Friday, 22 May 2015

Craig Easton: "You want me to send you a picture so you can rip it to shreds on your blog?"

Sometime last year I wrote a couple of posts about the vast numbers of pictures we see and instantly forget.I called this visual detritus photographic musak and how few pictures we remember. I was focussing on the commercial dreck you see, but  it should be made clear there is a photobook version of it too, and a gallery version - you know, the stuff you try hard to like and are supposed to be interested in, but which just gets you nodding off whenever you look at it. Sometimes when something looks boring it is because it is boring. It doesn't became less boring because it is a serious photograph, in fact that might make it more boring. Please  if you see something boring, say it how it is. It's boring.

And similarly if something seems trite, it is probably because it is trite. It doesn't matter how pretty and well-lit and beautifully printed it is, it is trite. Please, if you see something trite, say it how it is. It's trite.

And every so often you get pictures like the one above that somehow stick in your craw like a splinter of a bone from a Morrison's Basics pack of chicken legs and thighs. It leaves you spluttering into your morning tea, chucking up your cornflakes and puffing out your cheeks like an unreconstructed Colonel Blimp.

That's what this Heathrow ad did to me. I saw it in the Independent and was outraged (this was one of those times when I was in the mood to be easily outraged. It comes and goes). The picture is of the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. It's my favourite bridge in the world. I used to live very close to it, I used to walk over it and drop stones into the river below and, in the days before they put a fence up to stop people throwing themselves in (not always successfully - here's a tragic tale from earlier this week), watch make tiny splashes as they hit the mud below. I never tired of that.

I walked over that bridge and got the best city view in Britain, in one of the most stunning natural settings. And I'd go down Nightingale Valley and walk under it and marvel at the spectacle of forest, cliff, forest and the mud of the River Avon.

And whenever anyone came to visit, I'd inflict the bridge on them and tell them all about how it was built,  the competition to design it, the ridiculous designs that didn't get built, Brunel's winning design, the delays in its construction and the gory technicalities of how you die when you jump from the bridge.

I still go there on a regular basis when I visit Bristol. In the summers, I'll take in the views from the terrace of the Avon Gorge Hotel (where Cary Grant used to stay when he visited his mum in Bristol), and if anyone from out of town comes, That's one of the classic tourist views and it's gorgeous. You see the bridge at its level with the trees of Leigh Woods in the background.

Another classic tourist view of the bridge is from the lookout point at the end of the harbour. Here you are at ground level and  you get the bridge in the middle with Leigh Woods on the left and the Georgian/Regency architecture of clifton Village rising on the right. You can almost see Martin Parr's house in this view.

And there's another phenomenal  tourist view just above the bridge. It's the one where you look down and get South Bristol (home of Photobook Bristol) sinking into the background,

That's pretty much the spot where this picture is supposed to look like it was taken from, but it's not quite right. That's why I coughed, choked and spluttered and got into all of a tizzy when I first saw it. Where's the fence, where are the bushes, why have different pictures been spliced together, what's with the lighting, why is there an oversized paper plane, and who the fuck is Paul Brown and what do I care.

. I was befuddled by some notion of visual accuracy mixing with my infantile romanticised vision of the bridge. There was a clash that could not be resolved. In a similar infantile manner, I wanted my photography to be true and here was this advertisement that was a lie. All of a sudden what was real mattered.

And that's why I remembered the picture. It struck a chord. And that's what it was supposed to do (though maybe not quite in that way).

I wanted to blog on it but couldn't find the cutting, probably because I didn't make a cutting. I thought I'd find it on the internet. But I didn't. So I didn't write about it.

Then last week, I went to Liverpool and I met Craig Easton. Craig used to work for the Indepenedent when the Independent was the top UK newspaper for photography. He still does documentary work, but he makes his money from commercial work. So I was chatting to him and the conversation went something like this.

Craig: Yes, I do commercial work mostly.

Me: Great stuff. Who do you work for?

Craig: Oh, Landrover, Barclays. I've just finished a campaign for Heathrow.

Me: Heathrow?

Craig: Yes, we shot landmarks all around the country.

Me: You didn't do that picture of the guy with the paper plane at the Clifton Suspension Bridge did you!

Craig: Yeah, that's one of mine. 

Me: I fucking hate that picture. 

Craig: Oh, that wasn't the reaction that I was really hoping for.

Me; But it's a good thing. At least I remembered it. Can you send me a copy so I can write about it on my blog?

Craig: You want me to send you a picture so you can rip it to shreds on your blog?

Me: Yeah, that's about it. 

Craig: Ok, sure, why not?

Which I think is fantastic!

More images from the campaign here.

Craig Easton's review of Liverpool Look/15

Craig Easton's main site including his ongoing project on Fish Wives

There will be a short rest on the blog as I attend to other matters.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Homes and Gardens for the Age of Austerity

The Gardener by Jan Brykczynski  lovely book about allotments, gardens and the given and found growing spaces of Nairobi, New York, Warsaw and Yerevan. It's about allotments on the edge, most of which aren't quite allotments but are something more makeshift, temporarily seized from the chaos of deserted places.

But The Gardener isn't just about the edges of the city and the creation of mini-plots of agricultural. It's also about how those plots are contained, about the poles, planks and bathtubs that make up the furniture of these plots. It's Homes and Gardens for the Age of Austerity.

The book starts with a picture of a garden in Warsaw, link-chain fencing and a house door marking its boundaries on the left of frame, with an apartment building dominating the right. So the scene is set and we know what we're dealing with.

Next up and we're into Yerevan (perhaps) and a frame for vines rising above a back alley, It's makeshift frame made up of steel piping, scrap wood and offcuts that merge with the barbed wire and telephone cables topography of the sky.

This chaotic lattice work is echoed in further sculptural concoctions; a collapsed grid of pipework from which rise a crop of mange-tout, a fenced off courtyard garden in which the gardener stands (and guards) complete with silver armband, and a deserted plot marked off with rusting bed frames.

There's a bathtub in the middle of this one, and bathtubs are repeatedly seen throughout the book, but then so are the bed frames, oil drums, tyres and old bedsheets.

These are not bijou plots then with $100 taised beds. Sometimes they are chaotic by necessity, sometimes you get the feeling there is an old-school stubborness that consciously resists the idea that a garden is a place for consumption  These are anti-corporate gardens then that stand against the Homebas-ification of the allotment and. They are, for the most part, scrappy affairs which are sometimes carved out of semi-derelict land, made with scrappy seeds that have the ability to grow in even the most hostile of circumstances. These are street plants growing in street places. They're plants from the 1970s and they relish the semi-dereliction of it all. And to partner that semi-dereliction is the junkyard affect of so much of the allotment furniture.

But there are some more tidy places, in New York mostly, and there are plots where the repurposing of the land has gone beyond the simple growing. The book ends with a picture where night is falling. Apartment buildings glowing in the background while in the middle of the frame there is that familiar bathtub. Nothing is growing in it, it's a reservoir. There are drums filled with vegetation, a vine, and a fence made out of sticks. This allotment holder is living the dream! And topping off that dream life is a shack made of white tarpaulin with a glass-fronted door. The lights are on and we can see inside. There's a cooker and a microwave and windows and wires. Is this is a home away from home, or a home that has come home? Which comes first here? The land where the flowers and the food grow, or the dwelling that seems so much more than a simple garden shed? Or do they both exist together, forever and ever, until death do the human race part?

Buy the Book Here

The Gardener won the Syngenta Prize which was awarded by Syngenta. A very nice book, but what about Syngenta? Protestor killings, bee-killing insecticides and amphibian feminising herbicides are just a couple of hotspots you hit when you google their name. 

For all its right-on credentials, I wonder if photography isn't in fact cheap and easy buy

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Retirement of Steve Gerrard: It's like the death of film

While in Liverpool I went to see Steve Gerrard's last game at Anfield. The tears flowed, the emotion was high and Liverpool got hammered by Crystal Palace. But still, it was like the ending of an era, right up there with the death of Gracie Fields or the last appearance of Ena Sharples on Coronation Street. That's the 1970s vibe that Steve Gerrard has.

Anfield didn't have that 1970s feel to it.  It was only Gerrard, running around like a dynamo wormhole that took you back into a place where Jimmy Saville and Gary Glitter were top of the pops, Starsky and Hutch were the height of fashion sophistication and food was something that was fried with salt on it. Times were that good!

It was an era when football was dirty and ignored by politicians. It wasn't even hated yet, it was simply irrelevant.

Going to football in those days was like a 50p psychoanalysis session where the catharsis would come through the despair, the rage, the celebration and the constant stream of abuse. You'd stand there crushed up next to a cast of unwashed characters who would live out the frustrations of the daily lives on the terraces in a myriad of different ways and watch the offside trap, the back pass and the head butt be played out in all their variations by kids from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales and nowhere much else. It was piss-streaming-down-the-back-of-the-stands grim and there was no pleasure involved. The football was terrible too. As terrible as it is now with the added value of players who were eating pies (we didn't have kebabs in the 1970s) and been on the piss the night before.

Pleasure didn't come into it, nor did hospitality or comfort. It was all asbestos, crumbling concrete and watered down bovril. Now it's clean and corporate and it costs £50 to go to a match with security officials eyeballing and pointing at anyone who so much as hints at a bad word. It's more or less safe and more or less enjoyable and far less offensive. You get to sit down and you actually see the football.

I look nostalgically on the old days of decaying stadiums, standing in the pissing rain with the threat of violence ever present, but wonder if actually what looks and sounds like absolute shite was absolute shite.

I was trying to explain this to my family when I got home they asked me exactly in what way it was better. It they had been photographers, I would have said it's the difference between analogue and digital; the 1970s was analogue and now is digital. And for the purposes of this blog post and nothing else, analogue is better. Long live film! It's not the same with digital. Film has soul! Film is real, pixels aren't. Viva film! Fuck digital. Money grubbing digital bastards!

That kind of thing.

But they're not photographers so the best I could do was say that football in the 1970s was like Catweazle compared to a 21st century boxed set. Catweazle is a 1970s TV show which involves a wizard who travels from the 11th century to an England where there are televisions, tractors and telephones - which he mistakes for magic. It's rough and ready but it has a heart and soul and a sense of place and a time. It's Stevie Gerrard.

As opposed to something contemporary like Breaking Bad, a programme that is very well-made, but so unfeasibly plotted (why didn't someone just kill Walt and put us out of our misery in Series 1) with so many unlikeable characters that it should be remembered only for the hat worn by Walter White, a hat that only Bono beats in the hat stupidity awards.

In footballing terms, Breaking Bad is Ronaldo, on the surface full of power, skills and vision, but as a human ultimately shallow and without a soul.

But Catweazle. Ah... A wizard who arrives in the future in a dew pond (something Jem Southam photographed). What could be more perfect than that? So even if the 1970s were rubbish, chaotic and makeshift they touched something that the scheduled to the minute, inoffensive, corporate-skinned present never gets near.

Catweazle arrives in the future in a dew pond

Picture: Jem Southam

Join the Catweazle Fan Club here. There's a Catweazle Fan Club! Wow! No, I didn't put the link up but if you really want to you'll find it yourself.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Liverpool Look/15: Don't Take Boring Pictures

There is some really great work on show in Liverpool at Look/15 Festival. Most important historically is Alice Seeley Harris's pictures from the Congo. These are a benchmark of early campaigning photography that show the brutalities of  a region that was effectively turned into a private slave labour camp for the King of Belgium.

This is what is says on the website of the  International Slavery Museum , the place where the show is being held.

Alice Seeley Harris' photographs revealed to the world the shocking truth of exploitation, murder and slavery in the Congo. The campaign gained public and political attention through the Harris Lantern Slide Show that toured Europe and the US. These shows were accompanied with powerful narrations which attempted to stir the audiences' sense of duty and responsibility, and can be seen as a significant milestone in shifting public perceptions on the impact of colonial rule in the Congo.  

Seeley Harris used one of the world’s first portable cameras, a Kodak Brownie, to take images of both Congolese life as well as 'atrocity photographs' used in one if the first human rights campaigns. In 1905, Mark Twain published King Leopold's Soliloquy, an imagined set of musings in which Leopold cited the "incorruptible Kodak" camera as the only witness he had encountered in his long career that he could not bribe. 

From the International Slavery Museum, it was a short walk to Open Eye where Richard Ross's Juvenile In Justice project showed pictures of  the imprisonment of children in the USA was a breath-taking reminder of the power of documentary that tells a story in the most direct manner possible. Sometimes you wonder if the most noticeable effect of the conceptualisation of photography is to remind us of the essential pointlessness and impotence of that conceptualisation. Rather than circling around an issue introspectivelywondering at the process, the promulgation and the involvement of self in the story, Russell gets to the heart of the matter with very simple pictures that combine with short captions that are heartbreaking in their peeling back the heartbreak, sorrow and fear that children, parents (and prison guards) experience in the American Justice system.

There were so many sad stories in there, but the one I remember most was that of a child who was sitting in a holding cell waiting for his mother to get him out, but she couldn't leave her job for fear of losing it. So he had to sit and wait

picture by Richard Ross

I’m waiting for my mom to come get me. Is she in there? She’s at work today. I want to go home. I got in trouble at school today. —R.T., age 10 Jan Evans Juvenile Justice Center, Reno, Nevada. R.T. was brought in from school by a policeman. He stabbed a schoolmate, but it is unclear what the tool was, a pencil, knife, fork . . . He was waiting to be picked up by his mom, who couldn’t come get him until she got off work for fear of losing her job. He was checked on every five minutes. The director of the facility recalled an eight-year-old being brought in for taking a bagel and stated, “This is not the place for these offenses.”

Look 15 does have a theme. Actually it has 3 themes and they are big ones; Women, Migration and Memory. That's two themes too many, but even with the three themes it's difficult to see where the Ross fits. Maybe it would be better just to have Look as an unthemed 'Month of Photography' kind of event, or make a choice and have a real focus and curate it that way. Because otherwise you're left guessing how things fit together, when actually they don't fit together at all. 

The big show in town is Martin Parr and Tony Ray Jones in Only in England at the Walker Art Gallery. It's familiar work but great to see the beautiful, beautiful prints and the link between the history of the British holiday and American street photography. 

And of course you get the great Tony Ray-Jones Photography Checklist and its top tip, Don't Take Boring Pictures. 

Indeed! Which brings us to the last and best of Liverpool Look/15, Max Pinckers' Will They Sing like Raindrops or Leave me Thirsty at St George's Hall. Now I'm biased with this because I love the book and Tadhg Devlin, who curated the show on a really small budget is a good friend. 

But really! Max Pinckers doesn't take boring pictures. Well, he probably does take loads of them, but they're not the ones we get to see. We get to see exciting pictures of horses, lovers, the city and the sea.

If you're not familiar with Max Pinckers' work, here's my review of the book from which the show came. But even though I love the book, it was fantastic to see the prints blown up close to the size they deserve and wonderfully printed by Steve McCoy. The show was a mix of the simple and the complex - simple because it told the story of the book in a pared down, economical manner with an emphasis on the visual grandeur of Pinckers' staged documentary, but complex because of the range of print sizes, papers and pairings. 

The only shame was the show was barely signposted so only the most dedicated viewer is going to find it. The lack of signposting was a bit of an issue this year (and a real contrast to Format where there were signs and lovely people always available to point the way). And though it was great for Liverpool to host Pinckers' first UK show, he really deserves a couple of floors somewhere with fabulous light and brilliant signposting and food, music and dance to complete the Bollywood fantasy/reality theming. It will happen but I'm surprised it hasn't happened yet. 

Thursday, 14 May 2015

You're paying for the price tag

I remember a long time ago studying philosophy and aesthetics and juggling the precepts of beauty, form and ethics around till my arms were all ahither and my brain was all athither and I didn't know what to do.

Maybe instead of considering the making, showing and selling and affecting of art, I should have thought about the conditions whereby something stops becoming an art work.

The other day Picasso's Women of Algiers sold at Christie's for $160 million, and event in which the painting became something quite divorced from any meaning its original production, showing and affect might have had. The painting in effect become a tag on the pricetag, the pricetag the main event.

The pricetag is the art work and at best the painting is just a bit player in some grand art market performance in whatever private home, office or museum in which the painting is shown. It's a corporate fetish at best, the art equivalent of an LV suitcase or a noughties bottle of Cristal, something over which the new owners and their guests can gratify themselves in a self-congratulatory, transitioning to bewildered and ultimately degrading way (see picture above for how this ends).

It's the Sotheby Effect, which is the opposite of the Midas Touch, inasmuch as the top end of the art market turns gold to muck. That price tag is an act of vandalism on the works of Picasso and its preservation in the world of the super rich is a symbolic sterilising of the real political values that Picasso held that were expressed through his art.

Everything that gives the work potency is stripped once it enters the world of those that reserve their caring and compassion for works of art as entities in and of themselves, yet somehow lose that caring and compassion for people who are living and breathing examples of real flesh and blood.

But there sitting in the middle between the painting and the buyers are the poor auctioneers. Or the poor gallerists. They are aware of where the work came from and the ideals and the thought that has gone into it but they are also all acting as a kind of decompression zone before the art work is blasted into the hyperspace world of those rich enough to afford expensive art, most of whom beneath the liberal veneer are deeply conservative in outlook and/or action.

It's a dilemma most artists would love to have, but one that really bites when a) the artist is still alive and has never received anywhere near the financial rewards one might expect and b) when it is apparent that there is no real interest in the artist and their work. It really is the price tag that matters. Gerhard Richter wrote about this in connection with the sale of one of his works for £30 million, and his bewilderment with a market where price is all that matters.

“It is really quite alarming, particularly when you take a look at the catalogues. They always send them to me and they get worse and worse. You cannot imagine what rubbish is offered, at prices that are rising all the time,” he said. He said that both “serious galleries” and young artists were suffering as a result.
“Many of the young artists go straight to auctions in order to earn the big bucks. So in contrast to the past artists cannot develop slowly. And the business is getting more anonymous. In the end it just comes down to the price.”

It's a dilemma most gallerists have. It's always surprising how affectionate gallerists are to those patrons who really love and care about their art (as Richter is to those collectors who have a passion for their art). It's like watching professional hobbyists meet, albeit with a financial arrangement added. But then you get the ones who collect for collecting's sake, for whom a piece of art is basically the equivalent of a Baby Bentley on a reception room wall. How can you sell work to people you essentially despise. And I know a gallerists that do despise their clients, or some of their clients. It is a delight watching politically minded gallerists wriggle with the contradictions of their job. But it's a job isn't it and and having the ability to carry on while pretending there isn't a smell is not such a rare skill - if you work in a restaurant, a supermarket, a bookshop, a school you do the same thing on a daily basis.

But where else does this decompression occur. I guess in publications too. They're essentially vehicles for advertising with contradictions that are quite transparent in the regular juxtaposition of diametrically opposed advertising and content. Or they are publications where the art and photography acts as a liberal counter-balance to the reactionary content. If you're in advertising you pretend the other side doesn't exist and if you're in editorial you pretend the advertising doesn't exist. And if you're a writer, well you're just in La-La land anyway so what does it matter. It's a convenient arrangement.

What is the upshot of all this. Well earlier this week, Lewis Bush lamented the disastrous election result in Britain (unless you're  either a bit simple, or wealthy and a psychopath, in which case it's a fantastic victory and mine's a treble) but also wondered at the lack of photography that details the great depths of poverty, despair and hypocrisy in the UK at present.

In the past he's also wondered if photography (and by extension the art world and non-commercial galleries) isn't a bit too cosy with financial establishments and what the cost of this cosiness might be if it shapes what is shown in galleries.

One possible cost is the possible the filtering (or censoring) of work by non-commercial galleries. Then there is another cost - you get the feeling we censor ourselves. Instead of relying on gallerists, publishers and auctioneers (chance would be a fine thing) to act as a decompression zone for our politically-minded art, art which in the past really did offend and say fuck you through work that hit the race, gender and economic high notes, we are doing it ourselves. We're castrating our own work because we're afraid of offending those who might offer us a crumb of comfort, a job, a payday. And if we're not afraid of offending, then we're working beneath the radar somewhere so nobody gets to see our work anyway because we're just preaching to the already converted.

And that's why ultimately just about everything is a bit crap and dull and rather missing the point of what is happening in the world around us. Because we're all terrified of losing the money that nobody is paying us but we imagine is our due. It's not. Nobody owes us a living and if you want to earn it then you have to play the game, or one of the games (there are many). Which is far more difficult, and involves far more compromises than one would care to imagine.

But as we've stretched things so far, let's stretch them a little more; there are silver linings. Last year I interviewed Ricardo Cases about the upsurge in Spanish photography. One of the reasons there was so much interesting work coming out of Spain (although not that much that is really vicious) is because all the markets in Spain disappeared, because things were so bad nobody really cared anymore. And because all the markets were gone, there was nobody to offend, nobody to kowtow to, nobody who would give you a job anymore. So people were free to do what they wanted. Whether that will happen here is another matter. Here's hoping that out of all the outrage and fury something concrete will emerge. Hoping...

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The Jigsaw Puzzle of Life

Epehemeris by Benedicte Deramaux is part of the wave of photobooks that wonder at our existence in the world and seek to visually break us down into our constituent parts, maybe as a path to understanding where exactly it is we come from.

There's a quote at the beginning. This time it's from Anais Nin (sorry about the missing accent) and it reads, "We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimenstion, and not in another, unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations."

So the book is a series of layers with black and white, colour, the abstract and the concrete all mixing, not always entirely successfully. It starts with ferns and a hare and a bare-branched tree and goes on to white sheets, cards and a collapsing shed.

A cave, ants feeding on a fly and an anvil follow. So something primal is in the air, something between life and death, something forged. It's life itself and there it is in the clouds, the scan, the moon and the blurred and graininess.

There are rocks and a peach tree and a table with a peach on it. It's a neat and rather too tidy ending to a book that, like the Last Cosmology or Ama Lur (they also have clouds and caves and moons), is a kind of jigsaw puzzle of life with a series of visual clues that invites you to put those pieces together. How you put those pieces together is another matter. I'm not entirely sure I got it right. The life I constructed is probably a cave-dwelling mutant bug-person, all bure-bokeh and Nosferatu nosed. But I did have fun trying. I always have fun trying.

Buy the book here

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Slow Photography: Beyond the Visual Landscape

from Angus Carlyle: The Cave Mouth and the Giant Voice

So we've had slow TV, how about slow photography? Most photography is pretty slow, some of it by accident, and some of it quite intentionally.

    picture by Susan Derges

This November, together with Max Houghton and Jesse Alexander, I'm organising a day of events titled Beyond the Visual Landscape. It's a day of sound and word and image and how they all tie together, a day where we go beyond photography to understand what it is that makes a place look, sound and feel the way it does, and how we can use these ideas to represent the landscape and the way we walk, sense and remember it. It's a day of intentionally slow work taking place in a slow venue filled with slow loveliness.

picture by Paul Gaffney

The line-up is:

Angus Carlyle
Susan Derges
Paul Gaffney
Jem Southam 

Which is a great line-up (and we have additions to make) of thought provoking artists who put the psychological, emotional, biographical and physical at the heart of their work. So put the date in your diary. It's taking place at the Southbank Centre (the spiritual home of Photobook Bristol) on Saturday November 7th. Tickets will be available in July/August.

picture by Jem Southam