ANSEL ADAMS' AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Little, Brown and Co, 1996

Little, Brown and Co, 1996

Go on.  Who would you say was the most popular photographer of the 20th century?  Not based on statistical evidence of sales or exhibitions or whatever – just straight out profile in the popular imagination.  I’d say it has to be Ansel Adams (1902-1984).  Cartier-Bresson might give him a run for his money but in the end I think the Frenchman is more admired by other photographers while Adams is more popular at large.

Having just read his autobiography, which I picked up locally secondhand, I can see that his personality might have had something to do with it.  He comes over as a very attractive, affable, chatty, kind of chap – very opinionated but with tremendous energy and enthusiasm. He loved a drink and good company. He didn’t take any prisoners, mind you.  Here he is in a letter to William Mortenson dismissing Pictorialist photography and celebrating Realism:  “How soon photography achieves the position of a great social and aesthetic instrument of expression depends on how soon you and your co-workers of shallow vision negotiate oblivion.” Boof!

You might now see him as part of the Romantic movement which in photography died out as a serious form in the 1970s, post-Minor White. I’ve never seen any of his prints in the flesh but even on screen you can see how he managed to squeeze every drop of tonality out of his negatives.  I guess it would have been pretty extreme – and technically difficult – at the time but in these days of Photoshop and High Dynamic Range they look pretty middle of the road, tonally speaking. You can see a good range of his images here. They are striking or overwrought depending on your taste.

Ansel in the 1950s (by J Malcolm Greany) looking rather dapper, light meter at the ready.

Ansel in the 1950s (by J Malcolm Greany) looking rather dapper, light meter at the ready.

His bottom line, always and ever, is that photography is a creative art and that to see or use it as anything else sells it short – though he himself of course had to take on commercial commissions to survive. He didn’t get on with Edward Steichen who in the late 1940s sidelined Ansel’s friend Beaumont Newhall and became Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art.  “Everything we feared” writes Ansel to Beaumont, “the complete engulfing of photography as you and I see it ….into a vast picture archive.”

Steichen’s hugely popular Family Of Man exhibition – whose aim was to show “the essential oneness of mankind” – was the last straw for Ansel (even though one of his own photos was in it!)  He thought it was more suited to the United Nations than to MoMA. 

That jibe about “a vast picture archive” went to the heart of his philosophy.  For him it wasn’t so much about the subject of your photograph as the way you produced it and the communication of feeling that represented.  You had to control the whole process from visualising the photograph to developing the negative, choosing the paper, making the print and displaying it.  That could be a long process and sometimes he took several weeks working on a print to get it just right – and then over the years he would develop that further.

You might say now that for many, it is precisely the subject of a photograph rather than image quality which is its main interest.  That’s why The Family of Man was so popular.  But maybe Ansel had a point, too, because you could also say that there are limited subjects but limitless ways to capture them photographically.     

Environmentalist, pianist, inveterate letter-writer and very liberal in many of his social views, Ansel Adam’s autobiography makes a good (if meandering) read.  You go back to your own photography with renewed vigour.  Enthusiasm is such an attractive quality in a person.

MARTIN PARR: RETURN TO MANCHESTER

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

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

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

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

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

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

When we move into the rooms dedicated to the Manchester 2018 part of the exhibition things change.  The photographer roved endlessly over Greater Manchester this summer, taking thousands of photographs in about 20 days.  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)

BERENICE ABBOTT: HOW MANY PAGES MAKE A LIFE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MANDY BARKER

Talking Rubbish

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

PENALTY - The World © Mandy Barker

PENALTY - The World © Mandy Barker

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

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

DENIS THORPE: A VIEW FROM THE NORTH

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.  

"TRACKING EDITH": THE LIFE OF EDITH TUDOR HART

What Exactly Was She?

Copyright: Peter Suschitzky, Julia Donat & Misha Donat

Copyright: Peter Suschitzky, Julia Donat & Misha Donat

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

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

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

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

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

PETER LAVERY: CIRCUS WORK

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.)

 

 

IT'S THAT WOMAN AGAIN

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!

 

COLLECTING KING WILLY VON HINTEN

Kätthe Buchler And The Photograph As Historical Evidence

Willy.jpg

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)

JOHN STEZAKER AT THE WHITWORTH GALLERY

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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.)

 

 

GORDON PARKS: A CHOICE OF WEAPONS

When Photographs Have To Come Out Of Retirement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Gordon Parks: A Choice Of Weapons.  Side Gallery, Newcastle, 21 Oct. - 17 Dec. 2017  http://www.amber-online.com/side-gallery/ )

 

JELENA BLAGOVIC: O NJOJ

Photography On A Theme

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

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

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

I often ask myself, when I have been looking at sets of photographs on a certain theme, whether, had I not known the theme in advance, I would have been able to guess it from the pictures.  Often I have to 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 )

 

LEE PRICE: THE HOUSE OF KINGS AND QUEENS

On Being Gay In Sierra Leone

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

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

AUGUST SANDER: PORTRAYING A NATION

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.

WILLIAM MUMLER, THE SPIRIT PHOTOGRAPHER

Seeing And Believing

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

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

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

DOUGIE WALLACE

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

ERNST HAAS (2)

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

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

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

ERNST HAAS (1)

I've just been looking at 'Color Correction' - a volume of the non-commercial colour photography of Ernst Haas.  He says somewhere: "For me, photography became a language with which I have learnt to write both prose and poetry."

That is a very interesting idea - that photography can be divided into the equivalent of verse and prose.  Perhaps he meant that his commercial work was the prose side, some kind of linear process which marched relentlessly to a predictable conclusion. The poetry would then be something more abstract and affective:  images which made their way by association or allusion.  It is these latter which make up the volume I have been looking at.

Maybe there is something in the distinction.  On the other hand, prose can be just as allusive as poetry and rum-ti-tum poetry can be just as predictable as some prose.  All photographs both depict and allude and that is less true of words which tend to direct one's thoughts rather more firmly.    In the end EH's distinction can go only so far.  The potency of the photograph will always set it apart from words.

PETER MITCHELL: PLANET YORKSHIRE

I just caught the tail end of the Peter Mitchell show at Impressions Gallery - Planet Yorkshire - before Christmas.  PM himself was there so I had a chat with him.  He's a very pleasant chap.  He told me that his house is jammed full of all his work from previous exhibitions. He is still photographing now, totally analogue, using medium format. I find his approach very appealing: a kind of vocation without ambition.   He's had the same printer for forty years.  The prints are pretty huge and often darkish so that you are squinting a bit.  He's going for an overall look.

Given the range of his work over the years an exhibition  giving a flavour of it all is bound to be a bit episodic, as this was, but the lost world of the seventies does look like another planet now and these photos seem not just to portray it but also to embody it.  Lovely show and great to get to chat to him.