I worked in Hull for many years.  At lunchtime I would often leave my office and wander round the city.  The Art Gallery was only a few hundred yards away and I would go in from time to time.  Yet I have no memory at all of a 1998 exhibition of Li Yuan-chia’s work.  And for many years I had on my bookshelf a copy of Hunter Davies’ “A Walk Along The Wall” which contains a section about visiting the artist’s home and museum in Brampton, Cumbria.  I never got round to reading the book and eventually gave it away.

A while ago I made a note of Thoreau’s dictum: ‘Only that day dawns to which we are awake.’  It’s a particularly condensed epithet which suggests that in some sense we make our own world.  So somehow, when I hopped on the number 85 bus the other day and made my way to the Whitworth Art Gallery to see an exhibition of Li Yuan-chi’s photographs, a little bit of world was about to dawn to which I had not been awake in 1998.  That process is incomprehensible.

The exhibition is Unique Photographs and there are fourteen images all made in the last two years of the artist’s life.  Each is a black and white photograph which has been coloured in varying densities by a technique which involved using hand-tinting inks as washes.  Here is an example.


 Each of the photographs is mounted on what is possibly white rag paper which is then mounted on black card which itself is itself mounted on black matte and then framed with what looked like wood with an ebony stain.  Since the images themselves are not very big (A4-ish in various formats) this gives them a certain presence though I think it would have been a kindness to paint the white wall on which they are hung in a more muted colour in order better to enter the world which they create.

To take a monochrome photo and to colour it might seem a bit perverse.  Isn’t the reduction of the world to black and white itself a creative statement?  Yet we could say that photography intercepts reality whereas painting reconstructs it.  So the addition of artistic method to photographic method here means that we have both: the reconstruction of an interception.  Hand tinting usually follows the forms of an original photograph but in these images it is less tethered in that way - as if we were being invited to consider colour and form to be entirely independent. Look at the leaves below, for example. From close to, the yellow wash does not follow the bulb’s form very closely either.


I find the result is beautifully atmospheric.  If black and white itself invites us into a different world then the addition of a wash introduces a dream-like quality in which all is recognisable but seems to be at a further remove.  This effect is heightened because the subjects of the photographs are all commonplace objects: stones, flowers, tools, objets trouvés, and at times LYC himself.  For me they are lovely objects of contemplation, each a reverie which hints at a reality that may be truer than the precision of digital colour.

Each image is untitled.  The curatorial comments draw on Daoist philosophy and quote from the writings of Li Chuan-yua’s friend, the artist Winifred Nicholson. They also seem to draw quite deeply from the curator’s imagination, for example: “The stones of the path are an exploding galaxy, the log a silvery interstellar craft.”  This is either an act of curatorial desperation or an inspired accompaniment to these very delphic images – I haven’t quite made my mind up. 

In any event, Li Yuan-chia is a day to which I am now very gratefully awake.



Both images: Li Yuan-chia (1929-1994), Untitled, c1993. Hand-coloured black and white photographs. Courtesy the Li Yuan-chia Foundation. You can find out more about Li Yuan-chia on the LYC Foundation Website. The Whitworth Gallery’s exhibition of the artist’s work (in Manchester, UK) lasts until 15th December.



How Big Should A Photo Be?

Two recent exhibitions brought out my inner Glenda Slagg recently.  (Glenda Slagg is the legendary Private Eye spoof columnist who invariably expresses wildly conflicting opinions in one article and always in gloriously demotic journalese – typically “Doncha just love….?” or “Doncha just hate….?”)

King of Siam Mongkut of Siam Presenting Lenten Robes at Wat Pho Temple, Friday 13th October, 1865. (John Thomson, © Wellcome Foundation.)

King of Siam Mongkut of Siam Presenting Lenten Robes at Wat Pho Temple, Friday 13th October, 1865. (John Thomson, © Wellcome Foundation.)

First up was Siam Through The Lens Of John Thomson* at Leicester’s New Walk Gallery. John Thomson was a Scottish photographer who travelled and photographed widely in the Far East and China before returning to this country to document the social condition of the urban poor.  His work is often cited as early photojournalism.  His images of China and the Far East have been digitised and enlarged and are now a travelling exhibition. In Leicester only the photos from Siam and a few from Cambodia were on show – about 45 in all.

Thomson used the wet collodion process to produce his photographs and these gave glass negatives which were eight inches by ten inches.  They would then be contact printed (ie not enlarged) and in his time were mainly reproduced in books with prose descriptions of his travels. So he was producing book-size prints.

The digitisation in 2009 at high resolution made it possible to enlarge the images to many times their original size. (I must start taking a tape measure with me to these exhibitions – I had to estimate but some of these were well up to four or five feet on their long edge.)  The exhibition notes said that this gave greater detail, which of course it does.  But you could give greater detail by enlarging small crops, too.  The problem with enlarging the whole print is that you tend to lose its overall effect because you can’t take it in as one composition. (The photo above is a good example.  Details of, say, the palanquin might be best seen in a small separate crop.)

It also gives mounting problems.  These images had been printed onto foamboard which was then framed in white frames under glass with spacers to deepen the framing.  This seems a bit pointless when the image is so big: the frame can’t do the job of isolating it.  Add in highly academic wall notes and what you had in fact was a very interesting ethnographic exhibition which largely excluded any true photographic excitement.  In Glenda terms, I came away thinking: “Big photos, eh?  Don’t ya just hate’em?”

Von, the Sheffield Star newspaper seller, at BSC River Don works, Sheffield. (Martin Jenkinson, 1982)

Von, the Sheffield Star newspaper seller, at BSC River Don works, Sheffield. (Martin Jenkinson, 1982)

I hopped off the return train to Manchester at Sheffield to catch the Martin Jenkinson exhibition ”Who We Are” at Weston Park Museum in Sheffield.  Martin Jenkinson was a Sheffield-based press and trade union photographer whose subject was daily life in the city and around but who also recorded the politics of protest towards the end of the twentieth century.  There were ninety or so mostly black and white images around A4 size classically mounted and then framed in black.  They are a bit of a walk down memory lane for someone of my age and I found myself particularly drawn to the quieter images (such as the newspaper seller to the right) which seem to draw out the grandeur of the local and specific when the political action has moved on.  There were also plenty of objects from the photographer’s life: seventy-odd press passes, teeshirts, contact sheets, notebooks, protest badges and so on.  It all helps to bring out the person behind the images.

But I did find myself peering a bit at the photographs.  They needed to be, well, a bit bigger, I thought. Or as Glenda might say: “Small photos, eh?  Don’t ya just hate’em?” The best known one, of the miner inspecting police lines during the pit strike of the eighties, was printed more like A2 size and came off a lot better for it.  The smaller print has its place but possibly not in modern photojournalism exhibitions.

All in all, though, it was A Grand Day Out: Spring in the air and plenty of sunshine; a fine train journey across the Peak District; two fine exhibitions; and a jolly good picnic in the park.  Does life have more to offer?

*The exhibition seems to be divided into two parts: the China imaages and the Siam images. The Leicester exhbition has now ended but you can keep up with future venues here


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.  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. 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)


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.    


The 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.  


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!


But Don't Ask A Photo To Prove That


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.)



Performance as a Way of Life

Tommy "Professor Grimble" Fossett, Chipperfields, 1973

Tommy "Professor Grimble" Fossett, Chipperfields, 1973

In the wonderful series of Just William books by Richmal Crompton, there are several stories about travelling circuses visiting William’s village.   They always spark his imagination and provoke all sorts of scrapes from which he generally emerges triumphant.  One, however, is rather different.  It is many years since I read it, but the gist is that William goes to watch a performance and is very taken with a glamorous young lady performer.  When she blows a kiss to the crowd at the end of her act William blushes madly because he thinks it is just for him.  Later in the story he gets to go behind the scenes and chances across this same lady.  She turns out to be quite old and bad-tempered.  She scolds him about something or other and he leaves in rueful shock.

This use of the circus as a kind of metaphor for the competing claims of fantasy and reality is quite familiar: the tears of the clown is another of its forms.   How great to come across a body of photographic work then which could have gone down the same narrow route but manages very successfully to open up the territory.  Peter Lavery’s "Circus Work" is a set of images of circus performers taken over the last forty years on large format cameras which encapsulates a world of physicality, daring and toughness at the centre of which is the human form.  I saw them at the Harley Gallery earlier in the year and the exhibition is now showing at the RWA in Bristol as part of its “Sawdust And Sequins” celebration of the 250th anniversary of circus performance.

The photographs which most caught my eye were the earlier monochrome platinum prints.  There are no audiences and few ringside, context or, performance shots.  The subject of each image is a human being or a group of them who, by fate or taste or circumstance have chosen to live their lives for the time being at least as circus performers.

They are historical in two senses.  Firstly the subjects are clearly not doing this job for the money- they are doing it for the sake of doing it – which is a rarity in the 21st century.  Secondly, the images record the closing years of an era when occupation was identity.  You could tell by clothes, bearing, speech and manner who someone was very much more than you can now.

Peter Lavery started taking the photographs when he was a student in the 1970s.  As he got to know many of his subjects better he was able to separate them from their professional persona and their performance.  What emerges from that development of relationships is a remarkable series of portraits.  The prints  are not large and tend towards the mid-tones which gives them a certain intimacy: you have to stand close to see them properly.  The backgrounds are nondescript without being dismal: canvas tenting, dressing rooms, shrubbery and fields. 

Five Circusettes, Blackpool Tower, 1975

Five Circusettes, Blackpool Tower, 1975

The hairstyles, the costumes, the props and accessories all root the monochrome photographs in what now seems like prehistory but was in fact only a few decades ago.  But this is an irrelevance: it is the subjects themselves that fix the eye.   These are people who are used to being looked at.  They show no self-consciousness.  The camera looks at them and they look straight back at the camera.  They seem to have nothing to hide.

Maria Garcia, Belle Vue, 1981

Maria Garcia, Belle Vue, 1981

Then there is their physicality.  These are circus performers: trapeze artists, contortionists, jugglers, clowns, strongmen and animal trainers.  Most of them live with danger every day.  Broken limbs, injuries, cuts and bruises are a commonplace.  They exude a physical confidence which makes it difficult to look away.  They are very beautiful in a sense which has almost been forgotten, they are beautiful in their style.  These are muscular, toned but by no means perfect bodies­ – more like performance machines than objects of desire.

Arco, Winships Mini-circus, 1971

Arco, Winships Mini-circus, 1971

There are also more modern, larger, colour prints.  They are equally impressive but colour changes everything.  It is a code which is much more difficult to decipher and the effort to do so can lead the eye away from the subject. 

Jana 'The Little Devil' Roberts, Blackpool Tower Circus, 2005

Jana 'The Little Devil' Roberts, Blackpool Tower Circus, 2005

I find it helps to think of all the ways in which a circus and its performers might be photographed to appreciate this exhibition.  You might want to show daring or drama, the contrast of drabness and glamour, or some strange and slightly surreal aspect (think Mary Ellen Mark’s circus series, for example).  But Peter Lavery has extracted something ineffable which in its ordinariness is remarkable.

(All photos copyright and by kind permission of Peter Lavery.

The Royal West of England Academy exhibition Sawdust and Sequins is to celebrate 250 years of Circus and continues until 3 June 2018.)




Yet Another Julia Margaret Cameron Exhibition

Iago – study from an Italian, 1867, Julia Margaret Cameron, Science Museum Group collection

Iago – study from an Italian, 1867, Julia Margaret Cameron, Science Museum Group collection

Sometimes the photographic world looks like a dog chasing its own tail.  What the poor animal is pursuing turns out to be itself.  So it is , we might argue, with  exhibitions of photographic work which we have often seen before.  The very strong impression is that we are not in fact looking at interesting advances in photographic history: we are looking at an institutional merry-go-round.

This thought is prompted by the recently opened exhibition (which I have not visited) “Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography” at the National Portrait Gallery which features Julia Margaret Cameron, Oscar Rejlander, Lewis Carroll and Lady Hawarden. JMC (if I may be so familiar with this great lady) had not one but two major exhibitions in 2016 which were not just overlapping in time but also in location since they were just down the road (Exhibition Road!) from one another in London, one at the V and A and the other at the Science Museum.  This wasn’t even a first since in 2003 exactly the same happened with exhibitions at both the NPG and the then National Media Museum in Bradford.  Hardly has the dust settled on the two most recent ones than she is back in action – at the NPG again –  this time with the familiar coterie of the other three.  Almost inevitably, Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life will be at the NPG so that those whose last chance to see it was in 2016 at the Drawn By Light exhibition in Bradford at the NMM (which naturally enough featured JMC too) again have a chance to refresh their memories. 

JMC excites much emotion.  Some consider her to be a mawkish dabbler and others to be a visionary genius.  You don’t have to have an opinion though.  Some days I find that I quite like to look at some of her photographs and others I don’t . But that one of Iago above does fascinate me.  What has she done to it?  If you follow the hairline round to the cheekbones and then the chin you seem to have one face.  If you then look at the jawline you seem to have another face in a completely different plane.  It is a very odd effect - as though the front  of the face is some sort of mask superimposed on another head.

The quality of her work is not the issue though.  It’s more like the French Impressionists in the 60s and 70s and beyond.  Whether they are good or bad is by now beside the point.  We are so familiar with them and endless reproductions of them that it is no longer possible to look with a fresh eye and a clear mind.  The books have been written, the research has been done, the work is familiar, the stories are known and the reputations are secure. 

What then is the point?  Perhaps it is a kind of security.  Those who are expert in these matters are able to air their knowledge.  Those who have collected assiduously are rewarded in their judgement.  Visitors who seek certainty in these matters are reassured by a paddle in safe waters.  And doubtless the NPG will congratulate itself on a successful exhibition.  

Here’s to the next one!



Kätthe Buchler And The Photograph As Historical Evidence


Here is a picture of a happy young chap that I came across recently at a small exhibition of photographs by Kätthe Buchler.*  Buchler was a keen amateur photographer who turned her lens on the home front during the First World War and civilian involvement in the war effort.  Her unquestioning, patriotic pictures show the country throwing itself into support for the troops at the front: smiling women do men’s jobs, smiling nurses look after tastefully bandaged troops and smiling women look after babies in war nurseries.  The smile, too, it seems was a patriotic duty.  But there again, Willy looks genuinely pleased with that magnificent white rabbit on his knee.  He is known as The Collecting King for good reason: children collected waste for the war effort and those who collected most won the prize of the rabbit.

In her very informative notes, the exhibition’s historical curator, Professor Melanie Tebbutt of Manchester Metropolitan University’s History Research Centre, says children were the unseen casualties of the war which damaged them psychologically (for example, through the absence of male figures) and physically (through malnutrition).  What do the photographs articulate from the child’s perspective she asks.  And that is a very interesting question.

From the child’s perspective the photograph shows a very happy boy with a magnificent white rabbit.  We might quite legitimately speculate about the effects of war on children given the photograph’s date but that is speculation – it is not articulated by the photographs.  I don’t see any objection to using a photograph as a platform for historical research or as evidence in historical narratives but I do think it is problematic to suggest that a photograph itself makes historical statements.  A more conservative historical reading of the picture might be, for example, that at least local attempts were made by the German state to protect children from the realities of the war by making the collection of waste into a fun competition with great prizes.  Might the picture not also support that speculative view?   Any attempt to place a photograph in a historical narrative must involve a retrospective reading of the photograph from a very specific viewpoint.  Essentially, you have to argue that it fits into a pattern of other evidence.

Strictly speaking, all that this photograph evidences is that Willy has a rabbit which appears to make him very happy.   Put it together with the photograph below and we begin to see that there was some sort of context.

willy 2.jpg

 We don’t know what Willy was thinking.   Maybe he was going to get into big trouble when he got home because his family didn’t have enough money to feed the rabbit.  Or maybe they would have fattened it for the pot.  We just don’t know.  It seems unlikely however, given the conservative and patriotic nature of the photographs, that Katthe Buchler’s intention was to show anything other than a smiling and supportive home front.

What we do know, and what gives the pictures of the children great poignancy is that, a little over twenty years later the European powers would once again be in armed conflict and Willy and his friends would one way or another have been participating adults – perhaps as enthusiastic Nazis, perhaps as opponents of the regime.  By then the rabbits, the collecting and the photographs might well have seemed to them evidence of happier times.

*(The exhibition “Beyond The Battlefields” has been showing at Manchester Metropolitan University School of Art’s Grosvenor Gallery on Oxford Road, Manchester and now moves to the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield until 5 May, 2018)

(Both photographs ©Estate of Käthe Buchler – Museum für Photographie Braunschweig/ Deposit Stadtarchive Braunschweig)


Can The Bicycle Kick Be A Work Of Art?

Photograph copyright Luiz Paulo Machado

Photograph copyright Luiz Paulo Machado

For those interested in the uses to which photography may be put, the current exhibition Pele: Art, Life, Football at the National Football Museum is fascinating.  It is a celebration of the career of the Brazilian footballer, Pele, through a variety of media which straddle the worlds of art and sport.  On the artistic side there are about twenty-five paintings, mixed media collages, and prints on canvas and linen – nearly all based (I’m guessing) on photographic originals.  Then there are the non-artistic exhibits such as medals, trophies, newsreel footage and so on which may perhaps be of more interest to the football fan.  So it is an exhibition (art) within an exhibition (football).  Or that is the way it seems at the NFM.  Perhaps when it was first shown in a London gallery in 2015 it looked like the reverse.

Then there are the photographs – some fifteen silver gelatin and giclee prints.  Which side of the sport/art line do they fall?  To my mind there is a slightly uneasy tussle going on here.  Downstairs at the NFM the celebration of both sporting achievement and personalities is strictly digital through wall-mounted screens in grids that zoom in on particular stars and show them both in stills and footage and include text of quotes lionising the individual footballer within  the display.   These are classic digital displays splicing data bundles of text, collage, and moving and still image to emphasise athleticism and reputation. 

But upstairs in the Pele exhibition motion picture is separated entirely from still image and text is separate again.   The moving pictures are placed firmly in the sporting display category and physically separated in a small cinema mock-up at one end of the exhibition.

 The still photographs are interspersed with the other artwork but they stand a little awkwardly there.  They are displayed in the same way  – mounted and framed and hung on the wall with accompanying title and text about the print.  They can certainly hold their own in simple terms of display since they are as big and impressive as the artworks (although, surprisingly, almost none of them are credited to a named photographer).  And they hold their own in price as well, coming in at around £3-5000 which is in the same range as their non-photographic neighbours. 

But that is not the point.  Seeing these old news photographs here in this way is more like seeing your next door neighbour at a celebrity event in the pages of Vogue magazine.  They don’t look comfortable and they don’t have their normal clothes on.  They are drinking cocktails when they should really be leaning against the bar with a pint and a roll-up.  They are out of place – not because they are photographs but because of the ambiguity of the context.  After all, given the age of some of these images, it is quite possible that fish and chips were once eaten off them.   The bicycle kick motif that runs through several of the artworks is pretty well known but you really don’t have to pay that much for it.  You could once get it on your mastercard if you wanted and maybe you still can.

Bicycle Kick.png

Pele was perhaps the first footballer – even before George Best – to be made a superstar through photographic imagery.  The exhibition itself makes this clear The earlier photography is black and white from the era before anyone had ever thought of football as “the beautiful game”.   These early images don’t support that contention of beauty.  The camera angles are a bit too low, the images too grainy and the action too jerky.  But you can see how the advent of colour and technological improvement in lenses and cameras changed the game’s aesthetic.  There is one photograph on display entitled “Unstoppable!” which shows Pele in front of an array of defenders apparently packed into a tiny space in an unavailing attempt to stop him.  My guess is that the defenders were in fact more spaced out than that and probably watching other attacking players too but the telephoto lens has drawn them all into that tiny area which makes it look as though they are all needed to stop one man – Pele.  Similarly the film footage goes from one or two touchline cameras to higher, multi-camera views which give a much better idea of a game’s flow and strategy and sets up hero roles within that.

So for the student of photographic culture the exhibition may lead to two conclusions.  The first is that the status of photography out there in the wider world remains as uncertain as ever: from The Sporting Pink to chip wrapping to credit card to gallery wall, it can be whatever you want it to be - forgotten image, sporting memorabilia or work of art.  And secondly it shows how developing photographic technology creates its own truth.  The Saturday afternoon working –class relaxation of the first half of the twentieth century, has become The Beautiful Game of the century’s later years.   The ‘muddied oafs’ of those early years, all dubbin and centre-partings, have become technicolor gods whose sporting achievements are embedded in endless data bundles served up for the adoration of mortals.  The king is dead, long live the king!

(Pele: Art, Life, Football continues until 4 March 2018 at the National Football Museum, Urbis Building, Cathedral Gardens, Manchester, M4 3BG)




Through The Looking-Glass With Scalpel And Ruler

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

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

Stezaker 1.jpg

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

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

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

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

Stezaker 2.jpg

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

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

Stezaker 3.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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




When Photographs Have To Come Out Of Retirement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Photography On A Theme


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


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

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

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

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



The End Of Yugoslavia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On Being Gay In Sierra Leone

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

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


Seeing It For Real

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

This is a fascinating exhibition: it is like looking at a jigsaw puzzle just as the picture is emerging from the disparate pieces – a picture which we would be hard put to assemble today.     

Bohemians: Willi Bongard and Gottfried Brockmann.  © August Sander Archive, Cologne.

Bohemians: Willi Bongard and Gottfried Brockmann. © August Sander Archive, Cologne.


History or Photographs?

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


Pinning The Brits Down

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

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


Tame Wildlife?

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

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

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