When Is A Photo Not A Photo?

fMRI brain scan: © Getty Images

fMRI brain scan: © Getty Images

You might be forgiven for thinking that the image to the right is a photograph.  Strictly speaking it is, in the sense that it is the replication of visual data by digital photographic means.  That is why the credit that goes with it often calls it a photograph.  But there is potential for confusion here.  The image is in fact of an fMRI scan – functional magnetic resonance imaging.  It shows digitally a vertical section of the brain with certain structural details but the coloured areas have been created from coded data and show, I understand, greater or lesser brain activity compared to a notional baseline.  Clearly, no brain is this colour in reality - and only a post-mortem dissection could reveal such a section anyway.  What the image shows is a set of data in visual form to make it more easily comprehensible. It could be reproduced in tables or as a graph but then who would look? 

The boundary between a true photograph and digital images of other kinds is becoming more and more blurred. I thought of this again when the recent image of a black hole produced by Event Horizon Telescope was shown in the press recently (below).  Obviously, this is not a photograph of a black hole, since a black hole is invisible.  It is pretty amazing, though. The magazine New Scientist describes it as “a tinted representation of colourless radio frequency photons”.  A 21st century hand-tint!  Apparently it is culled from five petabytes of data (one petabyte is a million gigabytes.)  The technology of reducing that to one image is mind-spinning. 

Image of a black hole: EHT Collaboration

Image of a black hole: EHT Collaboration

The whole field of infographics (data in visual forms) seems to be a growth area: I’ve seen several courses advertised to help you use data visualisation in various ways: as visual storytelling, as hand-drawing and as infographics. The reliability of the results presumably depends on the methodology of turning the data into an image, though. That is where doubt creeps in. If you were unfortunate enough to find yourself in court and charged with an offence which you denied – how happy would you be for an fMRI scan of your brain to be used by the prosecution as evidence that you were lying? No, me neither - but how would you challenge it?

Ooops, I seem to be back on my digital hobbyhorse here…..  I’m just saying though: great pictures, but they are just as much imagination as science.




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


Just how creative is photography? 

The consensus these days seems to be that the battle for photography’s status is won.  There it is hanging on the walls of major museums and art galleries – end of discussion.  But that ignores the distinction so commonly made between ‘art as photography’ (which is what artists do) and photography as art (which is what photographers do).  The clear suggestion is that one is more creative than the other.  It also omits all the other photographies: scientific, technical, medical, forensic, family, evidential, social and so on.  I thought a more interesting way of looking at it was to turn the telescope round and point it not at photography but at creativity.


To do that I read two autobiographies by people who might generally be considered creative: Philip Glass’s ‘Words Without Music’ (Faber and Faber, 2015); and Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids’ (Bloomsbury 2012).  I read them because they came floating up to me from the shelves of my local secondhand bookshop.  So – pretty random, which is the best way.  My question was: do these creative people see life any differently from anyone else?

Philip Glass seems to have come straight out of the stalls, looking neither to right nor to left but with one goal only: to write music.  He did whatever it took to survive financially: removal work, taxi-driving (which one time nearly cost him his life), plumbing and house maintenance.  He brought up a family and he kept a roof over their heads but he only started to earn money from the music when he was in his forties.  On the way he took care to cultivate good artistic company, to develop his technical skills, to work at composition every day and – it seems, to enjoy it as he went along.  The self-belief seems to have been unshakeable right from the start.

Patti Smith, from a later generation, tried a few things: poetry, a bit of acting, drawing and then rock and roll.  To her, artistic practice was mystical and the practitioners were mystics.  She was determined to become An Artist, and that is what she did – almost by sheer force of will.  She seems not to have had Philip Glass’s self-belief but she was practical, held down jobs and kept going.  While her friend and lover, Robert Mapplethorpe, seemed to climb to the top, she floated.  Contacts were essential-  but then, when aren’t they?

serveimage (2).jpg

What the two of them seem to have in common is practicality.  They kept producing work, they were ready when the chance came, they kept the wolf from the door, they moved in the right company and they would not be deflected.  Both of them seem in thrall to the idea that Artists are Different, that they are a kind of nobility, that to be an artist is “to see what others cannot” as Patti Smith puts it.  Hmmmm…yes, well.

Nearer the mark, perhaps, is the idea that Philip Glass cites from Krishnamurti, that creativity is not so much a characteristic as a moment, a kind of unrepeatable spontaneity.  That is what both he and Patti Smith exhibit.  They never seem to quite know what is coming next but have great confidence that something will come.

That’s an idea which transfers well to photography.  When I peer through the viewfinder I like to think that I am in the same position as the sculptor wrestling with form, the poet with words and the musician with sound. But creativity is not the unique preserve of the fine arts. I am also in the same position as the mechanic grappling with spanners, the cakemaker with recipes and the mathematician with numbers.  Creativity is a world where thought is momentarily suspended and memory no longer functions.  That, presumably, is why time passes so quickly.

When Robert Mapplethorpe photographed Patti Smith for the much-lauded cover of her first LP ‘Horses’ he went through numerous attempts.  The light keeps changing, his light meter malfunctions, first its jacket on and then jacket off – then all of a sudden he says:

“I got it.”

“How do you know” she asks.

“I just know.”

It came from nowhere, as these things do. You can’t predict them and you can’t repeat them. All you can do is to make your preparations and then be open to them - whatever the activity and whatever its status. For photography, you have to think about the photograph you are taking, of course, but if you are still thinking about it when you snap the shutter then you may get something technically good - but not much more than that.



Now this is curious.

Take a look at the photograph opposite and assess what you see.  If you’ve been reading the newspapers in the past few days you may recognise it – so you can’t play in this game.

It looks like a fairly standard, relaxed kind of photo of a middle-aged man with a thoughtful expression on his face. It’s taken under some kind of lighting and there is no background.  The top of his head is cropped away - but not much to say beyond that. 

Well, the photo is © the Metropolitan Police so that’s a huge clue. It’s a mugshot of the final suspect in the 2015 Hatton Garden jewellery raid.  This is Michael Seed (aka Basil – the Best Alarm Specialist In London) who was sentenced to 10 years in jail last week for his part in the robbery. The perpetrators were so old and used such traditional techniques – drilling and alarm disconnection - that they were known as the Diamond Wheezers.

Yet this is a very unusual mugshot.  Partly it’s the subject’s demeanour: he doesn’t look like someone who has just had his door flattened in a police raid or who has just suffered the indignities of arrest.  He looks pretty composed. It’s also the format of the photo.  The mugshot is conventionally square or portrait format.  It is cropped close and the subject is often looking tough or shocked or dishevelled.  By its nature it criminalises - which is why juries are often not allowed to see it. But not Basil’s: his looks more like a social worker’s identity badge.  He isn’t even looking straight at the camera – he is looking up to the left.  It is possible, of course, that the newspapers cropped it into this format rather than the police but the expression and lighting remain the same.

A couple of years ago I looked pretty closely at the use of digital photography as legal evidence and found that that legal systems generally are struggling to get to grips with the whole range of digital images: still, moving, CGI and so on.  That is largely because the law is an overwhelmingly verbal practice and few lawyers are sufficiently literate visually to understand the significance of the digital image and to grasp its rhetorical potential.


Look at this press shot of the scene of the Hatton Garden crime, for example.  Look at the digital sheen it has.  It has entirely abandoned the conventions of forensic photography where objectivity and neutrality take precedence.   The source of the photo is given as Alamy/Getty Images.  That too strikes me as odd.  Traditionally, the provenance of crime scene photographs has been the state because the agents of the state (the police and prosecution) were the ones with access to that scene.  Yet Alamy and Getty Images are commercial organisations.  The crime scene photo now seems to be a commercial tool rather than an evidential one.  

The unconventional mugshot of Basil is not the result of digital technology in any direct sense but it shows the ease with which digitality can subvert convention.  A digital image is easily and infinitely malleable while an analogue one is not. So digital starts off by mimicking a convention and ends up by creating a new one. Ironic, then, that Basil’s mugshot should emerge from such a spectacularly analogue crime.




Dimensions, That Is.

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

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

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

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


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



How The Market Makes Art and Art Makes The Market


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 their 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.     


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.


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.



 What Is The Photographer’s Input?


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. 


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.)



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.   


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 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.


(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)


Human Communication, Economic Unit, or Plaything of the Cognoscenti?

Something I read in last winter’s edition of Source has been niggling at me so I need to give it a run round the park.

Richard West interviewed Diarmuid Costello and Juliet Hacking about what they understood by the term  “art photography”.  The former saw it as a means of human communication – just like other forms of art.  The latter had a different view.  She said that art photography is whatever institutions deem it to be.  This, I thought, was refreshingly plain speaking.  Since she was a specialist in the photography department of Sothebys and is currently writing a book about art photography and the market she  knows, we may conclude, what she is talking about.

Her argument is that the institutional network will determine what is or is not art photography.  That includes galleries, auction houses, museums, critics and so on.   Their view is not random.  Partly it will be based on the pedigree of any given artist – where they studied, who has collected their work, where they have exhibited, what prizes they have won and so on.  The critical distinction seems to be between the photographic world and the art world.  Being successful in the former does not give any status in the latter.  And status in the latter is never absolute: it is constantly shifting.  Much like the fashion world, some people are in and some people aren’t.

What I find interesting about this view is that it suggests that art photography has no intrinsic quality to distinguish it from non-art photography.  Prices, pedigree, critical success and so on may all be indicators but come in the photograph's wake.  What about the work itself?  Is there absolutely nothing that can be pointed to in a photograph that makes it even good rather than indifferent (because “good” must be the first rung on the ladder to “art”)?  Nothing at all?  In the distant days when you eagerly awaited the return of your holiday snaps and you proudly showed them around, one or two would be pronounced “good ones” and even within the circle of family and friends that would usually be agreed upon.  That suggests to me that there is such a thing as Quality in a photograph.  While there may be argument about what it actually is, everyone seems to agree in practice that such a thing does exist.  There is that spontaneous reaction to it as proof.  And if you reply that art knows nothing of good or bad then you are avoiding the question.

The other interesting thing about Juliet Hacking’s view is that it could be expressed in another way: that there is in fact no such thing as art photography in any objective sense. If there is no such thing as quality how could there be? It is the product not of a creative person but of commentators.  It is a purely subjective category based largely on economics and a brahminical caste. 

I’m very much looking forward to reading her book when it comes out.  It sounds as though it will be outspoken, well-informed and iconoclastic.  Where do I order my copy?  



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)




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

Emily The Face Painter.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.)


Tolstoy Writes A Photo

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


The Price Of Fame

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


Seeing And Believing

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

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

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


The Joys Of The Well-Stocked Photolibrary

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