Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Pushpak - the Greatest Modern Silent-ish Film Ever Made



I enjoyed The Artist, but then I saw Pushpak, a1987 silent/dialogue-free Indian film and I was quite blown away. It must be one of the few films in which an enema is central to the plot, yet still it won the award for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment

The basic premise is of an unemployed man (see the Karl Marx poster in his room) who gets the chance to take on somebody else's identity - and wallet.  There's a magician, an assassin,  knives made of ice, there's love and an a soundtrack of Hong Kong kung-fu films. It's one of my favourite films ever just because I've never seen anything quite like it. Just shows it's all been done before. Silent that is? Er, anyway, it's all on youtube. Fabulous.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Bechdel Test



The Bechdel Test is a test to see if women play any part in a movie. There are 3 parts to the Bechder Test.

1. It has to have at least 2 named women in it.
2.Who Talk to each other.
3. About something besides a man.

Watch the video at the top to see which of the Oscar winners passed this year's test. 

I'm not sure what the photographic equivalent (not necessarily to do with women) would be for Photojournalism/Documentary/Conceptual/Fashion photography, but there should be one .

Friday, 24 February 2012

Tory Cumfaces




I enjoyed talking to Mishka Henner today about his intriguing new book Less Americains for a piece in the BJP. It's a great book that touches on so many things, combining old ways of working with old ways of how exactly we look at photos. More on that at a later date but in the meantime Mishka mentioned how we need to expand Photography into more vernacular uses, how we need to look at wider uses of photography and perhaps integrate these into our practice.

So with that in mind, I stumbled on these Tory Cumfaces. Enoch Powell proves that black and white still has a place in the new photographic order, but I'm still waiting for a decent Jacob Rees-Mogg though.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Did Goya Dehumanise War?



Mrs Deane chipped in on the World Press Photo debate surrounding Samuel Aranda, the World Press Photo winner. In her first comment she suggested there wasn't anything new in the argument about alleged religious identities in the image and that perhaps we should move on. She's right on that, especially when the basis for much of the debate is rather too much like nasty scramble of category mistakes and mixed metaphors.

 In connection with the idea of old debates, I recently revisited these three pictures.



The  pictures above are  of Florence and Eliza Holder - and I revisit them about every week. They are in the Barnados Children's Home archive.  Taken in 1876, the first picture shows two loving sisters clad in clean but threadbare dresses, wearing shoes, arms around each other. This is how they arrived at Barnado's home, brought by their mother who could no longer afford to look after them properly. The second shows one of Barnado's publicity pictures, with Florence 'shown' as a  before picture.Her hair is unkempt hair, she has barefeet, she has no family and no love and to really nail the indignity her dress is rumpled suggesting she might be a child prostitute. It's a set up picture, Barnado's version of her "before" she came to his home. You can read more about these pictures on page 39 of Carol Mavor's Pleasures Taken.

The story of the pictures came out in court in 1877, so the debate of whether it was ethical to manipulate pictures and emotions, especially those of the mother who the picture suggests is both neglectful and morally lax, was apparent even then and no doubt before.

The picture below is by W.Willoughby Hooper and is of subjects in a Tamil famine in India. Hooper invited the people into his studio and photographed them before sending them on their way without even a crust of bread to make death less undignified.

One newspaper apparently reported (thank you Iconic Photos):

"People who still delude themselves with the idea that the famine, if it has any existence at all, has been greatly exaggerated, could see [the photos], and they would lay aside that notion for good … Their knowledge will enable them to testify that these photographs are not representations of exceptional cases of suffering, but are typical of the actual conditions of immense numbers of people in the Madras Presidency."





























So it seems that a lot of the arguments that we still see go back to the 19th century at least. Perhaps people argued over Goya, saying that his depictions of war were shallow and dehumanising, perhaps Breughel the Younger's paintings were criticised for their exploitation of the peasant classes.Maybe we could go back even further to the time when gentle Neanderthals objecting to the artists of the Lascaux  cave painting, saying that they degraded the bulls and glamourised hunting.

I was reading a review on The Origins of Sex recently, a book that looks at sexuality from 1600 to 1800. It includes this quote from the book.

When a William Brown was caught with another man's hand down his breeches in 1726, he retorted, "I think there is no harm in making what use I please of my own body." By the end of that century, Britain had an astonishingly radical Free Love movement. Alas, just around the corner lurked the Victorians, and that was the end of that until the 20th century.

So the arguments go around and the come around, in all things as in photography. And in photography, they are all good arguments to go over, but maybe there should be some new discussions. I think that when Roland Barthes died, there was a regret that he never did his over-reaching semiotic encapsulation of all things photographic, that the chaos of the still image was never resolved into one unified system of philosophical understanding.  Photography is so complex that this is not possible, it is so fluid and flitting that it never seems to settle. But now there are so many images, so many more changes, it somehow seems like it is settling, that there is a looking back in a way that is not a 1980s style regurgitation of old forms but a consideration of old forms in a way that informs the present and the way we consume and view images on a daily basis. It's not coherent yet, perhaps because there are so many new ideas, both in practice and in theory, opening up. Exactly what these new ideas are I'm not quite sure yet, but that they are there I'm certain.

Monday, 20 February 2012

War Primers 1 and 2

I was looking at Broomberg and Chanarin's War Primer 2. It was printed in a sold-out edition of 100 and cost £350 a go so I don't have a copy, but I'd like one. You can't really see it too well on screen but you can see a BJP review here).

Instead, have a look at the book that inspired it - published in 1955, Bertold Brecht's War Primer
consists of pictures cut out of newspapers with poems written by Brecht to accompany them. 

Brecht said, "Don't start with the good old things but the bad new ones," which is the spirit in which  Broomberg and Chanarin made their version.

More of the bad new things please. There's a lot of it about. 






You, in your tanks and bombers, mighty warriors,
You that in Algiers sweat, in Lapland freeze
In scores of battles you have been victorious
See whom you’ve conquered. Hail your victories!







 Those you see lying here, buried in mud
As if they lay already in their grave–
They’re merely sleeping, are not really dead
Yet, not asleep, would still not be awake.







 That’s how the world was going to be run!
The other nations mastered him, except
(In case you think the battle has been won)–
The womb is fertile still from which that crept.



Saturday, 18 February 2012

cruel and unusual



The Cruel and Unusual exhibition, organised by Pete Brook of Prison Photography and Hester Keijser of Mrs Deane is on at Noorderlicht.

If you are over in the Netherlands, go and see it, if you're not see the exhibition catalogue/newspaper here and get it free here - you only pay for shipping and handling (E1.50). It looks fantastic and is testament to the fabulous work of Pete and Hester and also how the internet and blogs are having a real impact that is breaking new ground and making new visual discoveries and connections.




Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Did Casie and Dresie Dance?

Did Casie and Dresie Dance?

One of the interesting things about seeing Roger Ballen's video of I fink u freeky by Die Antwoord is how it changes the way one sees his previous work.

Ballen started in documentary and moved into apparently darker psychological corners as he progressed, adding layers of wire, animals, graffiti, masks and cardboard boxes into ever weirder concoctions. He played up to this with his entertaining talks, a psychodramas which mixed performance with  hypothesis and a claim to the subconscious.

I always remember seeing the Chapman Brothers on TV talking about their Hell dioramas and saying how they were dives into the subconscious and what could be more subconscious than Nazis and kids with penis-faces. Well, the ultimate conclusion I came to was what could be more conscious than that.

Sam Taylor-Wood once gave a commentary on The Chapman Brothers when they were altering £20 at Frieze (or something like that). The Chapman Brothers  claimed the currency defacing undermines something or other and challenges this or that and subverts the rest. "But does it though?" said Taylor-Wood when appraised of this claim.

Indeed. Does it though? The retort to fit virtually every artist statement.

The same can be said of Roger Ballen's work. It's funny seeing the video, because it's a funny video. I've shown it a few disparate groups of people over the last few days and everyone seems to like it - they watch it with a smile on their face and leave humming the words to the song. I watch it with a smile on my face. I laugh and dance and what could be better than that. And roachs in the omelette. Yuk! Disgusting! Fabulous!!

So it seems that Ballen, who used to inhabit a world where the discourse of sobriety and pretension held sway, has entered a new discourse, that of entertainment.

And in a strange way, that alters everything he has ever done. There is always the temptation to use a shorthand critique of his work that can essentially be boiled down to weird with a beard and, having seen the video, it seems that is exactly what it is. Forget about race, costume, torture, exploitation or anything remotely to do with levels of consciousness, first and foremost he made his work to be weird and weird is entertainment. Because that's what he did with the video.

Or maybe not. Maybe we can get into the discourse of South African music and culture. And then we have to redefine our thoughts in that way. Did Die Antwoord  rip the music off, are they racist  and homophobic, are they really poor Afrikaans, are they Blackface?

 Oh my God, we're back into the same territory of wondering exactly what Ballen was doing making his pictures in the first place, of how and where it all fits into a global scheme of things. As for a South African scheme of things, I am just too ignorant of the cultural subtleties and projectings one's national racial stereotypes onto another country just doesn't work wherever you are talking about, wherever you come from.

Personally, I'm happy to see Ballen moving up and away from the dark world of his still wonderful (but are they though?) but increasingly self-consciously made photographs. I'll laugh at the video and do the same I do with pretty much all music I like that has sentiments I might not fully agree with. I'll pretend I didn't hear the words and that even if I did, then it doesn't really matter. And if I do think of it too much, then I'll do as Baloo did in the Jungle Book, when him and Bagheera are about to rescue Mowgli from King Louie and the monkeys. Baloo's mad, but as the music plays, Baloo weakens. "I'll tear him limb from limb, I'll beat him. I'll... I'll... Well, Man what a beat I'm gone man, solid gone."



Some quotes Roger Ballen gave (from an old blog post).


"I have created a Roger Ballen World."

"The meaning comes from the eyes."

"What are we trying to protect when we make our walls white and clean?"

"We are scared of nature. We are scared of animals."

"The relationship between people and animals is adverserial and usually one way. People who think differently are fooling themselves."

"What if I told you after I took this picture, the man took the puppy outside and strangled it? Would you believe me?"

"Modern life has blocked the relationship between man and animal. That's why people go out and buy a dog or a bunch of flowers."


"The horns may be plastic but they still mean something."

"Work done subconsciously is most important - don't walk away from your footprints."

"The eyes only reach you because they have the same emotion you have. Blankness."

"I did everything. You can't take photographs like me."

I

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

South African Culture





















Roger Ballen directed this video by Die Antwoord, South Africa's finest and it shows just a little, just a few hints in there. There's a PHD in here somewhere, but at the same time it's kind of fun. Grand Guignol meets the Adams Family.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Atget and Terrain Vague









I was looking at pictures by Mohamed Bourouissa  and was wondering about the Parisian banlieues in which they were set. What is the story there because that kind of beyond the Pale environment is something that we don't have in the same way in the  UK. Not quite and not yet - with the current economic cleansing of London, we will start having something along these lines in the next few years.

So I was wondering about this and then I got a copy of City Gorged with Dreams. It's by Ian Walker and  interweaves Paris, surrealism, documentary photography. And it directly connects tot he work of Bourousisa as well as the idea of Terrain Vague, that ending of one landscape and beginning of another. He explains the idea Terrain Vague is connected to the area outside the  fortifications of Paris. Walker quotes a passage from Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.

To wander in a kind of reverie, to take a stroll as they call it, is a good way for a philosopher to spend his time; particularly in that kind of bastard countryside, somewhat ugly but bizarre, made up of two different natures, whih surrounds certain great cities, notably Paris. To observe the banlieue is to observe an amphibian. End of trees, beginning of roofs, end of grass, beginning of paving stones, end of ploughed fields, beginning of shops, the end of the beaten track, the beginning of the passions, the end of the murmur of all things divine, the beginning of the noise of humankind - all of this holds an extraordinary interest. And thus, in these unattractive places, forever marked by the passer-by with the epithet sad, the promenades, apparently aimless, of the dreamer.

Walker notes the fascination of the surrealists with this terrain vague. "The most extensive of these derelict spaces lay between the Parisian fortifications and the banlieue;  the Zone. This was a strip of land about 250 metres wide immediately in front of the fortifications where builiding had been forbidden for defensive purposes. But the Zone outlived such practicalities and by the late nineteenth century it was inhabited by gypsies, ragpickers, , itinerants - known collectively as zoniers - whose presence had become integral to the myth of the city itself."

Eugene Atget photographed the Zoniers, so did Man Ray - who bought seven of Atget's chaos ridden prints.of the Zone. The Zone came to an end in 1973 when the boulevard periperique was completed, making for a new and very different Terrain Vague.



Which puts Bourouissa's work into a much wider historical and photographic context, replete with ides of ethnic, social, economic and planning histories.

There is so much photography based on different kinds of Edgelands and terrains vagues, where walls, borders and boundaries of some kind or other create a buffer zone and different environments, architectures or cultures can mingle and mix. I'm not sure how much of a shelf life some of this work has, but where the histories are clearly delineated to make apparent the specific differences, and where the social histories are brought out, it can be absolutely fascinating. The problem here of course is that the picture on its own don't always tell the story on their own; instead social and cultural backdrops form the narrative drive with which the images build and intertwine. Sometimes, the pictures on their own just aren't enough.. There is a symbiotic relationship between text and supporting material - the one without the other is really of no use whatsoever.


Gallery of Eugene Atget Zone pictures


Tim Atherton On Atget with links to other articles.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Death and Deceit



























I enjoyed reading Joerg Colberg's musings on the defiance of death. It fits right in with internet discourse which is so different and less formal to that of other media, but at the same time, if you are selective and discerning to some extent, richer, more informative, thought-provoking and fun. And it can be lots of bad things too, but then so can everything.

Back to death and a link in to the previous post. From the top, we have Alexander Gardner, W.Willoughby Hooper's famine pictures from Madras, Memento Mori pictures, death by dismemberment from 1890 in China, an Indiana lynching from 1930, World War II deaths including Dimitri Baltermants Ukrainian mothers, Lee Miller's river corpse and the Nuremburg executions, the body of Che Guevara, Eddie Adams' Vietcong suspect getting shot, Jeffrey Silverthorne's morgue lady, the body of Mao, Joel Peter Witkin's kiss, an Andres Serrano morgue picture, Paul Watson's Mogadishu picture, a Sally Mann, Walter Schels' Nochmalleben, Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi. And just to bring things round full circle, I could have added some contemporary memento mori from Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.

It's death all the way in other words but over a range of uses, formats and connotations, with readings that shift and shimmer and remain unfixed. Death is used to inform, to sensationalise, to memorialise,  sentimentalise, to portray as primitive, to villify, to justify and to glorify. It's a sign of community, a symbol of shame, of power corrupted and a chance to gloat. Death is used to warn, to remember, to spiritualise and  to signify and end to the old and the beginning of something new. It's used persuasively as evidence, unwittingly as a witness, a sign of our essential mortality and our attempt to defy that, to defy and deify. For Witkin, death is Grand Guignol, for Serrano  it's money. Death in Mogadishu comes packed with different meanings, collapse and chaos, hatred, humiliation as well as an embedded one of vengeance. Sally Mann reminds us of  the fluidity of life, of our organic core, how we  melt back into the ground. Saddam is a picture of chickens coming home to roost, of the thing that goes around has come around, and will go around and come around again. Gaddafi is vengeance, humiliation and hypocrisy.

At the heart of all death is some form of deceit, a grey area where the uncertainty of what lies beyond meets with our own attempts to change our fate, to shift the goalposts, to defy the end that awaits us all. Most obviously, we can see this with the Victorian memento mori, where corpses are propped up and eyes painted into to a facsimile of a family snapshot, only with one member as dead and stiff as a board. In the near dead famine pictures of Willoughby, the deceit isone of general humanity, of how, after taking the photos, he would send the famine victims on his way without giving them treatment, food or help.

The embalming of Mao, or Lenin, or Ho, was an attempt to sanctify and deify, to prevent death even as incompetent embalming collapses in on itself. Sally Mann's pictures of death do the opposite, allowing the flesh to melt back into the ground from which it once grew, as if it had never existed, as if it had never been part of a living body and soul, with a mind and a heart, part of a memory, a consciousness that still lingers somehow, somewhere in someone's heart

And Paul Watson's pictures of David Cleveland are inundated with deceit. For Somalis, the lie is that this was any kind of victory, that anything but bad came of it, and for the US - well it's not too far different really but with more contemporary resonances.

And what of Saddam and Gaddafi. These are desecrations, a humiliation of a figure and a regime, but desecrations that in their cruelty and inhumanity, bring back to life the very figures they seek to destroy. These pictures don't signify endings, only a return to the same beginning. That's their deceit.

But in real life, outside the photograph, isn't that what we do with death - we fear it, we cheat it, we glorify it and deny it. We do all those things because what do we really know in the end. And so in that respect, aren't these pictures as truthful as you can get, reflections of the human condition in all its ignorance uncertainty. It's not propaganda. It's just the way we are.

And that, dear readers, is the discourse of the internet. Notebook style. .







Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Nigerian Nostalgia






The previous post on Narrators Photo led me to Pop Africana which led to Nigerian Nostalgia, a Facebook group dedicated to Nigerian Nostalgia. I'm currently enjoying Half a Yellow Sun by  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Nigerian Nostalgia adds a visual edge to it, a kind of detached illustration of a particular way of life, a story board to Adichie's organic picturisations. Her characters resonate with me and remind of the time when I lived in a shared house with a Nigerian guy who simply loved telling me that if I was living in his country then I would be doing the washing up, the cleaning and every other household chore which I could care to imagine - and I never doubted him for one second. And when he wasn't telling me that, he was reluctantly middle-manning sugar deals for his relatives in Lagos, something he hated doing but couldn't avoid for family reasons. 

Much of Narrators Photo is dedicated to old celebrities, domestic products and group photos. It's a fascinating mix of what makes up our memories, a Nigerian equivalent of people of a certain age reminiscing about Angel's Delight, Z-Cars, Ford Anglias and the three day week.

However, the pictures that jumped out at me were these of public executions, in the top case the death by firing squad of the Oyenusi Gang.






This was an event witnessed by Ken Udoibok, one that he regards as an affront to human dignity. He writes:


I was 13 years old on a Saturday morning in 1973. While my parents were at work, I sneaked away from my home in Lagos, Nigeria. I was going to the beach. Not for fun or frolicking in the sun, but for a far more serious reason: I was going to witness an execution.

The sun beat down furiously that morning, but by 1 that afternoon, a dark cloud had formed over the beach. A large crowd stood by somberly as two army trucks and a black van drove onto the beach. I squeezed my way through the crowd to catch a glimpse of the infamous man being transported in the black van. Oyenusi, a notorious armed robber, had robbed banks and businesses in Nigeria for many years.

Three soldiers walked up to the black van and stood at attention. One of them yelled a command. Suddenly, the door of the vehicle was flung open. Slowly, Oyenusi appeared, his hands tied behind his back. He wore a dark long-sleeved shirt, dark loafers and wrinkled trousers. He was sweating profusely, his glance furtive as if he expected to see someone. He continued to scan the crowd as the soldiers tied him to a stick.


"Who's he looking for?" one of the spectators whispered to a friend.


Seven soldiers formed a line facing Oyenusi. An officer yelled a command and, in unison, the soldiers took aim at Oyenusi.


"Fire!"

 
Oyenusi shuddered as the bullets riddled his body. Moments later, his lifeless body slumped over the rope that held him to the stick.



The events were shown on TV  - one comment on Facebook says, "These executions were shown on NBC back then. Some of the criminals would shout out ( only saw their mouth action). Probably, shouting obscenes of abuse at the executors. Some refused the religious priest blessing, some looked dead terrified before shots were fired. The camera would pan on everyone of them. Then there is a command, the rambles of shot fired and to slumped bodies tied to the stake infront of the drums. It was a family viewing show. Everyone gathered around to watch the telly while there were also live viewing. Some of these accused were defiant vocally until you see them slump."

It all seems so dreadful and exotic and distant but then I wondered at what the British equivalent of this kind of nostalgia is; what shared bloody memories do we have of the last 50 years, and the memories came thick and fast. 

Back to Kenneth Odoibok, who also witnessed a family member being executed ( and who wrote this at a when Timothy McVeigh was about to be executed).

If those who support public executions were to experience the horror of actually witnessing an execution, they would forever question the rationale of state-sponsored killings. Next, there will be live television broadcasts of executions. Too extreme, you think? The trend has already started with the decision to broadcast McVeigh's execution by closed circuit. It is a mistake. So long as governments by example show disregard for life by executing criminals, private individuals will display similar disregard for life. In the end, there will be more killings and the value of all of our lives will be diminished.