Veni, vidi, vinci.  Who are the real winners?

Emily The Face Painter.jpg

(Disclaimer!  The photo above was my entry in a well-known photographic portrait competition last year.  I thought its clear feminist meta-text would see it romp home.  It got nowhere.)

I try to keep up, I really do.  But I am finding that whenever I register with a website or I sign on for a newsletter I become a target for invitations to enter photography competitions. There are even websites and blogs that will list them all for you.  The deal in all the competitions is basically the same.  You pay a certain amount (sometimes quite a lot, sometimes a little, occasionally nothing) and you send in either a single photo or a series.  There may or may not be a theme.  The judges are usually listed in the bigger competitions and are usually working in the photo industry in one way or another.  I take a passing interest but often have not heard of them – which may just be my ignorance.  I assume though that the judges will have some expertise in these matters. The hook for many of the comps. is that this is a uniquely good way to get your work “seen”: that is, seen by the public (the website will often show chosen images as the competition progresses) and seen by those industry insiders.  So, even if you get nowhere, it is a way of building your name.  Well, maybe.

But the one thing that always strikes me as odd is that there is very rarely any explanation of the criteria on which the judges will be making their decision. This is doubly odd when the competition is one in which the judges will be declaring “winners”.   How can one photograph be better than another when no one explains what will be considered good in the first place?  Adjective; comparative; superlative.  Good, better, best.  It’s a pretty simple progression.

It’s a bit like an organisation wanting to recruit but not setting out a job description or a person specification.  They have a position they want to fill but they won’t say what the duties are and nor will they say what qualifications you need to do the job.  “Just apply and we’ll take it from there.”

The unavoidable conclusion is that the organisers of the competition cannot say what they are looking for.  “It’s hard to express in words but we know it when we see it” kind of thing.  But, as anyone who has ever recruited for anything knows, if you don’t have criteria for your decision and you can’t show how the successful candidate fitted them you are wide open to claims of discrimination.  And quite right, too.

If we apply that fairly simple principle to the photographic competition we come up with the same result.  I’m not suggesting that the discrimination would be racial or sexual or any of the other proscribed legal categories.  The cultural shading is much subtler than that.  For example, the use of the category ‘portrait’ or ‘landscape’ is loaded with associations from the world of painting.  Or there is the unspoken assumption that, to be considered, any particular photograph must have a quality capable of being judged.  That is an assumption that the photographers will also hold and therefore both judgers and judged fish in the same pool.  Those who fish in other pools – or who have no pool - are excluded.  Nor will the judges have been trained in the business of judging.   Excluding our own prejudices is a tricky business but it can be helped along.  Even the legal system trains the judiciary in an attempt to reduce bias (as does Crufts, incidentally).

Just as in the law, the photography judges will be selected by reason of their expertise but their backgrounds will inevitably be freighted whether they are connoisseurs, academics, practitioners, curators or critics. 

But there is another way of doing this.  If a jury of twelve citizens can decide on a person’s guilt or innocence in a criminal trial – which is after all a much more serious affair - why shouldn’t a similar system be used to judge photographs?  Jurors may have to be instructed in relevant areas of law but that could be equally well done in areas of photographic judgement.  When all is said and done such judgements are all based on facts and principles: what do we look for in a photograph (principles) and how does this photo manifest those (factual)?  It doesn’t have to be definitive but competitions could at least try to explain. 

Otherwise, it’s just Miss World: the endless promotion of a tired concept for the gratification of a few. 


Through The Looking-Glass With Scalpel And Ruler

If you take two old photographs, cut them up carefully and splice them together what do you get – still two old photographs or now one brand new image?  This is the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t world that you enter when you visit the Whitworth Gallery’s current exhibition of John Stezaker’s work.   The curatorial commentary is pretty sure what we are looking at: these, it says, are images waiting to be discovered again and new art is made from them.   Either way, it is of interest to any photographer because it invites speculation on the photographic medium itself. 

The exhibition is clustered into five main groups.  Most are based on old film publicity stills but one set  – and perhaps the most approachable to start with –  takes plates from old art or anatomy text books and slices through them, then juxtaposing the demi-images left so that it often seems to be something like the same body.  Like this.

Stezaker 1.jpg

(John Stezaker.  Fall VIII, 2010 © John Stezaker, courtesy The Approach, London. Photo: FXP Photography)

It is startling.  First you see one body and then you see two.  It is a through-the-looking- glass-world and it takes a certain visual effort to step into and out of it.  I spent some time in front of these particular images letting them promote a speculative frame of mind then moved on, diving deeper into the rabbit-hole.

The four other clusters are based on old movie publicity shots which of themselves are both strange and familiar.  The familiarity comes from the continuing use of the still in cinema advertising but the strangeness comes from their old-fashioned, black and white stiltedness.  Some of the publicity shots are head and shoulder studio images of the stars of the day.  My understanding is that the others are stills recreating scenes from the film and not out-takes from the film itself.  So already they are ripe for interpretation since they are recreations of already fictional narratives. 

The first cluster lays an old postcard of moving nature (mostly waterfalls) over a body or face reconfiguring that character perhaps as a tumult of natural energy, as in the image below.

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(John Stezaker, Siren Song V, 2011 ©John Stezaker, courtesy The Approach, London.  Photo FXP Photography)

Another set takes five separate head-and-shoulder matinee idol shots and each splices other such images on top: profile to full frontal, side eye to frontal eye, side mouth to frontal mouth.   Like this.

Stezaker 3.jpg

(John Stezaker, Marriage (Film Portrait Collage) XXXII, 2007 ©John Stezaker, courtesy The Approach, London.  Photo: FXP Photography)

They are remarkably eye-catching.  You scan the image and its conventional parts make up a highly unconventional whole.  When you look at the detail it is standard but when you pan back there is a jolt.  That jolt is important because it is strong enough to make you look again and again and to try to figure out what we are looking at.

Further on, a triptych features a simple rectangular white cut-out on three publicity shots of a film starring Ida Lupino.  An old chap standing next to me peered hard at one of these and then turned to me.  I thought he was going to make an erudite remark but what he actually said was:  “I always fancied Ida Lupino when I was a lad.”  When I thought about it later his remark added a dimension: these photographs were living history to him whatever the metaphorical intent of the collage itself.  A little later I found myself too in self-congratulatory mode when I spotted a young Kenneth More in another of the shots – he himself a star from my youth.

We might look at these images in many ways, they are so suggestive.  We could see them as a subversion of the photographic medium itself, or indeed of the cinematic medium.  We could see them as a deconstruction of the photograph with suggestions of malleability, recycling and infinite meaning over time.  We might contemplate the sheer arbitrariness of form in the face of their spliced couplings (and triplings, too, since some use three images).  They also present themselves as light-hearted – or learned – wordless commentaries on the still and moving image and the relationship between the two.  I find my own thoughts tending to centre in this digital age on their highly analogue nature.  Digital splicing celebrates its invisibility while the splicing in these collages celebrates its visibility.  This tells us something about both media and their utter and irreconcilable difference.

I don’t think that you necessarily have to see these as brand new images.  In the end their exact form, since it is contingent on the component stills, is not central.  It is more the process and the thought behind it which spark off interesting ideas and contemplation.  For the practising photographer they might stand as a very useful way of thinking about the medium and its forms.  Even in the absence of that it would take a dull eye indeed not to linger over such unusual work.

(The John Stezaker Exhibition is on at The Whitworth Gallery, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester, M15 6ER  until June 2018.)




When Photographs Have To Come Out Of Retirement

 (Photograph by Gordon Parks: Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation)

(Photograph by Gordon Parks: Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation)

One of the really interesting facets of a photograph is how it changes with time.  A portrait becomes biography, a landscape becomes record, travel becomes ethnography and documentary becomes history.  We may take some reassurance from a photograph’s historical position because from the vantage point of the future, so to speak, we know what happened next.  The photograph produced on the cusp of the moment, the nearest thing we have to actuality other than our own experience, settles down into a comfortable middle age, its meaning agreed upon, and makes the odd promotional  appearance in anthologies and on websites.  But if truth be told, we only get to see the photographs that end up on the right side of history - or the ones we get to see are given a context which puts them there.

Where then does this leave Gordon Parks’ photography, a selection of which is currently exhibited in A Choice of Weapons at the Side Gallery in Newcastle?  Dating from the 1940s up to the 1970s it should be enjoying a happy retirement, safe in the knowledge that it has done its job as witness and cause.  And maybe 20 years ago it clearly would have been on the right side of history, the argument largely won.  But what about now in the era of a renewed white supremacy movement and all the events behind the Black Lives Matter campaign?

By any measure, Gordon Parks is a major figure in 20th century photography.  His  60 year career spanning fashion photography, the FSA, two decades at LIFE magazine and numerous awards might be summed up in his own words: “I chose my camera as a weapon against all the things I dislike about America – poverty, racism, discrimination.” 

The exhibition takes some thirty photographs and puts them into three groups: Segregation History, Agents of Change and the Fontenelle family.  You can’t entirely encapsulate six decades of work in such a small exhibition but what these photographs can do is show the power and direction of Parks’ work.  The celebrated image above entitled ‘American Gothic’ of Ella Watson in front of the American flag even now is pretty striking so it is little surprise that in 1942 his boss at the time thought it would get them both the sack.

 ‘Agents of Change’ includes figures who are still highly charged such as Martin Luther King and others who are now half-forgotten, such as Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael.  But what the photography does is show the viewer the charisma of these people.  They still come off the print and speak to you of what they once represented, however you may view that.  The photograph of Eldridge Cleaver and his wife Kathleen, for example below: how would you describe it?  Threatening?  Touching?  It projects both mythic and human qualities that seem to encapsulate the Cleavers both as public figures and private people.  

 Photograph by Gordon Parks: Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation)

Photograph by Gordon Parks: Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation)

The Black Muslims, the Black Panthers, Mohammad Ali – all the photographs have that same duality about them and seem to me to invite thinking viewers to reflect at the very least on the legacy of the photos’ subjects. 

Then there is the series Cycle of Despair, prints from a 16-page LIFE magazine feature investigating the causes of rioting in US cities in the 1960s.  The exhibition features a twenty-minute documentary narrated by Parks himself about the making of the series and it is harrowing.  Given this assignment, Parks chose to concentrate on one family, in one tenement, in one city: the Fontenelle family, Norman, Bessie and their eight children who lived in grinding poverty in Harlem, New York.  The magazine spread is set out in the exhibition.  On one level it is an unrelenting sociological and journalistic investigation and on another level it is the depiction of wider human tragedy.  It is about the Fontenelles but you may see it as having been also about the plight of black people and of poor people more generally in the mid-twentieth century.  The two photographs of Norman Fontenelle give some idea.  The earlier one, much more abstract in the print on the wall than on the magazine page, seems, as you stand close to it, to take an almost abstract pattern and to pull it back into the world as you realise with a start that it is a human face: it hovers, a human being who almost isn’t.

 (Photograph by Gordon Parks: Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation)

(Photograph by Gordon Parks: Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation)

The second, shows him in hospital after his wife has poured scalding water over his face when he attacked her.  Unseeing, he faces the camera full on, abject and bewildered. 

This is a powerful, powerful exhibition.  If you want to search out his work and are not sure about the history of black political figures and movements in the second half of the twentieth century it would be worth reading up on them.  That photograph of Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria, for example.  She has a protective arm wrapped around his shoulder and is looking into the lens with some composure while his gaze is averted, staring away as though he is lost in thought.  Yet the poster above his head shows him in a rather different guise.  You can interpret these elements with more confidence if you know why the couple have fled to Algeria and understand some of the background to the photograph.

That brings us back to the question I raised at the beginning of this piece.  Where do these photographs sit now?  Are they enjoying a long and happy retirement confident of their place in history?    They started off as reportage.  Then as the twentieth century unfolded they seemed to have earned their retirement; they had become historical, like old battle photographs once the war is over.  But now as we lurch forward in the new century a third life is being thrust upon them and they have their boots back on.  It is forty years since the LIFE magazine article on the Fontenelles.  It is half a century since the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act seemed to enshrine some basic standards of equality.  It is nearly a decade since the USA voted in its first black president.  Yet what seemed to have been settled is now back in question.  The struggle, it seems, is never over.  You look around this exhibition and realise that these photographs are on the front line again and still have work to do. 

(Gordon Parks: A Choice Of Weapons.  Side Gallery, Newcastle, 21 Oct. - 17 Dec. 2017 )



Photography On A Theme


A third exhibition (see below for the first two) I visited in Dubrovnik was at the city’s Museum of Modern Art (  where fifteen Croatian photographers* had work displayed on the theme of Emptiness.  At the entrance there was a quotation from the Tao Te Ching: “He who reveals himself does not shine.”  It wasn’t clear whether that quotation had been part of the theme but it set a tricky tone for this viewer certainly.  Since, by its nature, photography depicts things, how can it go about revealing nothingness?  Most of the photographers had taken the stance that emptiness is an absence: dark prints revealing little; empty factories and disused offices; the absence of humans; fields; and so on.  These were all accomplished and confident works which held their own on the gallery wall and repaid study.  Yet, on reflection, they seemed to me not to have grasped the nettle.  Why is the static and unused more empty than the moving and used?  The one series that did seem to have something to say about that was O Njoj (About Her) by Jelena Blagovic (which you can see here).  These were photographs of her mother’s home which made a very effective use of light and simplicity to create what Jelena called a “mnemonic landscape”.   This was the use, I felt, of something to suggest nothing.  There was both presence and absence as we see in the two photos above and below.


(Both photos courtesy of Jelena Blagovic from the series About Her/O Njoj)

  Let us remind ourselves (since the curator had made use of Eastern philosophy) that the Sanskrit word for emptiness is shunyata.  It was once explained to me that the root of this word (shunya) was the Indian mathematical term for ‘zero’.  And the circle that represents zero is significant because it is a line around a central nothingness – it represents therefore both nothing and also everything.   This was an idea that I felt was hovering over Jelena’s series.

I often ask myself, when I have been looking at sets of photographs on a certain theme, whether, had I not known the theme in advance, I would have been able to guess it from the pictures.  Often I have to accept that I would not.  The theme is more a riff than an organising principle.  In this case, however, the theme came through pretty clearly and that was a mark of the quality of both photography and curation in this exhibition.

(*The fifteen photographers:   Jelena Blagović, Boris Cvjetanović, Petar Dabac, Sandro Đukić, Marko Ercegović, Davor Konjikušić, Igor Kuduz, Antun Maračić, Ana Opalić, Marina Paulenka, Jasenko Rasol, Davor Sanvincenti, Sofija Silvia, Sandra Vitaljić and Borko Vukosav.  You can see more contemporary Croatian photography including some of these fifteen here )



The End Of Yugoslavia

                                 Photograph by Darko Bandic, by courtesy of War Photo Ltd.

                                Photograph by Darko Bandic, by courtesy of War Photo Ltd.

I was in Croatia recently and took the opportunity to visit War Photo Limited in Dubrovnik – an organisation whose purpose is to ‘educate the public in the field of war photography’ (  There were several exhibition rooms but in the time I had I decided to zero in on the photos depicting the conflict which took place on the disintegration of the state of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.  It struck me that this was one of the last wars – perhaps the last war – to be recorded largely on analogue media.    The result is that to this observer at least the photos look surprisingly historical and perhaps the reason for that is that they were taken by professional photographers.  There are searing and appalling photos but they all conform to the standards of the genre: they use colour, form, outline, framing and movement to create a dreadful impact on the viewer.  It is not therefore their content but their very style which creates their historical look.  The two photos shown above and below illustrate the point.

                                   Photograph by Paul Lowe, by courtesy of War Photo Ltd.

                                  Photograph by Paul Lowe, by courtesy of War Photo Ltd.

The advent of the mobile phone camera means that pictures of war are often taken now by witnesses, participants and increasingly by perpetrators and they bypass the conventions of the genre.  Many are unashamedly partisan.   And increasingly the professional photographer or reporter is seen to be parti pris.  Sophisticated modern viewers know that everyone – or everyone’s editor – has an axe to grind.  So the difficulty thrown up by conflict photography more and more is not so much obtaining the photograph as verifying it and this is compounded by the problem of volume – there are just so many pictures.  (For example, a statistic that I came across from another theatre recently is that the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic had to conduct forensic analyses of 26,948 images taken in government detention facilities alone.) 

An interesting contrast comes just down the main street of old Dubrovnik, Stradun, where in the Sponza Palace is the Memorial Room Of The Defenders of Dubrovnik: ( 

This takes the monochrome identity card photos of the 400 plus men killed defending Dubrovnik during the 1990s war and displays them enlarged in grid form along the walls of the room with other memorabilia.  Some of them were still in their teens.  This, too, uses volume to effect. Yet so much is left to the imagination that the display has just as shattering an impact as the War Photo Limited exhibition. For those of us lucky enough to have grown up in the peace of western Europe in the second half of the twentieth century it is very difficult to imagine oneself in the circumstances of war.  We have all figured, however, in identity photographs of one kind or another and it is that which seems to join us subconsciously to these fresh young faces.

(My thanks to War Photo Limited and the photographers for permission to reproduce the above photographs for this article.)


Knowing When You're Beaten

I’m not much of a landscape photographer.  I’ve always enjoyed walking in the countryside but no photo ever seems to do justice to the experience.  And in a time when even non-climbers with enough money can pay to be led to the top of Everest why wouldn’t you go for the full sensurround of a physical experience rather than a photographic replica of it?  After all, the way in which you reach a place very much affects your experience of it.  If you doubt that, just try cycling to the top of a local hill to appreciate the view rather than driving up there.  So generally speaking, I don’t take my camera with me when I go walking.  I just soak up surroundings as I go along.  But a year or two ago, I decided to do a project on burial mounds in the county where I was living.  This involved a lot of research in gazetteers and poring over maps but it was very interesting and gave me a reason to tramp over the countryside with a photographic goal.  It didn’t turn out well though.  Photographing a small hump in an otherwise featureless field was pretty challenging, especially when I was possibly trespassing and also not sure if I was imagining the hump.  But it was also very moving.  For every few tumuli marked on the OS map but now farmed out there was one which generation after generation of farmers had carefully steered around so that the work of our distant ancestors might remain as a memorial of otherwise forgotten generations.  On one occasion while I clearly was trespassing on farmland I bumped into the farmer himself.  He was pretty good about it and directed me to the inconspicuous copse intriguingly marked on the OS map as “Danes’ Graves” which I was looking for.  He told me that no one knew who owned the land and no one coppiced or maintained it but he gave me directions to the exact spot where lay the graves.  When I got there I found small mound after small mound hidden away here in this corner of forgotten woodland lost in quiet English wolds.  Sunlight filtered through wind-rustled trees and bird song occasionally laced the silence.  I sat down and shook with emotion.  I knew before I even started that no photograph could do justice to this beautiful place.  Mine certainly didn’t anyway.  Several months later I managed to take the one below on a different,  open field site.  I thought that it brought out the delicate, often almost hidden, line of the barrow against the characteristic spaciousness of the region.  Honour was satisfied, I decided, and at that point brought the project to a close. 



Burial Mound, Arras Wold, East Yorkshire, SE945392


On Being Gay In Sierra Leone

An impressive exhibition in Hull entitled The House of Kings and Queens by Lee Price*.  The exhibition documented life in what was effectively a safe house for gay and trans people in Freetown, Sierra Leone (a city with which Hull is twinned).  Although female gay sex is not illegal in the country and the law against male gay sex is seldom enforced, homophobia is widespread for cultural and religious reasons.  Life for those who are openly homosexual or non-mainstream is tough and the focus of the exhibition was the half-life to which the openly LGBTQ are condemned there.  The text accompanying the photographs spoke of the cloud of secrecy in which gay Sierra Leoneans have to live and sought to portray the sense of liberation which they feel in the house.  I felt that the photographs showed more of the secrecy and less of the liberation.  Many of them showed figures glimpsed through doorways or looking out of windows and throughout there was a suggestion of longing, of inside and outside, and of estrangement.  There was a sadness and a darkness which was emphasised by the deeper tones and slight underexposure of the printing.  Many of the subjects were shown involved in minor tasks, or standing/sitting/lying listlessly, which added to the sense of waste or disengagement.  Some photographs depict and some suggest. Many of the photos in this exhibition seemed to me to straddle difficult ground by doing both – like a sentence which seems clear on first reading but which carries undertones that may surface long after you have read it.  Although ostensibly about the plight of gay people they could be read more generally as speaking of the mental and physical isolation which seems to be such a defining characteristic of modern times.  

(*I haven't been able to trace a website for Lee but if you google his name and the exhibition title you can find out about him and how he came to make the series.)


Materiality Is One Thing, But Substance Is Another 

Some days I look through photographs I have taken and they seem to assume the form of an unruly herd of sheep.  I am the sheepdog driving them to a distant pen over the hill, but they are having none of it.  They spread out this way and that, bunching and straggling inexplicably while I dash and harry.  I snap at their heels because some instinct of mine wants order or direction but just when I seem to be getting somewhere a group breaks away and makes a run for it and that herd-shape and the sense of purpose that goes with it, is gone.  Faint dog whistles in my head drive me on then fade and I stop, puzzled.  What am I doing?  The sheep seem to know where they are going, after all.  Better maybe just to watch them.  Then a thought occurs: maybe the sheep are leading me…..?


Tolstoy Writes A Photo

In Tolstoy’s novel ‘Resurrection’ a photograph features as a literary device.  The basic plot is that the well-born Nekhlyudov, as a young man, seduces a maid, Katusha, in his aunts’ household.  She becomes pregnant, is dismissed and spirals downward in society and into prostitution.  Ten years later Nekhlyudov is doing jury service at a murder trial and is horrified to see that the defendant is Katusha.  He is overcome with remorse since he sees his own acts as the source of her downfall; and all the more so when she is mistakenly convicted and sentenced to hard labour.  He decides that he must devote himself to saving her and visits her several times in prison while she awaits transportation to Siberia.  It is during one of those visits that he passes her a photograph of them both in a family group taken at his aunts’ estate before the seduction.    The photo is a minor device that Tolstoy uses to telescope the action, to summarise what has happened over the past 250 pages.  It reminds us of Katusha’s precipitous fall and the invulnerability that Nekhlyudov’s social position confers on him.  Yet it is the way the photo functions between the two characters which is most interesting.  Nekhlyudov must see it as some sort of talisman, something which will raise her spirits.  What a mistake!  When he has gone, Katusha looks fondly at this bent and yellowing reminder of happy times but unsurprisingly her thoughts turn bitter when she considers her present fate and she hides the photo away.   A single photograph provokes smiles, then frowns then anger.  She knows that it was only a decade earlier but it seems to her to be another lifetime.  In these minor details Tolstoy seems to isolate two essential elements of the photograph in daily life: it can collapse time and it can provoke great emotion.   We are in Barthian territory here, only a good half-century earlier.  This is the power of the photo as personal artefact as opposed to its power as dream.


Seeing It For Real

To Tate Liverpool for the August Sander exhibition, Portraying A Nation.  Sander set out to do just that- to portray an entire nation – through an exhaustive photographic survey which placed the individual firmly within a social taxonomy determined by class, occupation and other factors.  It was an immense enterprise and I find it now, a hundred years later, rather an overwhelming one for the viewer.  You can still get what seems to be the whole series of photographs in several volumes but what we can make of such a thing almost a hundred years after its inception?  Thinking has changed so much and, since the second world war, political, economic, and philosophical trends have been to emphasise individuality rather than submerge it. Is the interest of Sander’s work therefore purely historical or is it sociological – can it still be amirror for us to look at ourselves?  The curators of the Tate exhibition seem to take the former view.  They see his photographs as being a history of the Weimar Republic:  “The faces of those he photographed show traces of this collective historical experience”.  I looked hard but I couldn’t see that.   The key to his work seems to me to lie more in the social sciences – the study of society and social relationships.  These are comparative portraits: each exists in relation to the others.  So a commentary which explored then contemporary ideas in sociology, psychology and ethnography might have opened the photographs up more for the visitor rather than a timeline of the rise of the Nazi party and the second world war.  Zero in on those faces: are they really so historical?   It is a fascinating exhibition: it is like looking at a jigsaw puzzle just as the picture is emerging from the disparate pieces – a picture which we would be hard put to assemble today.     


History or Photographs?

This fine exhibition seems to have flown under the radar of the photographic world.  It was first at the People’s History Museum in Manchester and now is at the Industrial Museum in Bradford and it takes as its subject the photographic representation of workers.    Curator Ian Beesley has divided the photos into eight roughly chronological types from the early criminal portrait,  images of Victorian science and technology, worker as accessory, worker as unit of scale, the WW2 worker hero, self-representation, the combined workforce photo and industrial landscapes.  Only 121 photos in all but they stand as some sort of tribute to millions of forgotten souls who laboured in anonymity and who,  even when being photographed, were largely doing the boss’s bidding.  It is hard to categorise the exhibition:  part ethnographic, part documentary, part straight historical record and part celebration.  Both the commentary and the accompanying poetry of Ian McMillan implicitly invite the viewer to see the images as a record of exploitation, hard lives, unsafe work, child labour, threadbare clothes and grinding poverty and quite rightly so.  But personally I prefer to see them more as celebration.  They were a class but every doffer, ligger, fettler, burler, slubber, corer, stamper, tipstretcher and quencher was also an individual.  Photographs may be evidence for historians but they are invitations to reverie and contemplation too.  We stare at the photos and the subjects stare back at us.  Who knows what they thought of it all?  We may have the vantage point of history but looking at these photographs we can make an imaginative leap and discard it if we wish.


The Price Of Fame

I discovered a surprising fact the other day.  It was at a ‘meet the artist’ session at a photography exhibition that had just opened.  I didn’t much take to the photos but the photographer had some interesting things to say.  This exhibition been shown over ten times before at venues around the world over the last couple of years.  The photographer was hoping for some sort of breakthrough, I think.  The total cost of staging those ten plus shows to the photographer personally had been just short of £100,000.  I was staggered.  A publisher had offered a book deal but required a £25,000 down payment.  What’s going on here?  In the back pages of newspapers and magazines there used to be adverts on the lines of “Publishers Looking For Manuscripts”.  At first glance it might have looked legit. but everyone knew that these were vanity publishers.  You paid a lot for a little plus marketing, distribution and the rest was all up to you.   You get a better deal in the photobook since you don’t have to do the post-publication legwork and many of the books are beautiful objects but it still doesn’t look like a smart move financially or professionally.  Even if you get your book published how many people are going to buy it or even see it?  It simply doesn’t seem an efficient way of getting your work before the public eye, if that is your aim.  You might get more people at the exhibition than would buy your book but you won’t get any royalties and the payback on any money you sink into it would be way over the horizon.  I wonder if we are in a bubble here: not an artistic one but an economic one.


Leafing, Reading, Studying?

There is no obvious verb for what you do with a photobook.  Although they usually mimick the physical form of a book of writing you can’t really say that you read them.  So what do you do?  Leafing through is too unengaged.  Studying is too academic.  Browsing sounds like passing time.  The photobook is a strange beast.  To corral photos between covers, eternally arranged in an unalterable sequence of numbered pages seems to consign them to a strange and unnatural fate.  With prose, whether fiction or non-fiction, it works because the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter or indeed the whole work are all linear by nature.  Once you have started you have to keep going along the lines to the end in order to get the full sense.  The same is not true of photographs.  They are much faster through your brain so if you are not disciplined you can be through a photobook in no time at all, and it all seems very unsatisfactory.  My method is to use a display stand such as a small easel.  Having taken a first tilt through the book I then prop it up on the stand and display a page or two a day.  I may follow its sequence or I may not.  Freed from their pen the photos seem to live and breathe more freely.       


Seeing And Believing

William H Mumler (1832 - 1884) was a jewellery engraver who, by his own admission, had little experience of photography.  When visiting a friend who was a keen photographer one day in 1861,  Mumler attempted a self-portrait which, when it had been developed, seemed to contain an image not only of himself but also of his dead cousin.  His interest sparked, he went on to take more photographs which showed the same phenomenon: some form of spirit or ghost in the picture.  He produced portrait after portrait which showed either a dead loved one or relation of the sitter or sometimes a complete stranger.   In February 1863 a doctor sat for Mumler.  True to form, when the picture was developed a ghostly image was shown.  The problem in this case however was that the doctor recognised the image and knew that the spirit it purported to show was still very much alive.  Despite the ensuing controversy Mumler subsequently moved to New York City and continued his spirit photography until, in 1869,  he was arrested and prosecuted for fraud.  

In the ensuing trial the main argument for the defence - whose witnesses were spiritualists - was that the photographs were an accurate depiction of reality simply because they were photographs. A photograph cannot lie, these witnesses argued, and therefore these photographs were evidence of the truth of their own contents.  Ghosts exist!  The prosecution alleged quite the reverse: that since spirits do not exist the photographs must be fraudulent - a rationalist argument. Ghosts don't exist!   In effect, witnesses on both sides brought to the court pre-existing opinions which they then applied to the photographs in question.   The photographs then simply reflected back to them their own particular mental constructs.  "Seeing is believing" it is often said of photographs.  But this case shows that to be wrong: "Believing is seeing" seems much closer to the truth.  

In the end the case against Mr Mumler did not proceed on a technicality.  It is worth bearing it in mind when we look at photos however.  Can it be true that a photograph does little more than reflect back at us our own mindset?  What monkey-trap is this?


When The Lens Sees What We Don't.

If I am photographing my own life (for what else can I photograph after all?) then how can I use a lens that does anything other than come close to standard vision?  A very long focal length or a very wide angle might show what was there in a sense – but would it be what I saw?  And if it doesn’t show what I saw then what is it?  As I stand about a yard from a window, I am just about aware of its two side uprights in my peripheral vision.  Beyond that I am aware of objects of course, almost to 180 degrees, but I couldn’t identify them if I didn’t know what they were. As I put an 18mm digital lens to my eye it captures the periphery much more sharply than my vision does since the sensor is uniformly sensitive throughout.  And a longer lens – beyond around 50mm - leaves out things that I can see clearly and so over-emphasises the predominance of central vision in the human eye. 

If a photograph is not roughly what you saw then what is it?  If not that, then what?  The only answer can be – it is invention.  It is what you wished you’d seen, what you thought you saw, what you hoped to see, what you nearly saw, what someone told you you’d see, what you thought would make an impressive photograph.  It’s a kind of dream.  With a standard lens of some kind what you fix on the sensor is some kind of reality. With focal lengths that go beyond that, aren’t we just making reality up rather than seeing it?


The Joys Of The Well-Stocked Photolibrary

I am just coming to the end of an MA in Photographic History which I have been taking part-time at De Montfort University in Leicester.  A couple of years ago I was looking around for a way of extending my photographic activities.  I thought about a degree in photography but found the prospectuses offputting.  I made a deal with myself: if I could find one that I understood from beginning to end then I would apply for the course.  I never found one.  But in searching I did come across the MA.  It seemed to address the question that I asked myself every time I took a photograph: what am I doing when I press the shutter button?  What is a photograph?  The MA course looks at that question from many angles: technical, historical, ethnographic, theoretical, anthropological and so on.  Then it teaches you the research methods to come up with your own answer.  It has hugely deepened my understanding of the subject and of  photographic practices even though I am in many ways still only scratching the surface.  Best of all about the course though was that it gave me the chance to browse at will in a well-stocked photographic library.  I have spent hours in that library not only pursuing my researches but also pulling books down almost at random, just because the title appealed to me or the author’s name was vaguely familiar.  Often I branched out into other sections of the library too: design, visual culture, website design, art history, optics, you name it. As I come to the end of the course I can’t help thinking of that quote from Tolstoy: “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day but if you teach him to fish you feed him for life.” 



Are We Making It All Up?

“Mental models, our conceptual models of the way objects work, or people behave, result from our tendency to form explanations of things…….  Mental models are often constructed from fragmentary evidence with but a poor understanding of what is happening and with a kind of naïve psychology that postulates causes, mechanisms and relationships even where there are none”  (Donald Norman:  The Design of Everyday Things.)

If someone throws a ball and you catch it then you see that as a linear sequence of cause and effect.  Someone throws the ball.  I see it fly through the air.  I move to catch it.  Boom, got it!  But science says, apparently, that it’s not quite so simple.   In the brain’s neural pathways, our visual system makes primary use of the dorsal stream for fast actions and the slower, ventral stream to recognise objects.  So the dorsal stream makes sure that you catch the ball before the ventral stream has seen that it was coming.  If you apply that to photography it seems that it may be possible to press the shutter button a nanosecond before you have seen what you intend to photograph.  That would not by any means be limited to action shots, would it?.  And it may account for that small stab of surprise and then recognition that we get from time to time when we see how one of our photos has come out.


High Art, The Horse, And Photography

Reading Fractured Times by Eric Hobsbawm I find him putting into words something that has often smoked around my brain.  This is the idea that the traditional methods of judging art simply cannot be applied to modern cultural output.  He makes a characteristically striking comparison between traditional bourgeois High Art and the horse.  Once that animal had a very central and useful role in society but that has been displaced by the internal combustion engine.  The horse lives on now only as a luxury for the rich.  Similarly the traditional handmade arts have been made redundant by technological change.  The defining characteristics of creativity now are mass production and mass demand.    What distinguishes this modern creation is its multiplicity – the endless stream of sound, image and text.  Where once the single work would be the unit of attention or critique, what developed in the twentieth century and on was simply endless commentary on that endless production.  It is possible to talk about a photograph in the same way as a painting say, but to what end?  The single work is a thing of the past.  EH does not suggest for a moment that popular culture has no value.  He simply says that it is to Art what the motor car is to the horse.  It creates what he calls an entirely new landscape of the mind.  (This seems to be a remarkably accurate description of the effect of photography.)  In a wonderful phrase EH says that cultural commentators are unwilling to admit this general truth “because no class of people is enthusiastic about writing its own obituary”.  Cracking!