Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Shanghai Police Collage Photographer

From the Armstrong collection (Shanghai Municipal Police). 1920
© 2007 Adam Scott Armstrong
HPC ref: Ar03-169, Ar03-166, 165, 160,144,143,143,123,104 (In order of appearance) 

It's always interesting to see how people position themselves, and how they are read as a result of that positioning. The Historical Photographs of China archive, which is based in Bristol is positioned academically.

It's a good position to be in. The archive is made up of a mass of private albums; some personal, some corporate, some work related. Most of them are from British people who worked there in the 19th and early 20th century so it ends up being a record of China under constructiion. You can see Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong rise up over the album pages. The buildings, the transport, are the infrastructure are tracked, as is British power and the use of vernacular photography.

There are also personal stories; the British families who move there, who climb up the colonial ladder as they settle into their new homes. And as they do so you can see the albums become richer and more complex. You see the cameras get fancier and the pictures richer and more varied. And the families change. The domestic cast changes as family wealth increases, as what was a comfortable but not-wealthy family suddenly finds itself living in a mansion with a cast of gardeners, housekeepers and cooks to keep them company. It's a subject worth investigating in itself.

But although it's a great academic resource, it's also a photographic resource. Strangely enough, there's not much crossover between the two, possibly because academia is a closed world and so is photography (as we know it). Both like to keep to themself, neither likes to stray too far outside its comfort zone. I'm not sure why that's the case. Maybe it's not the case, but it certainly seems to be the way things are placed into little boxes which become a particular territory for particular people and woe betide anybody who steps beyond the lines which bound them.

Never mind the little boxes. Both photography and academia are too big to be bound, with enough broad-minded people who will transform fossilised culture. Especially when every now and then, things spring out that are begging for a non-academic treatment, that need a photobook or an installation or a lightbox to do it justice.

This is the case with the Historical Photographs of  China archive. There are so many things that jump out (the families, the bombing series, the construction, the spies) but probably top of the list are the pictures of the Shanghai Police from the Armstrong Collection. They start off recognisably enough, with images of police headquarters and then some rakish pictures of officers.

But keep on going and they start going mad; portraits of villagers cut out and printed against a black background. They look fantastic but you wonder why they were made this way. The pictures are dated 1920 - 1923 so it could be the photographer had some Avant Garde connections in Shanghai, that a bit of collage or constructivism had come his way via the White Russians who flooded to the city during that time. Or was there a German connection? Had the photographer been immersing himself in the Shanghai Dada Club at the time? I think that something like that happened. The pictures and the collaging are really rough (didn't get past Hoch Lesson 1) but they still look fantastic.


Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Chinese Torture

Thanks to the invite or Urs Stahel, I'm looking forward to talking at Platform at Paris Photo this year. I have 10 minutes to talk about something, anything and the ideas are brewing in my head.

It will be a rich and heady mix. But I don't know if whatever it is I will talk about will have the effect I intend it to have. Sometimes things just come out and get a life of their own.

That happens with writing and it happens with photography. I think that's possibly happened a bit with this website (h/t Alex at IC Visual Labs and Visualising China).

The website is called Turandot: Chinese Torture/Supplices Chinois and ostensibly the introduction sums up its purpose.

« Chinese torture » is a cliché. That is the visual representation of a prejudice according to which the Chinese singularize by a particular cruelty. Backed by testimonies and photographs, this representation proliferated in literature, art, theater, cinema, etc. The myth for long survived to the facts it was inspired by, and it goes on distorting our perception of Chinese reality.
To seize this polymorphic representation under all aspects, we constituted an international and interdisciplinary team, including specialists in Chinese history, comparative literature, Western and Chinese iconography, photography, etc. This multilingual data basis is a tool for crossing or approaches, and bridge the gap between our fields. This is a way to diffuse our research works, and provide access to our resources for our colleagues. Materials come with a critical apparatus easing their use for research; hyperlinks allow confrontations between resources of diverse kinds, to find out thei references, to link them according to this or that interpretative hypothesis.

So the site details tortures/cruelties and punishments (with incredible photographs reproduced with awful digital quality) as they existed in the 19th and early 20th century, with the cangue and lingchi particularly notable. Lingchi was a kind of death by dismemberment, similar to hanging, drawing and quartering we had in Europe in various forms.

I'm not sure why the quality of the images is so bad - perhaps it's because even though it has the above brief highlighted above, the people behind the website are also aware exactly how these images will be seen and used.

And of course we could look at these pictures then, and still look at them now and wonder at how cruel and uncivilised and alien the Chinese, Iraqi, Congolese, Israelis, Uzbekis or IS are - which justifies our colonisation and dropping of bombs and dehumanisation.

But it can work both ways and it does work both ways. So just as I can read the news and wonder at the cruelties inflicted on others by a variety of global evil-doers, I can also wonder what the websites are that detail the horrors that our bullets and bombs inflict on others.

These portrayals always tend to be in national or sectarian terms; this is what the Chinese do/did, this is what the Americans do/did, this is what the 'Extremists' (that's what the BBC calls Islamic Doo-Dah) do.

I'm not sure why these cruelties are always classified in these terms. Why not cut to the chase. This is what powerful males with weapons do? That might address the problem. Remove their power and stop giving them weapons. Then we might stop making excuses for the psychopathology of our leaders. And maybe we would have a better world. But that would be too simple wouldn't it.

Read more about Visualising China and the use of torture and punishments in images here. 

And read about the strength and determination of the Chinese here.

Monday, 29 September 2014

No Religious People

I had Battersea Dogs Home come knocking on my door last week. "Do you  like dogs," the two guys in yellow hi-visibility vests asked.

Excuse but fuck off! Battersea is in London and I'm sure it has stacks of cash. I live 100 miles away from Battersea in Bath. Bath has a Cats and Dogs Home. It also has stacks of cash.

But I'm polite so I didn't say fuck off! I kind of scowled and that worked instead. But wouldn't it be nice not to have my day ruined by these kind of people.

But what would work? Darned if I knew. Then we went for a walk with my sister visiting from Ann Arbor yesterday. We went up Solsbury Hill, to Bathampton Weir and a pint at the pub and then back home via the Tin Church on Bailbrook Lane.

And that's where we saw the sign. Perfect.

Friday, 26 September 2014

David Goldblatt and an Early Upskirt

David Goldblatt. 'Woman smoking, Fordsburg, Johannesburg' 1975

I went to see David Goldblatt in conversation with Martin Parr at IC Visual Labs in Bristol last night.

( See more IC Visual Lab events here, and check out  the Propaganda Event at Photobook Bristol here).

It was a fantastic talk, a mix of incredible images, the stories behind them, with some up-skirty shots of women's legs thrown in for good measure. Goldblatt talked about text, image (how do they work together? We're still figuring that one out), his work in the UK for Multistory and paying for images. He didn't pay 20c for the picture above. "Can I photograph your hands?" he asked.  He did photograph her, er, hands, but he didn't pay the the 20c. He didn't take up the woman's offer of a weekend away in Swaziland either. But now he will pay 80 Rand for a portrait; times change and in modern South Africa, payment legitimises photography and provides access.

I really enjoyed that. It made me rethink Goldblatt's work and take it beyond the iconic into something more human, three-dimensional and thoroughly modern. Especially the legs. But (and I'm adding this after the fact), the legs are a digression - his photography of the body goes way, way beyond my lascivious take on the legs pictures. And we saw that in all his other pictures, especially his portrait of Zanele Muholi and her partner. But I like the fact that an icon of anti-apartheid photography can go beyond the saint-photographer discourse. It makes him a better man and a better photographer. And much more interesting.

To end the week here is a quote from Georges Sand (via Laurent Binet and HHhH). It fits Goldblatt's work and it seems to fit the UK right now

'Poor workers or sick people, you must always struggle against those who tell you : "Work hard to live badly"'

The woman worked in a shop in Soweto, 1972.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Cake, Cake and More Cake

In the UK we have a TV programme called The Great British Bake Off. It's presented by Mary Berry (imagine Margaret Thatcher crossed with The Terminator but nice) and Paul Hollywood (housewives favourite, if you're the kind of housewife who likes them not so nice). There are two comedians who run around to no good effect.

And then there are the people who do the baking. They're lovely. And the stuff they make is, on the whole lovely. Last night they did extreme dough; so they made doughnuts and fruit breads. The basic upshot is that you come out of it desperate to bake cakes (or bread or doughnuts). It makes you hungry. And even when the cakes don't turn out right, then you can play one-upmanship and say well I could do better than that. Last night they made a Croatian version of potica, which is something my wife makes for Christmas every year. But hers is far better and truer and all the rest of it than any of the chocolate infested dreck they had on last night.

So you win both ways.

Which brings me to my last family themed book of the week, Lots of Cake by Laura Curran. This is a modest book which looks at her mother and the way she celebrates every festival possible. I like that idea.

So we see snippets from birthdays, Christmases, Halloweens and various fancy dress parties. The pictures are rough, but it has a touch of the KayLynn Deveney's about it with its emphasis on the small details and the contrast of warm interiors with the dreich exteriors.

There are arts and crafts, the painting of banners and the hanging up of bunting. There's dressing up; for Halloween and for other events. There's one where Curran's mother (I think) and two guests stand in leopard skin blouses and shirts. I've always wanted a leopard skin jacket (a gold lame jacket too) so that gave me a twinge of envy.

We see the baking, the recipes and we see the cakes. My favourite is definitely the one with RIP printed on it - is this a Wake Cake (does such a thing exist) or a Halloween Cake. It's a quiet book so though you see the cakes they are part of a broader household celebration, the events that are created by Curran's mother, the events that add so much to the lives of everybody around her.

Buy the Book Here

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Morning Suns and Poetic Pregnancies


Morning Sun by Matej Sitar continues the fatherhood and book theme. But where Reluctant Father and Father Figure used text to take you into personal and cultural corners of fatherhood, Morning Sun takes a more poetic line; it's a love letter from Sitar to his pregnant wife.

There are no words in the book itself, but these are the words on Sitar's website. They set the scene

'What does it mean to become a father for the first time? How will everything change, what will the days look like and what will be the new routine? Well, I can’t tell the answers to any of those questions, at least not now anyhow. 

The intriguing part before going through all of this is the relationship with the partner. The appreciation of her, every point of her body that is constantly changing, but also sta ying the same. Something familiar that is developing. There is also the fear of the un- known. 

I like the changes. I like the look and the feel of it. And the constant reminder that it is her who is important. 

Maja, my love.

So the book begins with a picture of a basketball hoop set against a wooden barn door (which has a cat flap!) and quickly moves on to Maja in the snow, autumn leaves in the golden sun and the shadow of Maja's pregnant belly on the living room wall.


There is forest and rocks and jellyfish washed up on the beach. The words are pretty but there is still that sense of something organic and uncontrolled coming into the picture. Sometimes it's part of nature and a wonder to behold, sometimes it doesn't quite feel that way.


Morning Sun is not a pregnancy timeline but a book that flows with the seasons, the early morning and golden theme heading towards its inevitable end. Maja appears light, heavy and not always delighted with what is happening to her (or possibly the fact that Sitar is taking so many pictures. If I remember right, that doesn't always go down well). Which is what makes the book interesting.


It's that drudgery thing again. Whenever I think of being a father, a mother, or being pregnant, it's the drudgery. I've never been pregnant in my life (duh!) but when I see somebody carrying a baby around in their belly it astounds me. It looks so heavy, such a weight, a load, a sacrifice. And that I guess is what Morning Sun is ultimately about - but put in more poetic terms.

Buy the book here.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Reluctant Father and the Drudgery of Parenthood

Keeping on the father theme, here is The Reluctant Father by Philip Toledano.

The Reluctant Father is a book about reluctant fatherhood. It starts out with Toledano's baby daughter being born. Toledano is both bewildered and resentful. It's not so much that he's gained a child as lost a wife.

The baby, LouLou, screams. That's her emotion of choice, so Toledano gets a picture of the screaming Loulou printed on a plate. When people ask to see a picture of the baby, that's what he shows. Fantastic.

Toledano calls LouLou a 'sea-sponge' and resents the cultural expectation of being constantly delighted by being a father. He doesn't connect.

Except that in the end he does, when she begins to smile (so when she's four weeks old or thereabouts) and do things other than scream. So they all live happily ever after!

I know you're supposed to go warm and soggy when you get the emotional payoff, but I was kind of disappointed when this happened. I wanted the confusion to continue, if not to its natural conclusion, then to something a bit more familiar. It's almost too polarised, the idea that the connection ends the drudgery of being a parent. That's when the drudgery begins.

I have always been a very present father but hold little nostalgia for the relentlessness of having a 3-year-old or six-year-old or 9-year-old in the house. The early mornings, the constant 'playing' and the bedtime reading had their moments but reading and reading again and again and again books such as The Flower Fairy series is a fate that I would happily wish on my worst enemies. Or the playing that is more like performing, or the half mile walk that takes two hours because you have to stop (my mistake, there was no had to about it) to look at every dog, horse, duck and train along the way. Yes, lovely but its time is past thank goodness. For Toledano, that time is just beginning.

Buy the book here.