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. 


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 .


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.)



Having An Opinion Is Part Of The Fun


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jowly”, she said.

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

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

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

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

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



Working Hands And Loose Tongues

French Polisher's Window (Outside)

French Polisher's Window (Outside)

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

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

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

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

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

The Elixirs of Revival

The Elixirs of Revival

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

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

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

French Polisher's Window (Inside)

French Polisher's Window (Inside)

(All photographs my own)


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)



There Is Insensitivity With A Camera And There Is Stupidity

Afghan 1.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afghan 2.jpg
Afghan 3.jpg


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.)




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?  



Yet Another Julia Margaret Cameron Exhibition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s to the next one!



Kätthe Buchler And The Photograph As Historical Evidence


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

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

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

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

willy 2.jpg

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

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

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

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


Can The Bicycle Kick Be A Work Of Art?

Photograph copyright Luiz Paulo Machado

Photograph copyright Luiz Paulo Machado

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

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

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

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

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

Bicycle Kick.png

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

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

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




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. 


Through The Looking-Glass With Scalpel And Ruler

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

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

Stezaker 1.jpg

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

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

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

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

Stezaker 2.jpg

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

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

Stezaker 3.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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




When Photographs Have To Come Out Of Retirement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Photography On A Theme


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


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

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

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

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



The End Of Yugoslavia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Knowing When You're Beaten

Burial Mound, Arras Wold, East Yorkshire, SE945392

Burial Mound, Arras Wold, East Yorkshire, SE945392

I’m not much of a landscape photographer.  I’ve always enjoyed walking in the countryside but no photo ever seems to do justice to the experience.  And in a time when even non-climbers with enough money can pay to be led to the top of Everest why wouldn’t you go for the full sensurround of a physical experience rather than a photographic replica of it?  After all, the way in which you reach a place very much affects your experience of it.  If you doubt that, just try cycling to the top of a local hill to appreciate the view rather than driving up there.  So generally speaking, I don’t take my camera with me when I go walking.  I just soak up surroundings as I go along.  But a year or two ago, I decided to do a project on burial mounds in the county where I was living.  This involved a lot of research in gazetteers and poring over maps but it was very interesting and gave me a reason to tramp over the countryside with a photographic goal.  It didn’t turn out well though.  Photographing a small hump in an otherwise featureless field was pretty challenging, especially when I was possibly trespassing and also not sure if I was imagining the hump.  But it was also very moving.  For every few tumuli marked on the OS map but now farmed out there was one which generation after generation of farmers had carefully steered around so that the work of our distant ancestors might remain as a memorial of otherwise forgotten generations.  On one occasion while I clearly was trespassing on farmland I bumped into the farmer himself.  He was pretty good about it and directed me to the inconspicuous copse intriguingly marked on the OS map as “Danes’ Graves” which I was looking for.  He told me that no one knew who owned the land and no one coppiced or maintained it but he gave me directions to the exact spot where lay the graves.  When I got there I found small mound after small mound hidden away here in this corner of forgotten woodland lost in quiet English wolds.  Sunlight filtered through wind-rustled trees and bird song occasionally laced the silence.  I sat down and shook with emotion.  I knew before I even started that no photograph could do justice to this beautiful place.  Mine certainly didn’t anyway.  Several months later I managed to take the one above on a different,  open field site.  I thought that it brought out the delicate, often almost hidden, line of the barrow against the characteristic spaciousness of the region.  Honour was satisfied, I decided, and at that point brought the project to a close. 


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.)


Materiality Is One Thing, But Substance Is Another 

Some days I look through photographs I have taken and they seem to assume the form of an unruly herd of sheep.  I am the sheepdog driving them to a distant pen over the hill, but they are having none of it.  They spread out this way and that, bunching and straggling inexplicably while I dash and harry.  I snap at their heels because some instinct of mine wants order or direction but just when I seem to be getting somewhere a group breaks away and makes a run for it and that herd-shape and the sense of purpose that goes with it, is gone.  Faint dog whistles in my head drive me on then fade and I stop, puzzled.  What am I doing?  The sheep seem to know where they are going, after all.  Better maybe just to watch them.  Then a thought occurs: maybe the sheep are leading me…..?