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Thursday, 29 July 2021

The great pictures of Ernest Hemingway


Ernest Hemingway recovering from injuries at the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, Italy, 1918.

Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

I really enjoyed watching Ken Burns' Hemingway series. It's like watching a man car crash from being a great and visionary writer (the short stories are coming from the library soon... but otherwise no I haven't) to a gaslighting bore of a man wallowing amidst the carcasses of his vomit strewn legend.

Ken Burns interview on Martha Gelhorn

'Yes. I think Martha Gellhorn threatened him fundamentally. His writing begins to decline. He sort of goes into his shell, he doesn’t want to go out. She wants to go out and cover the world, particularly the greatest cataclysm in human history. He’s not so sure, having been through the first world war and having done the Spanish civil war. And so I think he’s terrified of her, maybe emasculated. I think she needed her independence. As she said, she wanted her name back. She thought he could be a partner and he had pitiably no ability to be a partner.'

As he got older, he didn't take kindly to those more talented than him - he ended up flying to Europe to cover the Second World War as a journalist, leaving Gelhorn  (who was always going to go, who basically shamed him into going) to take a boat.

One of the most enjoyable features of the series was Ken Burns' use of still images. 

Here's what he said about these still images.

Your films are particularly celebrated for their use of archive photography. What is it about the still image that is rendered powerful in moving pictures?

'My father was an anthropologist and he was also an amateur still photographer. I wanted to become a film-maker and I ended up going to a college where all of my teachers were social documentary, still photographers. And so the still photograph is a kind of DNA of my work. I look at a photograph as if it is the arresting of an alive moment. So as I film it, I want to take that feature film-maker’s sensibility and each photograph is a master shot that has a long shot, a medium shot, a close-up, a tilt, a pan, a reveal detail. In the opening of The Civil War you tilt from an innocent boy’s face down to his waistband stuffed with two revolvers. That spoke a million words.'

So the still image becomes something different. It's lingered on, there is movement (on the screen at least) as different elements are highlighted. That creates a dynamism of reading where one lingers over the separate elements of face, gaze, gesture, body, environment, relationships. 

There's one image at the end where Hemingway has collapsed into his injury-raddled alcoholism and his eyes stare out, a shell of a man. It's an image that runs into the clip of him giving his stilted scripted delivery to a movie camera, the pain of his end rubbing raw on the screen.

It's basic montage, a way of bringing drama out of a still image of everyday life, of combining, repeating, and layering so that the still image stretches out into time. In the documentary everything is considered, and everything matters - and that extends to the still images, and these are then 'altered' through scale and movement in a very quiet kind of Tretyakov photomontage where the cutting and the scaling are gradual and slow and performed through movement of the photographs on the screen. These photographs are so full of content, so naturalistic, and so powerful, there is an elevated drama to them, a drama that is added by the connections made by the photographs' movements across the screen. Eyes, hands, gestures, bodies, emotions are connected through this movement and so these still images look like cinema - really good social realist cinema. 

They made me contrast them with staged  photographs where a similar thing happens, where everything is considered, everything matters, where connections are sought to be made between different elements. But somehow they never look like the images chosen in this kind of documentary - mostly because they are not. They definitively aren't that idea of the 'great photograph' that connects to the time when Hemingway was at his writing heights, and that we (or I) still have moments of romantic yearnings for. These staged images look like staged images that are trying to look like cinema in a way that comes from an idea of cinema that comes from an earlier staged photography.

It makes me wonder what a great picture is and how photographs loop across time and link into different visual and cultural histories and how we read that and intuitively understand it at a really fundamental level without necessarily being consciously aware of it. 

And the more traffic a particular loop receives, the more fatigued we get with a particular idea of what an image is or can be. It's not about being a great image anymore because that very idea is stuck in a distant past, it's about being interesting and engaging, and many other things I'm not quite sure of. But interesting, yes. And the images in Hemingway were interesting, so where am I? I'm not quite sure.

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Anthony Luvera: "I don't think it's enough just to have good intentions."

I've been a bit slow with the blog to say the least, but more because I've been concerned with lots of evening teaching, talks, classes and so on - including talks with the RPS on the history and theory of photography. I'll be starting another one in September with the RPS, so if you are interested do watch out for updates.

One of these talks was on collaboration by Anthony Luvera. Collaboration is big in Anthony's practice, as is the idea of participation. What I really like about him is how everything posed as more of a question, as something to consider, as a thought - rather as some kind of commandment written in stone.  (Here's to the coming global backlash against the tyranny of Ibrahimical thinking. I'm keeping my fingers crossed)

That matters for people like me who like some distinctly uncollaborative work that relies on the grand spectacle of photography. I love the grand spectacle of photography, the visual statement that ties in to even grander biblical and archetypal narratives in which the individual is subsumed into some photographic Cecil B. de Mille epic of strain, effort, and suffering. That is at least some of the point of photography. 

But another point of photography is to be better at it, to slow down, step back and think about how it operates in history, in archives, in museum, in public consciousness. And it doesn't take much slowing down to get thinking. 

In his talk, Anthony pointed the way. It's important because it can make you tell better stories, it can make you go beneath the surface, and, most importantly, it can make you a better person. 

It can also make you bullshit-detect when people use the word collaborative for projects which really, really aren't. Oh they so aren't...

So there. The first question posed by Anthony was...

''What is collaboration?

Who is it for?

 -  The people taking part?

 -  The artist?

 -  The organisation commissioning the work?

Is the artist seducing the participant for the purpose of the work. 

Is the collaboration empowering, giving voice, giving confidence

What part do good intentions play?

Whose voice is being amplified ? How does the artist profit? How can the outcome be measured or described?

What is the intention of the artist? How does context affect understanding?"

That's what he asked. Then he went on to state... 

"I do not undertake the work to enrich the participants - though my work has been framed in that way by organisations.

It's not about what is in the image - it is about what happens to the image?

When work is disseminated publicly, outside the group, it must be seen as a representation of identity, not a link to reality. 

Good intentions can mask the inequalities between the artist and the participant. 

There is an unachievable ideal. That ideal is to put power into the hands of the powerless.

You cannot underestimate the importance of real feedback." 

 So there are some ideas to wrestle with as we try to justify the pictures we make. Or perhaps we don't need to wrestle with them, just consider them. They are not oppositional polarities. Very little is and perhaps that non-polarised consideration takes us to a more considered, constructive, happy place.

In his own work, Luvera looked at how historically the representation of lbgtq+ has been essentially negative and regularly portrayed through reductive stereotypes

His project, Not going shopping, looked at how people use photography, how they experience their identity and how that identity is represented, in particular how that representation is ignored in museums and archives. The question then becomes how can that representation be embedded in museums and archives, how can it become a part of broader visual memory banks. 

This project looked at the politics of pride, the politics of speaking out, the politics of song, the idea of  of identity and photographs in the photobooth - the idea of space and the closet like nature of the photobooth.

All of this linked to anthropological and identity formation in historical images - the exoticisation through photography and how that can be questioned and redirected. And ultimately the work got bought by the city  museum - so feeding back into early visits on how queer people were represented and not represented. And that is supremely neat tie back.

Queers read this pamphlet 


   Being queer is not about a right to privacy; it is about
the freedom to be public, to just be who we are.  It means
everyday fighting oppression; homophobia, racism, misogyny,
the bigotry of religious hypocrites and our own self-hatred.
(We have been carefully taught to hate ourselves.)  And now
of course it means fighting a virus as well, and all those
homo-haters who are using AIDS to wipe us off the face of
the earth.  Being queer means leading a different sort of


life.  It's not about the mainstream, profit-margins,
patriotism, patriarchy or being assimilated. It's not about
executive directors, privilege and elitism.  It's about
being on the margins, defining ourselves; it's about gender-
fuck and secrets, what's beneath the belt and deep inside
the heart; it's about the night.  Being queer is "grass
roots" because we know that everyone of us, every body,
every cunt, every heart and ass and dick is a world of
pleasure waiting to be explored.  Everyone of us is a world
of infinite possibility. We are an army because we have to
be.  We are an army because we are so powerful.  (We have so
much to fight for; we are the most precious of endangered
species.)  And we are an army of lovers because it is we who
know what love is.  Desire and lust, too.  We invented them.
We come out of the closet, face the rejection of society,
face firing squads, just to love each other! Every time we
fuck, we win.  We must fight for ourselves (no one else is
going to do it) and if in that process we bring greater
freedom to the world at large then great.  (We've given so
much to that world:  democracy, all the arts, the concepts
of love, philosophy and the soul, to name just a few gifts
from our ancient Greek Dykes, Fags.)  Let's make every space
a Lesbian and Gay space. Every street a part of our sexual
geography. A city of yearning and then total satisfaction.
A city and a country where we can be safe and free and more.
We must look at our lives and see what's best in them, see
what is queer and what is straight and let that straight
chaff fall away!  Remember there is so, so little time.  And
I want to be a lover of each and every one of you.  Next
year, we march naked.