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.)

 

THE APPROACHABLE PHOTOGRAPH

Having An Opinion Is Part Of The Fun

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My friend Joseph was thinking of selling a couple of medium-format cameras recently.  His kit seems to change regularly as it follows the ebbs and flows of his enthusiasms.  Personally, I try not to think too much about the hardware because I find it distracts me.  Plus – the solution to the creative problems we come across in photography is seldom technical.  But I had been thinking about medium format for a while and from what I understood the best value for money out there is generally seen to be a Bronica.  So that is what I was vaguely considering until Joseph mentioned that he was getting rid of his Hasselblad.

So I borrowed it.  What better way of deciding whether it is good for you or not?   Joseph came round and we sat in my garden in the sunshine and he talked me through the basics: how to put the film and take it out (obviously) and one or two idiosyncracies of the model.  You wouldn’t call it a big camera but it has a certain presence in your hand, a weight and a bulk that is entirely different from the kind of smaller kit that I am used to.  And one glance down into the magical garden of the viewfinder convinced me that this was something truly different.  There is a kind of 3D effect that draws the eye in to what seems like another world – an effect enhanced by the reversal of the image in that small square.

Medium format is not that cheap when you start adding it all up.  At least 50 pence to buy each negative on the roll, the same again for developing and same again for scanning. So some £1.50 or more per shot.  It goes against the grain then to waste it by shooting more or less anything just to find out what it looks like.  At which point – enter Steve who had come round to my house to do some building work.  He was sitting in his van one day and the framing of the van door and his posture in it just made me think of the Hasselblad so I shot inside to get it.  The photo above is the result.

I have to say that I was pleased with it.  I shouldn’t praise my own work of course, but it has a simplicity and balance that to me is part of the essence of a good photo.  Plus it is recognisably a black and white Steve.   Colour just isn't the same for portraits.  There is only a partial recognisability which I think comes from an instinctive misreading of colour in the photo.  For a split second we know it is not real and then a cultural reading takes over and we ignore that concern.

So, I patted myself on the back: “Nice photo!”

A little while later Steve’s wife, Pam, was also round at the house.  For some reason the photograph was mentioned and I offered to show it to her.  Out came the laptop and I pulled it up onto the screen and then sat back modestly and awaited her cry of joyful recognition.

And waited.  There was complete silence for several seconds and then she spoke one word.

“Jowly”, she said.

I looked at the photo and then back at her.  Jowly?  What about the simplicity?  What about the balance?  I sought to shift her view by pointing them out to her.  She looked again and shook her head: “Jowly” she repeated.

It was a difficult moment socially as she, Steve and I sat round the laptop.  There was nothing to be done I concluded.  The unstoppable momentum of my creative vision had hit the immovable buffers of her opinion.  We shuffled our feet uncomfortably for a few moments and then passed on to other things, the photo forgotten.

It's great that photography is so approachable. Because, while few people other than those who take an interest in such matters would venture an opinion on a sculpture or painting or other work of fine art, virtually everyone feels confident in venturing an opinion about a photograph - especially when the subject is familiar to them, whether it be place, person, view or whatever.  

Pam didn’t like the photo because it didn’t reflect the Steve she knew.  I liked the photo because I thought it contained certain characteristics that I value in a photograph.  That instant engagement is so refreshing.  You can change your mind every day if you want.  After all, it's only a photo.

Below is Malcolm, Steve’s mate (in the professional as well as the social sense).  Unfortunately, we’ll never know what his wife thought of the shot because she didn’t come round that day.  Maybe she'd have said:  "How come you got his ears in focus and not his nose?"  Hmmmm.......  #workingonmyhasselbladtechnique

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IN THE ALCHEMIST'S CHAMBER

Working Hands And Loose Tongues

French Polisher's Window (Outside) 

French Polisher's Window (Outside) 

I spent much of the winter with the uncomfortable feeling that I really should be adding to my series “Working Hands” since it is due to be exhibited at a small gallery in November, but having just moved to a new area it was a bit difficult to pick up the reins again.  I’ve moved from a small town to a big city and the kind of working hands you see in one are not like those you see in the other.

One morning however, when out on my travels, I happened upon a perfect little french polisher’s workshop in a small coastal town.  It wasn’t open but I hung around until a chap appeared and then made my pitch.  It’s amazing how amenable so many people are.  A total stranger, I walk into someone’s working life and simply ask if they would be willing to let me take some photographs.  No one has actually said no yet – though there has been an element of persuasion once or twice.  So I went back for a session with my french polisher, Dave. 

The Working Hands series is not without its technical difficulties.  Firstly, many of the subjects have a workshop little bigger than a cupboard and sometimes there is not much natural light.  They themselves can get in but the space left and the angle to shoot in leaves me more or less standing on my head in an area the size of a wardrobe.  Then there is the nature of the work.  You have a subject’s head and torso in one part of the frame usually bending over a piece of work in the opposite part of the frame with very little in the middle.  All of this requires some imagination on the hoof – but is that not what photography is all about, eh?  And the most difficult and delightful thing is that you usually get into a conversation about whatever their particular skill is.  I find it hard to talk and photograph at the same time, in the first place and in the second what they are saying is usually very interesting so I find myself forgetting the camera and chatting about my subject's skills and processes.

So it was with Dave the french polisher.  I had always thought that a french polisher, well, polished.  But in fact it is more that they are experts in wood finishes.  So they don’t spend all their time huffing back and forth with a large polishing cloth.  They restore finishes, rework surfaces, rejuvenate grains, revive stains and shades and remove blemishes.  They are the cosmetic surgeons of wood.

I found all this out when I put my camera down and chatted to Dave.  Naturally enough every polisher has a cocktail cabinet of secret potions handed down in the family (Dave learned his trade from his father) and Dave showed me around his – though obviously if I were to reveal anything my life would be hanging by a slender thread.  He did tell me that he only uses two basic stains and simply dilutes them with turps to get the exact shade he wants.  I don’t know where that leaves the zillion or so choices that you get in the average diy store.  The picture below shows his mixing bowls.  Professional honesty requires me to reveal that I asked him to remove the baked bean tin as rather spoiling the overall aesthetic effect but in the end verisimilitude prevailed.  The picture cannot though do justice to the sensuousness of the mixing process, the heady aromas, the liquid trickle and slurp. I felt as if I were in an alchemist’s chamber.

The Elixirs of Revival

The Elixirs of Revival

Technically speaking, putting the camera down is probably a bit of a mistake.  You get your eye in and then I personally find that if I break into that process my eye seems to go a bit cold and it takes a moment or two to get it back again.  But you chat and tea is offered and you chat a bit more and for me that is part of the pleasure of the whole process.  For what greater pleasure is there than a good conversation?

I'll put my chosen photograph of Dave up in the Working Hands series shortly.

(Tech tip.  If you have one of those annoying white stains on a polished wooden surface you can remove it by wiping it with white spirit and then applying a match.  Poof!  A wisp of smoke and it is gone.  Obviously, amounts are crucial here otherwise, poof! and  your furniture's on fire.  Hmmm... maybe best left to an expert after all.)

French Polisher's Window (Inside)

French Polisher's Window (Inside)

(All photographs my own)

IF THE BUDDHA HAD HAD A CAMERA

Looking Closely And Seeing Clearly

I went to a talk given by a Buddhist monk recently on the general subject of Buddhism and creativity.  He spoke in the characteristic Buddhist extemporaneous style which follows the injunctions of the subconscious rather than any pre-planned pattern but, if I heard him correctly, he did suggest that generally Buddhism does not have a great deal to say about the arts other than through traditional iconography.  I was surprised to hear that since the connection between Zen and several fields of artistic endeavour is pretty well established and in the field of photography there has been quite a close connection since the second world war at least. 

The figure to whom most investigation of the subject leads is Minor White who was active as both photographer and teacher from the late thirties up to the early seventies.  He was heavily influenced by various eastern philosophies and for me his photography falls squarely within the Transcendental tradition.  Amongst his colleagues and pupils were Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Paul Caponigro, Walter Chappell and John Daido Loori (who later became abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in New York State).  His work, it might be said, was part of the spirit of the times and his influence may perhaps be said to have made its way over the Atlantic to places like Trent Polytechnic and Derby College in the work of photographers such as Thomas Joshua Cooper and John Blakemore. 

As hippies turned to punks it seemed that in photography at least the eastern influence was dying away but Buddhism is more resilient than that.  On Minor White’s bookshelves there was at least one work by the controversial Tibetan Buddhist figure, Chogyam Trungpa, whose teachings on Buddhism and the arts were collected in True Perception: The Path Of Dharma Art in the 1990s.  He was himself an accomplished photographer.  His (and more general Buddhist teachings) on artistic practice including photography form the basis of the courses at the University of Naropa which he founded in Boulder, Colorado in 1974.  Those teachings are also promoted through the Miksang school and the principles of Contemplative Photography.  I myself went on a short course several years ago given by Helen Vink (a teacher in the contemplative tradition) which changed my practice very significantly.   

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If we put aside the current omnipresence of mindfulness on the shelves of bookshops there are still good books to help photographers on their way in this particular method.  Two that I have found useful are John Daido Loori’s Zen And The Art Of Creativity (there are many similar titles but I think he is the one with both the Buddhist and photographic pedigree); and The Practice Of Contemplative Photography by Michael Wood and Andy Karr (whose website http://seeingfresh.com/ is also helpfully illustrative).  I notice, too, that the recent new edition of Richard Zakia and John Suler’s Perception and Imaging: Photography as a Way of Seeing (5th Edition) contains numerous references to Buddhist practices.

What is particularly striking – and should be of interest to any Thinking Photographer – is the way in which photography yet again shows itself to be such a chameleon practice.   Buddhist ways of thought have for centuries been seen in the west as religious.  Yet when they encounter a secular society such as western Europe they change character and hitch a ride onto our cultural highways through the vehicle of photography.  It is not only through photography, of course, but for those of us interested in the subject it is yet another fascinating way of looking at it.

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(All three of the photos are my own and are examples of quotidian images which I almost certainly would not have taken if I had not absorbed some influence of contemplative photography)

GETTING INTO TROUBLE

 

There Is Insensitivity With A Camera And There Is Stupidity

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Although I have done it, I am very uneasy about turning a camera on a person who is unaware of my presence.  It may just be a natural disinclination to  voyeurism (based on exquisite taste, of course); but I think it is more likely a base instinct for self preservation – perhaps the result of a difficult photographic lesson I learnt many years ago.

In the late 1970s I lived in Kabul, Afghanistan.   A friend of mine was leaving the country and wanted to spend a day photographing a few memories for himself.   He asked me if I would drive him round and I agreed and took my own camera with me.

The Soviet Army had invaded a few months before but the city itself was pretty peaceful.  We had a fine time in peerless winter Afghan weather, strong sun and blue skies, driving south out of the city towards the Darulaman palace – then still standing.  We took a dusty track eastwards along the city’s perimeter and stopped to take in the view.  I then did a very stupid thing.  As we gazed, I noticed that there was a Soviet gun emplacement over to our left.  I had a little Pentax MX with a reasonably long telephoto lens on it – around 125mm maybe.  Out of idle curiosity I swung it round towards the emplacement.  I couldn’t see much but what I did see sent my heart racing.  Through the lens I saw a sentry turn, look, raise his rifle and take aim at me.

I think I probably froze for a second before dropping the camera away from my eye.  But still he was aiming.  All I could manage then was a sad parody of a John Wayne movie.  I raised my hands as high as I could.  I seemed to have stopped breathing.  The sentry lowered his rifle and came bounding across the snow towards the pair of us with several comrades.  They grabbed the cameras and us and pushed us through thigh high snow to their tents. 

Things then moved from high drama to soap.  The Soviet soldiers clustered round us both and started asking the questions that Soviet citizens always asked of westerners: how much do you earn, how much does your car cost, how much does a house cost and so on.  I did my best to answer in halting Russian in a naked attempt to build bridges.  Apart from the periodic appearance of their unfriendly sergeant to call me a spy and running dog it all went quite well, in fact.  As the afternoon wore on and the sun and the temperature dropped we moved into a large tent.  They placed our cameras gently on some sacking and laid strips of cloth over the lenses for protection.  They rolled me a cigarette which I accepted gratefully, even though I had stopped smoking over a decade before, and offered us compote – a watery drink with berries at the bottom which we sipped as though it were nectar. 

They were tall, impressive looking guys in shapkas and greatcoats some of which had deep red lapels.  Strong beams of sunlight raked through the darkened tent and the shadows slipped into blackness.  Several of the soldiers stood one booted foot forward with hands slipped inside their coats Napoleon-style. It was a timeless moment.  I suddenly thought of those great nineteenth century oil paintings of military campaigns where staff officers are gathered round in the commander’s tent and the artist engineers high contrast lighting in just this way.  It would have made a truly fabulous photograph but my sensitivity to such situations had, understandably I think, just been burned to its core. 

I can’t say that we all became bosom pals but the soldiers seemed to bear no ill-will at all towards us and by the time we parted I felt pretty well-disposed towards them as well.  But part we did.  It was many hours later.  The Army’s problem seemed to be finding someone senior enough to decide what to do with us.  Eventually they decided that turning us over to the Afghan secret police was the best move. 

When I saw where they were taking us, after a hair-raising ride in a jeep through the pot-holed streets of the Afghan capital with a rifle pointed at my head, my heart did another backflip.  The secret police headquarters!  I imagined pliers and bare electrodes.  But it was all benign.  We spent most of the time discussing the year our interrogator had spent in Southsea which he clearly remembered with great fondness.  I think I even claimed to have known his landlady in a further shameless attempt to ingratiate myself.  He said we would have to expose the film in our cameras but we said we hadn’t actually taken any photos and so they turned us out into the freezing Afghan evening and the compound gate clanged firmly shut behind us.

And that, I think, is why ever since I have never been happy squinting through a long lens at someone who, I imagine, is unaware of my presence.  For the rest of my time in Kabul I concentrated on Afghans whose permission I would carefully request before training my camera on them – like the three handsome chaps here.  Who knows what has become of them in the intervening 40 years of dreadful events in that now unhappy country?

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