THE DARK ARTS

One New Year’s Resolution Fulfilled

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And so to the darkrooms of the University of Salford, (as promised in my Happy New Year post in January) for a two day course in the basics of darkroom developing and printing. Having gone back to film over the last 18 months or so I thought this was a natural progression: I hadn’t been able to see a way forward with digital and this looked like it might be a fruitful route.

After a happy and absorbing twelve or so hours a number of thoughts occur to me.

1.  This is an entirely different process from that of producing digital images. (Cries of “duh!” – but stay with me.)   It is so different that the suspicion I have had in my head for some time now – that they cannot both reasonably be called photography – is hardening into certainty. Older photographers may have consigned their enlargers and printing trays to some dusty corner of the loft with relief but for every advance there is a retreat somewhere and sometimes you don’t notice until it is too late.  That’s not to suggest that one process is superior to the other: just that they are very different.  This is A Big Subject and you have my promise that I will develop it dazzingly in a forthcoming blogpost.

2.  The mere process of producing a negative, contact prints, several test strips and a full-size print or two brings about a familiarity with a photograph which a memory card and software program simply don’t.  By the end of the darkroom process you are not looking at the photograph you thought you were looking at when you started. 

3.  You probably can’t (well, so far, I can’t anyway) distinguish a darkroom hardcopy print from a digital one.  I went to see a Lartigue exhibition a year or two ago and some of the prints were modern darkroom-produced from his own negatives; and others were produced from the same negatives but through scanning and digital printing.  I saw no difference and the young man overseeing the exhibition said he couldn’t either (notwithstanding the fact that the digital ones were very significantly cheaper).  That’s a bit of a disappointment because I thought I would be tapping into a rich vein of print aesthetics from day one.  I still have hopes, however.

4.  Darkroom printing is one of those activities in which time simply comes to a halt because you become so absorbed. (The darkness seems to contribute to this effect.  Space takes on a different quality.) This puts it on a level with only two other practices in my life; motorcycle mechanics and writing.  Since I gave up the former a couple of years ago I maybe do have a little capacity now for further escape from the time/space continuum.

5.  You don’t actually need much space for the activities in the dark bit.  You do need significant kit though: enlarger, trays, chemicals and so on.  Most of the hardware you can pick up fairly cheaply on ebay but I have this feeling that the hardware side might begin to expand…..

Am I hooked? I am certainly tempted.  I suspect that the highs are higher and the lows are lower than the digital process.  That makes it look addictive to me – and like all addictions, first somewhere inside you have to want to become addicted.

P.S. These two appreciating classics are my first darkroom printed images. On-screen two things are immediately apparent. First is that the backlighting of the screen lifts the highlights a little - so, for example, the chap’s head below has lost the highlight detail in fact it has blown it, compared to the print in my hand. The other is that the overall tone has changed to create a harder, brighter image in both cases.

P.S.  The other interesting thing about the course was more general.  We went out on the first morning to shoot a roll of film in half an hour or so.  Obviously, in that time you just shoot whatever you bump into: buildings, environment, people and so on without much intention.  Yet when you have printed your contact sheet you find that you have several interesting images at least.  Where, then, does that leave intention in your general photographic life?  When you squint through the viewfinder and line your image up – what is your intention?  And is it a help or a hindrance?  That is something that I hope to be in a better position to comment on later in the year……..(mysterious, eh?)

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MARTIN PARR: RETURN TO MANCHESTER

Would you invite Martin Parr to photograph your wedding?  No, nor would I.  So why invite him to photograph your city? 

Yates’ Wine Lodge, Ashton-under-Lyne, 1983

Yates’ Wine Lodge, Ashton-under-Lyne, 1983

Manchester Art Gallery’s reasoning seems to have been that he has done several photoseries on Manchester since his days as a student at the city’s polytechnic and it was about time for another.  That’s doubtless interesting for Mancunians – but is it interesting for anyone else?  Perhaps to forestall that question there are copies of appreciative press reviews at the door of the exhibition.  He’s a controversial photographer so it’s almost as if the gallery were trying to get its retaliation in first.  And it’s true, there is plenty of interest here – though perhaps not always in the way that the gallery intended.

The exhibition is arranged chronologically from Parr’s early black and white mounted and framed prints through to apparently randomly assorted sizes of 1980s colour film prints up to about 4 feet by 5 feet (judged by eye).  All of these are in one room and then the next space has the 2018 digital prints again from the very large to smaller than A4, unframed unmounted and pinned to the wall.  There are about 450 in all – so a minute’s study of each would have you in there for nearly 8 hours.

In concept then the exhibition is definitely a game of two halves as the photographs above and below show.  The work from the 20th century is social documentary.  There is a series on Yates’ Wine Lodges, on The Osmonds fans,  a very humane one on Prestwich Mental Hospital,  one about a street about to be demolished, and a bit of an iffy one on the weather.  All those are black and white and are all good examples of Parr’s ability to choose an apparently mundane subject and get under its skin.  In the 1980s he turned to colour and you can see his signature style emerging in a series he was commissioned to do about retail activities in Salford, Point Of Sale.  Some see that style as wry, witty and observant and others see it as mocking, class-based and voyeuristic. But so far, so interesting.

When we move into the rooms dedicated to the Manchester 2018 part of the exhibition things change.  The photographer roved endlessly over Greater Manchester this summer, taking thousands of photographs in about 20 days.  That’s quite an output.  Let’s say ten hours of shooting per day over twenty days: that averages out at about one photo a minute. In the face of this deluge the curators seem – understandably - to have struggled.  There are around 300 images chosen for display and some 240 of those are in a giant grid on two walls.  It is difficult to get a good view of many of these because they are so high up or low down.  It is almost as though the decision was taken simply to impress with the sheer quantity of imagery rather than its quality. 

21st birthday party at the Royal Nawaab restaurant, Levenshulme, Manchester, 2018.

21st birthday party at the Royal Nawaab restaurant, Levenshulme, Manchester, 2018.

The result is photographic only in the technical sense: it’s more a digital carpet bombing of the city; or perhaps a replaying of the Borges short story On Exactitude In Science where cartographers made a map the same size as the territory itself depicted.   After all, if my maths is right, the full 10,000 images printed at A3  would cover about 1.25 square kilometres – which is a sizeable part of central Manchester. 

In contrast, I recently went to a retrospective exhibition of quite a well-known press photographer.  He had worked for 50 years and that lifetime of images had been edited down to 97 photographs.  Here we have 300 from just a few weeks.  That is doubtless interesting for Mancunians wanting to spot faces and places but, unlike the older images, it does not really qualify as social documentary. The images cannot really be considered to be social documentary, as the early ones are, because a documentarian uses distillation to produce a rounded picture of their subject.  In the age of digital reproduction that judicious process gives way to a stream of images in danger of bursting its banks.

More striking, perhaps, is what does not appear.  Modern Manchester, on the evidence of this exhibition, functions without any public services.  I looked hard but failed to find any images of: the NHS, ambulance crews, police, fire and rescue, refuse collection or disposal, public transport, classrooms, libraries or museums.   Maybe they were left on the cutting-room floor; maybe they were never taken.  Either way, it’s important.  We all know the daily reality now – but in 50 years’ time these photos will be historical evidence. 

All of these snapshots show a city that may have changed on the surface but remains much the same underneath.  There are yoga sessions and sporting events, textile workshops and barbers’ shops, street parties and Irish festivals.  Either you take to the snapshot style or you don’t.  It’s not really an art which hides an art and so perhaps it is better seen as anthropology with a camera, a kind of one-man Mass Observation for the 21st century. 

A more authentically modern exercise have might have been to ask Mancunians to take their own photos and then to have displayed those.  Would that not have reflected more accurately the true developments in photography over the last twenty years or so?  The results would surely have reproduced Martin Parr’s off-the-cuff style well, after all, and virtually any photograph will have an impact if it is blown up to double or treble poster size and pinned to a gallery wall.  Why not let the people speak on the walls of their own city’s gallery?  

In the round, the exhibition seems to be part of the repackaging of Manchester.  Out with the black and white Yates’ Wine Lodges and mullets and in with Graphene and Salford Quays. In that sense, the photographs are part of the very process that they purport to portray.  Ostensibly, they show a city confident enough to turn a famously candid photographer’s camera on itself and no holds barred.  Yet the result is oddly fudged – not affectionate but not acid either- maybe because the sharp edge that Parr has displayed elsewhere would not have worked here.

A day or two after I visited the exhibition a nagging connection surfaced more clearly in my brain and I realised that these images put me in mind of Donald McGill’s saucy seaside postcards: more cartoon, then, than portrait.

 (Martin Parr: Return To Manchester at Manchester Art Gallery until 22 April.

 ALL IMAGES © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery)

HOW MANY PAGES MAKE A LIFE?

“Berenice Abbott: A Life In Photography” by Julia Van Haaften

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At a guess, I’d say that most people know of Berenice Abbott either from her documentation of the changing face of New York or from her connection to the  archive of Eugene Atget, the Parisian “Balzac of the camera”.  The basic facts of her life are simple enough.  She came from nowhere, creatively speaking, to a perhaps lucky gig as Man Ray’s studio assistant and from there to her own portrait photography practice in 1920s Paris.  She went back to the US before WW2 and set out to photograph the changing face of New York.  From there in the 1950s she moved on to scientific photography.  She was technically skilled and innovative but her big problem was that she had a genius for putting people’s backs up.  Too many movers and shakers clearly saw her as humourless and difficult.  Her persistence eventually paid off however and she began to earn serious money from her back catalogue from the 1970s onwards.  Stylistically speaking she moved away from the early influence of the surrealists to a straight, naturalistic photography.

Blossom Restaurant, 103, Bowery, Manhatten, 1935.  Berenice Abbott.

Blossom Restaurant, 103, Bowery, Manhatten, 1935. Berenice Abbott.

The one photo that always popped into my mind when her name came up would have been this one , Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, Manhattan.  The chap coming out was a piece of serendipity apparently but to me the most interesting thing is the enormous range of dishes set out on the menu in the restaurant window: did they do all of those every day, I wonder? It gives you an idea of the superb detail she caught with her large format camera in so many of the images.

You won’t find out the answer to that question in Julia Van Haaften’s recent biography,  Berenice Abbott: A Life In Photography (W.W. Norton and Co. 2018) but it is possibly one of the few details missing from this monumental book.  As a work of research it is pretty astounding.  Want to know what Berenice ate for lunch on 29th November  1928?  It’s in here at page 129.  The company she kept in Paris in the 1920s is assiduously recorded and you get sentences like this: “McAlmon enjoyed substantial financial freedom from his six-year marriage to Winifred Ellerman, called Bryher, the British shipbuilding heiress and lover of the poet H.D. – Hilda Doolittle, whose former partner had been the poet Ezra Pound.”  Got that?  It’s a sort of third-person diary so there is ample to fascinate the devoted B.A. fan. 

For the undecided, (e.g. me) it was a harder read because there is no real assessment of events, no glance at the horizon from time to time.  Was she wasting time with the Atget archive and inviting critics to see her as in thrall to him?  And why did she sell a half share in the archive to gallery owner Julian Levy for $1000 when she had paid $10,000 for the whole thing only a few years previously?  At times she seems to have had little money but more than once there is reference to her fine clothes and to her cars.  It doesn’t seem to stack up.  The bigger picture disappears in the detail. 

As for the photography – hmmmm……  There are some pretty impressive photos, no doubt about it, as you would expect in a body of work spanning half a century or so.  As a straight photographic record of people and place it’s hugely interesting and some of her photos seem now to create 1930s  New York as much as recording it.   I don’t think photography can go beyond that: it isn’t transcendental after all.  The work is one thing but the life is another. I’m not sure the life itself justifies 500 pages but this is bound to be the definitive biography for a good long while.

THREE INTO TWO WON'T GO

Dimensions, That Is.

You look at a photograph, you look at a photograph.  Unless the photographer is deliberately messing with your head, what’s in the photo is usually pretty obvious, right?

Not so fast!  Allan Sekula had an interesting story about that.  As he told it,* the anthropologist, Melville Herskovits, while carrying out research in Africa, once showed to a Bush woman a photograph of her son (presumably in black and white).  The woman looked at it but saw no image there.  He had to point out the details of the picture to her before she was able to make out the recognisable figure of her son.

I’ve thought about that story many times.  Sekula says that the photo is ‘unmarked as a message, is a non-message, until it is framed linguistically by the anthropologist’: the mother would, after all, have been completely unfamiliar with the practice of cramming three dimensions into two on a piece of card.  The fact that the photo was in black and white must complicate matters a bit, too.  So, even a standard photo is not part of some universal language: you have to learn to see what is in it.  That isn’t the same as learning to interpret it: it means you have to learn to see that it is meant to replicate a little bit of the external world out there.  Since, in the western world, we have been looking at photos for nearly 200 years now it’s second nature to us.  But it’s good to remind ourselves that looking at a photo is as much a decoding as is looking at a page of text.  Just as the word ‘dog’ is simply a random set of black marks on white paper that represents to Anglophones (who can read) a furry four-legged animal that barks, so a photograph is an otherwise random selection of forms that represents reality for those who know how to look. 

Here is one from my Are You Sure You Turned The Gas Off? series.  See the face in it?  Hint: it’s wearing glasses.  Always makes me laugh, this one.

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*(Allan Sekula: On The Invention of Photographic Meaning in Thinking Photography, ed. Victor Burgin, 1982, Macmillan)

 

WHEN THE PICTURES COME DOWN

Thoughts At The End Of An Exhibition

I never could find space in the Working Hands exhibition for this one. It was one of the sheep-shearing series. The sheep looks like it’s more interested in me than losing its coat.

I never could find space in the Working Hands exhibition for this one. It was one of the sheep-shearing series. The sheep looks like it’s more interested in me than losing its coat.

I was at a photodiscussion a little while ago where a chap said that he always felt a bit depressed at the end of an exhibition of his work. If so, maybe there are ways to counter that.

I am now the veteran of three exhibitions.  In the first two – as part of a collective – I showed pictures from The Smart Panopticon.  Then the most recent one was Working Hands at a local gallery.

Disappointment tends to be the result of over-expectation so what you have to accept right from the start is that the wider world is going to remain largely unmoved by your show.  You can drench social media if you like – and as my collective did for the first two.  We produced postcards and pamphlets and posters and leaflets, too.  We still have many in storage. For my solo one the gallery produced a poster for shop windows and so on – which was ample, I thought. 

None of the three cost me anything.  The first two relied on Arts Council funding and at the latest one the gallery kindly paid for the prints.  That is pretty rare these days by all accounts.   Generally, though, the enthusiast exhibitor will end up out of pocket. Why do it, then?

For me the two main advantages were that it is hugely interesting to go through the whole process – particularly with the help as I had most recently of a professional curator.  Who does what, who decides what, how you put a press release together, how you go about hanging and so on.  The second is that you see your photographs in a completely different way when they are hanging in that impersonal space for the public to see.  Your darlings are on their own now!  You learn a lot from that.

You have to balance that against the costs of printing and mounting and any framing plus publicity, ancillary expenditure and your own time.  You’ll also need somewhere to store all the prints when they come down.  Even with professional support it takes a lot of effort and so it’s not for the faint of heart.

It probably isn’t really a question of either exhibiting or doing nothing.  These days there are several alternatives: you have photobooks, digital galleries, websites, innumerable competitions and calls for work.  All of these, whatever their merits, present the opportunity for showing your work.  But the gallery is the real world with real photos, of course and maybe therefore an important counterflow to the digital tide.

I wouldn’t say I felt any anti-climax at the end of any of these exhibitions but certainly I had a clearer sense of my place in the photographic universe.  That was actually pretty helpful – as a dose of reality usually is.    

SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET

Displaying Those Family Photos

In the distant past before AirBnB, when I used to visit London more regularly, I used an agency which organised bed and breakfast with the well-to-do who had fallen on hard times and had to make a crust by offering accommodation.  So it was that I came to stay with a host who lived off Manchester Square.  The arrangements for entry to this mansion block were on the clandestine side - I was forbidden to use the bell and had to arrive at a precise time.  I soon found out why.  I was ushered through the gloom of the entry hall by the shadowy figure of an old lady gesturing urgently from her flat doorway.  She pulled me inside wordlessly and closed the door.

“I’m not supposed to be doing this.  It’s against the rules!” she hissed.

I was intrigued and even more so when I when she led me into her living room.  It was furnished in that mode of shabby chic which is the speciality of the  bourgeoisie.  The walls, however, were lined with works of art which were clearly not Athena poster reproductions.   They looked seriously good. But it was the photograph over her fireplace that most caught my eye.  It portrayed a man perhaps in his thirties, seated at a desk, pen in hand.  The 1940s décor and accoutrements placed it in history, but what was most striking about this photo was the fact that its subject was dressed in Nazi military uniform.  Was it the SS or the Wehrmacht?  I can’t remember.

We chatted over tea and biscuits.  She must have been in her 80s, with what sounded like a mitteleuropean accent.  Mostly she talked about the lease on her flat which was coming to an end.  She was furious that it was not to be renewed and had hatched a cunning plan to frustrate her landlord – a plan which, if I followed its many twists and turns correctly, involved her own death.  This account took many detours from which I deduced that she was a member of some kind of Carpathian noble family who had fled their estate on the communist takeover after the war.

She had obviously clocked my interest in her art and launched into the story of how she had managed to get it out of – was it Rumania or Yugoslavia somewhere?  She had been blocked by the authorities at every turn.

“Well, what would you have done?” she asked triumphantly at one point.

I tried to look like a man who would have had several solutions to the problem.  But she pressed on regardless.

“Well, it’s obvious!” she cried.  “I gave them to the British ambassador and told him to send them in the diplomatic bag!”

Of course.  She had clearly had impeccable connections.

I stayed listening as long as I thought polite before going out to eat.  She was a wildly entertaining talker.  When she let me out the following morning I had to leave as furtively as I had arrived.

That photograph stuck in my mind but it was not until a year or two later that a newspaper obituary caught my eye.  The Countess so-and-so of somewhere.  Bit by bit as I read I realised it was her.  Much of what I had surmised turned out to be roughly correct.  And she had indeed been a bit dotty in that aristocratic way.  Apparently, if you were invited by her for dinner you always got exactly the same pasta meal which she went out and bought at Waitrose, microwaved and served up. 

Even better, that photo figured.  Her husband had indeed been a high-ranking officer in German military intelligence.  He had also been a British agent.  That is how they got to the UK after the war.  Nonetheless, to display the photograph on the fireplace was an act of some bravura.  Your eye swivelled towards it the moment you entered the room.  It was both distraction and focus.  Now I wish I had grasped the nettle and asked her about it.  Would she have told me that he had been a spy?  Would I have believed her?  These are murky waters after all. But is that not why we display family photographs: so that questions may be asked of us?

If I had asked I can’t help thinking that I would have closed some kind of circuit: the photograph would have served its purpose.  She would have launched unstoppably into another stream of history and I am sure I would have been fascinated.  She was a charming old lady and the photograph was another way to charm her visitors.  I really should have asked.

 

 

PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE ART MARKET BY JULIET HACKING

How The Market Makes Art and Art Makes The Market

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Here is an interesting book.  For £30 you get a handsome 266 hardback pages by the Programme Director of the MA in Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art.  She was previously Head of the Photography Department at Sotheby’s auction house and therefore has much experience of the book’s subject – how the art market for photography functions.

The book is divided into two sections.  The first is aimed at potential collectors and deals with how to navigate the market for art photography.  It starts off at worm’s eye level but soon enough rises to the aspirational.  If you were thinking of starting off a photograph collection then it would be pretty essential reading.  There is detailed advice on establishing authenticity, researching value, analysing auction reports, and recognising pitfalls.  Some of this works on a pretty big scale.  For example, there is what Dr Hacking describes as ‘rebranding an alternative investment portfolio as a curated collection.’ Here is what you do.  You promote a Fund (that is, you interest both private individuals and institutions with the right kind of money) and go scouting for reliably valuable photographs, hoovering up whole collections along the way and attracting more investors as you go.  With a wave of the wand, Investment Portfolio becomes Collection in its own right when you start persuading influential people to talk it up, you sponsor serious exhibitions in which it features, you promote academic conferences which highlight it and you even publish catalogues dedicated to your Collection. Having maximised your brand you then “bring it to the market” and if your timing and technique are right you should have generated such a frenzy that you will make many times what you have spent in putting the brand together.  The author says that the knack for “successful monetisation” is to “conjure up aura”.  

It is Dr Hacking’s main theme that the market is crucial to the making of Art (as opposed to art) and the second half of the book addresses that theme: how photography (or some photography anyway) became Art and therefore became very  valuable.  Dr Hacking’s argument is that there has always been, from the very beginning of photographic history, a distinction drawn between Art-as-photography and photography-as-art.  Few would argue with that. The former is what artists do and the latter is what photographers do.  There is overlap and there are grey areas: for example, in Sotheby’s, Robert Mapplethorpe has been sold as an artist in London but as a photographer in New York.  Traditionally the reverse has been more true, however: those who are big in photography may be unheard of in contemporary Art and vice versa.

Dr Hacking’s survey of the market history of photography makes clear that until well into the second half of the twentieth century it was difficult to get any sort of a decent price for a photo.  But as the value of older art went into the stratosphere, photography helped fill the market gap that was left.  Between 1975 and 1991, for example, photography prices increased by some 680%.  Then when contemporary art began to take off at the beginning of this century photography had to try and hang onto its coat-tails.  By the 21st century six figures for a photograph was no longer exceptional but 99% of all sold photography still falls outside of the contemporary art market and therefore the really, really big prices.

So, if there are these fairly simple economic arguments about supply and demand then how is it, we might ask, that the market can impute cultural value?  Surely, the price paid is a result of that very cultural value and not a determinant of it?

What enables an image to arc across the photography/Art electrodes is a complex institutional circuit, according to Dr Hacking, the wiring of which encompasses critics, dealers, writers, specialists and institutions.  In essence, Art photography is whatever this coterie decides it to be – its nose being guided by artistic pedigrees, track records, market history and personal opinion.  This does seem a curious argument.  It must lead ineluctably to the conclusion that there is no intrinsic quality in the picture itself which makes it Art.   Good, bad or indifferent – it makes no odds.  It is simply the opinions and prices which trail in its wake.  Taking the example of Andreas Gursky’s Rhin II – sold for over £3 million several years ago which was then a world record price for a photograph – you might well conclude that it is indeed a pretty mediocre image.  But the rub is that everything points to its being a very safe investment vehicle.

Like all circuits, the one described by this book might be seen as ending at its own starting point.  What underpins it, that cultural value is determined by price and price is determined by cultural value, may well be true within the walls of the auction house, but it is not necessarily so outside them. It is also an argument which has an interesting parallel with banking until 2008: that was another world in which a group of people considered themselves to be too expert by half - and look where that ended.

Towards the end of this book the author says that we should be asking not why Rhin II is so valuable but how it has come to be so.  Indeed we should, because this Foucauldian question inevitably leads us onto the issue of discourse.  Viewed from this angle we can see that the book is not so much a commentary on that discourse as part of the discourse itself.  The first half is after all a scholarly explanation of how the market functions and the second half is a scholarly account of the history of art photography based on an examination of historical values.  By its very nature it is an account for participants of all kinds and its advice will influence behaviour.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is no comparison in the book between the photographic commodity market and any other enthusiast-based commodity market.   For example, in the historic vehicle market (where Art is not in issue) prices in the last fifty years have also gone through the roof.  If a graph of comparison showed significant similarities in its peaks and troughs with those of the photography market then we might well conclude that it was overall macro-economic factors that affected value as much as judgments about Art.   Put bluntly, the quality of what is being bought doesn’t matter so long as the commodity can deliver a return.  One of Lawrence of Arabia’s series of old Broughs, for example, is always going to maintain value even if that marque’s rear cylinder did overheat with monotonous regularity.

The book is a good read.  The prose is clear, the annotation copious and the author’s pedigree impeccable.  If you want to be a collector you had better read it.  Even if you don’t, its market-based view of photographic history is, I think, a first and, whether you agree with it or not, it is very interesting food for thought.     

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

 

 Goals Or Directions?

A Buddhist epigram I once read goes as follows:

Question: “How do you paint the perfect picture?”

Answer: “First you make yourself perfect and then you just paint naturally.”

I decided to apply that to photography – though naturally enough I’m still working on the first half of the project.  What I like about it is the idea that a  photograph might not be the product of circumstances but rather more a state of mind.  That state of mind depends on careful cultivation but cannot do without skilful means either.

So with that general idea of working on myself photographically I have signed on for a few courses in 2019.  First on the skilful means side is a darkroom course at Salford University where in a few weeks I should be able to get the basics of the dark art of wet printing.  Second is a weekend course in March in making traditional cloth-bound hardback notebooks at Hot Bed Press.  I am hoping to find a way of combining photograph and word which I can then put together through this kind of bookmaking.  Then for the cultivation of the mind side I am taking an online course in modern western architecture – which means, apparently, from the Victorian period to the present day.  I investigated this a bit in my photoseries The Smart Panopticon and now I am so intrigued by the whole subject that I feel I need to investigate it more deeply – not so much with the idea of gaining knowledge as with immersing myself in form, line, shape, light, space and solidity.  That is all very photographic.

Maybe the outcome of all this will be a home-made, self-printed photobook on modern architecture but that is not the plan.  I don’t have a plan. Direction is good but goals are tyrants.  I just want to see where this goes with that Buddhist insight in mind.  Obviously, you are not making yourself perfect but you are working on yourself which is the important thing.

MORE SHADOWS, LESS LIGHT

Back To Tanizaki

The Tanizaki book that I wrote about a couple of posts below continues to smoke around my brain.  I see a link with something that Barthes says in La Chambre Claire: “I  have always had the impression that in any photograph, colour is a coating applied after the event to the original truth of black and white.”

You might think that the opposite was true: that black and white is a style applied to a world of colour.  Don’t you see colour all around you after all?

Yet when I get up each morning for my meditation session something curious happens.  Here in northern Europe at around 6.30 am in winter it is dark.  I settle into meditation and the world that I see through my half-open eyes is monochrome. 

My rudimentary understanding of the physiology of sight is that in low light levels the eye makes use of rod cells – which do not perceive colour, only black and white.   The greyscale in between those two extremes is the rod cells’ version of colour, known as “ghosting in”.  As the meditative minutes pass, the sun comes up and, even on a rainy day, light levels rise.  Cone cells then come into play and replace the monochrome of the rod cells with colour.  The same happens in reverse in the evening but artificial illumination masks it.  For that reason it is much clearer in the countryside than urban areas.  So we see in monochrome or colour depending on the amount of light available.

The decline of black and white photography might be seen as coinciding with the increasing use of electric light.  Since we are drenching the world in colour that is what we replicate photographically.  In older buildings the subtlety of shadow has profound effects.  In churches, castles, old houses, old farm buildings the eye seems often to revert to the monochrome world.  Other senses are brought into play then.  It is a more complete world because it does not rely on acute vision alone.

Seen in this way, colour photography is not a technological advance producing a more accurate view of the world.  It is a regime whose account of the world is a construction.  Your saturation slider therefore has its Faustian aspect: you can have fun - but the price you pay is dazzling.   Tanizaki’s lament for the shadows of his youth and Barthes’ insight into the nature of photography lead us inexorably to this conclusion.

HOKUSAI CRACKS A JOKE

At least I think it’s a joke….

“From the age of six I have had a mania for sketching the form of things. From about the age of fifty I produced a number of designs, yet of all I drew prior to the age of seventy- there is truly nothing of any great note. At the age of seventy-three, I finally came to understand somewhat the true quality of birds, animals, insects, fishes - the vital nature of grasses and trees. Therefore, at eighty I shall gradually have made progress, at ninety I shall have penetrated even further the deep meaning of things, at one hundred I shall have become truly marvellous, and at one hundred and ten, each dot, each line shall surely possess a life of its own. I only beg that gentlemen of sufficiently long life take care to note the truth of my words.” Hokusai.

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IN PRAISE OF SHADOWS

Japanese Aesthetics And Photography

Cover of Penguin Vintage Classics Edition: ISBN 9780099283577

Cover of Penguin Vintage Classics Edition: ISBN 9780099283577

This much admired work was written in 1933 by Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki as a hymn of praise to traditional Japanese aesthetics and might still be profitably read by the 21st century photographer.

Tanizaki’s theme is the importance of shadow in aesthetic appreciation and its disappearance under the glare of modern electric lighting.  The flicker of candlelight, the half-light from the shoji (the traditional paper screen), the dim glow of coals from the stove, glistening black lacquer – all have been destroyed by modern lighting.   There was a moment of trance, he wrote, when he raised that lacquered bowl of dark soup to his lips, “a kind of silent music evoked by the combination of lacquerware and the light of a candle flickering in the dark.”   Japanese cooking he says is “inseparable from darkness” and the beauty of a Japanese room depends on the interplay of dark and light shadow.  He evokes the experience of tasting a yokan, a traditional Japanese confection:  “You take its cool, smooth substance into your mouth and it is as if the very darkness of the room were melting.”

It is a beautiful essay and to read it is to imagine a tonal world that is very different from the one we inhabit now.  Look around our towns and cities: lighting is a kind of fetish.  It is not there to aid progress round the streets anymore nor to illuminate destinations.  Its purpose is to repel shadow – metaphorically, perhaps, to blot out what we do not wish to consider in our own psyche.

In photography, is it any coincidence that the subtle depiction of black and white shades which was once our photographic world has all but disappeared before the emergence of the backlit digital image?  Digital display – the adverts, the computer screens, the photographic projection in all its forms - has obliterated the pale washes of the analogue world. Is this not the photographic consequence of what Tanizaki was writing about in 1933?  Have we not created in digital display a harsh coating which in fact obscures the very quality we are trying to reveal in our photographs?

 

MANDY BARKER

Talking Rubbish

Great talk by Mandy Barker at Redeye this week. She is now well known for her photographic work documenting the extent of plastic waste in the world’s oceans.  The resulting images achieve that elusive photographic goal of taking a large real-world issue and condensing it – without diminishing it – into a single photograph.

PENALTY - The World © Mandy Barker

PENALTY - The World © Mandy Barker

  The talk  was a bit of a master class in process: in how to take an idea and turn it into a photographic project.  She explained how she took the initial concern and started to work on it several years ago with a series called Indefinite.  This developed as it went along.  Several series, more ambitious and wider in scope both photographically and logistically, followed: Soup; Shoal; and Penalty (see image right). The most recent is Beyond Drifting which uses a 19th century botany manual as a model for images of plastic detritus shot to look like plankton.  In all of this work the ugliness of decaying plastic is transformed into graphic images that draw the eye and intrigue the mind without ever minimising that ugliness.  Its construction of shape from detail is almost pointilliste.

Mandy shared research methods, photographic techniques, workbooks and happy accidents in what I felt was an act of great generosity.  I couldn’t make my mind up whether she is an environmentalist with a camera or a photographer with environmental concerns but either way you couldn’t help but be inspired.

A VIEW FROM THE NORTH

Denis Thorpe’s Lost Art Of The Simple

I just managed to catch the Denis Thorpe exhibition “A View From The North” at Stockport’s War Memorial Art Gallery before it closed.  It was a fairly standard display: 97 photographs arranged in a long line right around the room, all much the same size and all in fairly standard frames.  They were mostly giclee prints with one or two silver gelatin.  95 were black and white and two were in colour – though those two were themselves reproduced in black and white in the book of the exhibition (available from Bluecoat Press)

You might expect an exhibition of press photographs from the second half of the twentieth century to have the subtitle: Here Today And Gone Tomorrow – because that is what most news photos are.  They illustrate events which quickly disappear into history.  Yet Denis Thorpe’s work is proving to have an unusual staying power (this exhibition itself following on from one at The Lowry in 2001).

Diptheria Immunisation Programme by Denis Thorpe

Diptheria Immunisation Programme by Denis Thorpe

He worked on local newspapers before moving to the Daily Mail in 1957 and then the Guardian in 1974.  He had been inspired in his career path by the photojournalists of the generation before his own – those who worked for Life, Picture Post and Vu.  Maybe that gives a clue to the longevity of his work because they aren’t really images designed primarily to illustrate a news story.  They tell a story in their own right, in the wordless way that photographs do.

If we take the photograph above as an illustration, we see a timeless image of a young boy approaching what we might call a rite of passage consisting of a painful experience visited on him by well-meaning adults. This is the universal celebrated in the particular.  I can just recall my own diphtheria vaccination and the trepidation I felt just like this young man.  The composition is the simplest imaginable – just the rectangle of the boy’s body, the circle of his head and the horizontal line of his arm.  We might also these days be inclined to impose an NHS backstory on the photograph.  In 1954 when it was taken the NHS was in its early days and its national significance was rightly celebrated in an image like this.  And now?  The simple truth illustrated by the picture, of the value of universal access to good healthcare, seems to have been lost.  So it is hard to imagine a modern equivalent of this picture.

Calling the exhibition “A View From The North” sells it a little bit short.  Many of the photographs were taken in northern England but there are plenty from elsewhere: Spain, India, Japan, Egypt, Russia, the USA, and Belfast and other parts of the UK.  What holds it together as an exhibition in my opinion is not so much the geography or northern culture as the style.  The subject matter is unassuming and detail has been closely observed.  There are haircuts, violin lessons, playground games, a great grandmother cradling her great granddaughter.  These are events still today happening all the time, all around us.  They are still points in a turning world. 

The turning world, it might be said, has moved on.  We see simplicity as being the characteristic of a past age.  I would be more inclined to say that it is a way of seeing which has largely slipped from our grasp.  It is there for those who choose to retrieve it and photography is one way of doing that.  

WORKING HANDS

Conception, Gestation, Delivery.

Rebecca The Harpist (from the series Working Hands)

Rebecca The Harpist (from the series Working Hands)

After a good long cycle ride this summer my wife and I stopped at a local café for an ice cream.  It was crowded and so I asked a young woman if we could use the spare chairs at her table.  We fell into conversation on numerous topics, one of which was her occupation.  It turned out that she was a harpist – and you don’t meet many of those.  As I talked to her about that it dawned on me that I might have a subject here for my Working Hands series. 

Fast forward a few weeks and I arrived at her flat for the photo session.  I had three cameras with me.  One was my standard digital camera.  One was a film SLR.  And one was my Hasselblad MF.  I am not usually incompetent physically but I pressed a stray button on the digital and found myself in a menu that I simply could not get out of.  Then the back on the Hasselblad refused to go back on after I reloaded.  So it was all down to the little Olympus.  We had to go outside because there wasn’t enough light in the flat.  Then the sky clouded over and a few drops of rain fell.  It was all getting a bit fraught.  What do you do in those circumstances?  The only thing you can do is keep going, it seems to me. 

The session kind of reaffirmed my faith in film.  I realised that the digital screen, the constant looking at images as you take them is a double-edged sword.  So many photos are like wine: they seem to develop as time passes. With film, that period between exposure and development is very significant.  There is no rush to judgment as there so often is with digital.  Your memory of what you saw through the viewfinder has time to mature and you can look with more equanimity at the results when you eventually get them.

There were several images of Rebecca that I could have used for the series but this is the one I eventually chose.  Others in the series show the eye fixed on the hand – which was my intention.  But in this one, as she is looking down, I think you get an idea more of the invisible mind/body connection.

The Working Hands series is being exhibited from November 10th to January 26th at The Treasure House, Champney Road, Beverley, East Yorkshire.  Free entrance!

GETTING OUT OF THE WAY

 What Is The Photographer’s Input?

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A camera is a machine which can stop time and frame space.  A photograph is an image of time stopped and space framed.  That seems to be about it.  The artist might say: “This is how I see it”.  The photographer might say: “This is how it was”.  There may be a little overlap but not enough to suggest that the two are embarked on a common endeavour.   The photograph seems to me to be more like a short poem, or a paragraph that you read somewhere and try to remember because it strikes a chord and sends something wraith-like smoking through your brain.  You try to pin it down but you can’t – any more than you can pin down the essence of your own thoughts.  Or maybe a pop song would be a better simile: something potent but ephemeral.  Some people like to discuss photography’s status as Art and good luck to them: but I feel no impulse to do that. 

I took the photograph above when I was in Paris recently.  Naturally, you can’t be in Paris, camera in hand, and not think of the great French photographers.  They seemed to understand that a photograph is not a message from the photographer but a message from the world.  So they got out of the way of the world’s message.   I have no doubt that their ghosts were in the back of my mind as I peered over this balcony.    Snap, I went.  Time stopped and space framed. 

TRACKING EDITH

What Exactly Was She?

Copyright: Peter Suschitzky, Julia Donat & Misha Donat

Copyright: Peter Suschitzky, Julia Donat & Misha Donat

The film “Tracking Edith” currently on distribution in the UK tells the interesting story of Edith Tudor-Hart (nee Suschitsky) photographer and Soviet agent.  Despite the 90 minutes or so that it devotes to her she remains a shadowy figure.  She was born in Vienna, studied photography at the Bauhaus, and married an Englishman, Alexander Tudor-Hart with whom she had one son before the marriage came to an end.  She seems to have been recruited to the Soviet cause by Arnold Deutsch an Austrian communist who was killed during the war.  Her interest for students of the cold war is that she is said to have been the person who recruited Kim Philby. (The National Archives summary of the security files on her conclude that “it was almost certainly she who first talent spotted Philby”.)  This came to light when MI5 documents were declassified a few years ago – though those shown in the film do not seem to prove her role beyond doubt and other sources seem to suggest that it was in fact Philby’s wife Litzi Friedmann who proposed him.

For photohistorians she is perhaps best known for her photographs of children receiving ultraviolet light treatment for rickets.  The National Galleries of Scotland had a major exhibition of her work in 2013 which proposed her as “one of the most significant documentary photographers working in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s.”  I would have thought that that was putting it a bit high.  She is not mentioned in either of the two standard works on my shelves, The Oxford Companion To The Photograph nor in A New History Of Photography (ed. Michel Frizot),  although her brother Wolfgang Suschitsky is twice.  It seems that her left-wing sympathies, and suspicion about her connections to the Soviet security services, led MI5 to lean heavily on Fleet Street not to use her work. Perhaps that is more the reason for her absence from standard works on photographic history: MI5 made sure she didn’t get the breaks.  (Good job that things like that can’t happen now, eh?)

The film was interesting though jumbled, I thought, and needed a stronger editor.  She never really emerges distinctly and seems to have been a delphic figure: she is described by contemporaries as being both ‘melancholic’ and ‘attractive and vivacious’.  Perhaps that made her a good agent. From memory, the film makes no direct quotation from any of letters she may have written or from any conversations with her bar one with her brother which seems to have been recorded somehow by MI5.  

As a result of the film and the book of her life that preceded it (both the work of her great nephew Peter Stephan Jungk) and a study of her photography “Edith Tudor Hart: In The Shadow Of Tyranny” by Duncan Forbes she may be emerging from the penumbra into which she had retreated historically.  It will be interesting to see what happens next.  What we have here after all is a fascinating psychological split.   A spy is above all an actor in events and a putative manipulator of them.  Photographers are quite different: they are observers or reporters of events from which they must maintain a distance.  Could she have been both?

From what I have seen of them, her photos seem accomplished and powerful and quite clearly focused on the poverty and inequality of the day.  Yet this work seems to play second fiddle to her role at the centre of the scandal that continues to mesmerise the British establishment to this day.  Perhaps that is because it is easier in the current political climate for the national psyche to cast a female left-wing foreigner in the role of spy and traitor than in that of a committed reporter of the social issues that continue to bedevil us .

FROM THE ARCHIVE: SHOOTING PEOPLE IS WRONG

But Don't Ask A Photo To Prove That

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This is Igor Mihailovich Shalayev.  He was born in 1887 near Moscow, worked as a carpenter on a collective farm and was arrested by the soviet authorities in November 1937.  He was sentenced to death (on unknown charges) on 19 November 1937, photographed on 26 November and executed the day after.

It’s a funny thing to do isn’t it?  You photograph someone and then you shoot them.  You condemn them to oblivion and at the same time you create a memorial to them.  Only the NKVD (the Stalinist secret police) presumably didn’t mean it as a memorial.  They took this and thousands of other photographs like it to prove that they were doing what the Central Committee had told the Regional Committees to do – to root out counter-revolutionaries.  They were recording their own efficiency.

We don’t know if Igor Mihailovich was a counter-revolutionary but I have always been struck by his look in this photograph.  He seems curious – as if maybe this is the first time he has ever had his photograph taken.  He doesn’t look scared and he doesn’t look guilty.  I find it a rather beautiful image.

The NKVD process was to take two shots at a time, giving full face and profile on one negative.  The photo was then marked with the prisoner’s name, placed in the file with their confession and stored in a secret archive: a negative, in a closed envelope, in a closed file, in a closed archive, in a closed room.  Obviously this archive had to be guarded because that is what secret police do: they create secrets which they then guard.

Fast forward now to the late nineties when Igor Mihailovich’s image emerges blinking into the daylight as the Soviet Union collapses and interested researchers start to make inroads into those archives.  Eventually there is an exhibition here – firstly in Paris and then London.*  An exhibition is the very opposite of a secret archive.  Now the people are invited to look at the images which previously had been forbidden to them.  But these images – look how they have changed!  Now there is a completely different crime.  In 1937 they were evidence of a crime by an individual against the state.  Now exactly the same photographs are evidence of a crime by the state against the individual.  Western liberal arts professionals have blown them up to poster size and projected them onto a wall in a slide show for all to see. 

Yet the photographs are mute.  They say neither innocent nor guilty.  Who are we to believe, the NKVD or the exhibition’s curators?  The terms ‘true’ or ‘false’ can be applied only to statements, not to pictures.  Most of us in the west these days would believe the curators but not on the basis of anything shown by the photographs.  Yet it seems that there are still plenty of people in Russia who might not share that view.**  By all accounts, the NKVD archives are shut again now to academics and researchers as the Russian state reconsiders the openness of the early nineties.

The photo proves itself to be as elliptical as ever.  It can be no more true or false, right or wrong, than words can be blue or green.

 

* Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence at The Photographers' Gallery in London, 2015.  There is a great exhibition catalogue:  Diane Dufour, ed. Images of Conviction: The Construction of Visual Evidence, (Paris, Le Bal – Editions Xavier Barral, 2015)

** There is an interview with a man who worked as an NKVD executioner in Svetlana Alexeyevna's 'Second Hand Time'.  He complains of repetitive strain injury.  

(The original photograph of Igor Mihailovich is still in the archives of the FSB, the Russian State Security Service and, presumably, copyright rests with the Russian state.  Copies are also legitimately held and have been distributed by Pamyat' (Memorial) a Russian human rights organisation.)