Thursday, 15 March 2018
It was a pleasure to see the documentary Being Blacker by Molly Dineen on the BBC earlier this week. It was a very straightword documentary on the life and times of Blacker Dread and the community and family he was part of in Brixton. Without trying it touched on jail, education, benefits, debt, racism, education, austerity, and the waste that callous and cruel policies result in. Blacker characterised the hardest times as these times, as 2010 - 2018, years when it is more difficult to get a job, an education, a home, a life, anything. He talked about all the circumstances of his education, of how it would be a race to get out of his grammar school in Penge and return home to Brixton without getting beaten up, and the relief he felt when finally he did get home.
I watched this in horror, thinking how that would never happen in Bath, the town I live. It's a lovely town, with nice buildings and a spa and a shop that sells historical buns. And then I saw this story on Beechen Cliff School in Bath, where in January a black boy was subjected to a 'mock slave auction' where 'at least seven white teenagers chained a fellow pupil to a lamppost and whipped him with sticks, calling him extreme racist names harking back to the slave trade.'
The mother 'was still “reeling” from shock at the apparent attitude of the school towards racism and the impact of that on the already traumatised victim.'
The boys were initially expelled from the school by the head before the governors rescinded that decision. Nobody is quite sure why. It is a puzzle. That judgement hit the Bath Chronicle this week and all hell broke loose. No, actually it didn't. Nothing much has happened. The advice given to pupils in at least three schools in Bath (including Beechen Cliff) is "Don't talk about it. Don't talk about it. Don't talk about it."
But I get the feeling not talking about it is part of the problem, especially in a town like Bath which revels in architecture built on the blood and bones of the slave trade. You think Bristol doesn't recognise the part it played in the slave trade, try and sniff even a whiff of a connection in Bath and you will find nothing. It's been wiped as clean as the Bath stone with which the city is built. Hence the don't talk about it part.
I saw the story on the school in the Guardian. The same edition ran the story on National Geographic's confession that it has a history of institutionalised racism.
It came with reason by John Edwin Mason which examined both the racism and the exoticisation and marginalisation of the real story. I'm not sure that National Geographic will entirely solve these problems of representation - they are problems that are endemic to photography and its very spectacle, but at least they are recognising there is a historical problem, at least they are talking about it.
Here in Bath, it is all being swept under the carpet; the racism, the history, the violence, the effect that has on individuals, the schools, the city. It's the universal response in Bath when you get a problem at a school. Don't talk about it. Don't talk about it. Don't talk about it.
Tuesday, 13 March 2018
The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia came to Britain last week. He had some meetings and appeared in advertisements and billboards in London and in newspapers like the Guardian. The narrative was one of modernisation, of a new Saudi Arabia that connects very much to the presuppositions of the British public about what Saudi Arabia means. It's part of a long-running PR and soft-power campaign that dates back to well before the crown prince became the Crown Prince.
The image featured above was one of a series appearing in the Guardian last Wednesday 7th March. It focusses on the prince's directive making it legal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia.
This linked up with other examples of PR representations. The BBC's Today programme had a Saudi woman talking about how she never felt any lack of freedom from the driving ban because she always had a driver to take her where she wanted to go. You can add narratives about 'informal power' and ignoring those women it doesn't work quite so well for when the informal power comes up against another informal power, or against discriminatory formal power.
The image above links in to the law allowing women to drive. It also links in to the law allowing tourism (including single women over the age of 25) to enter the country. It is classically designed for an overseas audience.
There's something of the cult of the individual in the ad despite the fact that the prince is smaller in the picture than the woman. He's got his perfect skin and his perfect beard and his smirk and the idea that he's a pretty reasonable chap who's going to do right by Saudi women (up to a point). But it is a smirk, you can't get away from that, and he just doesn't look that nice a man, probably because he isn't.
She's bigger than him in the picture with a made up face, a few wisps of hair poking out and the flesh of her right arm exposed. So there's a message about who she is and where she stands on some things. She's quite well off (she'd have a driver for the years before when she wasn't allowed to drive) and she's feisty. Look at that wry smile and those dimples. She's ready to play '...a greater role in Saudi society culture and the workplace' all granted by the smirking prince.
It's not exactly the world he's promising then. It's still the patriarchy, but a patriarchy led by, you guessed it, the Crown Prince. It's deliberately limited because this is the real world (that's the idea), you have to start small, it's the entire Saudi clergy he's battling, and let's face it who wouldn't take the Crown Prince against men who look back at the Dark Ages with a sense of nostalgic longing.
But some people are sceptical. The promise is limited even more by the fact that 'He' is empowering only 'Saudi women', not even women in Saudi Arabia, which is a different matter entirely, including women from other countries. But still, there's the idea that it's a start.
That's the idea anyway, but if you ever bought into the idea of the open-minded liberal King-in-waiting the next day this advert popped up in the Guardian fund-raising for Save the Children's campaign in Yemen, a country that is being bombed to pieces by the loving Crown Prince's not-so-loving expansionist side, as though the world really needs another expansionist wannabe-power broker.
That thought is summed up in this editorial from the Guardian. Which of course is the same newspaper which ran the ads in the first place.
And so the circle continues to turn...
The latest Stories from Home comes courtesy of Gabriela Cendoya-Bergareche and is filled with absence. Find previous Stories here, here, here and here
These two pictures are the closest to All quiet on the home front I could find… I'm not sure they are about fatherhood or motherhood though, maybe they are more about the lack of it.
The first one is me in the woods in 1971 and it must have been taken by my aunt, who was THE photographer then. My mother died young and as far as I can remember, my father never touched a camera.
The second one is from 75, a few months after my father’s death, and has been taken by my brother. It is about living in a rather isolated place, very close to the landscape, and not being able to talk too much about what we miss.
I really love the way you do it in your book, showing this strong link of love with Isabel in the landscape, and your vulnerability and fear at the same time. Your book took me back in time, to remind me of the lost moments I miss today.
Monday, 12 March 2018
As part of the celebrations of the excellent 1,000 Words Magazine, there will be a special, one-off print edition, due for release in October 2018 with a London launch at The Photographers’ Gallery bookshop and party at a different venue.
Designed by Sarah Boris it will comprise a front, middle and back made up of exciting content that looks both back over the 10 years of the magazine and forward to what photography can be in the worlds of publishing, exhibiting and advocacy.
In order to finance its production and, perhaps more crucially, to maintain its independence, 1,000 Words are running a Kickstarter campaign during March, via a beautiful video made by filmmaker Carlos Jimenez.
Contribute to the Kickstarter and pre-order your hard copy here.
Contribute to the Kickstarter and pre-order your hard copy here.
Wednesday, 7 March 2018
The film's been made already, an experimental 1970s Czech animation. It was quite good. If you remember the title, do let me know. There aren't many avant-garde movies based on the philosophy of the image and its production/consumption.
Anyway, I saw this on Facebook yesterday (thank you whoever reposted it from Ripple Music's page). It's an x-ray record from the Soviet Union.
The basic story is this (from Ripple Music's Facebook page)
'Probably the most unusual record in my collection! In post WWII Russia, Stalin banned the possession of any western music. All records allowed in the country had to be of Russian composers. But there was an underground hungry for Western popular music—everything from jazz and blues to rock & roll. But smuggling vinyl was dangerous, and acquiring the scarce material to make copies of those records that did make it into the country was expensive and very risky.
An ingenuous solution to this problem began to emerge in the form of “bone music," or sometimes called "bones 'n' ribs" music, or simply Ribs.
A young 19 year-old sound engineer Ruslan Bogoslowski in Leningrad changed the game when he created a device to bootleg western albums so he could distribute them across Russia. Problem was he couldn't find material to bootleg his pressings onto, vinyl was scare as were all petroleum products after the war. Then, one day he stumbled upon a pile of discarded X-rays. It worked. At the time, Russian law mandated that all X-rays had to be destroyed after 1 year of storage because they were flammable so he dug through trash bins and paid off orderlies for x-rays and for 20 years he handmade about 1,000,000 bootlegs onto X-ray film of everything from classical to the Beach Boys, eventually spending five years imprisoned in Siberia for this rebellion.
For over 20 years, Bone Music was the only way Russian music lovers could get western music, which they played at "music and coffee parties" in their kitchens, away from the KGB ears and eyes.
So I had to find one. This is a 78 rpm recording of the Indian Song "Awaara" by Raj Kapoor on an exposed Chest X-ray. Probably around 1951. Each Rib, was handmade, and one of a kind.
Bone Music. A testament to the underground courage to subvert authority, rebellion, and the love of music. The spirit of rock n roll'
You can see more images of bone music at x-ray audio who have a book out.
Even better, you can see the albums, and hear the music.
So this one is Heartbreak Hotel
And this one is Awaarahoon (recorded onto engineering film)
That's from the Hindi film, Awaara, starring Raj Kapoor. That's him top left in the picture below. Hindi Cinema was huge in the Soviet Union, its themes of romance, victory for the underdog and flights from reality finding a ready audience. In 1954, after the death of Stalin, the Soviet Union hosted its first Indian film festival where films like the neo-realist Do Bigha Zamin sold out to audiences hungry for entertainment.
Awaara had an audience of over 63 million in the Soviet Union, Shri 420 (Gospodin 420!) and Love in Simla reached similar audiences as 'Indian melodramas' (indiiskie melodramy) satisfied the post-Stalin thirst for mass audience cinema thanks in part to film exchange arrangements between the Soviet Union and India - with India always driving a hard bargain in the exchanges, but the Soviets always getting the best of the deal and by far the biggest audience - nobody watched Soviet movies in India.
Indian films were dubbed into Russian and edited to a maximum of 2 1/2 hours (Sholay was edited down to 2 hours), but still brought in the highest revenues in Soviet cinema.
Indian films would also be used to doctor statistics for Soviet films. One cinema with two films to show, Sita for Gita and Lenin in Poland, showed Lenin in Poland in the morning and Sita for Gita in the evening, then swapped the audience figures for the benefit of the state film distributors.
Tuesday, 6 March 2018
My latest photobook review is up on Youtube. It's of The RestorationWill by Mayumi Suzuki, a personal exploration of the post-tsunami family photography that Suzuki found washed up in her father's darkroom, ravaged by the waters that took her parents away.
This is the family album as nostalgia, but this is also the family album as memorial because both her parents died in the tsuanami and that story is told in the book and through the album from Suzuki's final phone call to her parents to the images that show her father's ravaged darkroom.
It's a typically expansive work (and I'm still waiting to get tired of that RPS expansiveness but it hasn't happened yet) but so touching with a degree of resolution found by the end, her parents finding solace in the azure night shimmers of the same waters that took their lives.
The Restoration Will is a descriptive title, and one that speaks of how we construct, or here reconstruct, our families in the image of the images that we have of them, that we find of them, that we retrieve of them, and ultimately that we imagine of them. It's what I did with All Quiet on the Home Front, but with a leaning towards the battered British landscape, it's what I'm doing, in a different way with My German Family Album. It's what we do with images, it's a central function of them. And even when we think we are not doing that, when we reject the nostalgic and the emotional, then that is just another construction - it's all made up, and Suzuki does it beautifully. With feeling. And with touch. And with fragility.
You can buy the book here. It's a special one.
The latest Stories from Home comes courtesy of Stefan Vanthuyne and has an eerie familiarity to it. Find previous Stories here, here and here.
“Are you done, dad?”.
“Are you done, dad?”.
He’s on a beach in France and he wants to climb the rocks and kick the waves.
He’s anxious and because of that he’s not settling into that state where he’s letting it all go and he’s just there; that moment of mere being.
He is ten now. I’ve photographed him many times. It used to be easy. He would be doing something – or nothing, I would see something, I would ask him to hold still.
For a second he would release everything, let his mind drift somewhere, and there it was: a swift picture.
Ask me why I photograph my children and I’ll most likely lose my way in trying to find a sufficient answer.
Of his photographs of his wife Edith, Emmet Gowin said that they established Edith as a person, and them as a couple.
“If you set out to make pictures about love, it can't be done”, Gowin said. “But you can make pictures, and you can be in love. In that way, people sense the authenticity of what you do.”
By photographing my sons, am I establishing them as such? Am I establishing myself as their father?
Do I find authentic proof of my fatherhood in the photographs of my children?
“Da-ad, are you done?!”
He’s too anxious now.
“Yes, I am. I’m done.”
He runs off.
I press the shutter.If you would like to contribute to Stories from the Home Front (word and image), send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, 5 March 2018
Britain's snow psychosis was wonderful while it lasted. It went as quickly as it came, a dreamland meringue landscape turned back into slush and mud, green fields and tarmac.
The wind came in and whipped the snow into drifts that hung on the hedgerows like a stiff-whipped meringue. On Solsbury Hill, the flat surface was blown into an ancient landscape of snow flying over ice covered tufts. Solsbury Hill felt older than it ever felt.
It was like a short holiday, a weekend trip to an other-world where different rules apply, where everyone is a little nicer, more playful, slower, where there are no cars on the road, where the city and rural soundscape becomes muted and audibly soft, a whipped cream soundscape of muffled sounds, of an absence of the mechanical and harsh.
And then it ended...
Friday, 2 March 2018
It has all been terribly exciting here in the UK where temperatures have been below freezing for a few days and there has been quite a lot of snow.
A little bit of snow shuts everything down here, so you can imagine what quite a lot does. The shops have run out of milk and bread, nobody is going to work, the buses and trains have stopped running and there are stories of people stuck on roads and on trains.
The news bulletins are full of it. It's a rolling news cycle of disappointing weather-porn with pictures that fall into basic categories:
- Idyllic snow-covered landscapes from hill country where people are 'used to the snow'
- Aerial images of fields almost covered in snow.
- Disappointing pictures of motorway junctions where the roads are not quite covered in snow.
- A bus skidding on a road
- A car spinning its wheels in the snow
- Live reports of people trapped on motorways.
- Images of abandoned cars.
- Someone digging out their cars.
- and so on....
But the image at the top is my favourite. It's people on a train that was going from London to Christchurch (a journey of a couple of hours). It left at 5pm on Thursday and was still on the tracks at 8am on Friday, with no heating, no food, no water and all the rest of it. The driver of the train hid in his carriage by one account
And that's the picture. It looks like it was taken by an old Nokia. It reminds me of the early days of phone photography, and that's what makes it. It has a post-apocalyptic feel that is accentuated by the rough quality. They are wearing bad hats and even worse fleeces and one guy is wrapped in what looked like a space blanket but might just be a giant piece of clingfilm. The picture is blurred, they have yellow-eye and they are halfway there to being part of a Richard Mosse installation.
They are also just standing there looking for leadership, spaced out and on the verge of anarchy in this strange enclosed space with no light, that looks almost like some kind of salvationary pod rather than the height of technological excellence that is a Southern Rail Train. These are feral people, on the verge of leaping up and thrashing into the viewer in some crazed commuter-zombie feeding frenzy. And the guy in the back with no hat who is smiling? Who knows?
But it's also a look into the future, especially because the only relief from the snow chaos news is Brexit chaos news, which is no relief because it's like a three-year stammer of but-but-but and wtf-wtf-wtf-wtf-wtf and why-why-why and wondering why crazed gunment never get the right people because I have a list if you need one.... And as you watch the snow and the Brexit, they become conflated until the image of the people on the train looks (as Jamie Dormer Durling puts it) like a flash forward to 2019 and this becomes a bunch of English refugees caught in the Channel trying to escape to France.But they've been caught off the coast of Calais and are being returned for reprocessing back into the United Kingdom of Taking-Back-Control.
Tuesday, 27 February 2018
It was quite something to see the fantastic result of Julian Baron's (that's him above) and IC Visual Labs' workshop on the Housing Crisis getting put up at the People's Republic of Stoke's Croft. The final result was conceived, planned, printed and fabricated from the workshop using a variety of archives as well as the ideas of workshop participants.
The results are a kind of Housing Crisis Democracy Wall now up in all their glory on Jamaica Street in Bristol. Go see it if you're in the area.
Friday, 23 February 2018
The series of responses to All Quiet on the Home Front with this lovely contribution from my fellow Bath resident, Jame Arthur Allen, the besotted new father overtaken and overcome by fatherhood. I recognise the sentiments so much.
I’m many things: a Husband, Brother, Friend and most recently a Father. I wouldn’t say I’m a selfish person, single minded maybe, stubborn, a definitive yes. I’m eager to share and I care for those close to me. I’m useless with money, talk too much and obsess over things that to the majority hold no importance or consequence. I have fears that revolve around other people’s and my own perception of success; like everyone else I also have dreams.
Minnie Mae came screaming into the world in early September 2016; it felt like a dream. With her arrival came many things, questions, truths and struggles.
It’s no longer my hopes and dreams I have to contend with, in truth they have become secondary. I chase my aspirations, projects, commitments and work covertly. I steal windows of opportunity for myself, I feel guilt when I go to work leaving my wife to care for Minnie in the full knowledge of how relentlessly hard it is.
I sneak off to make pictures, like an addict the more I withdraw from the previous incarnation of myself the more strongly I feel the need to chase the ghost of two years previous. I have become secondary to the mundane cycle of routine, a facilitator of needs, a constant assuring presence at the centre of Minnie’s Universe. To my daughter I am everything, a sun around which she revolves.
I realise that this seems negative but it’s not. I realise that like all suns my brightness and wonder will slowly diminish in my daughter’s eyes, my importance will fade into the background of her own life. But that’s ok, I know that many before me have trodden the same path and understand what it is like to love something with every fibre of your being. To have something that you would die and kill for with out a moment’s consideration, it’s a shared experience that for many is the very essence of life. My own mortality walks beside me now, my biggest fear is not seeing Minnie be independent and happy; my own preservation and goals are shaped by this. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is life’s most ironic joke.
As a disclaimer I live around the corner from Colin, we share the same landscape and the same lifestyle. We are both photographers and teachers and have spent time discussing fatherhood both before the arrival of Minnie and after. We have a shared experience. All Quiet on the Home Front talks to me in many ways, it’s a road map to fatherhood, and enabled me to articulate my feelings and the changes I have and will tackle in my life. I have shared it with others and all have gleaned sage advice from the pages and images. I see Minnie in Isabel, I see myself in Colin, my phone is full of pictures of Minnie, tokens and totems of fleeting moments that I have now lost, memories that have been replaced by shopping lists and deadlines.
Most importantly the pages let me know that it will be ok. That I am destined to continue striving to realise my dreams whilst managing Minnies’. Perhaps most reassuringly the pages communicate that the present will pass and I will change, that I will one day face my own mortality but it’s not yet.
We have far to many adventures to have before then.
Other Stories from the Home Front:
#1 Emilie Lauwers
#2 Benedetta Casagrandre
Wednesday, 21 February 2018
illustration of women playing street football, Harper's Bazaar, 1869
Continuing on a literary theme from yesterday's post (and to procrastinate me away from the looming presence of marking hell) it was interesting to read that there was a decline in woman authors in English literature from the 19th century through to the 1950. The authors of the report
'...found “a fairly stunning decline” in the number of books written by women in the first half of the 20th century, writing that “the proportion of fiction actually written by women … drops by half (from roughly 50% of titles to roughly 25%) as we move from 1850 to 1950.”
With this decline comes a decrease in the representation of women characters, with women characters constituting around 25% of women characters compared to 75% of men. Kate Mosse connects all this to Victorian domestic mythologies and the hierarchy of literary criticism
The decline in women writing is part of the reason for the drop in women characters. According to the academics’ analysis, in books by men, women occupy on average just a quarter to a third of the character-space. In books by women, “the division is much closer to equal”. The analysis finds: “This gap between the genders is depressingly stable across 200 years.”
Kate Mosse, the bestselling historical novelist and founder of the Women’s prize for fiction, said that she was not surprised by the results. “When we were setting up the prize, we discovered that when a book by a woman won a prize, it was more likely to have a male protagonist,” she said. “This huge piece of research backs that up.”
Mosse pointed to “a sea change from the Enlightenment through to Victorian values, so women are freer in the time of Jane Austen or Mary Shelley or Ann Radcliffe, but then Victorian values – the idea of the angel in the home – take over. And then criticism becomes a discipline. It’s a male discipline, and it’s therefore not surprising to me that women as writers lose their positions, because it’s men writing about male writers, and it starts to inch out women. You see this in history, and in music – it’s equal, and then when criticism starts to become important, women’s contributions are undervalued.”
The suggestion is that the marginalisation of women in novels and the elevation of the male is an institutionalised affair. It's something you can see across the board. In film you have the simple measurement of the Bechdel test that shows how marginal women are in Hollywood film, while even in things that are supposed to be definitively male such as football, the marginalisation of women's role was institutionalised by the Football Association in the UK. Before the FA banned women from playing football in 1921 (FIFA lifted the ban in 1971), Before this, women played in front of crowds of tens of thousand in the UK and there was a flourishing visual and news culture - which is why a museum of women's football is being opened. The illustration up top is part of this museum and is a startling reminder how something can be so easily wiped from our collective history, and how easily we take part in this erasure.
Oh yes, photography. It's difficult to quantify the representation of women in photography because photography is far more functional and diverse than literary fiction or cinema. But many many women are looking at the photography of specific artists, questioning it and are marking photographers off as excessively male in the collectively toxic sense Mosse hints at and Churchwell wrote about in this great piece on Mailer, Updike and Roth. There is that perception of the macho man-photographer-beast recreating a manworld in his image in all kinds of sub-sects of photography - and then replicating that world view in the lists they create, the artists they promote, the attitudes they present. I don't know if it's always fair or not, but it's there in a big way. People might not write about it, but they talk about it all the time. Writing about it is still difficult.
I think the most interesting and useful analysis of representation of gender is the high street test where you walk down the High Street and see what is on offer. Because that is the photography that everybody sees, all the time. Photobooks, exhibitions and special interest photography such as is dealt with on this blog and in all the usual places is far more marginal. It doesn't really matter in terms of mass visual effect.
But I'm still waiting for somebody to do the Bechdel test for photography - you know, the one where it doesn't count if they're naked, tied up or have a chocolate box invitation face. You could apply it to photobook histories (Volume 1 of Parr and Badger), genres such as photojournalism World Press Photo ( specific sub-genres (Provoke) or even specific artists. Hold on - I'll do Robert Frank.
I just did The Americans and in my unscientific and unreliable methodology around 32 pictures are specifically male centred and 22 are more female centred, with none of those pictures falling into some kind of Bechdel disallowing category. Despite the imbalance, the seeking out and inclusion of women and the worlds in which they live shows that Frank was thinking of these things back in the 1950s. How far have we progressed now?
Tuesday, 20 February 2018
If you're lucky enough to be in Bristol this weekend (Friday 23rd, 24th, 25th February) a couple of spaces have become available on Julian Baron's The Cage: Visualising The Housing Crisis workshop.
This is a super hands-on workshop where you'll be researching images, making images, and fabricating images all within the context of housing and its discontents. It's about overpriced rents, multi-occupancy housing, buy-to-let, sofa surfing, trust funds, hedge funds, second homes, holiday homes, empty homes, crowded homes, the homeless, the speculator, the carpet-bagger, the property developer, the estate agent, the housing pimp, the London downsizer and the overseas hedge-better. It's about the end of social housing and the boom in the bedsit economy. It's about family albums, real estate photography, planning images, facadism, housing advocacy, Grand Designs , Shelter, and a Place in the Sun. It's Costa del Sol Ghost Towns and English gentrification, it's about the pricing out of Cornwall and foreign ownership, and whatever else you want it to be. It's about quite a lot then. And it matters to everybody.
It's a workshop that is about the archive, about community, about exhibiting and publishing work that has meaning, content and is about something that is of concern to everybody. And it's experimental and has a certain energy. There will be stuff going on.
So if you're interested in the archive, in community and in collaborative site-specific installation about something that really matters, this is the one for you.
Who can say no to that!
Also see Julian talking at the 'Arnolfini in Bristol this Thursday. Buy your tickets here.
Image from Gas Light - Photograph: Allstar/MGM/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar
I feel a bit bad for World Press Photo because they do try hard and they actually listen to criticism and put policies in place that try to address various issues from representation by women, to global workshops to address regional disparities to putting into place policies against sexual harassment at a stage when other organisations were still ignoring the problem even when they knew it existed. That is really unusual.
it's not a good final six this year though which is down to the judges. But I think I might be repeating myself if i write about it again this year, so I'll just cut and paste my post from last year. Change a few names in your head, add something about the six pictures selected as finalists and the limited generic spectacle (as opposed to the non-generic spectacle - there's a big difference) and there you have it.... if you have anything you disagree with or want to add, change that in your head as well. And there's your WPP post for this year. It's the same as last year's
Just one thing though. World Press Photo is a competition so it should be judged on that. If you want to criticise the photojournalism, you really have to go to the original source to do that and look at the context of the publication in which the images appear. Then you have to be reading the magazines and the newspapers in which these stories appear which makes things so much more complex and interesting because then text comes into it, design comes into it, editorial policy and the political stance of the publication comes into it, advertising comes into it, everything comes into it. That is also the case for multimedia pieces, film, anything.That's what makes it interesting. .
This article by Sarah Churchwell on literature and toxic masculinity was published last weekend. She nails Mailer, Updike and others quite savagely and with an enjoyably angry pleasure I think, labelling their writing as literary gaslighting. It's obvious and sometimes the best articles are obvious. And she backs up the obviousness with a series of extracts which scream self-obsessed misogynist right back at you. Here's a few selected extracts
“I slapped her glazed butternut ass, with its infantile puckered aperture, so decisively that she tumbled onto her back” in Toward the End of Time (1997)
Updike was particularly fond of the long-standing pornographic trope in which women are awestruck when they see “naked, stiff and erect, that wonderful machine”
in Updike’s 2008 The Widows of Eastwick, a woman looks at two naked men and finds them “so beautiful and monstrous, these glossy erect pricks”, that she just “had to take them into her mouth”
At other times the widows sit around thinking about “their nether parts, hairy and odorous and for many Christian centuries unspeakable”, as you do.
When Kate Millett called Mailer a “prisoner of the cult of virility”, he responded with The Prisoner of Sex (1970), in which he revealed that he once called his penis “The Avenger”, but had renamed it “Retaliator” – just another penis with a thesaurus.
The other thing these extracts also scream is that if people are coming up with this dreck, if this is their way of thinking, then the stories might be a little bit lacking. If they are leaving out over 50% of the population because of a penis-fixation, without recognising that, then, well, the stories are a bit deluded and living in a kind of fantasy land.
Churchwell is also questioning the idea of the author as literary seer, the masculine model of the heroic (male) writer whose brutal honesty will bring you to some truth. It's a model that has its equivalent in post-war American art in particular, but I wonder if there isn't the equivalent in photography, or at least one equivalent in photography with the myth of the postwar heroic Concerned Photographer with its destructive emphasis on the power of the individual rather than the communal. The idea that the photographer can change things, or is some kind of activist who provides a window on the world that is a catalyst for change is an enduring one that doesn't just limit the subject matter to a male-centred world but also creates a dysfunctional and dishonest image of what a photographer is or can be.
You can see this all the time right now (Concerned and committed photography is coming back in fashion) and I rather do think that yes there is great work, but at the same time humble yourself photographer, you're not that wise, and your pictures aren't that world-changing however much you screw up your eyes, and what one hand giveth with the changing the world for the better, the other hand taketh away. I wonder if the whole Photographer-as-Saviour myth isn't Photography's Toxic Masculinity. Or one of its toxic masculinities. Because there's more than one. Obviously. Duh.
Anyway, this is what I wrote from last year. Adjust in your head where necessary to fit your own world view. No correspondence will be entered into and the judge's decision (that's me. Start your own blog if you want to be a judge) is final!
World Press Photo and the Taste of Photography
I buy newspapers every day. When I look at the pictures in a newspaper I want to be informed, moved, entertained, shocked and thrilled. I want to see pictures that sell newspapers which might sound crass but it's the case that pictures are emotional things, pretend as we might that they are not. On the whole, I don't want to see banal photographs (because they are banal. Which is a step away from boring), or photographs about in-between-places or data or algorthims. I don't want to see pages of conceptual landscape photography or typologies or trawls through the archive. They are not, as I sit on the 7.36 train to Bristol what I want from images. I want pictures that are direct, obvious, illustrative and part of a bigger wider world.
They are one of the things I want from photography. And it's not the same as what I want if I buy a photobook or go to an exhibition or visit a website. If I buy a photobook I don't want to see the same kind of pictures that I see in a newspaper. The same as when I go to an exhibition.
It's the same with books. I might be perfectly happy to read Primo Levi or Doestyevsky or whoever in the peace of my home when my brain is strong and muscular, but it's not what I want at the crack of dawn when my brain is weak and limp-neuroned. In the same way that I don't want to read English news on a Greek beach, I'd much rather have Patricia Highsmith or Raymond Chandler.
There are different kinds of writing for different situations and for different moods, locations and mental states. And there are different kinds of photography that fit for different occasions in other words. They serve different functions, different needs, different people...
Press photography is one of those kinds. But you can tick them off; fashion, advertising, documentary, wildlife, wedding, commercial, pornography, forensic, crime, medical, dental, passport, identification and on it goes.
There are many forms of writing, or film, or music. And we categorise these forms and we judge them. But sometimes we should be aware of our judging. We get a bit partisan about it and we can get snobby, especially when you enter the joyless discourse of sobriety that marks off much of the critical photography world. You have to talk with a certain tone. It's a tone you'd like to slap if it were a face.
It's like when people were only allowed to like one type of music to the exclusion of everything else. Photography can be a bit like that - you're only allowed to like whatever the photographic equivalent of Kraftwerk is. Maybe you can have some Steve Reich in there. Philip Glass would be too flamboyant. Whoop-de-doo!
I remember when I first got interested in photography. My taste followed a fairly familiar kind of trajectory.
It started with travel photography (because that's what I did), moved up to National Geographic, went on to World Press Photo, extended to Magnum and classic concerned photography, then that got me interested in Photobooks, then I learned something about Japanese photography, everything became a bit more autobiographical, a touch of the vernacular came in, so did the archive then things moved on to more multi-media visual representations with the trend being the move away from the actual image to everything that surrounded it. What's interesting is that as you move along this developmental trajectory, the numbers get smaller - how many people are actually interested in this kind of photography, how many people look at it, how many people buy it.
It's a trail followed by many people (but not everybody - what's your visual trail). People won't always admit it because they're is a hierarchy of taste in there and it roughly corresponds to the scale above. What's important in that scale is that there is a move away from photography, the purity (??) of the image, which can be regarded as the essential stupidity of the image - it's point and shoot.
As you go up the scale there's a distance from photography then and people sometimes imagine this distance is a mark of sophistication. It becomes less about the image and more about everything that surrounds the image. That's why so many people involved in photography really don't like photography. They don't even like looking for heaven's sake. I'm not sure I should pay any attention to somebody who doesn't like looking. It would be like buying a cookbook from somebody who doesn't like food. It doesn't make any sense.
Anyway, back to whatever it was I was talking about. So on these terms National Geographic is kind of low brow, Martin Parr is low middle-brow (and proud of it), Magnum is Middle Brow and Wolfgang Tilmans is high-brow but the low end of it (the hierarchies also tie in to economic, social and cultural hierarchies).
Photography is a taste culture then. And sometimes we are so narcissistic that we mistake our taste for some kind of absolute, or we mistake the dearth of people who share our taste for some kind of mark of sophistication. Or we mistake the evolution of our taste as symptomatic of a hierarchy, maybe because the idea of hierarchies are embedded in the evolutionary. I think that is because the photography world we talkative ones inhabit (academic, photobooks, documentary) is very small - we would rather be big fishes in small ponds then allow the vastness of the photographic universe to pollute the quasi-Brahminic rituals of our sphere of influence. And so we shut it out by creating artificial barriers.
Of course, we get work that crosses those barriers, that can make the leap from one taste-strata to another. We do have half an eye on the economic and social realities of the photographic world so work with elements of crime, or sex, or drugs, or youth culture can leap across boundaries; Weegee, Metinides, Brodie, spring to mind. And as mentioned above, we all like a bit of cash and glamour on the sly, so some genre-slipping is as much to do with the veneer of the work as with the content.
I think this is what happens with World Press Photo every year. It's a competition for press photos. These are pictures that fit into a particular genre and serve specific needs, including being beautiful, spectacular and impactful.
The winner this year, Burhan Ozbilici's picture of Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş murder of Andrey Karlov fits into all those categories. It's a difficult picture because, like many of the other World Press Photo Winners, it shows somebody who has died. Unlike most of these pictures, it also shows the killer. And he is a killer.
He's a killer who wants to be photographed. Let him be photographed. He wants to be written about. Let him be written about. Ultimately he will be judged for what he is; a murderer. For all the style and glamour and posing of the image, that is what will stick.
Because if we don't allow this death to be shown, then what death do we show. Disasters of war, memento mori, sharpshooters, lynchings, holocausts, murders, assassinations, executions, car crashes, falls, remains, corpses, cremations, post-mortems... pictures that witness, provide evidence, glorify, honour, memorialise, remember, warn, prosecute, celebrate... I'm not sure what can be shown and what can't be shown. And then if it can't be shown, it can't be written about or talked about or spoken of and we end up with a world that is fundamentally dishonest and in denial of what it is to be human.
Maybe also we overestimate the influence of photography, especially our kind of photography. Photography didn't end the Vietnam War, it didn't begin it. Photography didn't end any war. There are far more vivid and dramatic and heroifying images and clips of murders circulating online (Lina Hashim's work deals with this for instance) that do influence people and opinion, that do glorify murder and death - and they don't come from photojournalists or documentary photographers. And if you think about the images that have had a major effect on the lives of people, what kind of pictures are they? Who took the Marlboro Man pictures? How many deaths did they lead to? If they did lead to any? And who took all the countless anti-smoking photographs around the world. Which qualitatively have been determined to have led millions of people to stop smoking. And so, it could be argued, have saved thousands of lives.
In the UK, death is always hidden. We don't show the bodies and we don't show the killers - who is building those drones, who is pressing those buttons. This is a case where the killer is shown. Does it glamourise him, does it promote his cause? I don't think so. It's a great picture and fully deserves its award. It's photojournalism at its best.