production.

It's not to say these things don't matter, it's just that in and of itself, it's not in the least bit interesting. It's like talking about why a butter knife is so good at spreading butter without ever eating the toast that you're spreading the butter onto. Actually, no it's worse than that. Spreading butter on toast is pretty nice.

Anyway, what is interesting about contemporary photography is how much work does have personality and does tell a story and brings in elements in from forces outside photography. In the last few months I've seen brilliant and interesting work that connects to music, science, poetry, short stories, folklore, martial arts and cinema.

 All of these things have been used to create parallel narrative structures in photography, to tap into our global image bank and lead us into particular directions and ways of seeing and being.

There are photographers who talk about the way their images are seen and understood, and how they can transform the way images are seen and understanding by a shift in voice. So you can shift something from being regarded with the gravity of documentary to something altogether lighter.

That's the idea behind this conversation with Cristina de Middel, where she talks about the way music (and musicals in particular) can loosen up your visual train of thought. Everything is allowed in a musical,  as opposed to the limitations of some forms of photography. So click your mind into musical mode and there is creative freeing.

If you've ever studied photography, you'll recognise this as connecting directly to the idea of the discourse of sobriety. Basically, we are kind of preconditioned to talk about certain things in certain ways. So with photojournalism or documentary we have the discourse of sobriety - we talk about it very soberly and persuade ourselves that we are involved in recognising a particular problem and engaged in something high-minded and... sober. Move over to musicals however, and we talk about them differently. We smile, we laugh,we remember, we experience pleasure.

So there you go. And of course you can shift how people see your work by the way you frame it, by the way you talk about it. It's difficult but you can do it because nothing is written in sand, the great challenge is to get people changing how they talk about genres as a whole. The sobriety is great when we need to be sober, but sometimes pleasure (in the broadest sense) might connect to a wider audience and be - more pleasurable. There's a limit to how much sobriety, concern and rage (ah yes the discourse of anger and rage. There's a lovely thought) one can take..

One way to do this is to shift the genre, to let it merge and overlap with other genres - that's what's happening all over the place - and when that happens you talk about things in different ways. So it makes little sense anymore to view fashion as something purely connected to ladies and gents wearing nice frocks and suits. It never did. Fashion was always about the body, about sex, about identity, the best fashion always mixed things up that way. And now even more so. And similarly with documentary or art photography. The most interesting photographers slip across genre, across media, across materials begging, borrowing and stealing from here, there and everywhere to tell a good story, well, to give it body and soul and substance, to move everything away from photography. Because photography is not that interesting. \It's what it attaches to that's interesting..

But it was always that way. But now even more so.