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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...

Monday, 9 August 2021

Summer of Soul


I went to the cinema for the first time in an age to see Summer of Soul (Or... when the revolution could not be televised) . It tells the story of the Harlem Soul Festival in 1969. The festival was filmed but, as Woodstock (which took place the same summer) and other festivals all became feature films that were shown to acclaim in cinemas around the world, the film of the Harlem Soul Festival languished in various vaults, basements, and boxes under beds. The footage was never shown, and the Harlem Soul Festival was almost forgotten - except by those who had performed or attended.

The film was rediscovered in Japan of all places and at first nobody knew where it was from. And then they found out and the film was made. 

And what a film it is. It is beautiful, uplifting, filled with emotion that ranges from laugh-out-loud funny to outrage and anger. Most of all though, it is a film of joy and love. Love for life, for music, for the cathartic power of song and dance and freedom of expression that says who you are. The camerawork is amazing, with a focus on faces that reminded me, quite wrongly, of  Dreyer's Joan of Arc.

The crowd shots are incredible too, brilliantly edited into the footage and the commentary (from Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson, Gladys Knight, and visitors to the festival) is filled with a dream-like wonder. One man who visited as a kid, Musa Jackson, tells of going when he was 6 years and old and seeing Marilyn McCoo of The Fifth Dimension appearing on stage and being so beautiful. He says that seeing the film reminded him that this wasn't a dream, that this did happen, that this park filled with beautiful black women, and beautiful black men really did happen. And then he comes back to Marilyn McCoo and how beautiful she was; his first crush. 

And she was. And so was Nina Simone who sang with a power and and an anger - and David Ruffin who had just left the Temptations and sang a joyous My Girl in drainpipes and a frock coat. There was Sly and the Family Stone who came on stage leaving people wondering why they had a white drummer and a ginger guitarist, and why they had a woman playing a trumpet who could sing like a banshee.

One attendee who was in a band with 'four guys in suits' saw them come on stage and think what the hell when they saw their psychedelic hippy dress. By the end of the set, the suits were out the window and it was psychedelic soul wear all the way.

Jesse Jackson talked about being with Martin Luther King on the night he was murdered, and MLK mentioning Take My Hand Precious Lord as the song he wanted sung at that evening's service just before he was shot. And then Mahalia Jackson sang that song (as she had at his funeral), inviting Mavis Staples  to sing along with her. They put their life into that song and the camera caught Mahalia Jackson full face from below as behind them Jesse Jackson was joyous in his appreciation of the life of it all. It was sorrowful but celebratory at the same time. Al Sharpton came on and talked about black people not having therapists or counsellors. Instead they had music, music was the therapy, the catharsis, the outpouring, the expression and that was embedded all through the film.

There was the the fashion, the politics, the religion, the history, the cotton picking, the ridiculously charasmatic MC Tony Lawrence, the showmanship and the poetry, all against a backdrop of black power, black consciousness, the end-of-decade litany of poverty, violence, racism, assassination, drugs, and the moon landing (which nobody at the festival was too impressed by). It's also a history of music and where it comes from, how it travels across continents, how it moves from the fields to the city to the theatre and back again. It is a hidden history come to light, through song and music and dance that says who you are.  In his review, Mark Kermode describes it as making Woodstock and Gimme Shelter '...both look like a footnote to the main event: a festival in the heart of Harlem that was somehow written out of the history books.'

But more than that, Summer of Soul is a beautiful, beautiful film. Go see it, at the cinema if possible, in the front row. And stay till the very, very end or you'll miss Stevie Wonder at his funniest. 

Tuesday, 3 August 2021

Contemporary Narratives - Photography: A Short Guide to History, Theory, and Practice: Online Course Starting April 27th 2022


Sign up to my new series of talks on Contemporary Narratives - Photography: A Short Guide to History, Theory, and Practice

Starts on April 27th 2022 and it's perfect if you're thinking of studying photography (this will give you a real taster) or want an introduction to photographic theory, or a dip back into some of the images and ideas that have shaped photographic history. 

Are you looking to develop your own practice? Do you want to understand what photography is or can be? This 8-week course will introduce you to the contemporary practice of photography through examples that link the historical, the contemporary, and the theoretical in a way that is dynamic, visual, and accessible to everybody.

Touching on post-war themes ranging from photographing family, atrocity, and fiction, it will look at some of the key photographers and ideas that have shaped how we see the world today and will also present a global, pluralist outlook on both the wonderful expressive and artistic qualities of the photographic image, as well as its darker side.

The lecture series is the second of two standalone eight-week courses. 

This series of lectures is ideal for anybody who wants to learn how images are made and understood. It will enrich your understanding of the multiple ways in which images can be read, and will also add layers to how you make images and how you communicate those images to a broader audience. If you have never studied photography, these lectures will give you a fast track introduction to the history of photography and its theory. And if you have studied photography, it will refresh old  ideas and present new possibilities that will refresh your understanding of what photography is and what it can be.

Cost is £160 for each series of 8 weeks 

Sign up here.

Africa in the Photobook


I'm looking forward to running another series of lectures at the RPS on history and theory (more details are here). It's a great course if you're looking for an introduction to photographic history and theory or you've been away from studying and miss it. 

The images are from one of the lectures on the last course on Africa in the Photobook. This is a phenomenal website run by Ben Krewinkel on which there are photobooks that exemplify the power of photography to dominate peoples and influence opinion. 

The first image above is from Africa Occidental and came around the time of the Berlin Conference. It shows a flag on the bank of a river near Mozambique. It was pictures like this that helped determine the border of present-day Mozambique. It's the hinterland doctrine -  if you planted your flag, you had a claim. And there's the photograph to prove it. That is the basic way photography works and that's what you see over and over in the books Krewinkel presented.

The one above show early African elites. This example is form a time when Europeans needed people who spoke the language and had influence over local people, at a time before they had full influence over the colonised country. 

As soon as the colonisers had more complete control, this form of representation ended - until African nations gained independence and the first step of independence photobooks was to show Africans with education, with responsibility, helping themselves. Visibility mattered then, just as it matters now.

This is the heroism of poor white settlers  breaking the land in Angola. It's the heroism of settlement if you like. And the rationale for the need to settle land (that was already settled) comes from the kind of photobook featured below.

This was the anthropological photobook. There was the classification by hair, body type, tribe, whatever suited the colonial narrative to diminish, divide, and conquer. This kind of categorisation by ethnic group tied in with eugenics, with ideas of evolution, with ideas of genetic superiority - and helped justify the heroic settlement seen in the image above. By settling the land, you're saving the land. 

The colonial project had to be sold to European populations, and so books of discovery and adventure were made, of the white man going where no man had gone before. 

But at the same time, there was an emphasis on the brave warrior, this time in Congo. Here the idea is at least partly to justify military presence and action, and to riff off the idea of the necessity of the European civilising influence.

Tagged onto that idea was the idea that ultimately, the European was in the land of the savages. Hence the emphasis on cruel practices such as cannibalism. And if there wasn't any cannibalism and no photographs existed. Well, drawings could do the job just as well as in the image above. 

There were missionary books to show the civilising influence of the christian mission through the classic before and after image. It's the dumbest thing going the before and after picture, but unfortunately it is very simple and very effective. 

And there was more tourism, where modern cityscapes and industries were mixed with semi-ethnographic racist depictions of native life as colourful natives, as a tourist attraction. First they are dangerous warriors, then they are colourful natives (and further afield, that was exactly the process that transformed places like Bali into a paradise island)

There are books of conflict, the above shows pictures of Italian atrocities in the conquest of Libya. But you can see Brits burning villages, or other Europeans using natives from other countries as the final years of land-grabbing and colonisation took place. 

And then as independence gathered pace, unsympathetic reportage begins to show the avowedly racitst nature of white presence in Africa, in South Africa in particular.

Independence photobooks show the capability of the non-European to work in science, in medicine, in education. Visibility matters as mentioned already.

There is celebration as colonial flags come down, and independent flags go up.

And there are new presidents, new nations, and new forms of progress.

Again, in the image above and below, it's black doctors and nurses, a salve to the belittlement by absence of representation of the colonial years when white doctors would be shown saving black babies (and that is still the trope that raises the money in British fund-raising). 

There is still a kind of internalised colonial rule as very few African photographers get mentioned (and you can look at the examples in Africa in the Photobook and see how rarely African photographers are mentioned in some countries).

There are political crossovers, as different visual influences come to play. There are socialist influences with some of these photographers mentioned above trained by Czech photographers.

And then you get (just as you did with the missionary books) before and after pictures. Before colonialism and after colonialism.

There are books dedicated to leaders, some of which verge on the personality cult.

And as photobooks are given out as gifts, there come to be family resemblances between the photobooks made in different countries.

Key tropes develop and are used for multiple ends. So here images of hair are seen as a representation of independence from European beauty standards. 

But at the same time, in other places, how you wore your hair could also be used as a system of control, with hair length or style used to police the behaviour of people (and maybe that should read women).

There were atrocity books.

And in Mozambique, Frelimo trained its soldiers as photographers. The result was there were few images of conflict and the photographers were not named. Who needs a name if everyone is a photographer.

An Africa in the Photobook publication with contributions from African photographers and academics was in the pipeline, but now might be on ice. I do hope it comes along because there was nothing quite as concrete as the example of how photography and its absence can be used to control, influence, and demean.

To see more images from africainthephotobook go here. 

To see the RPS course, go here. 

Monday, 2 August 2021

Viet Thanh Nguyen and Lee Child


I read a couple of book on our short holiday on a Welsh Campsite. 

One was The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen. The other was Nothing to Lose by Lee Child

Both featured flawed protagonists who had undergone some kind of trauma (determined in the case of Vo Danh from The Committed, undetermined in Jack Reacher's case - maybe because I haven't read enough of Lee Child's  books).

Both have a French parent. 

Both are conflicted about their pasts and the way they weave into national histories - in the case of Vo Danh, it's the history of Vietnam, France, and the USA. In the case of Jack Reacher, it's the case of US involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, everywhere. Reacher says there hasn't been a worthwhile war since 1945

Vo Danh questions a simplified polarised view of the Vietnam conflict, but is also scathing about French colonial involvement in the country, with long set pieces that focus on the narrowness and hypocrisy of the French mind.

Reacher questions Bush's America and the evangelical right. He is scathing about that side of the USA

Both protagonists are kind to women at some point. 

Both protagonists have strong pain thresholds. Both books have a big violent ending.

Nguyen quotes Fanon, Cesaire, de Beauvoir and Sartre. Child quotes Dick Cheney, and Revelations

Both end in bloodshed. The protagonist gets out in both cases. I'm not sure which one has the more absurd plot, or whether that matters.

The differences? Jack Reacher's pretty sure of himself, Vo Danh categorically isn't. One book is literary fiction, the other is genre fiction. But there's such a crossover, I wonder if Nguyen hasn't been sneaking up on the bargain shelf at his local charity shop to pick up dog-eared Lee Child books.  And possibly the same goes for Lee Child when he was still writing. They're not that far apart in the big scheme of things. Not much is.