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Monday, 25 September 2017

Landscape, Chocolate Boxes and All Quiet

picture by jem southam from the River Winter.

One of the great inspirations for All Quiet on the Home Front is the work of Jem Southam (I write about it here).

His work is layered with history and meaning but somehow the being of the landscape always stays supreme. It always has an integrity and a sense of being that is independent of those layers.

    Jem Southam Dewpond

So though geological, anthropological and cultural meanings are apparent in his pictures of rivers and rockfalls and dewponds, the places he shows us take us beyond those human interpretations. For some reason it's the dewponds that really fascinate me . Dewponds are ponds in pastures that cows drink from. They date back hundreds, sometimes thousands of years which gives them a life and a soul that goes way beyond the photograph.

It's landscape photography but it is photography with soul that reaches into the nether regions of your brain. And I think soul matters. It's the great intangible that makes something really, really good. You can't really teach it, or write about, you just have to feel it. And that, strangely enough is what makes it so concrete. There's no getting away from something that has some soul to it. Just as there's no getting away from something that is utterly and soulless.

Southam's work is also linked to the idea of how we live in the landscape, and beyond the landscape. And that ties in to our very idea of who we are, what we are and where we live, and the hierarchies that are assumed in that living. Very, very often people think of landscape photography being a kind of chocolate box photography, or a glory of HDR (all of which has its place, why not). This is what I got when I googled landscape photography.

Google Beautiful Landscape Photography and this is what you get.

Google Bad Landscape Photography and you get this. There's quite a few paths, and some lightning. There's even a fucking traffic cone in there. Ha ha ha!

So mention landscape photography even to very sophisticated people and they do sometimes think it's people trying to make chocolate box pictures or be Ansel Adams. And there's nothing wrong with being Ansel Adams if you're Ansel Adams. If you're not why would you bother, just as why would you bother being Robert Frank or Irving Penn. What's the point really?

But there's this whole wormhole of landscape and nature photography that overlaps with nature writing, with psychogeography, that ties in to junk art and found art, and goes back to Survey Photography, 18th century painting, right down to the enclosures act, the division of labour, and the marginalisation of women.

It's  can be infuriating at times (because there's such an overlap with complex philosophical ideas that can bog it down in theory) but it can also be incredibly revealing of how we live and why the world is the way it is. A few years ago, I organised a day of talks with Max Houghton (project-managed by Alejandro Acin of ICVL) called Sound, Word and Landscape. and this touched on some of these ideas and it was really so revealing of how sound, word, biography, selfhood, and walking link in to and add to our visual understanding of the landscape. Jem Southam was there and the way he talked about his work added layer upon layer to what was already a very rich surface.

There's also a massive overlap with historical ideas idea of landscape, which is so laden with art-historical meaning that it is almost impossible to escape the ideologies and romances associated with it. So the idea of the land in the UK 100 years ago is not the same as the idea of the land now, but its history is embedded in how we see it. The idea of the land and the way it was represented 2 or 300 years ago is something past, but it still lives on in our idealisations and romanticisation of something that is actual quite brutal and harsh. We can never quite escape the old categorisations of the picturesque, the beautiful and the sublime. And people who don't really get landscape photography absolutely never get over this. It's almost like somebody who doesn't understand Flemish, dismissing it simply because they don't understand. "It doesn't actually mean anything does it. They're just pretending to understand each other." they might say when they heard a conversation held in Flemish (and somebody did say that to me once).

Southam layers these past meanings into his pictures. There's a shabbiness to his landscapes that they stop being landscapes. They're never grand enough to be sublime, they're never pretty enough to be romantic, they have a human element to them, but it's overwhelmed by the unpredictabilities of the actual land.

There's the idea of space being something produced (and Lefebvre wrote about this in the Production of Space. And Mitchell wrote about it in a slightly different way in Landscape and Power). So you have Perceived Space, Conceived Space and Lived Space. Southam's landscapes are neither perceived, conceived or lived space - they're something else altogether. They're landscapes where those perceived, conceived and lived elements are secondary characteristics. His are geological landscapes with a presence more permanent than the ephemeral elements that Lefebvre describe.

It's that presence that Awoiska van der Molen works with in her supremely dark images of forests, volcanoes and landscapes. It's work that is most evident in prints that just suck you into another world, and it's quite a dark world which is beyond our control. She takes us into forests, into the sea, into volcanoes and they do become places that are above and beyond us in every way. They're not part of us, we're not that significant. We might be part of them, but we're probably not even that important. They really are quite monumental.

But though the prints are the thing (and they are, they really are. They're big Black Square constructions), her two books are also wonderful. I talked with Joerg Colberg about Sequester for his book, Understanding Photobooks (which is a really strong and organic introduction to editing, sequencing and publishing photobooks), and I also reviewed Blanco and wrote this:

It starts with a picture of a mountainside covered with what might be birch trees. There’s a diffused delicacy that comes through both the plumes of white that cover the trees as well as a softness in the image. It’s an optimistic opening where new life blooms, but at the same time there is something suffocating about it, as though this is mould enveloping the earth.

We start with life and death then, but it’s not our life. People are of no importance in Blanco. And then things go dark as we are sucked into an image of a charcoal grey sea set against a volcanic field of gravel and jagged rock. This is the kind of landscape Ingmar Bergmann sought to escape in Passolini’s Stromboli, a landscape where life is at a remove, something fragile that clings on despite the landscape rather than because of it.

It’s not land that seeks to accommodate the human presence and so it has something penitential about it. To make the work, Van Der Molen submerged herself in these places (which are not identified for fear of the intellectual resonances of that identification affecting our emotional responses), staying in them for weeks on end to attune herself to the nuances and tempers of the land, the sea, the light and the life.

It’s this that you experience in the photographs, the ineffable nature of becoming one with land where we don’t know whether it’s dawn or dusk, night or day.  So there’s a timelessness to go with that hostility to human ideas of what life is or should be. Van Der Molen’s landscapes suck you into their darkness then. They are an invitation to ponder the insignificance of our place in the world. We are simply not that important.  

 In Understanding Photobooks I talked about the ways in which she brings viewers into her images, something which Adam Bell expanding upon with reference to the book form. It's classic abstract expressionism but with a personal element overlapping with a geological elements and material form. It's really, really beautiful work.

The Photographers' Gallery

I've never met Awoiska and Awoiska's never met me, but we got to know each other through our work. I love her work and when I started putting up All Quiet on the Home Front on Instagram, her l comments showed she understood where my pictures were coming from which really touched me. We always talk about the superficiality of likes and comments and how social media is a big echo chamber, all of which is completely true. But at the same time, you can filter out when somthing really matters to people and this can help you direction and a confidence in your work. You do get people (and I remember you quite specifically) who will let you know when something is really good. Or not. And that matters.

Awoiska was one of many people I asked for feedback on All Quiet as it went in progress and her advice (as was everyone's) was invaluable in shaking the book and making it what it will be. I also asked for an endorsement from Awoiska, and this is what she said. Thank you Awoiska!

'When seeing these images randomly passing by at Instagram a few years ago, I was struck by the captivating intimacy right away.

Witnessing a growing up girl in her real world that could also be her fantasy world. And she lets the photographer, her father, be part of this.

With capturing these passing years of his daughter he captures himself as well.

Rarely does a male photographer share this openly his personal thoughts and fears in a photo book’.

Which was just beautiful.

As well as being a book about being a child, being a father, and the frailties of that position, it's also a landscape book. It's very much a landscape book. The places in All Quiet on the Home Front are scrappy landscapes. They're marginal places that have a history - Solsbury Hill is the site of old Celtic and medieval settlements. You can still see the terracing on the flat hilltop. Brown's Folly is an old stone mine. And Bicycle Mountain is land made when the Avon was diverted to build the Great Western Railway.

But all that is incidental. It's there but it is surpassed. In the way that Isabel and I inhabited these landscapes, there was a kind of physical restructuring of the places we played in. They aren't perceived or conceived or lived in. They became something different - simply places of being, where we fit into the land and not the other way round. Despite all of the social, cultural and economic histories, the landscapes lived us, we didn't live the landscapes.

It's strange looking back at it now, because there's a definite nostalgia to those places which you can see in the films (Film 1 here and Film 2 on Vogue Italia here). They've become incorporated into a memory of a past identity, a past relationship. They've been transformed by time, but in the images themselves, there's still that sense of the independence of the land from the human experience. And I still remember that.

Buy the Subscriber's Edition of All Quiet on the Home Front Here.

Buy the Regular Edition of All Quiet on the Home Front Here.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Drawings of Photographs: All Quiet on the Home Front

Fantastic. Isabel's been sketching the template for the linocut she's going to put on the box (you have to have a box!) for the subscriber's edition of All Quiet on the Home Front! Look below for the original print.

Buy the Subscriber's Edition of All Quiet on the Home Front Here.

Buy the Regular Edition of All Quiet on the Home Front Here.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Publishing Anxiety Dreams, Sweatography and Special Editions

In the press release for All Quiet on the Home Front I write about a dream I had when Isabel was a child. It goes like this:

When Isabel was a baby I had a dream. In the dream it was Christmas. We lived above a pub in a single room crammed with old pub furniture. In one corner was a Christmas tree. It had real candles, all of which were balanced precariously on the tree’s branches. It also had electric lights which were plugged into the socket using bare, sparking wires. And instead of sitting in a bowl of water, it sat in a bowl of acid.
That sense of claustrophobia, morbidity, and anxiety is apparent in All Quiet on the Home Front. It is a reflection of the fears that sat deep within me all when I became a parent; the fear of my daughter’s death, my own death, and my built in obsolescence and redundancy as a parent. To escape this claustrophobia, the banging off the walls and the endless ‘playing’, I took Isabel outside into the landscapes around our home in Bath. The woods of Brown’s Folly, growing out of the contours of an old stone mine, the scrappy bmx track built on the banks of the River Avon, and the Celtic hilltop of Solsbury Hill became our playground. These are the landscapes where both Isabel and I found ourselves and this book tells that story.
It’s the story of becoming a child and becoming a father. It’s a self-portrait.

The dream is a typical parent's anxiety dream, a baby anxiety dream. Wait till they're a bit older and they're getting lost in shops and disappearing in Mexico and getting left behind on trains. I think I know a few people all those things really happened to. That's the thing about anxiety dreams, they're a tad too real.

I've written before on this blog about teacher's anxiety dreams. High school teachers started on these a few weeks ago, college lecturers will be starting now. You know the kind of thing - oh no, I'm not wearing any trousers - oh no, there's no room booked - oh no, I absolutely haven't got a clue what I'm doing. Again, a tad too real

I'm guessing students have them too. They turn up at college and dream - oh no, how much am I paying for this - oh no, this is supposed to be a commercial course and nobody knows how to use a camera - oh no, they told me this would be a hands on course but I didn't realise I'd only have one lecture a week!

Then there are photographers' anxiety dreams (read some good ones here) and bookmaking anxiety dreams. Again, the basics are very close to reality - having to pulp the entire print run, getting the colours wrong, getting the images wrong, having a typo in the title, using the cheapest possible printing and paper and not getting away with it, not selling a single copy even to your mum, unintentionally making a book that doesn't open. It's stuff which happens.

I had a book anxiety dream last week. It wasn't very real though. I was unpacking a box of books that had arrived fresh from the printers, getting them ready to be sent to the subscribers. I didn't notice the small baby in a box that was on the floor next to the book crate. He was a nice baby wearing a blue cardigan and white shorts.

And then I dropped a pile of books onto the baby. So I had a dead baby on my hands, only a very small one, about two inches long, but a dead baby all the same.

I was wondering what to do with the baby when I noticed that the baby had disappeared. Instead it's image was now nestling in the back pages of my freshly printed book. All Quiet on the Home Front.

I picked up another copy and looked in that. There was the dead baby again, all squashed and dead, imprinted on the back pages of All Quiet on the Home Front. Every single copy of the book now had an extra image - the one of the dead baby - imprinted as if by magic. 'Mmm, I thought. What if I make this the subscriber's edition? Pay £100 and you get a copy of the book Plus a mysteriously imprinted image of a dead baby in the book. It's amazing value when you think about it.

And then I thought with horror, oh my god no, what am I thinking. What will people think of me if I give them a book with a picture of a dead baby inside. They'll think I'm exploiting a dead baby.

And that's where the dream ended. I woke up in a mild sweat.

You'll be glad to know there are no dead babies in the subscriber's edition of All Quiet on the Home Front. Instead it comes with a print of Isabel that is absolutely beautiful. The colours pop out of the paper and it really is stunning.

(Keep on reading for the incredible Sweatographic images of Reiner Riedler)

Buy the Subscriber's Edition of All Quiet on the Home Front Here.

Buy the Regular Edition of All Quiet on the Home Front Here.

Mmm, I'm not sure that a dream about dead babies and mysterious imprinting is really going to work too well in terms of selling, but so it goes. There is however a bit of a history to mysterious imprintings of images.

Many of them are to do with Jesus, the original iconic image (google Mandylion for this). We all know the Turin Shroud but what about Saint Veronica (Vera Icon=True Icon) who wiped the face of Jesus with his veil as he walked up the Via Dolorosa on his way to Calvary and Crucifixion. And what appeared on the veil? The face of Jesus (enlarged though).

All of this, I discovered yesterday thanks to Reiner Riedler, links directly to contemporary imaging technology. Riedler is working on photographic processes that record images made from sweat (sweatography?). Amazing, but a quick comparison with Saint Veronica's image shows that contemporary sweatography hasn't quite caught up with that from 2,000 years ago.

This is where Riedler's images come from. And they are amazing and completely linked to the whole mystical tradition of image making.

Scientists at the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Modular Solid State Technologies EMFT in Munich are conducting research on perspiration. For this photographic work, they produced a special sensor colorant, which is able to make sweat permanently visible.

all images by Reiner Riedler

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Book of the Month: Monsanto by Mathieu Asselin

                       All images from Monsanto by Mathieu Asselin

At the weekend Tony Fouhse posted a q&a with me on his brilliantly named blog, Drool. He asked me why I still blogged. And I wondered about it because I blow hot and cold on it. At it's best, it's  a place where you can pour out thoughts and get into a writing groove and link images and ideas together and be irreverent and basically do whatever you want. A blog is not an academic paper, or an essay, or an artistic statement. It's a place where you can have a personality and an opinion, it's a verbal sketchbook. And it doesn't have to work all the time and you don't have to be right all the time. In fact you can spout complete cack and chances are nobody will notice the difference. That's why Drool is the perfect name for a blog. It says it all.

But a blog does need to work some of the time, it does need to be coherent. And it can be difficult to have an opinion and a personality and be coherent. Sometimes you get bogged down in things and it becomes a chore. I used to do a lot of book reviews here. It was really enjoyable because you could go in depth into a book and try to see what the photographer/artist was trying to do and how the ideas and the images merged with the material form of the book, the design, the materials.

So I started doing book reviews on the blog  and then they escalated. And they escalated. And they escalated. More and more people would send me more and more books.

'How lucky you must be to get so many books for free,' people would say. Mmm, well not quite free. The piles grew bigger, and the blogging got harder because I tried to review almost everything. It became a chore, more than a chore, so I stopped it. Actually, I didn't stop it. I started doing book reviews in languages that I can't really speak. That worked wonders for stopping the stream of books. Fewer and fewer people started sending me books. I don't have a pile of books anymore. There's passive-agressive language learning for you.

Which is good but also a pity, because I've seen great books I would otherwise never have seen, and even when the book isn't great, I've gained a massive understanding of what people are trying to do, what they are trying to say, how they are mixing images, ideas, archives, materials and trying to make something really special with all their heart. And even if it isn't always successful, it's the unsuccessful ones that show you where people trip up, and the fact that there is this love and attention really means a lot in itself.

The trouble is I do like reviewing and writing about photobooks. So I thought I'd do a compromise with a book of the month . And the first book of the month is Monsanto by Mathieu Asselin.

I first saw shimmers of Monsanto online here and there. And then I saw it while judging the Photobook Bristol Dummy Award in 2016. We got about 100 books sent in for that. There were two that sprang out at all of us within seconds and really selected themselves. One was Mary Hamill's Semper Augustus, the other was Monsanto. I think that was the way it was with pretty much everybody who saw Monsanto and is interested in the world.

Monsanto was one of those books that you just know is good. Obviously good and powerful and with real meaning. That leapt out of the page, it leapt out of the cover. And it leapt out from every page.

The book is about Monsanto and it is scathing from the start. Forget neutrality, forget a balanced opinion, this is a book that has an opinion and is going to give it using text, using archive images, using photography, using press clippings, using first hand testimony, using any means necessary.

The introduction is by an Organic Farmer, Jim Gerritsen from Maine. Monsanto's activities, he says, '...are affecting hundreds of communities and their environment with terrifying health and ecological consequences. The company'...engages in campaigns of misinformation, the persecution of institutions and individuals, including scientists, farmers and activists that dare to disclose its crimes.'

So there you go. There's a statement and the book sets out to prove all of that in no uncertain means. Monsanto is, in this book not as Monsanto would have it the 'farmer's friend', but a soil-deadening, patent-bullying, earth-destroying beast of a machine.

And if you want to get a taste of that, the best way is to use the words of Monsanto itself. The first section is a booklet of old Monsanto advertisements and it is sarcasm personified

They show the propaganda untruths perpetuated by Monsanto and how they overlapped with images to create a brand of toxic modernity. It's the kind of thing any child of the fifties, sixties or seventies will understand, a world where the future is a one pill step of nutrient, where powdered potato (Smash), orange juice (Kool Aid), and deserts (Angel's Delight) are just a stop away from a time when food is instant, convenient and nutritious.

'Chemicals help you eat better' reads one ad. There are flavour enhancers, fire retardants, pesticides - all there to persuade the world, or the United States at least, that the debasement of food, land, air and water is somehow good for us.

Throughout the book, Monsanto's message continues.

'Chemicals help you to live longer.'

'Chemicals help you eat better.'

'There really is no much difference between foods made by mother nature and those made by man.'

'All Man-made foods are tested for safety. And they often provide more nutrition, at a lower cost, thant natural foods.'

Then we're into the hard centre of the book, a chaptered description of Monsanto's doings in the world of men. Asselin takes us to Aniston, Alabama, the home of PCB production and a place where chemical dumping and the poisoning of the land is all too apparent. Asselin reprints a 1969 memo that states 'we can't afford to lose one dollar of business.' They had been aware of the dangers posed by the chemical since 1937 but the lives damaged, destroyed and lost through their actions were nothing compared to one dollar of business lost.

There's a screenshot showing the Monsanto sponsored Disney house of the future from 1957. But this comes against the reality of Monsanto houses of the future in Aniston - in recent years 'Monsanto has bought and demolished around 100 PCB-contaminated houses and businesses in the area, turning the neighbourhood into a virtual ghost town.'

Next up is Agent Orange, the malformations of embryos, and the devastating environmental consequences of the use of this toxic defoliant, the responsibilities for which are evaded. Again we see illegal dump sites where chemical waste was disposed of with devastating consequences to both the environment and to inhabitants health and then we're into Vietnam where Agent Orange was part of  80 million litres of herbicide sprayed across the country -  with repercussions both for Vietnamese and US soldiers. In Vietnam, over 500,000 babies have been born with birth defects, and continue to be born, the book states.

Most shocking of all are the details of Monsanto's seed-selling market, under which '...farmers  can no longer save their seeds for later use, ending a 10,000 year old farming tradition' (Center for food safety).

So buy Monsanto seeds and you have to use them on your farm in one year. There is no saving, no sharing, no cooperation. If you don't have a contract with Monsanto and traces of Monsanto's genetic material are found on your land (from accidental contamination from a neighbouring farm for example) then you face being sued. Over 140 patent infringement cases against farmers 'to ensure that its seeds are not stolen or reused.' And once you've been put through the wringer on that, the only solution if you want to keep on farming is... you've guessed it ...buy Monsanto seeds.

It's a book that wears its heart on its sleeve and it punches home a message by any means necessary. As well as photographys, there are archive materials, advertisments, corporate ads, newspaper clippings, emails and links to videos.

The photographs are sober and brutally descriptive.  They are shot frontally in neutral light and are expository in mode; here is a woman whose father died after being exposed to Agent Orange, this is a river contaminated by waste from illegal dump sites, here is a farmer who was wrongly accused by Monsanto of 'saving seeds', costing him $290,000 in legal fees. It's direct and it's relentless and it is effective.

I read the book cover to cover. I read every caption. Part of this is down to having a fascinating subject and having done the research, another part is down to not overloading the reader with text. Monsanto is not a text light book, let's be clear on that. but thought has gone into how long captions and accompanying chapter introductions should be and they are, considering the subject, short and punchy and accessible.

This is not a book where you are left to make up your own mind because what is there to make your mind up about. They poison the land, they blackmail farmers, they kill unborn babies, you don't exactly need a road map. Asselin is angry and he wants us to be angry too. It works for me.

At the Gazebook Sicily Photobook Festival, Asselin gave a talk in which he said "There is no room for ambiguity." Monsanto is that statement in book form.

Buy Monsanto here.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Film, Forest Washing and Vogue Italia

The first video for All Quiet on the Home Front here on the ICVL Studio website. It's a quite beautiful thing.

The second one is going out on the Vogue Italia website today with a slideshow of images and it is also a quite beautiful thing. The places featured in the films are a BMX track by the River Avon in Bath, Solsbury Hill (here's the song - it's the same place) and Brown's Folly.

The filming was done by Sam Hardie with editing by Alejandro Acin. The filming was all done handheld on a Sony and is absolutely beautiful. It's 50mm 1.4 wide open dreamy and nostalgic and when I first saw the film I was transported into this strange dreamland somewhere between the past and the present.

Isabel's voice accentuates that dreaminess. I remember watching it and thinking 'well, it's beautiful, but maybe it's too beautiful. How does it connect to the book'.

But then I looked again and saw what Sam had been filming all the way through; the light flickering through the trees, the shade of leaves dappled against Isabel's skin. Sam filmed through trees, through shrubs, through the flowers of the invasive species that fill the land surrounding the BMX track.

The beauty isn't coming from the actual places. All of the places we filmed, all of the places in the book are of a type. They are not pastoral landscapes, they are not wilderness landscapes, they are not sublime landscapes, they are completely beat-up post-industrial/post-agricultural landscapes.

But they are outside and there are trees, flowers, leaves and the sights and smells of vegetation growing from the land. There's the smell of the earth, there's the touch of the wind, there's the sense of being in nature, however messy it might be. And it is messy.

The Japanese have this idea of 'forest-bathing' - shinrin-yoku. It's the idea that you go to the forest to bathe your senses in the sights, the sounds, the smells, the touch - and even the taste - and that reduces stress, develops your immune system and does all kinds of other things. Because just as you smell and taste the diesel on your tongue when you're in the city, so you smell and taste the resin, the pollen, the dust when you're in the forest. But where urban particulates kill, arboreal particulates make you flourish. It's the same if you work on a garden or allotment - it boosts your immune system, lowers your heart rate and makes you a better person all round.

Forest-bathing is an antidote to being indoors. It is also calming, it's meditative, it relaxes you. By being outside where there is flora, your brain is taken down a couple of notches. When you're inside your mind is always occupied, not just by the drudgery of everyday existence, but also visually by the grids that dominate our domestic interiors. Everything is more or less ordered. There are straight lines, there are diagonals, there are angles, there are frames. It's the same when we look at a screen - everything is ordered. This ordering means our eyes never get a rest. They are always on the look out for regular patterns and because that is all you have inside, the eyes never stop. And because the eyes never stop, the brain never stops.

Go outside and look at a tree and the picture changes. The shifting leaves are a mass of information, a continually changing pattern of light and shade, of geometric patterns that never quite form a clearly defined shape. It's too much information for the visual cortex to handle, so instead of keeping on working, it simply stops. It's visual overload. It shuts down and then you can rest.

It's also something universal. I remember going to Westonbirt Arboretum with a group of Somali students. It was one of the most touching moments when they all suddenly started looking around what I thought was this incredibly English garden with a sense of joyful nostalgia. The sense of elation combined with calmness was palpable. They all had a nostalgia for the landscapes they grew up in or visited at the weekend. It was a kind of muscle memory of relaxation and it reminded them of home, which was something I found touching but also surprising and revealing of my ignorance.

They were so used to living in the heart of the city and not getting out too much that by the time they got to Westonbirt, to countryside, they were quite overwhelmed. Not by the sight, but by the feeling. Westonbirt reminded them of home! It was something they remembered and something they deserved.

Earlier in the week I wrote about Mathieu Asselin and his book Monsanto. He talked about it at the symposium on photography, politics and change at Gazebook Sicily. He said there is no place for ambiguity in the current political climate, or maybe in any political climate. I'm with him on that. Because I talked about All Quiet on the Home Front at the symposium, and how the personal message can convey something political. I also said that I didn't think that photography could effect change, or not All Quiet on the Home Front.

But maybe I was too hasty. Isabel grew up with these amazing environments on her doorstep and they are what helped make her what she is today. But doesn't everyone deserve the same chance. Shouldn't the essential nature of open, green spaces be recognised for the benefits it provides, shouldn't the cleansing powers of trees and shrubs be available to everybody. For my former students it's not available. Landscape is power after all and in Bristol where they live, in the UK as a whole, the talk is not of providing more green spaces, but of cutting back on green spaces, of removing trees, of making the urban environment even more barren and hostile, because caring for trees, creating a natural environment costs money. And that, with no hint of ambiguity whatsoever, is wrong!

Thursday, 14 September 2017

On Being Interviewed. And Interviewing Myself

The BJP republished a feature I did on Sleeping by the Mississippi back in 2004. It ends well, describing the book as 'the first work from a man with the charm, vision and intelligence to become one of the truly great photographers.'

Which is spot on so I'm very pleased. I'm trying to remember how often I wrote that kind of thing. I'm worried that all these old articles will pop up where I've predicted everyt Tom, Dick and Harry is going to be a photographic genius of sorts. I'm guessing there's a few of them, but if I find them I'm not letting on. It's my secret. I got it right with Alec Soth and that's good enough for me.

So I've been interviewing photographers and writing about photographers for a long time, but I suddenly realised that I haven't often been interviewed. And then Lucy Davies came along and interviewed me for the BJP about All Quiet on the Home Front (and also for the Daily Telegraph below - it looks great and I love the contents underneath. They kind of fit).

It was such a pleasure to be interviewed for a change and to get a different perspective on my work, where it comes from and what it means. After spending so much time in my own bubble, you get stuck in a particular way of thinking and seeing work. Being interviewed gives an insight into what others see in the work, and the way it communicates. I can remember interviewing people and having them say things like "Oh, I've never thought of it like that, but you're right." It always gave me a little thrill to think that I was shaping, if only in a small way, the way somebody saw their own work. Well exactly the same happened with Lucy.

The conversations I've had with people also shows how All Quiet communicates with people and triggers ideas in them in ways that I never really imagined. Talking to people at Gazebook, especially Emilie Lauwers and Lina Pallota really made this hit home in both sad and beautiful ways that go way beyond the photobook and really touch on what it means to be a human being in your own right, and the limitations we have as children, as parents, as siblings, as men or women, the ways we inflict those limitations on others, and how we can avoid doing that.

I also did an interview with Tony Fouhse (for his blog, Drool) who I've featured extensively on this blog - because he does amazing work. I think it will go out on sunday, but here are some of of the  questions that are partially answered here, that Tony asks - and some that he doesn't.

Why do you still have a blog?

So I can do things like this, so things can be random and so I can swear? This deserves a longer answer.

Why doesn't your blog have a good name like Drool or Conscientious?

Drool's great. Conscientious! Really! 

Why is ICVL publishing the book?

Because Alejandro Acin, the director of ICVL is the creative heart of photography in Bristol.

Are you a salesman?

Ha ha ha. 

Why not?

Selling is painful. I'm feeling it already.

Why not Crowdfunding?

a) I've never wanted to kill myself and I don't want to start now.

b) I don't have enough rich friends.

c) See the Are you a Salesman question.

d) I am fully aware of and envious of those who don't fulfil the b and c answers above, but still complete their target in 22 hours.

Have you ever interviewed yourself?

I think I'm doing it now and I'm getting a taste for it.

Where can we buy the book? And what does it look like?

Good question. See below. It looks great and it feels great and it's getting great responses. Buy it now. 

See the proper interview on Drool this Sunday.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

All Quiet: Landscape, Dress and History

Francis Cotes: The Young Cricketer (1768)

It was quite difficult talking at Gazebook about my work.  I've talked about my German Family Album (at Paris Photo in 2014, and Vienna in 2015), about basic plots and modes of discourse (at Gazebook 2016) and about Empathy, or the lack of it in photography (at the Magnum Empathy in Photography talk at the Barbican in 2016) but I've never talked about something finished and for sale like All Quiet on the Home Front. And All Quiet is something that is freshly born - actually it's not even born yet. Maybe the head's showing, or the water's have broken, or something. It's in the process anyway.

So I'm still a bit tentative, I'm  trying the talk on if you like. All Quiet on the Home Front is about many things - but when you are talking about something for 20 minutes you can't talk about all those things. It would be a mess, especially when what you're saying is being consecutively translated.

All Quiet on the Home Front is about being a parent and being a child. It's quite an emotional book in that way and it's interesting and quite touching to see how many people respond to it on that level; both from the child's perspective and a parental perspective.

It's also about the body and the landscape - and I had conversatons where people (women in particular) responded to it very strongly and positively on that level.  It's also about dress, and it's about gender. And it ties into representations of landscape and childhood that go back to the Georgian era and beyond.

When I started making All Quiet, I remember going to see The Age of Innocence exhibition at the Holbourne Museum in Bath - with paintings by Reynolds, Hogarth, Zoffany and Van-dyck detailing how our conception of childhood has shifted over the years, but can still be traced back to the 18th century when bourgeois representations of childhood started changing  as new models of family life and idealised childhood came into play.

Lewis Cage, the Young Cricketer by Sir Francis Cotes featured in the exhibition. It captures the dynamism of childhood and hints at what is to come. It's intensely physical, vividly androgynous and espouses the philosophy of Rousseau - a philosophy which (as it says in the Age of Innocence catalogue) 'rejected conventional academic learning in favour of a simple,outdoor upbringing. The former corrupted children with superficial knowledge and prejudice and left them physically weak: only nature and experience could give a child true understanding and strengthen him for the trials of manhood.'.

So there's that; the idea that the child has a being uncorrupted by society. It's really leading the way to the Victorian trammelling of childhood into something to be tamed and controlled.

But tied into this idea of childhood is the idea of the landscape. The Georgian period was when the idea of the landscape in itself came into being in the modern way, when land became something to be exploited for human use rather than something to be lived on. You could either divide it and exploit it economically, or you could find your elevated view or pile of ruins and exploit it visually. Instead of being something we were immersed in, the land became something we were above..

You can see that in the landscape behind Lewis Cage, with its managed lawns and winding pathways. It's a tamed landscape. But it is also a metaphorical landscape with its dark patches hinting at an infant mortality, the brighter paths hinting at the bright future ahead of him should he survive the ravages of 18th century health care (and infant mortality  in 18th century Britain was around 20% - perhaps half that if you were in the upper classes).

The clothes are also notable. They're loose, they're free, they allow the young Lewis Cage to run and be mobile, to be part of the landscape. He's a young man in the offing (though he's not a man yet as the trousers. He's been sensually disempowered by his transformation into a girl, but luckily there's a cricket bat that will marks his potential to become a man. He's halfway there already.

The Age of Innocence by Sir Joshua Reynolds

You can see what that disempowerment means in this picture by Sir Joshua Reynolds. It was titled the Age of Innocence sometime after the fact. It's a generic picture (a fancy picture of 'types' that were painted at the time). The landscape here is very different. There are no paths, there are no possibilities. She is stuck under her tree and that is where she will stay, trapped by a world that has no shining paths outwards. Her position is decided.

And her body and dress lack energy and dynamism. Her hands are powerless, her legs bent over her limp and useless and her dress is shapeless and serves only to cover. This is very much in contrast to the young Lewis Cotes. Where Lewis Cotes is coiled up energy with multiple possibilities that he can inflict on the world, the young girl in Age of Innocence is impotent, a piece of putty to be shaped by others.

Images have power, landscapes have an ideology and so does dress, and the two can go together and combine. There are no accidents in painting as you can see in the Young Cricketer and the Age of Innocence. I think what's interesting to me about All Quiet on the Home Front is how much it goes beyond fatherhood or being a parent - though of course that is to the fore.

All Quiet is about landscape, our relationship with the land and about body and dress. When I got feedback and endorsements from people, these were the elements people responded to, this is what I thought about. I didn't want it to be a book just about one thing. I wanted to touch many bases.

One of the people I am really grateful to for sending an endorsement is Alessia Glavianno of Vogue Italia. I've taught on Fashion courses and I developed an appreciation of the history of fashion and dress and the way that the best of fashion overlaps with music, with subculture, with sexuality and with storytelling in all its glory. Alessia personifies that approach. These are the beautiful words she wrote about All Quiet on the Home Front.

 'Why, in exploring these pages, the photos and the small texts that accompany them, do we feel such an intense feeling of both familiarity and strangeness? 

The intimacy that this progression of images, thoughts and, ultimately, life arouses is very strong and matched only by the blinding compactness that can in no way be overcome or broken down. It is not our world, these are not our affections, yet all this concerns and touches us so intimately. Everything speaks of us and to us, speaks to each one of us and says something very personal and extraordinarily intimate to all.

Everything in this book makes us feel part of the family and, a mere instant after, cut off from the outset and forever from a world that does not belong to us. Then, weakly at first and ultimately very strongly a feeling arises that is not unwelcome, but which thanks to this sense of alienation, tells us that this story of life touches the experience of each of us with great strength and delicacy. 

Touching, provoking, indulging our sensitive points, both happy and sorrowful ones, both joyful and sad ones. Summoning those tears and those smiles that are ours alone and no one else’s, but which without these photos we would find it harder to rediscover, hear, feel.'

Here is a guide to the Young Cricketer by the director of Dulwich Picure Gallery.