GORDON PARKS: A CHOICE OF WEAPONS

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  http://www.amber-online.com/side-gallery/ )

 

EMPTINESS

Photography On A Theme

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A third exhibition (see below for the first two) I visited in Dubrovnik was at the city’s Museum of Modern Art (http://ugdubrovnik.hr/en/?file=home)  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.

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(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 )

 

WAR PHOTO LIMITED

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’ (http://www.warphotoltd.com/).  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: (http://www.tzdubrovnik.hr/lang/en/get/muzeji/5705/memorial_room_of_dubrovnik_defenders.html). 

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.)

BURIAL MOUNDS

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. 

 

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Burial Mound, Arras Wold, East Yorkshire, SE945392

THE HOUSE OF KINGS AND QUEENS

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.)

CHASING SHEEP

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'S RESURRECTION

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.

AUGUST SANDER

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.     

GRAFTERS

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.

HOW MUCH!?

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.

VERBS AND PHOTOBOOKS

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.       

WILLIAM MUMLER, THE SPIRIT PHOTOGRAPHER

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?

LENSES AT THE EXTREMES

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?

LEARNING TO FISH

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.” 

 

MENTAL MODELS

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.

ERIC HOBSBAWM: FRACTURED TIMES

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!

DOUGIE WALLACE

Dougie Wallace featured in one episode of the occasional TV series “What Does The Artist Do All Day” recently.  It was mostly about his latest work snapping the rich shoppers around Harrods.  The idea is to publicise the stranglehold that the rich now have on London but I wonder if many of his subjects might not be flattered by the attention.  He has a strong nerve:  his method is to get right up close then use a double flash unit with the camera a couple of feet or less from the subject.  This creates a photo where none might have been.  First there is often a recoil with a shocked expression and second the close-up flash often creates the Ugly Effect, like Martin Parr or Bruce Gilden.  Several times in the programme DW is reassured by acquaintances that this is the truth, he is simply photographing what is there; but like all photography it is a constructed truth.  He used much the same technique when photographing stag and hen parties round Blackpool with much the same result.  Yet, curiously, his photos of Indian taxi-drivers have a more benign look and the subjects seem more dignified.  This is photography used very purposefully.  The simple, cartoon-like quality of these images has great impact, but very little respect.  You wouldn’t describe them as nuanced but I don’t think they are meant to be.

ERNST HAAS (2)

I’ve just finished looking through ‘Ernst Haas - Colour Correction’ a collection of the photographer’s work first published in 2011 and which I mentioned in an earlier piece below.  There are apparently 200,000 slides in the Haas archive so we can expect perhaps further volumes if this one is a success (and it was reprinted in 2016).

I found leafing through the book to be a sensuous experience.  Colour has that effect on me rather more than black and white.  Several of the images sent me into reverie.  The others were mostly interesting in a technical sense: speculating about how he achieved the effects that he did and thinking about why some had more impact than others.

The text going with the images took a familiar route through historical context – who knew whom and who influenced whom and who ignored whom.  The suggestion is that after his first MoMA show (proposed and curated by Edward Steichen) he was dropped by John Szarkowski.   Woven into this account is an aesthetic assessment, technical detail, wider context and quotations: you get a pinball effect as the subject skitters from one of these to the next. Finding the language in which to talk about a series of photos is a constant challenge even to those who do it professionally.

STRANGE AND FAMILIAR

Pinning The Brits Down

I saw this exhibition at the Barbican last year and since I was flagging by the end then I thought I would pop into Manchester Art Gallery and have a look at the second half again.  The exhibition is curated by Martin Parr and is about the way the UK has been portrayed by foreign photographers (twenty-two in all) over the past seven decades or so.  The first half is mostly what you would expect: telephone boxes, British bobbies, milk bottles on doorsteps, bowler hats and so on.  It plays to a certain view of the UK in the fifties and sixties.  What is interesting about the more modern work though is that the instant recognisability has gone and what emerges is a process of homogenisation.  The Rinejke Dijkstra portraits of clubbing girls, the Bruce Gilden close-ups, the Hans van der Meer football landscapes and the Axel Hutte housing estates could all have been taken more or less anywhere in western Europe.  There is very little that is recognisably British.  The Hans Eijkelboom slideshow really drives the point home. 

That poses quite a difficult curatorial problem.  You choose photographers because they have something to say and say it well but then what emerges when you put them all together is something else.  So you are caught between the ethnographical and the artistic/documentary.  What you put on the wall as a picture has become data. This is one of the most fascinating characteristics of the photograph.  Just when you have decided what you are looking at it becomes something else.  You just can’t pin a photograph down.

WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR

Tame Wildlife?

There is a certain kind of photograph where you feel, having looked at it closely, that you know the photographer a little.  I have visited several WPOTY exhibitions now and the photographs leave me with exactly the opposite feeling.  The photographers have obviously put a lot into them: time, effort,  equipment, travel, patience, persistence and ingenuity.  But there is nothing personal about the result.  With a small number of exceptions, they are technically superb yet clinical to the point of monotone.

I wonder why the text panels always tell you exactly what kit was used for each shot (including strobes, drones, speedlights and more this year – including a powered paraglider).  I wonder about the environmental impact of flying half way across the world to take these photos, as some photographers do.  I wonder why all but a handful of the photographers are from developed countries.  I wonder about the exhibition’s ambient music and the little dramatised texts that go with each shot. I think about colonial-era photography and the way that another kind of wild was pinned down by that.

The visitors’ book is a litany of superlatives.  This is a truly popular exhibition but to me it is not so much a celebration of nature as of technology.