Thursday, 26 March 2015

Time for a Little Break

A few years back my daughter wrote a little song to celebrate. It went 'Jesus is Dead, Jesus is Dead,Jesus is Alive, Jesus is Alive, an Easter Egg, an Easter Egg!'

Which sums it up really. Yes it's holiday time for the blog. I love chocolate, I love Easter. Looking forward to  the next few weeks, after which I will return.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Drawing Your Daughter's Tombstone

picture by Philip Toledano

Philip Toledano has another book out. It's the story of his sister, Claudia. She died when he was 6. It's a heart-breaking book in which snapshots, notes and personal memorabilia are shown alongside a skyscape of floaty clouds. In the years after Claudia's death, Toledano was obsessed with skies and stars and universes. He doesn't remember those years of grief so in the book these serve as a celestial substitute (think of Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death).

They grief is recalled through boxes of keepsakes he found after his parents died. He shows one of the cardboard boxes and then the pages open to reveal pictures of what's inside; a blue checked school dress, a lock of hair, a picture drawn in felt-tip. "To Mummy and Daddy. Love Claudia," it reads. Coiled within this memorabilia is a tight knot of grief. It's a very small leap to guess what went on over these boxes, the tightened stomach and the spasms of tears. It's there on the page. Now, Toledano is a photographer and a father, so there is a double loss, that he feels as a brother and that he feels as a father. And with time there are more complex resonances. He becomes a different kind of son and feels the echoes of his parents' grief, expressed through emotions that he never quite remembers but he is reliving now through the prism of his new fatherhood. We see a picture his father drew of the headstone  that was to be made for Claudia, and then we see the words Toledano wrote.

"My sweet, gentle father.
What must that have been like?

To draw his own daughter's

The paper is black and complicated and sometimes backed in super-gloss olive-drab. It's the kind of colour you used to get in Airfix kits of Spitfires and Messerschmidts, but I'm sure that's nothing to do with anything. I'm not sure what it's to do with but it doesn't matter. The story comes  through a mixing of image, memory, text and relationship and it reaches out to us in a most direct manner.

Toledano productive and puts it out there using all the means available to him, which might be many. He takes a chance and he tries to get an audience, a big audience. I like that and I think it should be something of a lesson to those of us who delight in our niches.

Not everyone likes his work though. Anouk Kruithof did a blog post earlier in the year along the lines of, so then, there are so many lists of top 10 photobooks, how about a list of a book that you hate. So after doing the books she loved (and it's a great list even if it goes a bit Nathan Barley at times), she did the book she hated. She selected Toledano's Reluctant Father.

I kind of understand what she is getting at, but ultimately the reasons she doesn't like the book are the reasons I do like the book. That might be my taste. I like grand narratives and archetypes. I love Bollywood and anime and Calamity Jane. I am easily moved and I like being moved. And The Reluctant Father does move me. It is a really good attempt to express something that is not often talked about but is a very common sentiment, a male equivalent of the post-natal depression and domestic overload and suppressed infanticide that new mothers so often have. Toledano uses his picture and tells a story quite consciously and to as large an audience as possible. He uses sentiment and he uses emotion and takes us on a journey. And he's quite right to do so. That's what story telling is all about.

Kruithof's post was passed over in silence. Averted eyes and online clearings of the throat gave a "er, yes, well, let's move on from here" feeling to things. Nobody wanted to volunteer their own thoughts, even though there are plenty of people who HATE plenty of books. They just didn't want to say it. They weren't as brave as Kruithof. She had an opinion that asked for more critique and she expressed it.

The truth is photography is full of different worlds; your commercial, your editorial, your fashion, your art, your academic, your photobook and so on. We like to stay cosy in our own photographic orbits. It's all very easy to critique somebody outside your immediate firmanent (that's why saying Jimmy Nelson is crap doesn't count for dickshit!) but somebody who is in the same orbit. That's a difficult thing to do because we don't like to piss on people in our backyard.

And of course these photoworlds overlap all the time, in these little tectonic photo-shifts where one culture comes up against another. Toledano comes from a more commercial world and I quite like the energy of this commercial  world, both for its ability to get things done without agonising about it endlessly, but also for its ability to see beyond the immediacy of itself and its self-awareness that what it does for a living is often actually crap. The cliche of the photographer who makes a good living from photography (that's the mythical commercial photographer) is "the personal work keeps me sane." We all make nonsense at times, but perhaps it's only those who make the most transactional nonsense are honest enough to admit it.

It's a rare thing to get anybody making 'personal work', writing for an academic journal, publishing a self-indulgent photobook or receiving an arts council grant to confess in public, for the record, that "actually, this stuff that I photographed for my latest project is a load of unadulterated dreck! That's why I shoot weddings. It keeps me grounded and stops me being a tosspot." It's a rare thing but it shouldn't be so rare because it is often true. But for people who make work commercially you hear it all the time. From Blumenfeld and down, it's a constant refrain and a recognition of the different photographic strata you need to simultaneously inhabit.

The photo ghettos you get within different photographic genres (are they genres? What are they?) are echoed regionally. In the UK, there are little photo-ghettos in Brighton, South Wales, Birmingham, the Black Country, Belfast, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Bristol, all divided and split between little generic factionettes. Oh, and there's a whole bunch in London. Some are community based, some academic, some photobook, some a bit punk or self-consciously cool, most a bit of a mix of everything. Most of these communities don't have much money, some do. Some are open-minded and welcoming, some are more closed. There's support and communication for the most part, but also a bit of bitchiness, envy and resentment - everywhere.

And that's leaving out the biggest photographic communities, photo clubs and online groups that deal with travel or wildlife or cars or certain kinds of landscape. They are the photography communities, the ones that I rarely deal with in these blog posts, interesting though they undoubtedly are. And there's a reason for that. Which I shouldn't have to go into. I already do this blog to keep me sane from other stuff.

The photobook world is a strange one. In this article, Francis Hodgson (whose writing I always enjoy. He's got opinions and they're not silly) wonders at the photobook world and why certain things are considered photobooky and others aren't (the example of Donovan Wylie may not be the best. I have the impression that Wylie is much more of an white-wall man rather than a book man). Like Kruithof before him,  Hodgson asks where the quality is and by extension where the non-quality is? And why the photobook world is not mass market?

Again there are different photobook worlds, and I suspect that Hodgson is talking about something beyond what goes in the world I like to think I write about. The photobook world is small, but it is open. Anyone can join it, it's quite welcoming. It's quite democratic. Anyone can write about any book they like; a catalogue, a monograph, a collection, a novel illustrated with archive pictures. I know I do.

But making a photobook is also a  very lived-in and a very visible process. It's shared. In a quiet way, it can be a performance. That's what both Toledano and Kruithof understand. Toledano's Days with my Father was a hugely successful  project that went way beyond the photobook world and engaged its viewers both through the publication and the preceding social media version of the project. It was moving and, as with The Reluctant Father and When I was Six, was intended to move. He tells a story and he tells it extraordinarily well.

Kruithof's books are very different. They are a documentation of her socially involved photography. In Untitled, she looked at how we curate pictures, how we look at them. And she got us to look at them by not showing them. She made us slow down in our viewing of the pictures. She addressed their slippiness, but in a sparky, slightly chaotic way, which is at odds with the stereotype of the cool design-obsessessed Dutch. She goes beyond cool. Which I really like.

That's what the best photobooks do. They make us slow down in our viewing of images, they build up ideas and stories and pictures.  Few of them are the ultimate finished article. They are part of a way of using images, words, layout, colour, design, emotion and a hundred other elements essential to telling a story that has at least some kind of visual element. They take chances.

Toledano published his book with Dewi Lewis, with Lewis covering the costs. Kruithof self-publishes most of the time. And that costs money. In the past, she's done the artist's book overlap, so between them they cover most of the photobook gamut from the rough-edged handmade to offset, clothbound, from an edition of  a few hundred to one of a few thousand. Either way, within that gamut everyone can make a photobook (and if you can't reduce the edition to ten or twenty and make it by hand). Everyone can buy a photobook. Everyone can write about a photobook and say it's good or it's bad and why that might be the case. this section has been edited so a few corrections have been put it here

It's a bit punk in other words, but with the proviso that we're not quite at the stage where people in Iowa, the Potteries or Fishponds are hanging around bus stations in charity-shop jackets with Akina or SPBH or Dalpine written on the back. We're not quite at that stage yet.

The photobook world is very open and accessible. It's not a closed world or a self-selecting world in the way other photography environments are. We can't all get access to a fine print, or an archive or even get to the big city to see an earth-shattering show. Not even online. But with photobooks, even online, we can often see what is not at our fingertips. There are people showing the work, writing about the work, selling the work.

It's social in other words. At the lower end of the photobook food chain, people are making an effort to make books. And they are doing it in a community-minded way. It joins up and it's supportive. It's supportive for the simple reason that most of the people making photobooks don't have much money, are doing it independently and they're finding it difficult. They're struggling but they're doing it. That's reason enough to support them.

For the big monographs and the exhibition catalogues there is a different market. They feature as free content in newspapers, magazines and online. They have a far bigger audience than, for example, most of the books featured on this blog or on Photo Eye. And quite right too. More often than not the photography is great and the stories are great and the pictures are great. In a trade kind of way, sniff sniff - (the other side of the whole punk analogy is that there is that fetishisation of small labels, the obscure and it could be incredibly exclusive. And it only lasted a few years and ended up transmogrifying into something awful and then the eighties happened and god help us! Who are the New Romantics of the photobook world. Find them and kill them all before it's too late).

But on this blog, on most blogs or online sites, the books featured are made by people who are self-publishing and self-marketing or publish with small publishers. The books they make are built up through enthusiasm and passion and a large degree of trust. Much of the time these books are shown as works in progress, and the people making them put their work on the line digitally as it is made. And they're selling their books through independent booksellers who are as far away from Amazon as possible. These booksellers do it for love too, and add a real personal touch, and don't make much money from it. But they have some fun, and they get things done.

Embedded in this little photobook world, in the Photo-Eye Lists and the Clubs and the Festivals is this basic truth. There is one side of it where making a photobook isn't just about making great word, it's about taking part in something that is very hands-on, giving and social.

And part of the totality of photobooks is the idea that the whole thing is moving in some direction, that there is a development of ways of working, designing and showing photobooks. When I review a book I try to engage with the thought process behind the photography, the book, the way of seeing, the engagement with family or people or place. Or the materials, or touch or size.

It's part experimental in other words. It's small and it's a preservation of our humanity in a detached and disengaged world. And it's enjoyable.

Not many photobooks are truly great. But the whole photobook phenomenon is something that is great, has impetus and punches way beyond its weight. People enjoy writing about it, debating it. I do, Toledano does, Kruithof does.

So that is why I think Anouk Kruithof never got to much of a response to her idea (despite it being a great idea). And why people are not so critical of the smaller photobooks. Because why bother? When life is tough, you don't have much money but you want to express yourself, what's wrong with that? If you're working hard and trying to stay true to something, and are reaching that some place, however imperfectly, why should you criticise it, why should you try to judge the legacy of something that may not have too much impetus in itself but does as part of something bigger.

I can get annoyed by anything and everyone, including myself. I do so on a daily basis. It's all annoying isn't it. But it's tiresom to be constantly annoyed. I'd far rather be happy. I'd far rather take pleasure in life of photography than constantly find it problematic or troublesome. Fuck that for a game of soldiers!

Mudita is the word for taking pleasure in somebody else's happiness. It's the opposite of Schadenfreude. It's a Buddhist concept which is part of a world view where overall contentment and happiness reigns. It's a word that fits Photobook Land, because it is very positive on the whole. "That's a great book," is a phrase you hear so often. And it's one that makes me happy.

I'm happy so you're happy too.  That's the spirit!

Buy When I was Six Here

Monday, 23 March 2015

Ken Grant: Photography's Poet Laureate

I enjoyed writing this article on Ken Grant for the BJP earlier in the year. In the feature, I describe the process of a Ken Grant crit, the thing where you lay your pictures on the table and Grant gives it the once over.

'You’d bring out an unedited mess of pictures and Grant would start talking in his mellifluous poet’s voice, his thoughts weaving in and out of the pictures, connecting music, literature and photographers to them.'

'He touched on places where life shone, where soul came through, and left the rest alone; it was never about you, or the images, but about the wider world, the quiet moments, what you might do and what you could do. Then you’d leave the room, never quite sure what had happened, but always knowing that what mattered was the meaning and the rhythm and the soul, and that what you could do was what you hadn’t done.'

So if your pictures were rubbish, you'd come out of there with a warm honey-tongued glow of cultural references and multiple possibilities, and a slow burn of a realisation that actually you needed to do something. If your pictures were good, Ken wouldn't say much so you'd feel good about that, but you'd miss out on lyrical endeavours. The pleasures came from the pictures on the table.

It was a zero sum game.

Reading it again made me wonder about other crit styles which had me thinking of the old taxonomy of  Nazi General Stereotypes (the shouty, the austere, the sadistic/pervey, the cultured, and the Rommel model).

I think you could probably fit all those into the photography teaching slot, But what are the other types. A short scientific survey revealed these, among others.  But I'm sure there are many more.

1. The card sharp (shuffle-shuffle how-about-this, shuffle-shuffle how-about-this...)
2. The meat market judge ( no, no, no, no, yes, no, yes, no...)
3. The Ethicist
4. The nit-picker
5. The camera operator
6. The do-what-I-do Crit ("everyone should do what I did")
7. The Empathetic Crit ("what is it you're trying to do?")
8. The you're-not-going-to-make-a-living-from-this-so-what's-the-point
9. The It's Shite and I'm not afraid to say it Crit
10. The My Great Career Crit
11. The Everything's Lovely Crit
12. The X-Factor Crit (can I make them cry?)
13. The Auteur/Whisperer

Friday, 20 March 2015

I could have been Argentinian!

“Before the first war, he worked in Argentina and I think he had quite a good time there but later on when they were married he was offered a job in Buenos Aires and could have gone back and had a good life, but Ama (my grandmother) was too dependent on my mother.”

“My mother was the youngest and they really got on well or my grandmother being a bit controlling, my mother did as she was told. So my grandmother would have found that far too difficult. And my mother probably would not really have settled in too well. I don’t know, but I don’t think she would have wanted to go either.”

I went on Instagram the other week, mainly because I wasn't on Instagram and why not, but also to put a  shape to my German family album pictures and make a coherent story  (which goes from power lines, Siemens and Argentina to a brothel in Nice, a head on a train track and a feature in the Deutsche Algemeine Zeitung on the in-etiquette of Nazi salutes. There's a skein of domesic sadness running through there, White Ribbon meets the Tin Drum but without the boxing gloves or the screaming. But without the story, the pictures become generic. That's interesting in its own right and the generic is always going to be there (it's 1930s Germany!), but how can you take them in a new direction. Should you take them in a new direction. 

It's difficult because, even though I know the stories, as soon as you begin putting words next to the pictures, things start shifting and get a life of their own. And the blurring between different versions of the same story, and the gaps in the stories and the motivations behind the stories are also fascinating in their own right. But how do you fill those gaps, and what does that do to the overall picture. How creative can you be with your story, how much of a life will the pictures get as a result and what kind of a life is the question.

The other reason to go on Instagram is to give myself some kind of deadline. I'm speaking at the Vienna Photobook Festival ( where speakers include William Klein, Olivia Arthur, Michael Mack, Nico Degiorgis and Gerry Badger)  and the theme of my talk is, provisionally The Photobook, Text and Narrative. How exactly do you tell a story with words, how do they connect with pictures, when does the whole add up to more than the part and what are the photobooks that hit that text/image sweet spot. And how do I make everything a bit less wordier than it is now. 

And here's the Photobook Bristol Festival progamme. More on this later.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Mad Dogs, Bad Dogs, Sad Dogs



    John Divola, Dogs Chasing my Car in the Desert, 1996-98

A few weeks back, there was something on the blog about Moriyama's Stray Dog being the best dog picture, to which a few people screamed 'no, it's not, it's Koudelka's black dog', a ravish half-beast, half demon, drooling tail-chasing shadow of a mutt.

The best dog picture might be up for grabs but there is absolutely no doubt about what the best dog series is. It's John Divola's 'Dogs Chasing my Car in the Desert'. These are dog-like-dogs doing what the title says; they chase John Divola's car in the desert. They're horrible dogs, all muscle and teeth and craziness. But they're energetic, literal, of a place and funny. These desert dogs would watch Divola's car drive past on the way in and then get up ready to chase his car on the way out. They knew he wasn't going anywhere, that he was heading into a dead end. They knew he'd be back. Smart and lazy they got their fun where they could find it. And that's written into the pictures; they may be mad-eyed, snarling brutes of a thing, but these dogs are having a good time. All thanks to John Divola.

So it was lovely to read this interview in Saint Lucy yesterday, and to read about the breadth of Divola's practice, The writer Durant says there is '...appropriation, performance, site-specificity, and architectural interventions a la Gordon Matta Clarke, interest in semiotics'. A lot of this work (like the Zuma series where he paints up the interior of a deserted house) resemembles work that could have been made in the last few years, or at least touches on the same interventionist concerns.

And it's work that comes from a moment where there was a liberty in how he made his work; he says, ' I was also in a context where nobody cared; there was nothing at stake. It was very liberating for me, I felt like I had great freedom.'

This freedom is a kind of freedom from the tyranny of seeing too much and hearing too much and reading too much (it's the kind of tyranny that, to paraphrase Soth, comes from sitting at a computer and thinking that everything has been photographed. Get out into the world and that is no longer the case.) Seeing too much can weigh you down, reading too much theory can weigh you down. 'The beauty of photography is that is pulls you not only literally out into the world, but pulls your consciousness into a mode of observation that is really rewarding, almost addicting.' says Divola.

That pulling can be joyful and fun. I think we agonise far too much about photography in all its forms, rather than enjoying it for what it is and relishing that addictive delight in the image, the book, the wall. We spend too much time nit-picking and looking for holes in work and sometimes forget that we are actually making fools of ourselves with our bad grace and bullying tones, and that all we are doing is creating barriers of expression both for ourselves and for others. And sometimes there is a partiality and selectivity to our critical thinking that is most unbecoming.

But when we put the focus on the energy, the dynamism, the pleasure of the work, then more uplifting elements come into play, and photography becomes about creativity, art and life, not about the dark austerities of photography's shadowlands. And then we have more freedom to experiment, make mistakes and create something new. We'll still make rubbish but we'll have a better time making it and because less energy is wasted on those things that sap our will, ultimately better, more interesting and more exciting work will emerge. Ahh, sweeping generalisations. Don't you love them! This is what Divola said about Isolated Houses (the project into which Dogs Chasing Cars is woven)

'But I was old enough by that point that I just didn’t care. I loved being out there, it was the most enjoyable body of work I have ever done.  You are out on some dirt road, the car window is open and the wind is blowing, its beautiful and no one is bothering you, the doing of that body of work was just so fantastic. I gave myself permission to do it even though I didn’t think it was particularly cutting edge.'

There's enjoyment and fun in there and a sense of just getting things done and not thinking about it too much. I detect a sense of glee in those chasing dog pictures too. Glee on the part of Divola. He shot them with one hand on the camera, one on the wheel and you can imagine him teasing the dogs as he accelerates and coasts, accelerates and coasts, winding the dogs up as he goes. That might be why they look so mad. Or maybe that's a desert dog thing. I don't know. 

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Annoying Pictures of Domesticity

I didn't get to go to Format Festival at the weekend, because it was Mother's Day and I had to cook breakfast, make dinner, wrap presents and generally serve up the delights that are due to the mother of my child. It was lovely.

And so, by all accounts, was Format. It's had rave reviews from the people I've spoken to who went. But I sadly missed the opening.

Instead, the picture I saw most of in the last few days was this one, spotted during my morning drive along mists of the A46 yesterday morning. It was an exciting drive as drives go - we saw a bunch of guinea fowl and a bus blew smoke into our window. But no matter what happened the eyes had to go front of road and there she was in all her skin-glowing domestic glory, the Bosch lady; for a full 30 minutes, until Bosch went Stroud way and we went Bristol way. Then I kind of missed her, I must confess. She looked quite kind all in all.

The picture shows  a woman turning up the central heating on her 5-year-guaranteed Greenstar Boiler (Best Buy in Which September 2014). England is the land of mild winters and cold houses, so Central Heating is a valuable thing.  I should know, I used to sell it door-to-door a long time ago. Well, I didn't sell it.  I tried to sell it, but it's a tough call in Stockport where "I don't hold with Central Heating" and "It makes it muggy" and "I like it cold" were your standard answers to some dopey central-heating touting kid with a clipboard and an army jacket knocking on your door of an evening.

So there she is, turning on the heating. She's looking down at her health-filled toddlers snuffling into the shagpile, content that their flushed cheeks and glowing toes are from the vital warmth emanating from her magic dial; it's a comfort nipple, spilling out warmth and domesticity in gentle streams. And despite her scrubbed-up cheeks, she's red-faced and flushed, so there's a domestic double whammy in there. Maybe it's not toddlers she's looking at, maybe that dial she's turning is cranking up the innuendo. But probably not, no definitely not. That would be far too racey for Little Miss Scrubbed Face.

I know I'm supposed to pretend that pictures are just fictions as this one obviously is, and that they shouldn't influence me, but they do. That's why people put them on the back of vans or newspapers, so people can see them and be affected. And as we drove up the A46, I got more and more affected by this one and it's propagandisation of a wholesome adult with a boiler and a sensibility to match her exfoliated skin. It's a representation of somebody who's been visually stripped of what makes her flesh and blood. And so have her imaginary children and her home and her life. She's a plastic being, a manufactured concern, the kind of person who has learned to care deeply about the M4 Corridor and the Balance of Payments and the Budget Deficit because that's what you do when you're grown up. She's a Radio 2 News Update transmogrified into living, breathing, dial switching human flesh.

And there's a real, living, breathing person beneath that ad. Just like there's a real living, breathing person behind this cover picture for the Guardian Family Section. Which thanks to the caption is possibly the most annoying picture I have seen all year.

It wasn't just me who was annoyed by it, a whole slew of mothers looked at it and guffawed. There was a disjoint between their experience, their post-natal appearance and the particular smugness that the caption (and it is the caption, not the picture) provides. The poor mother has been Guardianified, She seems quite delighted with herself but within the context of the Family section she's been made aspirational. And again, even though we know it's a fiction and that if you stick a different caption on that grin of deluded delight could become something more akin to the threshold of despair. But that's not happened and so we all looked at this picture and bubbled up a little one-minute hate and had the photography people among us receding into our limited fundamentalist Dijkstra Childbirth fandoms. And it's not the mother's fault, nor that of the photographer. It's the Guardian's! You have to hate the fucking Guardian sometimes. 

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Where's Larry: Happy St Patrick's Day

I visited my friend Tadhg Devlin in Liverpool a couple of years back for the Liverpool Look Festival. His son Patrick had this book on his bookshelf. It's called Where's Larry. It's like Where's Wally except instead of Wally, it's Larry. Larry's Irish and he's a leprachaun!

Here's a couple of easy ones.

Then it gets harder. Where's Larry?

Happy St Patrick's Day!