Category Archives: Book & Exhibition Reviews

Nicky Bird, Tracing Echoes, Assignment 5 Follow-up

My tutor suggested that I looked at Nicky Bird’s Tracing Echoes (1) as a follow up to my TAOP assignment 5 submission, Change in the Village. This proved to be an interesting line of research that not only plays a part in closing down TAOP but has real relevance to various lines of research that I have subsequently been pursuing as part of Context and Narrative. With this in mind I am posting this essay on both learning logs.

Julia Margaret Cameron 1815 – 1879

I declare my prior ignorance regarding this obviously eminent Victorian photographer. Tracing Echoes includes, as way of an introduction, an essay by Pamela Gerrish Nunn which explains some of Cameron’s history and her place in the history of British photography. She is an artist worthy of study as her work, in many ways, is more closely related to the styles of the late 20th and early 21st century than to her own time. Gerry Badger (2) presents her as an unconventional photographer who “broke all the rules of 1860’s photography” and Pamela Gerrish Nunn explains that her disregard for conventions was not limited to her work behind the camera, she was a strong character who apparently often intimidated her sitters. Dr. Nicky Bird’s book mostly concentrates on her portraits of women, often in tableaux or as allegorical figures, so we have to look elsewhere (3) to find examples of her portrait style and how she often filled the frame with her subjects, sometimes working so close that the camera could not be focussed. This approach gives the viewer no escape, the frame is dominated by the subject and because we instinctively and subconsciously read body positions and faces we are joining Cameron in confronting her sitter and through this process are exposed to some element of their personality. Do they stare firmly back? Do they appear relaxed? Are they being made uncomfortable by the experience? Badger uses a photograph of Thomas Carlyle taken in 1867 to make the point that she was “totally at odds” with the usual formality of the Victorian portrait.

Diane Arbus (4) was a modern photographer who regularly used the same techniques to ensure that her audience did not miss the message when she photographed studies such as A Women in a Bird Mask or Women with a Fur Collar and many other of her street portraits, one might also look to some of Martin Parr’s work to see a similar approach. ( i )

I would like to return to Cameron in the future but, for now, my interest in is Nicky Bird.

Photography’s Relationship with History

Tracing Echoes is a refreshingly affordable book and one that I am pleased to have added to my collection and, from my perspective, a book that is highly relevant to my work on Change in the Village and to my current research into Late Photography. Nicky Bird’s approach to photography speaks to my own interest in finding ways, by combining past and present photography, to understand how history has shaped us and our contemporary landscape. Photography records the present at the moment it becomes the past and since the 1860’s our understanding of history has become increasingly informed by the still or moving image. Today, television, on-line news and social media is consciously or subconsciously prioritised by the availability of images to such an extent that an un-photographed or un-filmed event is, at best, a footnote and, at worst ignored.

As a way of recording a place or an event photographs form part of the archaeological record but, beyond this, the photograph, in itself, is a physical or electronic artefact, a piece of archaeology. Most of us born in the 20th century have a record of our life in photographs forming a visual record of the places we have been, the physical and social changes we have experienced. This “family album” is a tiny current in the ocean of history but becomes more interesting when we attempt to link it with other contemporary or historic currents so it becomes part of a wider stream that tells a more comprehensive story of who we are and where we came from. In Change in Village I was trying to relate two lives that were separated by over a hundred years but played out on the same stage, a small Surrey village, and through this process I was exploring the way ideas and social interactions changed in a single place over time. I was also seeking traces of my life in that place and of the earlier life that had been lived there so the project was archaeological in nature with found images being the most commonly discovered artefacts.

Nicky Bird

Dr. Nicky Bird is a PhD Coordinator at the Glasgow School of Art (6) and a practicing artist whose work usually involves a combination of new and found photographs (7) to support explorations of social and hidden history. Tracing Echoes is one of her older published or exhibited projects dating back to 2001 when she was the artist in residence at Dimbola Lodge, the home of Julia Margaret Cameron.

In 2006/07 she created Question for Seller where she purchased unwanted family photos on ebay and exhibited them with the sellers comments and their original purchase price. At the end of the exhibition the photos were resold. This project raised a series of questions about the value placed on a family’s history and how a family album moves from being a cherished possession to a commodity that sells for a few pounds on eBay. In an interview with Sharon Boothroyd (8) the artist touches on how this process might be connected with class and the way in which working class history only exists at the margins. This is insightful and reminded me that the only reason I could trace photographs of Fred Grover, the real hero of Change in the Village, was because his middle-class employer had photographed him and that this family had placed sufficient value on their family album for it to survive and to be eventually donated to the local museum. I did not attend the exhibition but can only assume that the most asked question was “who are these people?”, a question that we ask ourselves when we pick up an photograph in a market. My mother left a biscuit tin of ancient family photographs and many are unnamed, undated and mysterious, I presume there is a connection with the family, that connection must have been important for my mother or her mother to have kept the photo but there the story ends.

Archaeology of the Ordinary was a series created in 2011 centred around a group of derelict cottages in East Lothian where archaeologists had found the signatures of, what proved to be, Irish migrant workers from the 1950s. Abandoned buildings hold a particular fascination as a place of ghosts and faint traces of history and perhaps because they have been abandoned as opposed to evolved and changed with the times adds a sense that the ghosts and traces are present but on the verge of disappearing forever. These migrants may have moved on and made their mark on the world in many other ways but it is also possible that some of these signatures are the only permanent record of their passing and it is this sense of seeing a moment in time in a photograph or a piece of graffiti and not knowing the back story or what followed that makes these marks, and Bird’s photos of them, so poignant. The idea and the approach of this and other examples of Bird’s work reminded me of an article in the British Archaeology Magazine about tree carvings or arboglyphs left by soldiers who trained on Salisbury plain showing, perhaps, that archaeology and photography sometimes follow the same as opposed to parallel paths. (10) ( ii )

Tracing Echoes

Tracing Echoes is divided into four main sections followed by a detailed conversation between the artist and two individuals from the National Museum of Photography. The first section sets out to map  Dimbola Lodge, which as previously mentioned was the home of Julia Margaret Cameron in Freshwater Bay on the Isle of White. The presentation is of a single found photograph of the house in Cameron’s time and a series of new images taken by Bird. This acts as an introduction and gives a sense of place. I am interested that these images are quite flat, low contrast and without any artificial lighting for the interiors. This made me think of Jaochim Brohm’s Typology 1979 (11) which was part of my inspiration for Change in the Village, Typology 1979 is a study of the small structures Germans build on their allotments and was consciously photographed in flat autumn light. ( iii )

The second section, Timelines, is more interesting as each found photograph is accompanied by one of Bird’s images. The linkages between each pair are not always obvious and Bird makes no attempt to copy the composition and her images are all in colour. She explains that whilst some are of the same location there is a certain amount of guesswork involved and in one case we see Cameron’s daughter in 1867 and her bedroom as it is in 2000 which, as bedrooms have a special relationship with their occupants, this is a link that any parent or grandparent can relate to; the room is now stripped bare but showing it alongside a portrait of the daughter took me to the room in the 1860s asking me to imagine its Victorian decor. I found the subtle and unclear linkages drew me into the archaeological investigations asking me to linger over the photographs to find the clues and traces that Bird had seen or sensed.

There is then a section that records Bird’s genealogical research which I found needed to be read in conjunction with the conversation section at the end of the book that explains who these people are. However, that is a minor comment as any photo book worth owning must draw us back on multiple occasions and when the artist provides the level of context that we have here it will always be necessary to turn back and forth to understand the story. The genealogy searches tell us what happened to Cameron’s sitters which takes found photography to a different and interesting place partly, or perhaps mainly, because the sitters are mostly Cameron’s domestic servants or other working class people who visited the house. ( iv ) This research enabled Bird to make contact with some of the descendants of the sitters and thereby leading to the Echoes and Dialogues section.

It is worth noting that this research and, in some ways, the whole book is fuelled by Cameron’s tendency to note the names of her sitters on the back of the photographs. This is all the more surprising both because the pictures are often allegorical and because the sitters were working class, servants who would have been transparent to many upper middle class Victorians. Most other Victorian photographers and plenty of more modern ones did not take the trouble to find out or record who their subjects were so, as Bird points out, this act held some significant for Cameron despite the fact that some of these acquaintances were quite transitory, a fleeting visitor to the house for example. Cameron is an artist who is much studied and researched so the names of her sitters are well known and well published, the simple act of noting down their names has given these ordinary people an unusual status, a remarkable level of importance 150 years after they sat in front of Cameron’s camera so, for once, we are not asking “who were these people?”, a name gives them a more real existence, a history and, by tracing some of their decedents, a future.

The pairs of photographs presented in the Echoes and Dialogues section are not simply ancestor to the left and descendant to the right. Some are direct decedents, some are unrelated in the genealogical sense and Bird has linked the timeline through other means such as composition in Venessa at the Gate. Vanessa is Nicky Bird’s sister and quite unrelated to the original sitter, Mary Pinnock, the link is that they look similar, the pose is the same but it is not the same gate. Without going through each link suffice to say that they are varied and somewhat complex and I found myself drawn into the narrative to such an extent that I was turning back and forth between the photographs, the genealogical research and the closing conversation to understand the links.

Bird takes a place and shows it to us in the 1860s, she fills the place with the women who sat for a notable artist in that house and then draws us across 130 years to find that same place and another group of local women who are sometimes related to the original cast and sometimes not. This work is part historical research, part genealogy, part photographic and partly the study of a women who has an important place in the history of British photography and of women photographers and a exploration of Victorian values and the history of working class women. It appeals because it blends these disciplines in a practical and unforced manner, using research and photography as equal partners to tell an interesting story.

Notes on Text

( i ) When I made this statement I had in mind many of the close-up portraits that are included in Think of England (5). Plates 17, 19, 20, 24, 25, 58, 73, 82, 83, 104, 106, 107 and 108 are all examples where it might be argued that Parr has invaded the private space of his subject in a potentially confrontational manner.

( ii ) As soon as I saw Nicky Bird’s photos of these signatures I was reminded of an article in British Archaeology Magazine (10) in January 2013 about arborglyphs, the carving of soldiers names and often regimental badges into the trunks of the beech trees on Salisbury plain. All archaeology is about people but the stories become more moving the nearer they are to our own time, in the article the author, Chantel Summerfield, describes how she has traced some of these soldiers from their time training on Salisbury Plain to their service in WWI and sadly to their war graves in France or Belgium. One example combines a photograph of the arborglyph left by one solider with a found photo of his wedding day after the war, another shows a WWII arborglyph recording a soldier’s love for his wife Helen and found photos of the same lady in 1955. This latter story was quite poignant as although the American soldier in question had survived the war he had predeceased his wife but shortly before her death the author of the article had been able to send her a photograph of her husband’s carving of her name in a heart in a small wood on the other side of the world. Looking at this article again I realise that the dividing line between an archaeologist’s article and Nicky Bird’s work is very slight. The archaeologist offers us a higher ratio of words to pictures and her photographs are taken from the perspective of being a functional record but Nicky Bird’s Tracing Echoes also has a high percentage of text and the main difference is in the presentational style.

( iii ) One of the aspects I have struggled with when approaching landscape work during the course is that so many contemporary photographers appear rot actively seek out flat, low contrast lighting. I ask myself whether this approach is mandatory if one wishes to be taken seriously. If so, it is disappointing as I happen to like strong contrasts and saturated colours in landscape.

( iv ) Contemporary historians and archaeologists and the writers of fiction are increasingly interested in the stories of ordinary people following a long period where the world appeared to made up solely of the aristocracy and their servants without anyone in between. One of the great appeals of the work of Hilary Mantel, the two times Booker prize winner, is that her Henry VIII series is written from the perspective of the professional classes that served him. 

Sources

Books

(1) Bird, Nicky (2001) Tracing Echoes. Leeds: Wild Pansy Press, University of Leeds in association wit the University of Northumbria at Newcastle

(2) Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille.

(4) Arbus, Diane (1972) Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph. Fortieth anniversary edition 2011-2012. New York: Aperture.

(5) Parr, Martin (2000) Think of England. Paperback Edition 2004. London: Phaidon Press.

(10) Summerfield, Chantel (2013) Landscape of Rememberance. British Archaeology Magazine January February 2013. York: The Council for British Archaeology

(11) Brohm, Joachim. (2014) Typology 1979. First Edition Published by MACK. Mack Books (a small selection of the plates can be seen at http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/1028-Typology-1979.html)

Internet

(3) J. Paul Getty Museum (accessed January 13th 2015), Jula Margaret Cameron Collection – http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/displayObjectList?maker=2026&pg=1

(6) Glasgow School of Art (accessed January 15th 2015) – http://www.gsa.ac.uk/research/supervisors-plus-students/primary-supervisors/b/bird-nicky/

(7) Bird, Nicky – Artist’s website (accessed January 11th 2014) – http://nickybird.com/profile/

(8) Boothroyd, Sharon (accessed January 14th 2014) Nicky Bird – https://photoparley.wordpress.com/category/nicky-bird/

(9) Bird, Nicky – Artist’s website (accessed January 11th 2014) – http://nickybird.com/projects/archaeology-of-the-ordinary-2011/

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Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

Untitled_Panorama1

_FJ10695

Not a photographic exhibition but the art installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies at The Tower of London may prove to be the most visited and photographed temporary piece of art in Europe this year. Designed by Tom Piper with the poppies made by Paul Cummins it is breathtaking in scale and very moving. I reject Jonathan Jones’ view that it is too pretty to be a reminder of the horrors and war and doubt that this was the designer and the artist’s message. My response was to recognise that each poppy represented a life, nearly exclusively a young life, and that this is a rare opportunity to see every single one of the British and Commonwealth dead of the First World War commemorated in a single place. It has shades of Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds where he was representing millions of individuals not a single entity andthis work needs be viewed in the same way.

My photos don’t do it justice but it was worth the 6:00 am start this morning to beat the crowds.

_FJ10645 _FJ10697 _FJ10700

Brighton Photo Biennial 2014

Fig. 01 Birds - 1/500 at F/10, ISO 200

Fig. 01 Birds – 1/500 at F/10, ISO 200

I spent a day at the Brighton Photo Biennial looking at the various exhibitions that were scattered around the town. There was quite of variety of exhibits and picking ones that would help me move forward in my studies was challenging. My favourite art quote is included in Austin Kloen’s wonderful little book, Steal Like an Artist *(1) and is from André Gide, a French writer:

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” *(1)

But, the problem with this truism is that sometimes trying to say the same thing in a different way results in uninspiring  work. Perhaps I’m a little too old and too conservative to understand where some contemporary photography is trying to get to. As a consequence the highlights of my day, apart from a walk on the pier, were generally rather old school.

Fig Elvis on The Pier - 1/180 at f/11, ISO 200

Fig Elvis on The Pier – 1/180 at f/11, ISO 200

Real Britain 1974 looks at the work of the Co-Optic group who were pushing out the boundaries of documentary photography in the 70s. Many of this group went on to become highly recognised practitioners but at the time were mostly still classified as “emerging”. The group included Gerry Badger, Martin Parr, Fay Godwin and Paul Hill and some of the photos on show are instantly recognisable. The idea was to create a set of 25 postcards from around Britain that represented the real Britain of the day. Not exactly contemporary to most of the population but within my lifetime so it is to me. Great little and rather nostalgic exhibition. As a aside I find it interesting that Parr continues to be interested in postcards.

The Photo Book Show in the Jubilee Library was excellent. Two tables were laid out with hand-crafted and unique photo books. I especially liked Degeneration which lead me to the Human Endeavour *(2) website once I got home. Human Endeavour is a collaborative project or, what they call, a photographic collective, that is documenting the degeneration of urban buildings. I found their dummy photo book inspiring as this is a subject I have explored on a regular basis. It is a shame that the book appears to be limited to the single copy on display here.

My overall impression of the books on show was to be astounded by the quality and creativity on display. Some are artworks in their own right, although some are not particularly  functional as books and a small number were reminiscent of an art student’s final degree work rather than a publication.

Fig 2 Aldo Moro - Amore E Piombo - 1/10 at f/7.1, ISO 800

Fig 2 Aldo Moro – Amore E Piombo – 1/10 at f/7.1, ISO 800

Amore E Piombo (Love and Lead) was of particular interest as we used to live in Italy and have watched a number of Italian television dramas and read a few histories about the 60s and 70s when Italy was nearly torn apart by violent criminal and political factions. This exhibition includes a selection of the work of the Rome based agency Team Editorial Services and it showcases a very specific genre of photo journalism. It presents violent death in an unrestrained way, hard hitting photographs that must have shocked the Italian public when they were first published. This is war photography undertaken on the streets of Italy’s largest cities and is reminiscent of photographers such as McCullin or Griffiths but is also photo journalism at its best, determined photographers getting close to the terrible events that were unfolding and bringing back beautifully composed photographs to the news desk. The exhibition documents a dark period in Italian history and reminds us that many parts of Europe have tottered on the brink of anarchy in comparatively recent times.

Fig 1/300 at f/11, ISO 200

Fig 1/300 at f/11, ISO 200

A Return to Elsewhere *(3) shows the work of two photographers (Kalpesh Lathigra and Thabiso Sekgala), one based in the UK and one in South Africa, who have photographed the influence of Indian communities on the towns in which they now live. Given my recent pondering on whether contemporary photographs need to desaturated and flat it was something of a relief to see an exhibition of high contrast and saturated pictures. There is great variety in the work of these two photographers, street photography, urban landscape in the style of Camilo José Vergara, contextulised portraits, appropriation of old photographs and text and intimate landscape.

This is an exciting study of belonging and not quite belonging, of heritage and new horizons, transported and modified culture, identity and shared histories. The juxtaposition of two very different landscapes housing people originating from the same place is very powerful and effective. The photos also confront and question stereotypes and challenge us to consider the subjects quite carefully.

A highlight of the day. Their website is also well worth visiting and quite unusual http://elsewhere.thespace.org

Fig. 03 1/60 at F/13, ISO 500

Fig. 03 Looking into The Family Album – 1/60 at F/13, ISO 500

Looking Into The Family Album is an important exhibit showcasing the work of year 10 and year 11 students from two local Academies. Three artists collaborated with the students to create giant backdrops, costumes and staged photographs and the results are quite remarkable. I feel strongly that more photographers, especially professional practitioners should be investing time in helping young photographers. This most accessible art form is already a dominant feature of young people’s lives and the more young people that take this subject up at GCSE and A’ Level the more exciting the future of British photography becomes. We need to help students go beyond repeating the same old boring projects and to start pushing their creative boundaries but to do this within an academic framework so they start to see their work in the context of a wider photographic world and to make sure that they acquire the basic technical skills that will need if they are to get the best from the discipline. This work is a great example of this being done so I congratulate James Casey, Alex Buckley and Marysa Dowling who mentored these students.

Fig 5 Solitude - 1/300 at F/10, ISO 200

Fig 4 Solitude – 1/300 at F/10, ISO 200

Overall Impressions

Brighton is a great place and the perfect location for a festival of this kind. I was disappointed with the guide / catalogue which needed a better map that named the exhibitions so I didn’t have to pick a gallery off the map and keep turning the pages back and forth till I found what was on there. It would also have been nice to have better information available at some of the exhibits to learn more about the artists. Some of the signage once you found a location was very poor and I spent ages wandering around the Brighton Museum looking for Amore E Piombo.

Lunch and a walk on the pier was excellent. I have started to find my DSLR camera bag far too cumbersome and heavy and best used when I am in a “studio” environment or working near to the car. I recently treated myself to a Fuji XT 1 mirror-less camera and am carrying it everywhere I go. It is perfect for street photography because it is as discreet as Leica (just much cheaper!) , brilliant at handling poor light (such as inside the Amore E Piombo exhibition), and ridiculously portable. All the photos here were captured with this little gem.

Fig. 05 Sunday Stroll -  1/120 at f/13, ISO 200

Fig. 05 Sunday Stroll – 1/120 at f/13, ISO 200

Sources

Books

(1) Kleon, Austin. (2012) Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative.New York: Workman Publishing.

Internet

(2) Human Endeavour – http://www.humanendeavour.co.uk

(3) A Return to Elsewhere – http://elsewhere.thespace.org

 

Jaochim Brohm – Typology 1979

Fig. 1 Typology for Assignment 5 – Double Page Spread

I was drawn to Joachim Brohm’s Typology 1979 *(1) for two reasons.

Typologies

Firstly, as part of assignment 5 I wanted to have at least one page that showed cottages in a village that existed in my time and at the time of the old Surrey labourer that was part of the story. I therefore wanted to look at some different photographic typologies to see whether there were approaches that worked better than others. My first thought was to look at Bernd and Hilla Becher *(2) who started creating grids of black and white photographs of industrial structures in the 1960s. These are methodical and highly detailed records of 19th century constructions taken head on from similar distances against flat grey skies and have become much sought after art prints. Their original intent was to capture these structures as reference material for Bernd’s paintings but, in doing so, they created a photographic archive of buildings that were destined for demolition as industrial processes advanced and changed and a photographic style that has been much copied. For reasons best known to the art critics of the time they were initially considered to be conceptual sculptures rather than photographs but Gerry Badger neatly links their work to the boards used by lepidopterists to pin collections of butterflies to allow comparison *(3). The Becher’s philosophy has been to find a subject and pursue it obsessively for your whole career.

Slightly aside from the purpose of this review I was intrigued that the Becher’s work had two connections with Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh. The first link, as mentioned above is that the Bechers like Billingham were taking photos as “models” for their paintings, the second link comes from the comments made by Gerry Badger on page 217 of The Genius of Photography. Badger records that the way that the Bechers displayed their work as wall-sized prints had art critics “drooling about seriality, presentational rigour, minimalism, comparative typologies and other art-speak words.” He believes that this diverted attention from the real intent of these photographs which was more about seeing the beauty in these structures and creating architectural photographs with, what he calls, “head on austerity”. The link being that the art world saw something in these photographs that the artist had not necessarily intended to include.

Other than being German there are no specific connections between Joachim Brohm and the Bechers although the timing of Typology 1979 suggest some level of influence. The Bechers were running the Dusseldorf School of Art while Brohm was studying at the Wolkwang University of Art in Essen. Looking at the broad spectrum of his work one might assume that he has been more influenced by Stephen Shore, especially, Lee Friedlander and William Eggeleston more than by the Bechers. In an interview with ASX *(4) he explains that, in the 70s there were few outlets for artistic photography in Germany and he became orientated towards American practitioners and finished his formal education at the City of Columbus, Ohio.

Typologies 1979 is a recent publication of his student work. When asked why he has waited so long to publish his early work he suggests that the world, or perhaps just Germany, wasn’t ready to look at it and that German photography was dominated by the Dusseldorf, and by inference the Becher, School. It is therefore interesting that one of the pieces of his early work that he has chosen to publish thirty years after it was completed, is a typology. It is in colour rather than black and white and the other obvious difference from the Becher’s work is the variety of compositions, angles and viewpoints that he uses, it is less rigourous. However, one clear similarity is the choice of working under pale grey skies.

Allotments

The second attraction to Brohm’s Typology 1979 is the subject matter. There is an element of the banal in systematically documenting the structures that people build on German allotments but I was more interested in the culture that they represent. I have worked extensively in Frankfurt and a number of other German cities and was always drawn to the fringes of the cities where the allotments are found. Very unlike British allotments, that always have a “Dig for Victory” feel about them with their compost heaps and rows of vegetables, a German allotment is like a detached garden, a place that the family can visit for the evening or weekend to escape their apartment in the city centre. They are more personal and varied that our remote vegetable plots and most include structures intended for socialising and relaxing rather than for just storing a fork and spade.

Brohm set out to document the allotment structures of one city, Essen, and, like the Bechers he approached the assignment in architectural terms. There are traces of people but no people appear in the photographs. The buildings are small but are strong personal statements, some are austere, some colourful, some brick, some wood and all nondescript in the context of the city’s architectural heritage. I cannot pretend to know what people travel to Essen to see but it’s not the allotment buildings.

Frankfurt, an otherwise pleasant city, lacked places to eat or drink outdoors and when the weather was hot and humid I was always envious of the German families enjoying a cool drink on the verandas of their little houses overlooking a tiny lawn and neat flower beds. It always struck me that there is something very specifically German about both the allotments and the structures in them and how the close proximity of one summer house to the next appeared un-noticed, the skill of city dwellers to edit out the presence of others.

The Photographs

Having looked at Brohm’s more recent work on line I see a very direct relationship with the work of Stephen Shore. There is a same era feel to both the subject matter and the prints. A certain pale, desaturated look reminiscent of slightly faded prints. If anything, Shore’s work is a little more saturated than Brohm’s but the similarities are there. There is a more subtle relationship with the American colourists, Brohm is interested in marginal places “with all their seeming lack of significance” *(5) an idea that is at the heart of Shore’s Uncommon Places. Typology was obviously completed at an early stage of his career but it is unquestionably about marginal places. In the traditions of the banal movement and the American colourists this study brings importance and significance to a marginal or unnoticed subject.

The book is collection of square prints, each little building is placed in the context of its allotment so we do not have the austere representation of the Bechers. For this project it is a valid decision as we are being shown significant variations on a theme so an identical approach to composition would have told us less that the varied angles arising from placing the buildings in context. As mentioned previously the whole set were taken under grey skies which provides a diffused lighting lacking in contrast, they are also taken in late autumn or early winter so the trees provide a dark, often black, natural frame to many of the buildings. In some of the photos the path across the allotment is used as a compositional device to lead us to the structure.

There is no sense of trespass, no physical invasion of private spaces, the little houses were probably all photographed from outside their gardens and fences are often included as if to make this point. These are private and personal spaces and the photographer has not become intimate with the detail of their structure, we see them as a passerby, a stranger looking over the garden fence. It is interesting that the photographer chose to carryout this study at a time of year when the houses are generally deserted, this choice allows us to see the buildings with no distractions, no colourful flowers or lush foliage but it also makes the allotments look sad and neglected, lonely, drab places on the margins of the city. Only the occasional toy left on the frosted grass hints at these buildings being enjoyed by families. My own experience in Frankfurt is that these are vibrant, joyous places in mid-summer, children playing on the lawns, adults drinking beer in the shade, barbecue smoke drifting on the sultry evening air so the dilapidated feel of so many of these photographs is a slightly misleading picture, an example of the truth not being the truth.

Part of the value of this type of documentary, in the true sense of the word, is that it imparts, records and stores information that we would not otherwise have. One might argue that it shouldn’t matter whether that information is interesting and, interest, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but ignoring my prior knowledge of these structures or my desire to learn something from Brohm’s style I found these photographs compelling. Once again it underlines the importance of working in series because the interest lies in the variety of these structures, the comparisons, the typology. Bohmn shows that the residents of Essen have taken their inspiration from a glorious range of architectural styles, we have ginger bread house, minimalist white box, romantic plantation house, pure garden shed, blue and white Greek Café, suburban bungalow, log cabin, Scandinavian chalet,  ramshackle stable and many more. The colours are uninhibited and bold, Farrow and Ball would have had little success in 1970’s Essen.

This might be a love it or hate it book. It asks the viewer to take time to understand the subject and his approach. Compared with his more recent work it is understandably raw and a little less sophisticated and, I suspect, less generally appealing but it is a book firmly within the banal tradition addressing a ordinary subject that is, in itself, unique and that provides an insight into an aspect of German culture. The simple design, one square print per spread, works well with the subject matter and the introduction by Ulf Erdmann Ziegler provides helpful background to the project and the history of “Schrebergartens”.

Inspiration and Assignment 5

Typology 1979 has been less directly useful in bringing assignment 5 together than I had hoped but the process of looking at typology and the work of the Bechers and Brohm was useful. The way that the Bechers presented their work has helped with deciding on my typology page layout and Bohm has shown me that it is possible to move away from black and white, austerity and rigour and still compile a typology.

Looking at Bohm, going back to Shore, and recently visiting Russell Squires’ D-Day Landings exhibition has left me with a unresolved question on how to deal with colour. I have touched on the subject before and no doubt will again. I cannot decide whether my colour work is generally, or always, too saturated and contrasted or whether it a simple matter of style but there is no doubt that many contemporary photographers present, what to me, is low contrast and desaturated work, many appear to only work in flat light on cloudy days. This in itself is certainly not an issue and a difference in stylistic approach is understandable but my predicament is that I respond positively to this approach in the work of others but never feel comfortable when I process my own work in that manner.

For the sake of completeness I have included the draft versions of my cottage typologies for assignment 5. My main concern is a lack of consistency in terms of light which is somewhat inevitable when the photographs are collected over an extended period of time. Initially I considered using the Becher front-on and consistent compositional approach by having discovered Brohm and liked his work I decided that this was an unnecessary and potentially counter productive approach given my subject. I am also looking for one more image as the photo that I have placed bottom right on typology 2 seems out of scale and therefore not a good fit. The building, now a scout hut and once a temperance hall has some relevance to the narrative so I would prefer to photograph it again from a different angle.

Fig. 2 Typology 1 (left) for Assignment 5

Fig. 2 Typology 1 (left) for Assignment 5

Fig. 3 Typology 2 (right) for Assignment 5

Fig. 3 Typology 2 (right) for Assignment 5

Sources

Books

(1) Brohm, Joachim. (2014) Typology 1979. First Edition Published by MACK. Mack Books (a small selection of the plates can be seen at http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/1028-Typology-1979.html)

(3) Badger, Gerry. (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography Has Changed Our Lives. London: Quadrille Publishing Limited.

Internet

The Telegraph. (2013) Joachim Brohm Q & A. The Telegraph – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/9949287/Joachim-Brohm-QandA.html

(2) Museum of Modern Art. (2008) Bernd and Hilla Becher: Landscape Typology. The Museum of Modern Art Exhibition Review – http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/95

(4) American Suburb X (2013) Interview with Joachim Brohm – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2013/03/interview-joachim-brohm-asx-interviews-joachim-brohm-2013.html

(5) CPH Mag (2013) A Conversation with Joachim Brohm – http://cphmag.com/a-conversation-with-joachim-brohm/

(6) Squires, Russell (2014) D-Day Landings Exhibition – http://russellsquires.co.uk/d-day-landings/

Ray’s a Laugh – Richard Billingham

_FJ10318Rays a Laugh was published in 1996 and some critics including Charlotte Cotton believe that it redefined contemporary narrative. For reasons of price it was impractical to review the 1996 original or the 2000 paperback reprint but I was able to acquire the 2014 Errata Books on Books edition *(1) which is, in effect a high quality photocopy, but is bound as a book and includes an informative essay by Charlotte Cotton. *(2)

Rays a Laugh is fundamentally different from any other photo book that I have reviewed. It is an extended six year narrative about the artists’ chronically alcoholic father and the small dysfunctional family that surrounds him. It has a level of intimacy that could only be achieved by a family member, Julian Germain’s For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness *(3) that I reviewed recently, is also an inmate study of one man but the photographer is a step back from the subject. in Ray’s a Laugh the father and son’s relationship is being intimately visualised. Interestingly the artist himself compares his approach to that of a wildlife photographer so he clearly believes that there is a level of objectivity and whist, after reading a number of interviews with the artist I better understand why he says that, my initial and emotional reaction is that he, the photographer, is in the picture with his family. This series might be a biography of his family but it is also an autobiography of six highly developmental years in his own life.

This work could be interpreted as being intentionally provocative but Richard Billington says that he didn’t set out to shock or offend anyone *(4), he is just endeavouring to make his work “spiritually meaningful”. I accept that this is his aim but to achieve it he had to produce emotionally charged images and it is inevitable that this level of emotional energy will generate strong reactions in its audience. Given the emotional reaction that this book is always going to generate it seems a valid approach to record my first reactions before I look more deeply. The words I first wrote down were family, personal, private, voyeuristic, revealing, ugly, sad, hopeless, violent, amateur.

The photographs are a vivid and detailed exposé of the inner workings of a poor family living in a tiny, high-rise flat in a depressed area. Ray is a tragic figure, Richard thinks that he was “some sort of mechanic” but he is long term unemployed, alcoholic and unwilling to leave the flat. He drinks, slumps lost in his thoughts, falls over, is sick, sleeps and starts the cycle again. He looks detached, absent, empty and broken. He clearly provokes strong responses from his obese wife Liz who is, more than once, shown with a balled fist threatening him. Liz likes cats, dogs, jigsaw puzzles and cigarettes. Apart from Richard there is another son who is lazy, and potentially addicted to drug taking in general (as opposed to an addiction to a specific drug) and playing video games. In hindsight Billingham says that the themes of addiction and boredom are those that interest him the most but they were not in his mind when taking the photographs.

The photographs, which were taken as studies to help Richard draw gestures for his paintings, are snapshots, often erratically framed, sometimes out of focus and mostly over saturated. This approach is part of the tension created by the series, the viewer expects snapshots to present a universally positive view of family life, with snapshots we record happy events, holidays, weddings, new babies, pets asleep on the sofa, children reaching milestones in their lives. Billingham has brought an amateur feel, a snapshot style, to the negative aspects of his family so the audience is offered documentary style subjects presented as a family album. It is an uncomfortable combination.

If we accept the premise that the buyers of art photography books, visitors to exhibitions, art critics, photography academics and students are rarely park-bench-alcoholics there is another element at play. The audience is taken into an alien world, ugly with poverty, over flowing with social tragedies such as alcoholism, unemployment, obesity and the abandonment of hope and, worse than that, it is inconveniently on our doorstep.  But, this was not created as an objective piece of social documentary, the photographer does not talk about how they set out to change public opinion by revealing democracy’s dark secret. This was created, published and promoted as art, not documentary, and this decision implies that we are being asked to judge its artistic values ahead of the social questions it raises. My point being that with Griffiths or Koudelka we look at their work in the context of social documentary so we know that we must use the photographer’s work as a way of accessing their subject, we know we are being asked to understand the argument that they are making, we also appreciate their skill and consider their work as art but it is presented as documentary first and art second.

In Rays a Laugh the artist sets out to “study the human figure in interior space” *(5), it so happened that his family, and all their baggage were the human figures and the interior space was their flat. He had no political motivation and did not approach or publish his work as social documentary, he offers us his work as art. In an interview with American Suburb X *(5) it is suggested that, if his work encourages us to consider our relationship to class and poverty, we are giving his work deeper meaning than Billingham intended. This insight to the artist’s mind makes the book harder to review, does he wish us to ignore the social implications of his work ? Does he want us to ignore the narrative of hopelessness, addiction and boredom and only see the shapes on the page?

In 1996 we were less exposed to reality TV than we are today but looking at this work in 2014 there is an obvious link to modern documentary-style reality TV that is primarily created as entertainment with documentary and art being someway down the producer’s list of objectives. In both cases art critics and politically motivated observers will ask us to see this type of work as a contribution to the debate on poverty or class or the failure of capitalism but can we see it in those terms if the artist was not politically or socially motivated? Society’s obsession with voyeurism has become a driving force behind social media where we intentionally open our lives to strangers and then complain if they look a little too closely and with our unhealthy interest in the lives of celebrity that has led to “celebrity” being a job as opposed to being the description of a select few. All these examples tend to suggest that we are voyeurs by nature, we like being peeping toms, we are dying to know what happens behind the closed doors of the poor, the unemployed, the benefit claimants, the royals, the rich and the famous.

Another reason that care has to be taken when we inject our own prejudices and agendas into this work is that, if we accept (and why wouldn’t we?) that Billingham started out looking at gesture and form and then became interested in addiction and boredom then, we are looking at themes that are not restricted within one social or economic class. We  should see the unemployed class backdrop as the stage that happened to be there and not an essential element of the themes. We are also warned by Cotton to take care in how we see the book as it is far from the dummy that was created by Julian Germain, Michael Collins (then Picture Editor of Telegraph magazine) and Richard Billingham. Collins believes that Scalo’s treatment was insensitive and, reading between the lines, exploitative. Cotton is effectively saying that many of the political and social agendas that mask Billingham’s true intent are there because the publisher reduced his work to “a prurient spectacle”.

This leads neatly to the question of exploitation. If the photographer had been from outside the family they might be perceived as being opportunistic, a voyeur, exploitive and merely creating drama from misery, and perhaps the publisher was guilty of these things. But, of all the challenging issues this work raises I find this the easiest to reconcile. There is a detached affection in these photos which are the work of a young man whose interest in nature and ambitions to be an artist appear at odds with his environment. I believe he uses his camera and sketch pad as his way of looking at and understanding a family that appear to be sliding down a slippery slope that he has stepped off or avoided ever being on. He may not be rejecting his family but his work has provided him with a screen through which to observe them, a way to translate them into something that he can understand and even use as part of the foundation of his work.

Billingham has said that very few people get beyond the subject matter and can identify the artist’s intention, which is not surprising, given, as we have seen, we are all voyeurs. We want to look at his dysfunctional, addicted and bored family. To understand this work we have to recognise that the most important piece of context is that Billingham was studying for his fine art degree throughout the time he was photographing his family. By placing a camera between himself and the family he could convert their antics into shapes, forms, colours, compositions and artistic structures so he is asking us to look beyond Ray, Liz and Jason to see the underlying patterns that he was photographing.

Sources

Books

(1) Billingham, Richard (1996) Ray’s a Laugh: Errata Edition Books on Books (2014) New York: Errata Editions

(2) Cotton, Charlotte (2014) RAL. Errata Edition Books on Books (2014) New York: Errata Editions

(3) Germain, Julian (2005) For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness. Gottingen: Steidl MACK (Reviewed o line via a combination of Julian Germain’s web site – http://www.juliangermain.com/projects/foreveryminute.php and the MACK web site – http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/16-For-every-minute-you-are-angry-you-lose-sixty-seconds-of-happiness.html

Internet

(4) Billingham, Richard. Rays a Laugh. American Suburb X – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/07/richard-billingham-rays-laugh.html

(5) Billingham, Richard. (2007)  “Reinterpreting Unconventional Family Photographs: Returning to Richard Billingham’s ‘Ray’s a Laugh’; Series” – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/04/theory-reinterpreting-unconventional.html

Tong Lam and the Use of Essays and Appropriations in Abandoned Futures

Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point Turks and Caicos 2013 - 1/250 at f/8, -1/3 stop, ISO 100

Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point Turks and Caicos 2013 – 1/250 at f/8, -1/3 stop, ISO 100

A Short Review of Abandoned Futures

Tong Lam *(1) is interested in using photography to examine industrial and post industrial ruins around the world. This is reflected in his published work which includes Abandoned Futures which looks at the abandoned places of current civilisations and asks whether, in time, these will outnumber functioning places and offers a vision of what he calls the post human world. It appears self apparent that governments and developers prefer to build on green rather than brown field sites so across the world we can see post industrial wastelands being created and abandoned whilst we build on prime agricultural land, clear virgin forest and put increasing pressure on the remaining areas of wilderness.

Abandoned Futures *(2) follows the traditions of social documentary photography by focussing attention on environmental and social issues that should concern us, at one level we have mountains of waste, cars and planes dumped on virgin landscapes to decay slowly as new rubbish is rapidly added to the pile, and at another level more monumental forms of waste in the shape of abandoned buildings, industrial complexes and housing. The photographs of these buildings are archeological in nature, recording such a recent past that, at first glance, deserted amusement parks look closed for the night and books line dusty shelves in abandoned offices. Many individual photographs are complete narratives where the audience can easily add the past and the future to the image imagining the inhabited space and its eventual collapse into a cloud of concrete dust.

Overall the book is a single narrative, a story of unrealised dreams, failed projects, bad ideas and the degenerative processes of climate and nature but it is structured into chapters that investigate specific places or types of decay and each of these can be seen as an independent narrative.

The subject matter holds great interest for me as, over many years, I have collected my own library of photographs of abandoned buildings and decaying man-made environments partly because they often offer graphic and abstract subjects and partly because I am intrigued by the ability of nature to take control of the most resilient of man-made or shaped materials and slowly transform them into something organic, returning cement to rock dust, brick to clay, wood to rot and iron to rust. Trees and walls become a single organism as roots weave their way through lime based cement or twist around rock to find moisture and even though we can only see a fraction of the lifecycle we know the beginning and the end.

This meant that I would inevitably enjoy Lam’s work and I was taken with his simple compositions and unpretentious approach that often elevates the subject over the photograph. When looking at concerned photographers such as Koudelka and Jones Griffiths there is an sense of artistry and consistency of style to their photographs that is perhaps less obvious here. Lam’s style moves from plain landscapes that only make sense within the contact of the overall set to bright dessert scenes that are reminiscent of Stephen Shore in both composition and colouring through to deeply saturated daylight colours and soft long exposures. The book also falls down in the sequencing of the images so that we are often presented pictures on facing pages that have no obvious relationship – an abandoned car in the snow and an empty swimming pool in bright winter sunlight. However, overall I found the photographs engaging and full of intriguing detail.

Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point Turks and Caicos 2013 - 1/125 at f/8, -1/3 stop, ISO 100

Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point Turks and Caicos 2013 – 1/125 at f/8, -1/3 stop, ISO 100

The Use of Text in Abandoned Futures

Essays

There are 11 very readable essays included within Abandoned Futures. Lam uses these essays to discuss a range of related subjects from why people paint or photograph ruins right through to contextualising sets of photographs in the same way that Jones Griffiths approached Vietnam Inc. The overall context of this book is quite different than Vietnam Inc. or Wall where there is a sense of the photographer feeling that they need to educate the audience to understand the photographs. Jones Griffiths, probably quite rightly, believes that we will miss the point of his photographs of Vietnamese villagers if we don’t understand the inhabitants’ underlying culture and beliefs. In Abandoned Futures there is a different feel to the text, the photographs of thousands of dumped cars in the Mojave Desert do not call for education, most of the audience will understand the subject, the issue and the problem without further education so the text has to play a different role. His writing is not journalistic, is not laden with facts, is not even evangelical in style, it is elegantly written prose with an artistic rhythm that describes the car culture of the USA and acts as a background, another perspective on the scene we see in the pictures. It would be fair to say that it addresses the “why?” that Jones Griffiths states is so important but it is a broad brush explanation rather than an analytic discourse.

Appropriation

There are also a few examples of appropriation. Unlike Fox and Burgin (see Victor Burgin and Appropriations) his use of quotes is not ironic, he uses them to illuminate his own message so a quote from Victor Hugo “For, to make desserts, God, who rules mankind, begins with Kings, and ends with the work of the wind.” with a photograph of a ruined castle.

Old House Grand Turk 2013 -  1/125 at f/8, -2/3 stops, ISO100

Old House Grand Turk 2013 – 1/125 at f/8, -2/3 stops, ISO100

Conclusion

Lam’s text is integral to this book, he wants to tell the audience as much as he can in the constraints of the book and the photos and the words, whilst complimentary, often provide different information so as well as contextualising the images he is adding to them with his essays.

Sources

Books

(2) Lam, Tong (2013) Abandoned Futures: A Journey to the Posthuman World. Great Britain: Carpet Bombing Culture.

Internet

(1) Lam, Tong – Official Website – http://photography.tonglam.com/#/about/description

Philip Jones Griffiths and the use of Captions, Cutlines and Other Text in Vietnam Inc.

Illegal Logging Luzon Philippines c.1989

Illegal Logging Luzon Philippines c.1989. When the Philippines Government began to carryout aerial surveys of, what they had previously thought were islands covered with virgin rain forest, they discovered than many had no trees left apart from a fringe near roads or the sea and they realised that the loggers had, over many years, denuded whole areas or islands in secret.

In an earlier post I looked at Philip Jones Griffiths as an Engaged Observer. In this post I want to focus on how he uses text to strengthen the message of his photographs and to understand better why he chose to use such extensive text.

Vietnam Inc. is a anti-war narrative recoding the relationship between the American military machine and the Vietnamese people as the war moved through a series of phases until it became a remotely controlled and conducted conflict where American servicemen neither saw their enemy nor the people they thought of as their allies. To understand why the book was published as a combination of essays, captions, cutlines and pictures it is essential to look at the context of its publication.

In an interview with Bob Dannin in 2002 Philip Jones Griffiths talks extensively about Vitenam Inc. *(2). He reveals that he went to Vietnam with the idea of creating a book, he had a publishing contract already secured, although, in the end, the publisher in question “went bust” and he had to find a new outlet. The answer to why he wanted to publish a book rather than work as a news photographer lay in his deep mistrust of the news system. He believed that to work for remote editors and organisations meant that he could not tell the story he wanted to tell, by definition his photos would be published out of context, or worse be used in the context of someone else’s story.

It is interesting that he made two visits to Vietnam as part of developing Vietnam Inc. During his first visit he travelled extensively capturing every aspect he could of the Vietnam people. He then left Vietnam and returned to base to select and edit his photographs and to start creating a layout for his book. He did this to identify the gaps in his story and he then returned to Vietnam for a year to complete the narrative.

There are three levels of text in Vietnam Inc..

Firstly there are captions. These captions are longer than the headlines we normally associate with news photos. They usually run to approximately 40 words. Jones Griffiths says that, when he first became a journalist, he was taught that captions needed to contain the 5 W’s. These are:

Who? What? Why? Where? When?

Of these the middle one, “why”, is the most important. He saw little value in capturing a photo of “yet another starving child”, other than the message that there are too many starving children this offers very little because it is de-contextualised. The important question is why is this child starving? Who is depriving him of food? What is the history of this event? Jones Griffiths argues that this vital information cannot be communicated by pictures alone. The caption is a vital component of the story, the pictures and the words must be blended together, with the words supplementing the photographs. He makes the point that the role of this text is not to explain or describe the photograph, that would be redundant, but to provide the audience with context.

The second level of text is an extension of the first, Jones Griffiths’ includes what the American’s call cutlines, extended captions, in several places in the book. These are used in exactly the same way as his captions, they provide essential context but as well as being longer the context is usually broader providing more in-depth background on larger issues.

The third level of text is his eleven essays that each cover two or more pages and act as chapter introductions to his narrative. They are his own accounts and act as explanations of the background, occurrences and consequences of specific events or groups of events. They are subjective, opinionated and forceful.

Taken as a whole Vietnam Inc. is much more than a photo book and it is the partly the text that makes it so different. Jones Griffiths was an eloquent man, strongly opinionated, a thinker and a communicator who could not work within the constraints of news driven photo journalism. He recognised that many photographers, film makers and journalists in Vitenam were frustrated by the system that edited, selected and used their output out of its original context to meet the objectives of the news organisations. The difference between him and most of the other journalists was that he found a way of controlling the context in which his work was used.

Philip Jones Griffiths uses extensive text in Vietnam Inc. because the pictures were insufficient. He knew that his audience could only understand his photographs when they were contextualised. Collectively his three types of text provide the 5 W’s but the emphasis is unquestionably upon the “why”. It doesn’t pretend to be objective or unemotional and couldn’t be anything else because he is ultimately focusing on how a whole way of life was systematically dismantled by a foreign power who didn’t and never could understand the place or its people.

Sources

Books

(1) Jones Griffiths, Phillip. (1971) Vietnam Inc. : First Published by Collier Books 1971, this edition published in 2001 and reprinted in 2011. London: Phaidon.

Internet

(2) Musarium – Interview with Philip Jones Griffiths by Bob Dannin in New York City, January 2002 – http://www.musarium.com/stories/vietnaminc/interview.html