Friday, 24 October 2014

Salvi Danes' Invention of Landscape


Transmonatnus by Salvi Danes is an elegant little book of black and white images by Salvi Danes. Published by Ediciones Anomalas in Spain, it tells the poetic story of returning to the landscape one knew as a child and seeing it with fresh eyes, reliving the experience and being of the place you once knew and feeling the eddies of those past experiences mingle with the sensations of the present.

It's a book where the textures of the landscape, the feel of the wind in your hair, the looking and the waiting are written into the images. They seem almost nostalgic and a little bit magical - there are stairs that go nowhere and doors that hang in the middle of fields.

But there are also the piercing eyes of the present. At times Danes seems to yank us away from our reverie into the here and now. We are yanked out of our naive childhood memories, memories that are invented and unreliable in any case and placed back into the harshness of the immediate present.

Landscapes are invented says Danes, and memories, childhood and time are invented too. Transmontanus is a visual depiction of those memories that is quiet, elegant and rather lovely.

Buy the book here. 





Thursday, 23 October 2014

"Slavs Never Lived Good" - Kate Nolan's Neither

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"Maybe life here isn't that good as in Western Europe but honestly, Slavs never lived good."

That cuts to the chase of Kate Nolan's Neither, a book about the women of Kalingrad - a Russian exclave stuck between Poland and Lithuania. It's an isolated place with borders that were closed at the fall of communism, a place neither part of Europe nor part of the Greater Russia it belongs to. It's a place, like most places, where it's difficult to be a woman and that is what the book is about; the expectations of being the woman you're supposed to be at the expense of the woman who you are.

Kalingrad wasn't always Russian. When it was German territory it was called  K√∂nigsberg, but following the Second World War, the Germans were forcibly removed and Russian transmigrants were put into their place.

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It wasn't an easy move to make. Nolan sources archival interviews with some of the women who moved into the ruins of  K√∂nigsberg in 1945, the first steps into a hostile and desolate city that was still in a state of upheaval. And we hear from the present inhabitants, women who are on de-facto Russian land but not completely part of Russia, who are in a massive state of in-betweeness, neither East nor West, but somehow chugging along with live in one of the weirder geographical accidents of history.

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The no-man's land nature of Kalingrad comes across in the pictures. Brutalist architecture and Soviet interiors are visible, as are Communist era cars and women who are living fully up to the 'Slavs-not-living-good' line. Old pillboxs, men in uniform and rows of new apartment blocks come and we end with a woman in a leather jacket and black skirt looking out of the decaying window of a tenement stairwell.

Neither is a really smart book that is beautifully produced and thought out (though the strip of pages at the bottom feels fiddly and redundant). It's another example of a book re-examining the aftermath of the Second World War, this time from the perspective of the Russian women who moved into the city in 1945 and the women who live there now. And it is these perspectives that appear in the cracks of the image, mirroring the texts past and present.


Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Allotments as Psychoanalysis

The pictures here are from Alicia Bruce's Digging for Diamonds, on show at Woodend Barn (and on the allotments) from this Saturday onwards.

I love allotment pictures because I like allotments; the chaotic randomness of them, the DIY disasters of homemade sheds, raised beds and make-do-and-mend growing conditions. The great thing about British allotments (compared to German or Austrian ones) is they are full of this chaos. You do get experts in allotments who grow their food on an semi-industrial basis and know their way around bugs, pests and weeds like a vegetable growing Capability Brown. But for the most part, the people who work on their allotments chaos their way through life. Even the ones who really know what they are doing and create harvests that last year long do it through a kind of allotment intuition. Their habits get engrained and the allotment becomes a strange extension of self.

And then the allotment becomes a kind of geographic rorscharch test. It is a window to the soul, a place where you can read who somebody is through the lines of their raised beds, the vegetables that they grow and the flowers that they show. Think of the weeds and flowers as the id, the fruit and vegetables as the ego, and the tunnels, beds and netting as the Superego and you have a precise and scientific analytic tool that, from my observations at least, covers every neurosis and personality type. Add in the sheds, the handling of vegetables and the relationship to the earth and you have the entire history of psychoanalysis covered with every phase of life apparent in the interaction between allotment holder and the soil.

The allotment then is a form of therapy, and it is so much cheaper, healthier and more effective than the one where you lie on a couch.

Anyway, Bruce's lovely pictures show both how people interact with their vegetable spaces as well as featuring a series of vegetable trophy pictures. They are on show at Woodend Barn, which is a community arts space right by the allotments. Allotments and art! There's a step in the right direction.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Mark Mattock's Rivers and Fish

I met Mark Mattock at a the Bristol Photobook Festival and the propaganda events where he gave me his latest book, The Angler Who Fell toEarth. That tells you where the book is coming from. It’s a book that on the surface seems to be about fishing, but with an otherworldly twist. It’s a musical riff from the city to the water with pike, barbel and lures along the way. But aside from the angling, it’s a book about rivers; about walking along them, being next to them, looking into them.

It starts with an spread of leaves and tree roots and snail trails that look like they are suspended in sunlit water, or is it window pane lit from the inside. It’s not clear. It’s one of those pictures where stars and galaxies mix with the leaves and roots to give a sense of mystery.

And it’s exactly that sense of mystery that is what’s best about the book, a mystery that replicates why rivers are so wonderful. I spent my day yesterday on the lovely River Dart and can see in Mattock’s picture a sense of shared experience; there are the dark shimmers of water that you look at with the sun in front of you, the leaves on the water, the beautiful but chemical-looking swirls of scum that line up in the eddies and the pools.

A beautiful pairing of shimmering current bordered by reads is paired with the ripples of a horse’s eyebrows. There’s dark water and there’s light water, rolled up coils of undergrowth and seeping pools on damp water meadows.

A pair of swan wings add a sense of the essential role of rivers in death, while a feather sitting in a bed of blown-off dandelion seeds flicks over to their life force. They are another way of seeing the world, a natural counterpoint to the roads and highways that sadly shape our lives. So we see the viaducts and bridges, the graffiti daubed tunnels that really are another world to that of the road above.

Because Mattock is an angler, we also get that side. There are lures, and pike and barbel. We see the shadow of Mattock fishing and we see the journey he takes to the river from his home in London, the mix of the urban and the rural. There are references to his children and his childhood and always to fishing.

I like fish, but I like rivers more. I live in Bath where the river Avon flows and every week I swim in, walk along or boat on the river. Every week I stare into the still, dark water or lose myself in the currents of Warleigh, Pulteney or Bathampton Weir. I listen to the spray, and gaze into the boiling surges. And I never get bored doing it.

Being by water is something that’s in our blood, something old and inescapable, that touches the parts of us that lie beneath. And that is what Mattock has done with his lyrical book; he’s captured, in a very visual and very beautiful way, what it is to be by water.

And if that sounds too romantic, I’ll end with a found note that is reproduced in the book.

‘You have been so BUSTED!
But PLEASE shoot downstream
Still it’s a very romantic setting!!
By the way..

We Know who you are J

Friday, 17 October 2014

Beyonce's Camera

What camera do you own and what does it say about your personality? I share a camera with Beyonce, a Fuji x-100, but then I share that camera with everybody who wants a cool-looking camera. And I'm not sure that's a good thing.

But we get a cool looking camera and get to share it with Beyonce and Jay-Z, so that ain't bad; I used to have a little Ricoh and so Terry Richardson! Sharing with Bey is way better than sharing with Tel.

But then I've still got a Hasselblad and Neil Armstrong had (no getting picky here) a Hasselblad on the moon. And you don't get cooler than that?

Unless you're talking Robert Capa. There's no-one cooler than Capa and Capa used Contaxes and I used Contaxes too. What a Dreamboat! 

You get weirder than Capa though. I used to have a whole bunch of electric Rolleis. I liked the electric Rolleis (until they broke) and so did Roger Ballen? 

Which makes me an amalgam of Beyonce, Ballen, Armstrong, Capa and Tel. Which, with a few misgivings along the way isn't bad. 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Manchuria, The West Bank and School Playgrounds

Noriko was a Japanese student I once taught, but unlike Michiko (who you can read about in yesterday's post) she came from a position of privileged ignorance. She was lovely and kind and was part of a fantastic class that had Japanese, Greek, Iranian and Chinese students in it. Everybody was incredibly smart, tolerant and generous to each other and Noriko was at the heart of all that kindness.

Then one day, one of the Chinese students was talking about China and where her parents came from in the far north-west, in Manchuria. And that's when Noriko piped up. "Oh, that's Manchuko," she said. "My grandfather was the top general there."

And then there was silence. The Japanese committed horrendous crimes in China including biological and chemical testing as well as having camps where humans were experimented on. This was like happily telling a Jew or a Czech that your grandfather is Dr Mengele or Reinhard Heydrich and expecting them to be happy about it.

But Noriko didn't know this. And this was understood. And so for the next few days, the Chinese student would take her Noriko away and give her a new interpretation of both Japanese and her own family history. And Noriko listened and took it all in, wiser but sadder.

It was a lesson in tolerance and the ability to listen to and understand something very difficult to hear (that had possibly been nestling in the back of Noriko's mind). And maybe it was only something that could happen outside the heated environments of accusation and denial that you might have in China or Japan.

I often think of Noriko and her miraculous ability to grasp something that must have been so personally shattering. I wonder at the ability of both Noriko and the Chinese student to engage with each other on terms that lie outside the usual political discourse, on terms that you will never see in the news or on television.

And sometimes I connect it to something happening in the news, something where the two sides are so diametrically opposed that even as an outsider, one is infected by the driven bile and hatred of one side to the other, bile and hatred that appears to be ubiquitous and all encompassing, but that still has little chinks in, little gaps where there is a willingness to understand and take responsibility for one's own failings and not just blame others, where the humanity of the opposing party is recognised in at least some form - and because of it becomes less of an opposing party.

One place where the Noriko homily pops up is with Israel and Palestine. I don't know that much about these countries ( and Palestine was recognised as a state in the UK this week) and I have limited sympathy for Palestine and even more limited sympathy for Israel. Sometimes it is hard to get beyond the hypocrisy, cruelty and backwardness of both sides.

But maybe that's because when I talk about both sides, I talk about the leadership one sees on TV, or the despicable spokesman who pops up every few years to justify war crimes and murder, or the police state that imposes a culture of violence on its people.

On the few occasions that I see people or words that go beyond this (albeit engrained) rhetoric of opposition and enmity, then I identify more. It might be reading the Fuck Everyone statement by Gaza youth. It goes like this

"Fuck Hamas. Fuck Israel. Fuck Fatah. Fuck UN. Fuck UNWRA. Fuck USA! We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community!
"We want to scream and break this wall of silence, injustice and indifference like the Israeli F16s breaking the wall of sound; scream with all the power in our souls in order to release this immense frustration that consumes us because of this fucking situation we live in...

Or it might be watching a film like Lemon Tree, an Israeli-made film that details both the injustices of the West Bank occupation but through the distant relationship between the wife of the Israeli Defence Secretary and a Palestinian lemon farmer.

But the trouble is it's Israel and it's Palestine and so not everything is so illuminating. And that's where we come back to photography and Nick Waplington's brilliantly photographed Settlement.

This is a book that Waplington says shows images '...created between 2008 and 2013, when I photographed over 350 distinct settlements, from populous cities like Ariel to tiny outposts made up of a few caravans. The exact number of settlements cannot be determined with accuracy, as both construction and demolition take place regularly throughout the region. In general, however, the presence of Jewish settlers in the West Bank is entrenched and their building projects continue with the support of the state of Israel.'

No kidding! Settlement is taking a solid, objective tone. Waplington is not trying to untangle the politics of occupation and settlement, he's simply showing it. And there are maps and references to back this up. Settlement is what it is, nothing more and nothing less. Except of course it's not.

Is it possible in such a charged landscape to be neutral, objective? Is there such a thing? I don't think so  but I think the idea of objectivity may be a central element to the book. And that's what makes it so very, very interesting and so very, very difficult.

It's a fantastic book; the landscapes are charged, and the simple family portraits of settlers come with a subtext, a history and a projected future. Some people find them sympathetic, portraits of family who gain strength from each other and do not look outwards.

picture above by James Mollison

 But I didn't get that feeling whatsoever. I found them hard and brutalised, in the same way I found James Mollison's picture (see above) of a Palestinian school in the West Bank hard and brutalised. I don't know if this is coming from my own very limited background knowledge of the West Bank and what is happening there now, or if Waplington is putting something into the pictures. I think it's probably the former because Waplington does have a sympathy towards the settlers. That might come out to one audience but to another (including this viewer), the portraits are anything but sympathetic.

What it amounts to is quite devastating; a folding over of landscape into power, of religion into family, of control and dominion that combines those elements of pioneering farming with annexation and occupation.

There's no middle ground here though, The people who are photographed are single-minded and will not budge. That's why Waplington has made it in the way he has I guess; as a mapping, of the land and of the people who live there. The future is bleak and it does not blink. Unless you think differently, and then it's all bright and lovely, with a little bit of struggle along the way; The One-State Utopia?

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Whatever Evil is, it wasn't in that Room

picture from Kikuji Kawada's The Map

Last night Richard Flanagan won the Booker Prize with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It's the story that connects to  his father's experiences on the Thai-Burma Railway - as Flanagan says "Between 100,000 and 200,000 died. More than died at Hiroshima. More corpses than there are words in my novel."

Flanagan worked for 12 years to tell this story. He told it as a love story because he says that while war stories dark about death, war also illuminates love which is the greatest expression of hope. It's what we live for.

And because it's what we live for, it's what we want to read about. Flanagan has every reason to be self-indulgent and wallow in his father's misery, but it seems like he's translating the story for readership. He's reaching out, he's editing, he's adapting, he's simplifying, he's making it a story that has been written for the reader. It's written on the reader's terms. I think an interesting question here is how often do photographers do this?; go out to the reader and sacrifice their self-indulgence to tell the story well? How often do they do this, how often don't they do this?

I haven't read the book, I only read an excerpt that appeared in the Guardian at the Weekend. All six of the books were highlighted, but for me, Flanagan's (along with Ali Smith's) were the ones that stood out. Here's an excerpt.

I went to Japan. There I searched and found several guards who had worked on the Death Railway. Five minutes before meeting with one guard I realised he was the man who had been the Ivan the Terrible of my father's camp, the man the Australians called the Lizard. Sentenced to death for war crimes after the war, the Lizard later had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment, and then was released in a general amnesty in 1956. He is the only man I ever heard my father – a gentle, peaceful man – talk of with violent intent.
The meeting was in the offices of a taxi company in suburban Tokyo. Lee Hak Rae, as he is now, was a gracious old man. Near the end of our meeting, I asked him to slap me. Violent face slapping – known as binta– was the immediate form of punishment in the camps, doled out frequently and viciously. On the third blow, the taxi office began to shake and toss violently, like a dinghy in a wild sea.
In one of those coincidences in which reality delights but fiction, for fear of being unrealistic, never permits, a 7.3 Richter scale earthquake had hit Tokyo. For half a minute I saw the Lizard frightened. I saw too that wherever evil is, it wasn't in that shuddering room with that old man and me.

I haven't read the book yet, I'm just going on the 500 words or so he wrote for the Guardian - but if he can make the story interesting, and magical, in 500 words, then I'll bet the book is interesting too. From the quote above it seems to me that he's humanising the inhuman, and that's what makes the story interesting. It gives it another dimension that goes beyond the usual heads or tails, good and evil dialogue. It's why Studio Ghibli is better than Disney, why Doris Lessing is more profound than Dan Brown.
And it's the same with good photography, or interesting photography. It gives three dimensions, it tells parts of the story that haven't been told before, it questions our assumptions, and it reaches out to the viewer on the viewer's terms. Certainly there's a place for self-referential streams of consciousness but it should only be a niche; a niche within a niche. 
I wrote last week about Silent Histories, Kazuma Obara's  excellent book on victim's of the American bombing in the Second World War. In addition to this, the book also questions Japanese society's attitude to the war and its victims. But I wondered at whether there are Japanese photobooks that focus exclusively on the role of the Japanese military in the Second World War, that look at people like Lee Hak Rae and what they did in the war and how they feel now. There are plenty of photobooks made at the time that wondered at the glory of the Japanese Imperial Army, but ones that wonder at the brutality, that question Japan's role in Asia in the 1930s and 1940s? I couldn't think of any and I ran it by a few people who know about Japanese photobooks and nobody could come up with anything. 
But that doesn't mean they don't exist or they won't exist. A few years ago when I taught English, I had a couple of Japanese students. The first was called Michiko. She was five foot two, with pigeon toes, chubby thighs and she wore Miffy socks. She was 30 but she looked 13. Her classmates were Swiss lawyers, Brazilian economists and Italian philosophers. At the start of the course, she was patronised to an extent I have never witnessed before. It was quite disgusting and I can honestly say I have wiped out the memory of everybody else in that class from my mind. But Michiko bore it all with good grace and at the end of her first week I found out why. Everybody gave a presentation on what they were studying. The Swiss talked about law, the  Brazilians about economics and it was all very good. I felt for Michiko who had chosen to go last. 
And so she came to the front and she started. "My name is Michiko and I am going to talk about the research I am doing for my PhD on the role of the Japanese Imperial Army in forced prostitution in Korea during the Second World War."
Oh my Giddy aunt. It was like something from a film where the tables are turned on the class bullies. After that, nobody ever patronised Michiko ever again. From that moment on, she was greeted with only politeness and respect by the other students. And a little fear. They were afraid of her and Michiko knew it. She knew it and she enjoyed it because she knew she was kinder, smarter and tougher than them. She didn't look it, but she was.