Tag Archives: Photography

Camera Lucida — Barthes on Photography I

I absolutely loved Barthes’ Camera Lucida, it was an unexpected feeling and rather fierce. Perhaps because it challenged me to love photography again after Susan Sontag had picked apart everything that was wrong, everything that has troubled me so much with certain exhibitions I have seen. There is more to photography than appropriation and vain strivings to control time and space — an opening she leaves I know, but doesn’t explore. My partner said off-hand, ‘oh, that’s the book about death and photography’, which surprised me greatly, but then going back over it I realised just how much he does talk about death. Still, it seemed very much an affirmation of life to me. Barthes begins:

My interest in Photography took a more cultural turn. I decided I liked Photography in opposition to the Cinema, from which I nonetheless failed to separate it. This question grew insistent. I was overcome by an “ontological” desire: I wanted to learn at all costs what Photography was “in itself,” by what essential feature it was to be distinguished from the community of images. … I wasn’t sure that Photography existed, that it had a “genius” of its own. (3)

I love puzzling between a photograph as an object but also a point in time, a subject.

The first thing I found was this. What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially. In the Photograph, the event is never transcended for the sake of something else: the Photograph always leads the corpus I need back to the body I see; it is the absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency, matte and somehow stupid, the This (this photograph, and not Photography), in short, what Lacan calls the Tuché, the Occasion, the Encounter, the Real, in its indefatigable expression. (4)

I don’t really have much idea exactly what all of this means, but I like to think about it and it inspires multiple different thoughts.

Photography is unclassifiable because there is no reason to mark this or that of its occurrences; it aspires, perhaps, to become as crude, as certain, as noble as a sign, which would afford it access to the dignity of a language; but for there to be a sign there must be a mark; deprived of a principle of marking, photographs are signs which don’t take, which turn, as milk does. Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see. (6)

It gets easier after this, and I like how Barthes attempts to walk this line between the expressive and the critical, attempts to keep things open and meanings ambiguous, drawing on all kinds of things (and none) to try and understand what photographs do to us, mean to us.

the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages, one expressive, the other critical; and at the heart of this critical language, between several discourses, those of sociology, of semiology, and of psychoanalysis—but that, by ultimate dissatisfaction with all of them, I was bearing witness to the only sure thing that was in me (however naive it might be): a desperate resistance to any reductive system. (8)

He breaks down the photograph into three:

What does my body know of Photography? I observed that a photograph can be the object of three practices (or of three emotions, or of three intentions): to do, to undergo, to look. The Operator is the Photographer. The Spectator is ourselves, all of us who glance through collections of photographs—in magazines and newspapers, in books, albums, archives . . . And the person or thing photographed is the target, the referent, a kind of little simulacrum, any eidolon emitted by the object which I should like to call the spectrum of the Photograph, because this word retains, through its root, a relation to “spectacle” and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead. (9)

Death, it is about death, I didn’t even really catch this last powerful sentence when I first read it — ‘that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.’ There is an offhand remark a few pages on, the use of the word ‘mortiferous’:

(apology of this mortiferous power: certain Communards paid with their lives for their willingness or even their eagerness to pose on the barricades: defeated, they were recognized by Thiers’s police and shot, almost every one) (11)

But what is it about certain photographs that leaves a mark on us? Where does a photograph’s power lie? Because some of them have an immense power, it fascinates me, and it is a fascinating journey to follow along with someone so very different from myself as they try and understand just how this might work.

I decided then to take as a guide for my new analysis the attraction I felt for certain photographs. For of this attraction, at least, I was certain. (18)

A refreshing approach. A liberating one. My own idiom.

The principle of adventure allows me to make Photography exist. Conversely, without adventure, no photograph. (19)

I like this sentence, because I like adventure. This is part of my mode of being an Operator — which Barthes confesses he is not. It puzzles me that someone who simply looks at photographs should find it an adventure, but I like it. He continues:

In this glum desert, suddenly a specific photograph reaches me; it animates me, and I animate it. So that is how I must name the attraction which makes it exist: an animation. The photograph itself is in no way animated (I do not believe in “lifelike” photographs), but it animates me: this is what creates every adventure. (20)

It turns out everything I am liking best in theory at the moment returns to phenomenology. I have more reading to do. Heidegger is still a Nazi, there’s been a lot about them in the news recently because of the horror at Charlottesville. I know my facebook feed is privileged, in that all my friends feel as I do that it is just fine to punch a Nazi when you see one, but I am really appreciating how it has suddenly become a national debate.

 

This means I am down with a vague, casual, even cynical phenomenology, though perhaps in a slightly different sense.

In this investigation of Photography, I borrowed something from phenomenology’s project and something from its language. But it was a vague, casual, even cynical phenomenology, so readily did it agree to distort or to evade its principles according to the whim of my analysis. First of all, I did not escape, or try to escape, from a paradox: on the one hand the desire to give a name to Photography’s essence and then to sketch an eidetic science of the Photograph; and on the other the intractable feeling that Photography is essentially (a contradiction in terms) only contingency, singularity, risk… (20)

I love this sentence.

As Spectator I was interested in Photography only for “sentimental” reasons; I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound; I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think. (21)

I love too this distinction between things that interest us, and things that knock us over.

What I feel about these photographs derives from an average affect, almost from a certain training . I did not know a French word which might account for this kind of human interest, but I believe this word exists in Latin: it is studium, which doesn’t mean, at least not immediately, “study,” but application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity. It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs,| whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes…

“The second element will break (or punctuate) the studium. This ti me it is not I who seek it out (as I invest the field of the studium with my sovereign consciousness), it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick…This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole — and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me). (27)

There’s a hell of a lot of erotic language going on in that sentence. Seems to me that sometimes that is what is going on when a photograph really ‘pierces’ us, but not always. There is so much more to the world, no? Unless you’re a male psychoanalyst. It’s what I appreciated most about Elizabeth Grosz’s article on the gaze, and Barthes acknowledges this perhaps with the words bruise, poignant. Even more with this:

the editors of Life rejected Kertesz’s photographs when he arrived in the United States in 1937 because, they said, his images “spoke too much”; they made us reflect, suggested a meaning — a different meaning from the literal one. Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks. (38)

This resonated with me so much as well, opens up a whole new way of thinking about home and landscape:

An old house, a shadowy porch, tiles, a crumbling Arab decoration, a man sitting against the wall, a deserted street, a Mediterranean tree (Charles Clifford’s “Alhambra”): this old photograph (1854) touches me: it is quite simply there that I should like to live. This desire affects me at a depth and according to roots which I do not know: warmth of the climate? Mediterranean myth? Apollinism? Defection? Withdrawal? Anonymity? Nobility? Whatever the case (with regard to myself, my motives, my fantasy), I want to live there, en finesse — and the tourist photograph never satisfies that esprit de finesse. For me, photographs of landscape (urban or country) must be habitable, not visitable. (38)

Charles Clifford: The Alhambra, Granada, 1854-1856

A sense of all the things we cannot know…

What I can name cannot really prick me. The incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance. … The effect is certain but unlocatable, it does not find its sign, its name; it is sharp and yet lands in a vague zone of myself; it is acute yet muffled, it cries out in silence. Odd contradiction: a floating flash. (53)

I love that sentence, and this, and what it means for photography as a way of communication in how it opens up the space between operator and spectator across space and time:

Last thing about the punctum: whether or not it is triggered, it is an addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there.

This is one of the things that differentiates the photograph from cinema and its parade of photographs — one stops you in your tracks, one moves you along:

I am constrained to a continuous voracity; a host of other qualities, but not pensiveness; whence the interest, for me, of the photogram. (55)

What they inspire within is very different, it has made me think of the moment that will forever be the same, even as live itself continued before and after as if this photograph had never been taken. But it was.

Next, Barthes writes about his mother (in a way that immediately made me call mine…)

[Barthes, Roland ([1980] 2000) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books.]

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Impossible Presence: On Art and Photography

It’s so interesting to read a book that is for the most part so far outside my area of expertise — Impossible Presence is a collection of essays and art criticism that overlaps

The intro is from editor Terry Smith, full of questions I have never before asked myself….

why is it that the visual image continues — according to an inscrutable but seemingly invisible geometry — to become more and more powerful, proliferative and pervasive at every level of public and private life, promising more and more openness…while at the same time its power to communicate concentrated meaning seems to decline…?

What has been the fate of the image in modernity, modern art, popular visual cultures, in postmodern art and in postmodernity? Has the procession of the simulacrum reached the point of purity, of unconditionality? Or has the real returned to those intersections where abject aficionados of post-humanism that what we must, again, call presence remains powerfully present in the art of this time, just in its persistence despite its putative impossibility? It does so, I would argue… (1)

I like pondering such questions so far outside my normal range of questions that I am not entirely sure what all of them are questioning.

Literally returning to more solid ground, there is a wonderful quote from Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, on the First Photograph.

No hint here that this is the first quiet note of … an unstoppable torrent of pictures … haunting and unforgettable, hideous and beautiful, pornographic and revelatory, pictures that will create the very idea of the Modern, that will overpower language itself, and cover and distort and define the earth, like water, like gossip, like democracy.

And who knew Heidegger had characterized modernity as the ‘age of the world picture’? Probably lots of people, I know. But not me. My inability to avoid Heidegger in all of his phenomenologyist splendour continues.

I like this idea of ‘presence’ — being new to all this it fascinates me to find this long history of its discussion. Smith writes:

I wish to interpret ‘presence’ here in a way different from its previous lives in art-critical and art-historical discourse, where it stood, in the 1960s, for the implacable physicality of materials, and in the 1970s, when it signaled an ethics of social commitment. (7)

I’m such a 70s girl. Smith links

‘presence’ to ‘impossibility,’ not in a spirit of defeat but of possibility. Presence despite apparent impossibility, tangibility against the prosthetics of cyberbeing, or, as Heidegger would put it, authentic Being against the grain of seeing/knowing — the eye — of an age which can only see itself for its own loss of being. (8)

I don’t know, I find the first two much more intriguing. He continues.

Presence, for the kind of modernism I value, is a quality of insistence. It insists differently at different times.

It insists against empty space, white noise, dematerialisation, infinite replay.

Interesting.

Marshall Berman is in here! ‘Too Much is Not Enough: Metamorphoses of Times Square.’ Lovely. He writes, having discovered this through his criticisms of the criticisms of others around New York’s Times Square:

I’m a partisan of happiness. I believe more joy will give people more power to change the world for the better. My vision of the good life includes both bright lights and critical thought; it demands a critical thought that knows how to love the bright lights. (41)

Yes.

He describes how the authors and poets of the city know and celebrate its contradictions, the way it drains and yields energy. Non-fictional authors? Only a few — he names Georg Simmel, Lewis Mumford, Paul and Percival Goodman, Jane Jacobs. The Goodmans? Never heard of them, that is always exciting. Berman then goes on to describe Times Square through the imagery of the whore of Babylon from Revelations, and as he always does, inspires in me a tremendous desire to read another classic text — The Persian Letters by Montesquieu. Balzac said this book taught him everything about urban life. My god. I have not read it.

For Berman, it creates a vocabulary for understanding the city, explores the value of the urban to

nourish personal authenticity, mutual opennesss, intercourse and communication between people. Out in the street people can feel free, can imagine new ways to live, can experience the joy of mutual recognition. (50)

He moves to Engels writing about how people move quickly and stay to their right in Manchester, shows wonderful saucy old postcards. As a side note he describes a process where immigration has transformed the face of the US just enough to make people a little more comfortable in city centres like Time Square, to make it marketable to try and reclaim them. The irony.

This is my territory. A brief stop and on to the rest of the book — all new. I loved Tom Gunning’s piece on early photography and the role of amateurs in ‘New Thresholds of Vision: Instantaneous Photography and the Early Cinema of Lumiere’. This must be one of the best things I’ve seen, embodying the mystery within the everyday, the mischievous natures captured in these photographs from the early days of film as it was transitioning into new processes that did not require long exposures:

 

 

 

There was Jacques-Henri Lartigue, whose photographs

display the era’s fascination with freezing a moment and capturing motion in full flight, as well as a youthful mischief and delight in the often ungainly bodily postures the instantaneous camera could discover, bodies filled with mobile vitality and a sense of fun. Indeed, the image of the small boy armed with a camera capturing moments of indiscretion became a staple of the comic narrative revolving around the “bad boys” in this period… using it to unmask the order of the adult world. (92)

There was a new knowledge that Zola was a photography enthusiast. Ah Zola. I will look that up.

An essay on Benjamin — I always prefer Benjamin to essays about him or using him, but I loved this photograph from Atget.

 

 

 

Two essays on Warhol in here — I have come to appreciate him more. I liked Baudrillard, liked this:

Warhol was the first to introduce into modern fetishism — transaesthetic fetishism — the fetishism of an image without qualities, of a presence without desire. (184)

I liked Silverman’s essay on Warhol, and it taught me the word ‘chiasmatic’. Relating to the intersection of the optic nerve fibres at the bottom of the brain.

Elizabeth Grosz wrote a fucking splendid essay on nakedness and orchids and desire and all sorts called ‘naked’. She describes the difference between facing nakedness in person and in ‘art’.

One is, in Levinasaian terms, called, called upon by the open giving up of a certain vulnerability that the other offers to us as naked. It is this that we are protected against in observing the work of art. We are not called to protect, or to bare ourselves to, this other that we observe. Our observation is given free range. We are liberated from the impulse towards reciprocity. (218)

What I really loved though, was her skilled debunking of definitions of the gaze, its suppressed anger and intelligence of the kind I most admire have given me a bit of an author crush.

We don’t just have two modes of looking, on that illuminates the soul (art) and one that is salacious and perverse (pornography)

How fucking limiting that would be.

What is needed instead is a typology of looking, a mode of thinking of spectatorship that does not rely on the vast apparatus of projection, identification, fetishism and unconscious processes that psychoanalysis has offered to film theory and that theorists of the visual arts have borrowed as their primary model of spectatorship. Voyeurism is not the only modality of looking: seeing has many particular forms, well beyond the purview of the gaze, which is, in psychoanalytic terms, necessarily aligned with sadism, the desire for mastery and the masculine privileging of the phallus. (218-19)

I imagine her punching Zizek in the stomach, mostly because he makes me angrier than most people drawing on psychoanalytic theory (admittedly, a field I have so far mostly stayed away from apart from Fromm, who is the antithesis to this). But she doesn’t need to punch anyone physically, that sentence does it all.

I would suggest that seeing needs to be retrieved by feminists, and that vision needs to be freed from the constrictions imposed on it by the apparatus of the gaze. (219)

I would like to be part of that, I hope she does so, this is so useful for thinking about art and photography, particularly in activism and studying the ‘urban’. I am about to read much more of what she has written. There is more in the volume, the other to stand out was on aboriginal art — a really fascinating interdisciplinary change of pace which is perhaps what I most like about this book. But of course, I know I am blinkered by the things I am working on now, this will richly repay a visit.

Smith, Terry (ed) Impossible Presence: surface and Screen in the Photogenic Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Shirley Baker: a splendour of community amidst the slum clearances

I loved the Shirley Baker exhibition, found it moving and inspiring both. ‘Women and Children; and Loitering Men’ at the Manchester Art Gallery. Her photographs are vibrant, beautifully composed, full of life, provocative–everything photographs should be–and at the same time her subject is the one closest to my heart: everyday life and working-class community.

From the Manchester Art Gallery Website:

Pioneering British photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014) is thought to be the only woman practicing street photography in Britain during the post-war era. Baker’s humanist documentary work received little attention throughout her sixty-five years career. This exhibition includes previously unseen colour photographs by Baker alongside black and white images and ephemera such as magazine spreads, contact sheets and various sketches. It specifically focuses on her depictions of the urban clearance programmes of inner city Manchester and Salford. This intense period of study, spanning from 1961 – 1981, documents what Baker saw as the needless destruction of working class communities.

This is an exhibition put together by Anna Douglas, first shown in London (of course, already I am feeling this North-South injustice)

For an amateur photographer and an urbanist and with a lifetime devoted to building power and community, these photographs sing. They document this structural period of demolition, the hope of better lives and council housing, the children my god the children everywhere and you love every one of them. Mothers everywhere too (and all my fears of being like that, like them, that joy vanished from them though I know often it is still there and it is my own fear speaking still, it seems visible only in the children and some of the old men).

The old men, the unemployed, the laundry, the cats and the dogs, the hope and despair, beauty and laughter and oppression and a hard working life all painted in black and white and glorious colour.

Maybe I loved most sharing this space with others, it felt like these rooms were filled with unusual suspects for a gallery, and a couple of older men were reminiscing behind me for a while about these days I was staring at captured with such compassion and immediacy it was altogether beautiful.

Some pictures from the website dedicated to her. There was another picture with a cat that was my favourite. I cannot find it. The unexpected heartbreak of denial in an internet age. Reminds me of my own poverty-stricken youth. Nothing like this though.    The kids above — I imagine this was a day that all of them have remembered all their lives. The kids below — those faces too old and wary. I knew so many kids like that, love this country because seems like they are rare now. Nothing sad about this kid though.  There is so little about Shirley Baker and I want to know all of it, devour all of her photographs. The book cost £30 — impossible at the end of the month. The other books from the handful of times her work has been shown all over £100. Luckily there is a website dedicated to her, it states:

Shirley Baker (1932 – 2014) was one of Britain’s most compelling yet underexposed social documentary photographers. Her street photography of the working-class inner-city areas, taken from 1960 until 1981, would come to define her humanist vision.

“It has always astonished me how quickly things can disappear without a trace.”

Hampered by union restrictions on female press photographers, she abandoned plans to work for the Manchester Guardian…. it is her empathetic but unsentimental photographs of inner-city working-class communities in Salford and Manchester as they experienced years of ‘slum’ clearance that has come to define her distinct vision.

“My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often for months on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them.” (Shirley Baker, on the slum clearances of inner Manchester and Salford)

Portrait of the photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014), kneeling down to take a picture with her Rolleiflex camera. circa 1980s

Look at these incredible visions of the city and the life that filled it and spilled over it as the face of it was being transformed.

They are incredible, I wanted to see all of them. I wanted to know more of how she thought about them. I loved too, the exhibition’s integration of oral histories from people in these neighbourhoods, though I kind of hate the technology so I didn’t listen to all of them.

I will be patient, I suppose, and wait for more.

In looking for some of my favourite photographs I found this one online, an older Shirley Baker in front of this building I love and have long wondered about as I walk past it all the time on my way home, now a Chinese Restaurant on Plymouth Grove. It’s somehow so warming to think of her here, in my own place.

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John Berger on Ways of Seeing

John Berger Ways of SeeingWays of Seeing by John Berger is a most wonderful wonderful book. Told both in words and pictures, what follows is a lopsided collection of sentences that does some violence to the whole I confess. I was particularly interested in photography, but found myself swept away into other places and didn’t mind at all. It is a book I look forward to reading many more times — and hunting down the series as well. I so wish I had been lucky enough to have been given this to read in the high school Art History class that has remained with me all through my years. Better late than never.

It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. (7)

Nothing is ever settled. I love this unsettling. Love this sense of history:

The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past. Consequently, fear of the present leads to mystification of the past. The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act. (11)

Just a sentence and then off he goes in another direction. I want to think more about this alongside Trouillot and the erasings and the silences, but later perhaps.

Because we are off to Frans Hals, always one of my favourites:

Hals was the first portraitist to pain the new characters and expressions created by capitalism. He did in pictorial terms what Balzac did two centuries later in literature. (16)

The regentesses of Haarlem’s almshouse, such an unforgettable picture but never had I thought of it this way:

Frans Hals — Portrait of The Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse Haarlem, 1640s?

And this, my favourite statement of the power that images hold, the potential they carry, a statement that makes me think of things quite differently though I have for a long time been thinking about this — like the wonderful obsessions of Otto Neurath and his isotypes:

If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experience of our relation to the past: that is to say the experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives, of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.

The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose. (33)

I don’t know why Berger’s passages on oil painting struck me as they did, I think because they represent what a profoundly different way this is of understanding painting as it sits within its context — I love it.

Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity. All reality was mechanically measured by its materiality. … Oil painting conveyed a feeling of total exteriority. (87)

I can see this exteriority, feel the velvets and silks under my fingers in these paintings. That always struck me, the incredible details. I think there was such a love of these sumptuous textures in themselves, but yes, also this:

Works of art in earlier traditions celebrated wealth. But wealth was then a symbol of a fixed social or divine order. Oil painting celebrated a new kind of wealth — which was dynamic and which found its only sanction in the supreme buying power of money. Thus painting itself had to be able to demonstrate the desirability of what money could buy. (90)

And then there is the section on advertising, the co-optation of art (not that that was anything new, as can be seen in the quote above) and this unapologetic reading that made me happy:

The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for a full democracy which entails, among other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day dreams. (148)

So to end with photography, which sent me here in the first place and of which I found but little, though I did not care in the slightest.

First, something that seems so simple, and yet… before thinking about it I might have said as a reflex that photography was somehow more ‘objective’, I might still lapse into that feeling. But really,

The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject.  (10)

On the other hand, I had not before thought through how the camera changes our perspective, how it differs from painting, how it decentres us from time and space:

The camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless. Or, to put it another way, the camera showed that the notion of time passing was inseparable from the experience of the visual (except in paintings)….

This is not to say that before the invention of the camera men believed everyone could see everything. But perspective organized the visual field as though that were indeed the ideal. Every drawing or painting that used perspective proposed to the spectator that he was the unique centre of the world. The camera — and more particularly the movie camera — demonstrated that there was no centre.

The invention of the camera changed the way that we saw. The invisible came to mean something different to them. This was immediately reflected in painting. (18)

This is something I need to think much more about. It’s interesting how this is one of the major differences between Western and non-Western art, it doesn’t surprise me at all that it is Western art of a certain period that put human beings always at the centre. It must be a good thing to destabilise that, but I’m not sure I entirely grasp how photography and film do that. Our own private viewings into the world of others.

But there is so much joy in art and pleasure in thinking about it here…

Space: 2017 Prix Pictet in Photography at the V&A

The exhibition of The Prix Pictet shortlist and winner at the V&A was superb.

Prix Pictet is a global prize that aims to highlight sustainability and environmental issues through photography….The theme for this cycle is Space.

The winner Richard Mosse for his series entitled Heat Maps — enthralling pictures, only two of them on display here. Huge  composited black and white film pictures and heat photographs showing refugee camps, showing metal cars glowing and human bodies incandescent, this use of military technology against military technologies to bring alive the scale of the camp, but in so much detail… Like a Bruegel Mark said and it was exactly what I had been thinking but the technology of it also means it comes in and out of focus a bit, like an enormous charcoal with sections in crystal clarity but but others blurred as though a careless fist rested there. Figures also burred white but caught in fragile intensely human moments and motions, there is a vividness here, a humanity unvarnished, a poverty not picturesque. These are landscapes of tents and metal and ripping wire, and a fragile battered environment of water, trees.

Carceral spaces at scale, but with humanity foregrounded. They were incredible. A visceral call to dismantle all of it, a recognition of the spirit of those within it.

The full list of photographers, all of their work is wonderful.

Mandy Barker (United Kingdom) Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals
Saskia Groneberg (Germany) – Büropflanze
Beate Guetschow (Germany) – S Series
Rinko Kawauchi (Japan) – Ametsuchi
Benny Lam (Hong Kong) – Subdivided Flats
Richard Mosse (Ireland) – Heat Maps
Wasif Munem (Bangladesh) – Land of Undefined Territory
Sohei Nishino (Japan) – Diorama Map
Sergey Ponomarev (Russia) – Europe Migration Crisis
Thomas Ruff (Germany) – ma.r.s
Pavel Wolberg (Russia) – Barricades
Michael Wolf (Germany) – Tokyo Compression

Another set of pictures of the migrant experience from Sergey Ponomarev, pictures of this massive movement of humanity that seems so remote to London even as I read of camps and deaths, even as I contribute food and money, even as I cry over boats tumbling over themselves and spilling children into the sea.

From Ponomarev’s statement:

Most of the refugees reached Europe. They began to conjure up and build new living spaces for themselves, forever changing the face of Europe itself.

I loved the recentering of the world onto these journeys that these pictures achieved. This new world they are creating.

Pictures of faces against glass in Tokyo’s subway, condensation, patient suffering. It feels infinite here.

Tokyo Compression

Shinjuku Station is used by an average of 3.64 million people per day, making it the most crowded train stations in the world in terms of number of passengers. I spent more than 60 weekday mornings photographing passengers during their commute into Tokyo. All portraits were taken at one train station along the Odakyu line, during rush hour between 7.30 and 9 am. At intervals of 80 seconds, a train already packed to the absolute limit pulled into the station. Even more people pushed their way into the compartments until the commuters were jammed like sardines in a can. Day in day out, millions of commuters must endure this torture, as the only affordable housing is hours away outside of the city center. Is this a humane way to live?

The collision of housing crisis, work, public transport. The everyday pain of it.

Saskia Groneberg’s pictures of plants filling offices, curving towards light, peering round blinds. They start banal and by the end of the series have given you a feeling more ominous than that, as though humans are not just absent but gone.But I think that is very much my own impression, too many movies, too many references to the Triffids.

Benny Lam’s pictures from Hong Kong, staring down at people in tiny rectangles — the length of our vertical axis — only enough room to sit and barely enough to lie down. The rooms’ heights  stacked vertically, the sum of people’s possessions around them. I remember my tiny room in London on New Park Rd, spacious in comparison (you could have got three or four people lying down in there, a new spatial measure), similarly stacked high, this feeling of being trapped yet also of safety because it is still yours… Nothing to this. I am humbled. Again we must question just how this is the world we have created.

Benny Lam Trapped 03, 2012, Series: Subdivided…

The tiny space in this house compels you to do everything on or around the bed: sleeping, washing vegetables, having meals, writing letters, and watching TV. For some people, it is also where the children do homework and play games. Living here is like being trapped in a cage. Dilemma is what it’s all about. If you need to catch your breath, stay in this trap and entertain yourself.

Sohei Nishino’s amazing montages of London and San Francisco, space expanding again. Myriads of images collaged together into a larger sense of the city, a vertiginous wandering through cityscapes that resemble the city you know but with some jarring differences.

Sohei Nishino: Diorama Map San Francisco, 2016, Series: Diorama Map, 2010-16

He writes:

Rapid cultural and economic development creates a continuous process of amplification and accumulation within cities. I walk through these cities, camera in hand, capturing multi-facetted [sic] views that I then combine,in accordance with my memories, arranging them into a map that portrays all the singular aspects of the place. The result is quite different from the denotative expression of a map; it uses photographs of concrete objects or shapes as units to recreate a geographical representation, expressing the city through human memories and images. This means that the finished work is anything but an accurate map, it is simply the town as seen through the eyes of a single individual, a trace of the way in which I walked through it, an embodiment of my awareness, a microcosm of the life and energy that comprise the city.

Fascinating exercises in psychogeography, though perhaps a little too stripped of situationist rebellion…

There is earth being scorched by fire, tied to agricultural ritual and both literal and cyclical space in Rinko Kawauchi’s pictures. I loved this hill, this sense of rebirth and the barrier between life and death, the theme of connection across space in this kind of time.

Beate Guetschow. Brutalist concrete crumbling against landscapes that I had to be told were composites to create new landscapes. That needing to be told…that fascinated me.

Her statement brought together a lot of the things I have been thinking about (I mean, she quotes Georges Perec, she is clearly playing with the idea of city here as well…):

Cities grow, and in doing so they occupy increasingly large amounts of space – the built environment is the greedy counterpart of the natural realm. A space is defined only by differentiation from another space, for which it needs walls that serve as barriers or borders. These are mainly conceived and put in place by man. The walls and virtual boundaries around spaces usually have some form of opening that define one’s own position and allow one to enter a different space. Georges Perec describes this perfectly in his book Species of Spaces: “To live is to pass from one space to another, while doing your very best not to bump yourself.”

In the S series I investigate urban space, whereby I am particularly interested in architecture as a representation of ideology and in the international equality of built structures. My photographs present cities that do not exist in reality. I use computer software to assemble new cityscapes from buildings I have photographed all over the world. The resulting images are visual utopias that reflect modernist thinking, its desire for structure and its idealism. A key characteristic of modernity was an unshakable belief in progress – the idea of a process of sustained growth that would ultimately lead to a perfect society. In terms of its clarity and functionality, modernist architecture symbolises this faith in rationality. In my images, these very structures are shown to be crumbling; their substance is rotten.

Mandy Barker’s study of plastic, a Victorian labeling within a tiny glass cabinet combined with these pictures of wonderful circles — views through a microscope, new views on the plastic that is filling the earth and all the living things within it beginning with plankton.

Micro to macro, Thomas Ruff’s pictures of Mars. Proper space:

ma.r.s.08 II, Thomas Ruff. © Thomas Ruff

Landscapes just as arid, just as likely to be found in Arizona where I grew up as in the strip of land between India as shown by Wasif Munem in ‘Land of Undefined Territory‘:

The chosen area of land in this series is a mere observer of nearly a hundred years of land disputes, which saw colonization, 1947’s divide of the Indian subcontinent and mass-migration with Partition, and 1971’s liberation war of Bangladesh which created the current border tension with the neighboring country, India. Absence of any profound identity for its existence never diminishes its presence, and its body carries the wound of aggressive industrial acts, such as stone collection and crushing. … Wasif’s work is not a definitive act of understanding the totality of deeds, rather deliberately ignorant of them with the help of an unconscious camera, to merely show land’s lone existence over a period of time.

And finally, Pavel Wolberg on the barricades.

The barricades are architectural elements that instantly appear and change existence around them. They are made out of tiles, barrels, blocks, and sacks of sand against which human beings seem to blur And become insignificant.

The barricades are the instant, moment-to-moment, concretization of separation of lives, identities, and ways of being. It is here that political, social and above all, religious believes are conjured up into a violent confrontation frontline made out of piles and multitudes. These barricades become turbulent focal points in the landscape where space is constantly reshaped and re-conquered and always remains chaotic.

Brilliant exhibition, and we caught it on the last day and almost didn’t see it at all as there were lines to main entrance — the security guard we were talking to told us of the other entrance round the side — not a soul around. good thing too, as who wanted to see fucking Pink Floyd or the Balenciaga exhibition? Everyone else apparently, which was all the better.

We also took this opportunity to enjoy a view of Tipoo’s Tiger. Worth stopping by even if you don’t see anything else there at all.

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Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection

Go to Drawn by Light, go! It’s in London’s Science Museum (one of my favourite things in London by far) until 1 March, and then in the National Media Museum in Bradford. I wasn’t sure I would ever attend another exhibition again after Mirrorcity in the Hayward, but this has redeemed them all.

I loved each and every photograph chosen to showcase the Royal Photographic Society’s collection, though they came from every style and period — the curation is outstanding not just for this, but because the way they come together creates something more wonderful than the sum of its parts.

It opened with tasteful nudes of beautiful lines and curves (conversation overheard – ‘What a long back, usually I prefer a shorter back’) facing cheeky boys skipping along in front of a policeman, titled ‘Limbs and the Law’:

‘Limbs and the Law’, 1924, James Jarché, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum / SSPL

Which has led me to discover the National Media Museum’s blog (particularly this one on James Jarché), joy and happy days. Back to the first wall for the lurid color of the 60s in art piece of nudes constructed from sofas and household items and more. The photographs move from haunting to sad to beautiful to clever and arresting. Some are shot in natural light capturing things ‘as they are’. Others are from the studio, others carefully constructed and processed. They have Henry Peach Robinson’s set of prints showing the story of Little Red Riding Hood and a girl dying of TB with her fictitious family around her, a gathering for a policeman’s funeral in Lambeth, some of Phillipe Halsman’s pictures, my favourite being Dali Atomicus:

(How did he do this in 1948? Find out here in this awesome post). There is an early fashion portrait of Audrey Hepburn, Winston Churchill whose grumpy expression was caused by the photographer removing the cigar from his mouth, a luminous young boy captured on film by a Nazi supporter and firm believer in eugenics. A selection of portraits from an asylum. So much more that is allowed to speak for itself and the uses that photography has been put to. All without flinching.

There are also three heliographs on display — literally drawings by light — the first steps made by Joseph Niépce in the search to invent photography. They are wonderful.

The second section recreates to some extent the feel of a typical Photographic Society exhibition of the 1850s, a wall full of brilliant old photographs of almost everything. You have to crouch down to see some of them, it changes how you see things.

This section is called ‘A period of optimism and progress’. I am myself a little more critical of these times perhaps, but for photographers it was such a time of excitement and invention. My ancestors were busy starving to death in Ireland, but they would have been inventing if they could I am sure. There is a selection here of cameras from the 1800s, bottles of colloidal silver, beautifully crafted wooden cases, early panoramic lenses that are curved. Marvels and wonders.

They have Talbot’s early cameras, they are tiny and took tiny pictures. The description of the medium is salt print.

They have an old picture album, old family portraits. A wonderful photograph of the steps up to the Chapter House in Wells Cathedral — one of the most beautiful things I have seen and myself tried to photograph. Frederick Evans spent months, and got it right.

They have wonderful pictures of cities — New York, for instance, by Margaret Bourke-White and her unforgettable shot of the Statue of Liberty.

They have a picture of the remarkable contents of an Ostrich’s stomach. For that alone you should go.

I might be getting the room order of some of these confused.

They have pictures showing the magic and mystery of Egypt, but also the orientalism, the collecting and commodifying of the exotic. Fred Holland Day who starved himself to model self-portraits as Jesus Christ on the cross (oh the things bored people do). Again there is no flinching, but I don’t know that everyone has the critical view of such pictures that I do, I don’t know how they find them.

They had this amazing piece, photograph and etching by Frank Eugene:

The final section was ‘Personal vision’. Pairs of works by photographers to show breadth or change or style. They are lovely. Expressive of all of the emotions and visions that this medium can call up, evoke. The very different feelings and ideas it can communicate. The sense of place, the sense of soul, the sense of movement.

I am still not sure how they get things just right, but they do. These pictures still sit with me, the ones I have not listed demanding I list them, like the father and son walking in the face of a dust storm. But lists are boring, this exhibition is not.

There is also a competition in which you can submit your own photos inspired by light via social media and win some awesome things. I will be looking at my pictures with a critical eye.

On my way out I realised there was another free exhibit – Make Life Worth Living, a collection of photos by Nick Hedges for housing and homeless charity Shelter between 1968 and 1971. I started to go in but just couldn’t take in more. So I will be back before 1 March to see this.

An Irish family living in a single basement room – tenants of a multi-let house. Liverpool Toxteth, November 1969 Credits : © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford
An Irish family living in a single basement room – tenants of a multi-let house. Liverpool Toxteth, November 1969
Credits : © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

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The View from the Train: Cities and Other Landscapes

9781781687765-e406078c7d60b6e833cbb24f8c19c712Patrick Keiller (2013) Verso

I loved The View From the Train, my only critique is that it’s a bit repetitive…but with a collection of essays I suppose that’s par for the course. I’m a big fan of the Robinson films, and it is so so cool to get some of the thinking behind them and the process of making them — narrated in much the same fashion. They also start in a very different place, and hold very different assumptions than I do, though our side is the same as is our love of wandering and obsession with the city.

Both London and Robinson in Space had set out with a perception of economic failure, the result of a backward, specifically English capitalism; but in the second film, this gave way to an understanding that the UK’s social and physical impoverishment was not a consequence of some inevitable ‘decline’, but of the successful operation of a particular economic system in the interests of those who own it. The ‘problem’ that the film had set out to examine was revealed as the result of political decisions that could be challenged’ (6).

It is unique and more theoretical (Lefebvre is used in wholly new ways), and at the same time in the same vein of other London writers and ‘psychogeographers’ (Sinclair especially), which in itself I find fascinating. But they all pull from much the same canon (which I love, but there area few others I might just love more). Two quotes:

–from Benjamin’s essay on surrealism, ‘where he identifies the revolutionary potential of “everything we have experienced on mournful railway journeys…on godforsaken Sunday afternoon” (4).

–Bernard Tschumi writes that for Bataille ‘architecture covers the scene of the crime with monuments’ (18).

The rest of the cannon includes De Qincey, Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Aragon. Among them, as Keiller writes:

The desire to transform the world is not uncommon, and there are a number of ways of fulfilling it. On of these is by adopting a certain subjectivity, aggressive or passive, deliberately sought or simply the result of mood, which alters experience of the world, and so transforms it (9).

This formulation of the revolutionary nature of the writers, surrealists, situationists so often cited is an interesting one. I never knew that the surrealists tried to organise a ‘tourist’ event, on 14 April, 1921. Organised by Breton, it was to bring their insights gained from brothel and suburb exploration to the public, to ‘put in unison the unconscious of the city with the unconscious of men’ (14). But it rained, no tourists arrived, the rest of the tours were cancelled.

I also love some of the ideas behind the photography:

This visual material deliberately depicts places that are nearly or altogether devoid of human presence and activity, but which because of this absence are suggestive of what could happen, or what might have happened…. The aim is to depict the place as some sort of historical palimpsest, and/or the corollary of this, an exposition of a state of mind (11).

I loved the insights into decline, from ‘Port Statistics’, a wonderful examination of the docks and in 2001, an interesting foreshadowing of what was to come:

In the UK, wealth is not confined to a conservative nomenklatura, but the condition of, say, public transport or state-sector secondary schools indicates that the governing class does not have a great deal of use for them. People whose everyday experience is of decayed surroundings, pollution, cash-starved public services, job insecurity, part-time employment or freelancing tend to forget about the UK’s wealth. We have been inclined to think that we are living at a time of economic decline, to regret the loss of the visible manufacturing economy, and to lower our expectations. We dismiss the government’s claims that the UK is ‘the most successful enterprise economy in Europe’, but are more inclined to accept that there might b less money for schools and hospitals, if only because of the cost of financing mass unemployment (46)

From ‘The Dilapidated Dwelling’:

…under advanced capitalism it is increasingly difficult to produce and maintain the dwelling. This is especially odd given that dwellings constitute the greater part of the built environment, that they are the spaces where most people spend most of their time, and where arguably the real ‘work’ of society is done. Modernity, it seems, I exemplified not so much by the business park or the airport, but by the dilapidated dwelling (54)

Interestingly though, we differ greatly in the meaning of home and the meaning of dwelling. I myself love these old houses, these Victorian and Georgian rows. I dream of a city where the are neither dilapidated nor obsessively maintained to historic code by the wealthy. But I would welcome genuinely new architectural designs for homes and common living, and agree that none have been forthcoming, at least not here. Written in 1998,this comes before the majority of the ‘loft’ and ‘luxury flat’ development for wealthy young professionals emerging from regeneration. Part of me thinks they deserve those boxy and unimaginative and shoddily-constructed status symbols, if only the rest of us didn’t have to look at them. If only to build them, they didn’t first have to destroy. For myself, and perhaps from the vantage point of the next generation, it is hard to imagine this:

The volume of new construction is now less than it used to be, and western cities have not change anything like as much as was expected in, say, the early 1960s (70).

But gentrification is in here:

in London now, psychogeography leads not so much to avant-garde architecture as to gentrification
…. The great irony of the UK’s psychogeography phenomenon is that its invocation of the flaneur only narrowly preceded an almost immediate commodification of café culture (71).

The same idea in relation to psychogeography’s surrealist and situationist antecedents:

At the time [1990s], I suggested that their purpose had been overlooked: the derive and psychogeography were conceived, in a more politically ambitious period, as preliminaries to the production of new, revolutionary spaces; in the 1990s they seemed more likely to be preliminary to the production of literature and other works, and to gentrification, the discovery of previously overlooked value in dilapidated spaces and neighbourhoods (186).

This brings us to the urban and capitalism:

Capitalism both destroys and creates places, but the places it creates seem always, at least to begin with, less substantial, less rich, than the places it destroys…On the other hand, modern capitalism also gives place high value–partly by making its sought-after qualities scarce, partly by concentrating power in the global system in particular places: New York, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Paris, London, and so on. In the interstices of all this–in more or less dilapidated domestic spaces, as ‘consumers’ (neither passive nor docile)–we live our lives (73)

And finally just the voice:

–‘The UKs production of desirable artefacts is certainly lamentable (and confirms the stereotype of a nation run by Phillistines with unattractive attitudes to sexuality’ (45).

–repression and S&M hunt the Conservatives in a way that cannot be put down simply to the influence of the public schools (48).

This is just an odd collection of thoughts to do with what I am working on now, but there is so much more here on film and SF and an entertaining narrative of a trip to Rochester and some modern pictures inset with old pictures matched perfectly to the streetscape in ways that destabilize our sense of reality — the strength of film and photography perhaps as he argues.

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Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age

Some thoughts on the exhibition at the Barbican.  Constructing Worlds is on the photography of architecture, and it does indeed excel in capturing the relationship between two dimensional pictures and architecture, how photographs can reveal not just a new vision of our built environment, but an aid to experiencing our vision of it differently. As a whole this  inspired me to go out into London and take pictures again, to see my city in terms of shapes and shadows, surfaces and depths. To pay attention to structures and the space that they create. It has been so long since I’ve just taken my camera out, and with a camera in hand you see the city in a very different way. The next day walking in Lambeth, I thought to myself of Lucien Hervé, with his studies of shadow and light. Staring at the estate on my corner it came in and out of phase, from blocks of space to details of material and lived-in-ness to blocks of space. Gave me chills. I like that form of seeing, but only in combination with other forms of seeing. Just as I would have liked this exhibition more if it had combined the western white male gaze with others, incorporating more diversity of not just subject but also of viewer. There were four women featured here, one Indian, one white South African and another born in Nigeria, and one Japanese photographer.

I am so tired of the ubiquity of this gaze that rests on the structures of privilege: who gets to become a ‘photographer’, who amongst those are considered an artist, who gets shown in galleries, who can earn their living this way if they need to. I didn’t really bother once going to exhibitions, because what do those people have to do with me? And then I would go because I realised that at their best they make me think and see new things, and I’d shrug off the uniform nature of the artists because that’s how the world is. Now I sometimes go (but sometimes I just don’t) and usually emerge thinking new things, but also a little upset.

Anyway, that critique aside I would still go again. In the Barbican’s own words:

Constructing Worlds brings together eighteen exceptional photographers from the 1930s to the present day who have changed the way we view architecture and perceive the world around us.

From the first skyscrapers in New York and decaying colonial structures in the Congo, to the glamorous suburban homes of post-war California, and the modern towers of Venezuela, we invite you on a global journey through 20th and 21st century architecture.

Featuring over 250 works, this exhibition highlights the power of photography to reveal hidden truths in our society.

And it did that, but again I ask, who gets to change the way ‘we’ view things? Those looking at photography in the Barbican aren’t generally the group I am imagining when the words ‘we’ leave my mouth. For example, the three public school youths clearly just there because a fairly stunning arty girl said she wanted to go. How much are they really challenging our view of society? I wonder.

But the photographs were wonderful. Just some notes about some of my thoughts on the artists in the order you find them in the exhibit, I definitely hope to follow up with more on their work at some point:

Thomas Struth: He set up his tripod in the middle of the street each time, and tried to create a set of pictures that removed the focus from composition, allowed for a ‘more scientific grid’. The best you can see here on his website, they are oddly compelling. Across time and space the pictures here gave you a sense of some of the differences between Chicago, NY, Berlin, Naples, Tokyo. Pyongyang, Rome, Lima, St Petersberg, Beijing, Geneva.

View of Exchange Place from Broadway, New York, 1934

Berenice Abbott: Oh man, these made me fall in love with NY all over again, and like Walker Evans, only exist as part of the New Deal programs to put artists to work. I love the New Deal, wish the US still had those programs in place because they opened up art for a little while. Of course, she’d been already been the proteget of Eugene Atget (considered the grandfather of photographic modernism? For further investigation) in Paris and brought back his archive to the US in 1929 before being hired by the Federal Art Project. This long thin amazing view between skyscrapers with people down below is one of my favourite pictures of the exhibit (so so few of these pictures contained people, as if spaces were pure, to be seen and aesthetically enjoyed as separate from being lived in). There was another of a man reading his paper with a cat which I loved, and a picture of the first model tenement house in NY with rows upon rows of washing. Extraordinary.

Walker Evans: I liked that he was included here because these were pictures of cities and towns of the South, and I liked the Barbican applying the term architecture to them — from steel mill towns to the ‘Negro’ section. There was a wonderful series of wooden frame churches, almost exactly alike and differentiated by only small decorative details and amount of peeling paint.

This was followed by Julius Schulman, a little Southern California modernism as the photographer for mostly L.A. architects of note and merit. The Stahl House for example, is stunning (but oh. my. god. when you go from black and white to orange and white in colour!). I liked this set up, with the case study home program, the set of magazine articles the pictures appeared in in glass cases in the middle. Of course, these pictures would go on to define the ideals of wealth and suburban living, and I wish I had had them for my thesis. Modern architecture. Women in the kitchen. Swimming pools. Refined parties with guests reclining on expensive furniture. Entirely white, as any self-respecting suburb was given the harassment ranging from eggs to bombs keeping non-whites out. But that’s my thesis. I just don’t think that part of ideal should be left unsaid.

Haute Cour à Chandigarh, © 1955, Lucien Hervé
Haute Cour à Chandigarh, © 1955, Lucien Hervé

I think Lucien Hervé impressed me most, at least his mastery of showing mass and space, shadow and light stuck with me. I am also fascinated by his relationship with Le Corbusier, their partnership which brought these two mediums together in a very different way than the other photographers. I’ll be coming back to Le Corbusier, his visions for society and the city, the visions he built in Europe but on such a larger scale in Chandigarh and Ahmedebad. I find them extraordinary. In many of these latter pictures (and I loved the  showing of the annotated contact prints) the human use of the space returns without losing the architectural sense of the space. The re-appropriations (to the extent possible) of these huge brutalist symbolic spaces of government by the poor I found inspiring to some extent, and very curious about the role of government, the functioning of government in this kind of space.

Ruscha’s photographs of LA parking lots were…no, I didn’t much like them. I did like the images of industrialisation by Bernd and Hilla Becher, the idea of industrial archeology. I loved an entire wall of the most amazing water towers. The collection from Stephen Shore was all right, looking at his website I actually feel that his work loses some of its impact just focusing on those that arguably deal with architecture. I love the moments, people, everydayness that he captures and the way that he captures them, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m from Arizona and that’s a lot like Texas. I did laugh with joy to see the wigwam motel though.

That’s the top floor, by then I was seriously losing steam, just as I am now. The bottom floor was more modern, more installation based, only a few pieces for each artist. Luisa Lambri’s interior didn’t really work for me, but the smudged iconic shapes of Hiroshi Sugimoto I liked. Luigi Ghirri‘s photographs were tiny and exquisite, I would have liked more. Hélène Binet and more wonderful use of darkness and light and describing architectural photography as a pas de deux between building and camera. The monumental and amazingly detailed photo of collective behaviour enclosed in space of Andreas Gursky. Bas Princen with an extraordinary view of garbage strewn across the complixities of slum rooftops in this place geared to living off of the recycling of waste. Guy Tillim walking through Patrice Lamumba’s dream in the Congo. That hurt my heart, but the pictures are incredible. Simon Norfolk’s pictures of war’s effect on architecture — both in terms of destruction and speculation. You should go just to see the wedding cake building.  Nadav Kandar, who combined people’s everyday lives as lived underneath and around the huge bridge across the Yangtze. And the best way to end? Iwan Baan, because I loved the subject. A huge flagship building in Caracas, never completed and then squatted, and these pictures show the world created there by its inhabitants. Such vibrant re-appropriations of space, they made me so happy, and their own views through glass-free ‘windows’ onto the incredible cityscape sat in my head alongside those of the staid Stahl house looking out over L.A.

Torre de David, Caracas, Venezuela, 2011 by Iwan Baan.
Torre de David, Caracas, Venezuela, 2011 by Iwan Baan.
stahlhouse
Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22, Julius Shulman

The photographs are wonderful. Go see it, or check them out where you can.

Featured photographers

  • Berenice Abbott
  • Iwan Baan
  • Bernd and Hilla Becher
  • Hélène Binet
  • Walker Evans
  • Luigi Ghirri
  • Andreas Gursky
  • Lucien Hervé
  • Nadav Kander
  • Luisa Lambri
  • Simon Norfolk
  • Bas Princen
  • Ed Ruscha
  • Stephen Shore
  • Julius Shulman
  • Thomas Struth
  • Hiroshi Sugimoto
  • Guy Tillim

Also includes the work of iconic architects

  • Le Corbusier
  • Frank Lloyd Wright
  • Minoru Yamasaki
  • Luis Barragán
  • Aldo Rossi
  • Pierre Koenig
  • Charles and Ray Eames
  • Daniel Libeskind

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Where Three Dreams Cross

Where Three Dreams Cross — 150 Years of Photography From India, Pakistan and Bangledesh…you can see it now at the Whitechapel Gallery.  I loved the website without reservation (and apparently, I am far from alone).

I just got home from the exhibition itself, had to make myself some tea. The photographs were stunning, and I am not quite sure why I find myself unsettled, perhaps this feeling would be better known to me if I went to more such exhibitions. As it is, I just love to take photos. I put them up on flickr, I share them with friends. And I’ve always thought I loved to look at photographs. I don’t think that’s changed, but this has definitely made me think.

I suppose  what is bothering me is the existence of two fine lines I’ve often felt but never really put into words.

Every life has beauty in it. Those moments of deep feeling (not even necessarily happiness) found by everyone, even those living the most anguished back-breaking poverty. Here is another picture (cropped like the first!) from the website…best I can do!

Photos like this seem to be able to capture pure moment, motion, joy. But photography also carries what might be an almost unique ability to make poverty itself beautiful. And I found a kind of creeping horror in suffering itself made picturesque, striking, aesthetic. Of an outsider turning a daily and commonplace struggle for survival into their own art. I wondered how many of these human beings turned subjects ever saw these pictures of themselves? I could not even pinpoint which photographs made me feel so, it came upon me slowly and I am certain it was a minority. I wondered if it could be the exhalation of the photographer’s own feeling towards those within the view finder.

The other fine line is similar, every life has its privacy…what I love about photographs are their ability to capture moments in time, spontaneity, the brilliance of chance. And yet I feel there are some moments that should not be captured, displayed. There were a couple of pieces where it felt an intensely private space, where consent could not have been granted (though I could be wrong, I tell myself).

I suppose crossing either line is my definition of exploitation, I think it is something remarkably easy to do with photography as art, photography for display to strangers. And myself, as a stranger, complicit in it by staring at it on a gallery wall.

And yet, I am glad I went. There were many photographs with stories to tell, lives too often hidden and demanding visibility, beauty and struggle and an incredible hand-colored gelatin-printed history in abundance. And in spite of the above. I think the curators did a very good job of pulling it together. I particularly appreciated that there is an explicit stance on colonialism, and that all of the photographers are Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi. So as levels of exploitation in photography exhibitions go, this one has made the effort to consciously reduce them…

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The moors

I walked out of Glenfall and down the road, past the Howwood Inn and up past the football pitch, down along the road that leads to…god damn, I’ve forgotten the little village, it’s where Michael lives, I remember walking down that road several times in company of Michael and Knoxie and Spider, too and from copious amounts of drinks, particularly one sunny Monday when I attended a barbecue with several chefs from the Johnstone area who tend to have Mondays off and I got a sunburn. First and last Scottish sunburn I must say, a unique event in the annals of history. One of the chefs lay comatose on the grass after a long wedding weekend, a wreck the like of which I have never seen after days of drinking and no sleep and a memorable but highly ill advised battle amongst the men with their wooden skean dhus which had left him with the most hideous bruises imaginable.

But today I made the first right up the hill and towards the moors, the sky was grey and it was raining, light rain, the sort of rain where the air is half water half mist and the wind blew hard against my face. Last I was up here was late spring and the day was clearer, Ben Lomond rose up in the distance covered in snow. Ben Lomond today lay shrouded in mist, unseen, looming on the edges of my imagination, the world reduced to the steep climb between the trees of Skipton wood, the gurgling of the burn to my right. I love the woods, and yet…and yet coming to the edge of the trees, seeing the green expanse of the moor rising open before me fills me with a fierce joyful sort of wildness. The wind screams up here, mist driven into your face, hair whipping around your head. Sheep watch you warily and if you come too close they bounce away (there is something about sheep running that always makes me laugh and I’ve tried to pinpoint why I find it so delightful but haven’t quite been able to put my finger on it). I wandered fiercely joyful along the curve of the moor, the bog of the old damn to my left, heather and moss and long grass beneath my feet, a sort of gothic elf today not having packed at all for moors so I had my trousers rolled up to my knees, long black socks, smart black trainers, black sweater…and I tried to take pictures but the moors in the rain defy capture.

It got exciting when I came to the first burn, having passed the hill where an early pict settlement supposedly once lay though nothing now remains…that too loomed large in my imagination as it could not be seen really through the weather. But the burn ran high, after a minute peering up and down in a vain search for likely rocks, I grinned and stepped into it, and continued to squelch happily on my way. The moors don’t go on far enough for me, they are over far too soon, and I had to make the left through the gate to pass the little farm. This time I was squelching through mud heavily enriched by cows, luckily I came to another burn and freed myself of the enrichment. And then back onto the lonely little country roads and winding down the hill and the sun came out to sparkle on the wet grass and summer flowers and pick out the shaggy coats of the cows as they stood watching me incuriously curious. This one was my favourite, all alone in his field and I spose unhappy in his loneliness, he stared at me and then followed me for 20 minutes or so, ambling slowly alongside the fence

I almost danced down the hill, past the trout fishery, down and down and back to Howwood. The world was gloriously beautiful as you can see


And the small things full of wonder.

Once the sun was out the pictures came alive of course, the light against dark clouds extraordinary and beautiful. Still, the sun did not come out for long, and played hide and seek with the rain which never quite let up. It had almost disappeared again for the last look back to where I had come from:

And now I am sitting in an airport, on my way to London and 4 days of great things…

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