Tuesday, 16 September 2014
I interviewed Joan Fontcuberta for the BJP this summer. It was one of my favourite interviews of all time because by the time it was finished I didn't know which way was up and which way was down. The fact that guys in white kept on walking behind Fontcuberta during the Skype interview probably helped as well. I thought he was in some kind of Dojo somewhere running through his killer moves, but he wasn't... But he might have been.
The basic gist of Fontcuberta's work is 'don't trust the packaging'. And because the 'packaging' takes up at least 90% of all photographic work, it ends up as don't trust anything you see. But the problem is we do believe the things that we see, even though we should know better. This is what Fontcuberta said;
“We may not believe images in our conscious minds, but in our unconscious minds we do believe them. In both our individual unconscious and the collective unconscious.” This collective consciousness influences how narratives are presented to people and how we read them and it is these that Fontcuberta seeks to undermine. “I’m interested in fakes and fictions. I think there are 3 levels of fictions; criticism, parody and pastiche. I use fiction to create a critical discourse of how information is transmitted and filtered through academic and cultural institutions.”
Those academic and cultural filters are what make photography a fiction in other words. Or maybe it's non-fiction in which the packaging and the filters (galleries, museums, books, archives, magazines, blogs...) that are contained in the means of production, presentation and dissemination are the plane where reality strikes.
Anyway, if you want to get a taste of Fontcuberta's work The Nature of Photography contains extracts and the introductory essays on key works; it is a fantastic introduction into how photography works and how and and why we believe it in particular situations.
“I like to consider my work a vaccine where you inoculate the world with a very weak virus so it will protect you against the big virus. My mission is just to warn people about the possibility that photography can be doctored, that people need to be critically sceptical of images that format our behaviour and our way of thinking.”
You can also see Fontcuberta's exhibition Stranger than Fiction at The Science Museum in London. Most of his great projects are on show here (Fauna, Herbarium, Miracles...) but Sputnik (Fontcuberta's fictional project on a Russian cosmonaut - those are his images above) is missing, supposedly because the Museum thought that it would clash with an upcoming exhibition on Russian cosmonauts, but maybe because, as Fontcuberta told Source Magazine, "Yuri Gagarin’s daughter – an important officer at Hermitage Museum – disliked deeply my Sputnik series."
Monday, 15 September 2014
The censorship row over Yunghi Kim's pictures of Hutu refugees had me spluttering my cornflakes over the breakfast table this morning.
In 1994, Kim was in Goma photographing the hundreds of thousands of refugees who were stuck on the volcanic wastelands around the Congoese town with little food, water or shelter. Cholera was rife and they were dying in their thousands.
Amidst all these refugees were those who had been responsible for the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in neighbouring Rwanda two years earlier. In fact they were refugees as well; not all refugees are nice.
But still, they were people, as were the babies, the women, the children and the men who had played no part in the massacres. Kim didn't consider the crimes of the assassins, she looked at the human suffering those hundreds of thousands of suffering people were going through. She didn't think of who had done the killing, who done the encouraging, who had made the propaganda, or who had played a passive role in the massacres (which would have meant just about everybody over the age of ?). She simply photographed the suffering.
And this month her pictures appeared at Visa Pour L'Image at Perpignan, Kim was accused of 'revisionism' and the pictures were taken down.
This is part of what she said on the Contact Images Facebook page.
With respect to my Rwanda work, I have always been consistent and clear, in my floor talk at my exhibition and in the intro panel and wall captions, I indicated that I was not present for the barbaric and murderous rampage of the genocide that took place. I was responding to cover the humanitarian crisis -- the mass movements of people -- as they fled Rwanda for Goma. As photojournalist, I responded instinctually documenting life on the run, people frightened, burdened with possessions thirsty, hungry and fatigued. Later, along the roads and in the camps when disease took hold, it did so indiscriminately.
Some people thought it was terrible, some thought it justified. Jan Banning ( who knows a thing or two about revisionism and denial of history) thought it was justified. This is what he said on his website.
Friday, 12 September 2014
I saw this on Twitter the other day (on @DapperHistorian) and I am inclined to believe it with the proviso that it might very well be nonsense or even the DapperHistorian himself. The exposure times don't quite add up.
But it doesn't really matter. Or does it? Who knows? Not me.
Then I saw this. Essentially, the story is how come you have Rhodes Scholarships when Cecil Rhodes was such an outright murderer, racist and plunderer.
Which is fair enough.
But was Rhodes a murderer responsible for the deaths of 60 million people, 10 times the number Hitler killled which is what the text that accompanies the text says.
Come again on so many points.
The Hitler comparison and the questionable numbers weaken the very good idea of ending Rhodes Scholarships because of who they are named after. Because Rhodes really was a piece of shit. Why would you name a scholarship after him?
One excuse is that things were different then, or we didn't know any better. I live in Bath which is next to Bristol, a city which for many years was one point in the slave triangle. It's not something that's properly remembered in Bristol - there's a corner of the M-Shed museum on the slave trade, and there's Georgian House, which is a fabulous museum that was owned by a slave-owning family, but apart from that we only have the streets and statues named after one of the city's great slave owners, Edward Colston, something that a large number of people in the city are still in denial about,
This is what Mike Gardner wrote about Colston.
"Between 1672 and 1689, Colston's company transported more than 100,000 slaves from West Africa to the West Indies and the Americas. To maximise profit, his ships divided their hulls into cramped holds, so they could transport as many slaves as possible. They were stripped and chained in leg irons – the women and children were caged separately and were frequently victims of sexual abuse. Unhygienic conditions, dehydration, dysentery, smallpox and scurvy meant mortality rates for the eight-week crossing were as high as 20 per cent. Slaves who died or refused to eat were thrown overboard.
A third perished within three years of arriving in the New World after a short life of unimaginable horror, flogged and chained and starved until they could take no more, farming the fields of cotton, sugar, tobacco and molasses."
I don't know if any of that can be justified by some kind of hisorical relativism. It's evil all round. You don't need Hitler and outlandish figures to justify your argument in other words. Research and a sense of common humanity will do the job much better.
Oh, and while we're on dubious propaganda and slavery, does anyone remember #bringbackourgirls, the campaign from, oh, way back in April when almost 300 girls were abducted in Nigeria by Boko Haram. 219 of the girls are still missing, and the incompetence and disregard shown by the Nigerian authorities is something to behold, even from a very long distance and with a great deal of ignorance thrown in.
So imagine how offended people were when they saw this re-election poster for the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan. It was unofficial and has since been recalled, but still,
Is it real? It can't be? But it is. I don't know anymore....
Thursday, 11 September 2014
Here's Manet's Olympia. It caused a scandal at the Paris Salon in 1865 because she's a prostitute and is looking boldly at the viewer and has a black cat (instead of a faithful dog). This is what Theodore Gautier (the photograph of him below is by Nadar) said about it.
Critic and poet Theophile Gautier writes, May 23rd, 1865:
You can read more critics here.
And here are some caricatures based around the painting found at the olympia1865 blog, with a lot of the comments revolving around the idea that Olympia needs a wash. The cat features large as well.
Wednesday, 10 September 2014
Over the summer I was talking with someone who wondered why people are so obsessed with making photobooks. What's the point of it all, was the overall sentiment? And I found myself agreeing with the sentiments - basically because what is the point of anything?
Why would you want to make a book of photographs that, if you're lucky, a few hundred people will look at? Why go to all that expense?
But then I thought about the alternative which is really either keeping all your pictures on your computer (or in a box under your bed if you're old school) or showing them in a gallery somewhere.
For which you could say exactly the same thing; why would anyone want to show their pictures in a gallery where they're only going to be seen by, if you're lucky, a few hundred people who are all whispering and putting on earnest faces because that's what you're supposed to do. It is all so phony. Why go to that expense?
But still, a big print on the wall might be the way to show the work, or a small print, or a simple book or a complex book. And whatever you choose, it doesn't have to be expensive if you don't want it to be. In the photobook world, there are enough people making affordable-but-classy books that you need a squillion dollars to publish a photobook is receding by the minute.
There aren't that many complex books about though, for all sorts of reasons. I think one of the key questions of photobookery is what is a photobook. It is surprising how conservative people are when it comes to photobooks. I've seen several posts questioning why people would even want to have a complex design?
Perhaps we should turn it around and ask why would you want to have a simple design (apart from the booksellers's view that they don't stack well on the shelves or sell well). Why make a book filled with pictures that is simply a copy of a book filled with words, where you turn the pages over and there's another image and you pretend that there's a sequential narrative when really there's not.
Why not mix things up a bit, why not make something where you can take things apart and order them and mix things up, something with loose leaves, or without a spine, or as playing cards. Or handmake them and add inserts and sell them for a bit more. Or photocopy them and sell them for a lot less. All this is happening already and I must say how easily I'm sold on something that looks a cool and has some thought put into it; something that helps tell a story and is a pleasure to look at and hold.
Gosh, it's interesting how imaginations run out when it comes to photography, how prescriptive it becomes. I suppose that's because photography is conservative in essence. It pretends not to be, but it is, and there is also that horrific presbyterian edge to it, that things should be simple and unadorned and cheap, that they shouldn't be dynamic and fun. Perhaps that's why so many photobooks have those dire, single voice essays at the front of them that often end up being dull, self-referential and uninformative. Where's the narrative there?
Anyway, the book above is by Anouk Kruithof and is called Untitled (I've taken too many pictures/I've never taken a picture). It's a book about how people choose pictures. It's not really a photobook in some ways, but the text makes you hunt out the pictures - which are not always that easy to see. It's interesting to read and the words give you a reason to look at the pictures but at the same time it's kind of annoying. But there's a story in there and isn't that what matters!
Here's my review of it for Photo Eye.
Tuesday, 9 September 2014
There are so many people who have photographed people who live beyond the suburban pale; people who live in buses and trees and dark and distant mountainsides. My favourites are Tom Hunter whose work has depth and sense of place that goes beyond the temporary (I think he might be the rare case of a photographer who is rated but still under-rated ) and Alessandro Imbriaco whose book The Garden is still one of my favourites; a homeless family living in a swamp in Rome! But done with sensitivity.
But sometimes I wonder if all the it isn't all a bit outlandish, a bit of a freakshow of those at the fringes of sociey. So when Yvette Monahan told me about her new book, The Time of Dreaming the World Awake, I wondered if that wasn't just another oddity. It's about people who live on the mountain of Bugarach in France. That's the one where the world was going to end in 2012.
Then I thought again and thought about all the people I vaguely knew who had lived on mountainsides or become shepherds or had worked on farms in deep France selling maggot-infested cheese (the more maggots the better) to the locals.
And in the summer my cousin came to visit from where he now lives on Jeju Island in South Korea. But before he lived there he lived in a tree house in Oregon building cob houses and living in a virtually cash-free economy.
So perhaps my idea that living on a mountainside somewhere is odd is odd in itself, Perhaps it's me that has become so normalised to the British semi-suburban ideal that anything that is different seems frightening. Perhaps that's true of everything.
Anyway, Monahan's book is lovely. It's a bit of a fantasy that presents a mist-shrouded mountain where the return to the land is portrayed as a combination of a return to paradise and a hermetic retreat. The people who inhabit the mountain have beards and horns and nestle in the ferns like little hobbits. But sometimes they're old and seem a bit worn down. The mountain is misty but the habitations that Monahan photograph are remote isolated. Some of the lives she shows are reclusive rather than secluded; it's not all happy campers. Some of these people are lonely or troubled or both.
Buy the book here.
Monday, 8 September 2014
I was in the allotment the other day harvesting a pumpkin when a man walked by. He was talking on his phone. "I'm going to stay here and do a power hour," he said.
Oh dear. And then I read in the Independent how 'Cultivating vegetables and herbs at home is also just an extension of the modern foodie culture, in which visiting farmers’ markets, home-brewing, and splurging £4.50 on a loaf of artisanal bread is increasingly the norm among urban-dwelling twenty- and thirtysomethings.'
Which is all well and good unless you visit farmers' markets, do home brewing and splurge £4.50 on a loaf of artisanal bread like a tosser (as opposed to do all those things in a not-like-a-tosser way, which is the way most people do them), then it's not all well and good.
In the article there are all these attempts to quantify and rationalise growing things into a little lifestyle box, a box that is detached from everyday existence, a specially designed bijou box with a tasteful typeface and a bow and clasp in nice subdued colours; a lifestyle box where you have a definitive understanding of everything and that expertise is a hallmark of your great taste and connection to the prevailing zeitgeist. It's a kind of being where the natural chaos and confusion of growing things and not knowing what you're doing is removed. But growing things doesn't belong in a lifestyle box - and the very act of placing it in a lifestyle box destroys the point of it all - which is to provide a pleasant outdoor space in which to hang out and grow things, especially if you don't have that much money or a big garden of your own.
So it was a pleasure to review Joachim Brohm's Typology 1979 for Photo-Eye, a series of German allotment pictures. I don't think too many people were doing 'power hours on these sites, or using the allotment as a shortcut to cooldom. Weren't the seventies great! No, actually they were really bad in so many ways, but still I love the pictures. But maybe that's because I'm interested in the subject and care about it.
Joachim Brohm's full site is here.