Friday, 21 November 2014

Photography filled with Hate and Violence (but in a good way)

So then, here's Brad Feuerhelm's new book, Let us Now Praise Infamous Men.

The book is a bunch of screenshots of multi-national arms dealers. What are they like?

Nasty is what Feuerhelm thinks. So nasty he gives them a taste of their own medicine. He shoots them in the head.

Not really in the head, but their pictures in the book - he shoots the whole edition of 200 in the head with a glock .45. It's "possibly the first book" to be shot in such a manner it says in the blurb.

Yep, I'll give you that.

So there's another new gimmick. It's the shot book, the book of people who sell things that shoot people getting shot in the head.

A lot of people are down on gimmicks but I'm not. Not when it fits so well with the concept and the content of the book. There's a glorious symmetry to it that is both fun and a bit disturbing. It's like photobook slapstick, cartoon violence (and Mickey, Snow White and half of Disney get it too). Cartoons aside, who these people are, I have no idea (there are no captions identifying them and maybe that's half the point) so I'll take it all at face value.

I'm placing Let us Now Praise Infamous Men with Chris Anderson's Stump. The one should be merged with the other.

Preorder and read more about the book here.

And see the spreads on Josef Chadlek's blog here. 

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Ransom Riggs: Author of the Best-Selling Photobook of the last 3 years?

picture by Tadgh Devlin

Where pictures come from, where they go to? That seems to be the subject of this blog half the time and it tangentially connects to posts like this one by Julian Richardson on how commercial pictures are made and what happens when

All of these things matter!

I gave a talk at Paris Photo last week on this subject. It used four examples to examine where pictures come from, where they go to and whether it matters.

You can see the ten-minute talk here. 

It touched on four sets of photographs; the archive pictures of Ransom Riggs, the work of Joseph Rock, my Sofa Portraits and my German Family Album.

Ransom Riggs is a collector of archive/vintage/found images (like the Archive of Modern Conflict, or Joachim Schmid) but while people in this particular corner of photoworld are often familiar with those people and their fabulous work, very few (outside North America) seem to have heard of Ransom Riggs,

I find that really curious. Because Ransom Riggs is, in numbers at least, by a million miles the most successful person working with archive pictures, he communicates the most with pictures, he has the biggest audience, has sold the most books, and has produced the most recognisable photographs.

But he doesn't figure on the kind of nichey-nerd blog I write or in photography magazines. Not at all. He's outside this one particular corner of the photography world. But he's not outside another world. Perhaps that's why he's sold 1.5 million copies of his book and been top of the New York Time Bestseller list. With a book based on vintage photographs!

Oh my Giddy Aunt! How many? I think the cut-off point for end of year best-photobook lists is 3,000. After that we get all snotty and shirty about the numbers. Or is that just me?

The basic story is this; Ransom Riggs used vintage photographs to create a novel, Miss Peregrine's House for Peculiar Children and the follow up, Hollow City. His images of odd children helped him develop characters and he gave those children supernatural powers based on the picture (so Hugh, pictured below with the two dolls, has the power to animate the inanimate and dead).

In the books, the pictures are part of a collection, part of an album. So the books are about a fictional album made up of non-fictional vintage/found photographs. And these pictures are used to develop plot lines. So when he was writing his books and he got stuck, he'd shuffle through his pictures and get inspiration. So the picture below shows Fiona who has the power to grow things really quickly and is fully tied into the text of the book as a picture; it's taken out in the book, it's looked at in the book, it is fully part of the book - as a fictional photograph with a fictional character called Fiona who has the fictional power to grow plants and trees.

There is a huge influx of fiction into photography at the moment (Max Pinckers, Cristina de Middel for example) but Riggs fuses fiction and photography ( David Robinson's wonderful Mushroom Picker does the same in a different but really beautiful way).

What's interesting here is how the pictures he has chosen get a new life in his book. Again, we have a book where a device is used to make people slow down and really look at the pictures. The device is the text. And the book is not a photobook, it's a novel, but one where there are numerous pictures that are absolutely central to the story, where the text is accessible and entertaining (sorry W.S.), and where image and words connect to the benefit of both.

However, though the pictures gain this new life, an identity that is intricately tied to the rollercoaster narrative of the books, their original identity is lost. Who these people really (am I allowed to say really?) are, where these pictures were made is, for us the reader/viewer, completely irrelevant. It's lost. The original identities are wiped away, they are killed!

So words, texts, bestseller lists, photographs central to the book, yes, go on, it's a photobook as well. Why not! But one that nobody in photobook land has ever heard of, including me until quite recently. Fascinating!

See the full talk here. 

There were lots of great talks at Paris Photo (and thank you Urs Stahel for inviting me and Chantal Pontbriand for the introduction). There are lots of talks to watch here, but I was on with these guys and it was lovely to meet them and hear them talk on Japanese photography, archival conflict, language and photography and duck architecture amongst other things. Watch their videos here.

Marc Feustel (Blogger)
Klara Källström and Thobias Fäldt (Artists)
Walter Guadagnini (Curator)
Olivier Cablat (Artist)
Anna Planas / Aurélia Marcadier (Gallerists)

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Bearing Witness at Paris Photo?

picture by Jim Goldberg at Pace MacGill

I went to the cinema last week and the Citroen Cactus advertised. It's got those paddings on the side because they are supposed to make it safer, but it does look like it was cobbled together by someone on a bad acid trip.

And I guess that's the people they're looking to buy it; people whose neurons are so fried that their aesthetic judgements have floated up and mushed with the fairies.

That ties in completely with the soundtrack to the ad - White Rabbit.  I used to like White Rabbit, it's great to sing along to, but now it's been in the Cactus ad, I don't like it so much. The song has changed because of where it has ended up. It's not the song's fault, but what can you do. For the moment, it's a car-selling song.

It's the same with pictures.  Where they end up changes how you see them. That's what these considered thoughts on photographic muzak are all about. Context is everything.

Somebody people try to change the context. And the audience. One thing I quite liked about Paris Photo is you got, as far as it goes, a relatively mixed audience. Photography isn't really one thing, it's lots of things, and that is reflected in what people show, what people look at and what people buy.

At Paris Photo, I remember coming through the door and the first thing I heard were a fetish couple from Birmingham checking out some Araki bondage pictures. "I like the wire marks on this one. What knots did he use for that one? I'd like to try this out."

Which was really nice. But then you turn around and  I see a couple of models who are so glowing with health and joy that they look like youthful versions of Norman Bates' mother. Social x-rays have nothing on this, it's like a well-dressed Day of the Dead. Great.

People from Birmingham and models and me, Let's face facts here. It's a diverse audience and no mistake.

Alright, it's not a diverse audience but I think if you take in all the satellite events and the Mois de la Photo events (thanks to Lucy for reminding me of this. She describes Paris Photo as a 'jewel-encrusted tick' on the body of Mois de la Photo), then the photographic audience in the city for the duration of the fair is as diverse as... er, any photography fair is.

Whatever, I would hazard a guess that every event except the really snotty ones had a more diverse audience than you get at South African art galleries.

Last week, the South African activist group Tokolos-Stencils made an active point about metaphorically gated art spaces in their installation at a Cape Town Gallery. The installation involved putting  a township portable toilet outside the gallery (I think), and opening it up so the stench floated out - the rationale being that it was bringing the townships to the gallery. This didn't go down too well with the gallery and the took it away.

This was the Tokolos rationale.

'While these spaces import artistic works from around the globe which are often times highly critical of prevailing hegemonies, they have illustrated a complete lack of interest in opening the conversation to the black underclass. These sanitary spaces serve not only to exclude the majority of South Africans, but also to reaffirm and sustain the current climate of injustice.

To the professional art world, you can critique but you cannot physically challenge oppression.

Instead of taking the opportunity to invite the oppressed to express their lived experience of impoverishment and struggle, galleries like Brundyn+ continue to fall into the colonial legacy of reifying elite spaces in which black and poor bodies are fetishized for a so-called progressive upper class which has little or no experience with the extreme levels of structural violence that most South Africans live through everyday.'

And this is their intervention on the Mandela Ray Ban funded sculpture/advert. Right on!

Nobody brought any foul smelling porta-porta to Paris Photo, but there was a giant Jim Goldberg print on the walls of the Pace McGill booth. It was made up of a mosaic of what looked like cheap A4 inkjet prints. It was a picture of  a man standing at the same spot where a friend or relative gotwashed away in a flood (thanks Hester).

I don't know what the point of it was. It wasn't exactly a porta-porta, but maybe it was the nearest equivalent, a nod to the outside world, the one beyond the walls of Paris.

Or maybe it wasn't. Maybe it was for sale and you could buy it for 10,000 Euros. Or a bit of both? I don't know,

Check out your best of Paris Photo here (for a Vogue Italia view - nice to see Eamonn Doyle in there) and here (for a Collector Daily view) and here (for a virtual view).

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Paris Photo: It's not Club Sandwich Photography

picture by Olivier van Breugel en Simone Mudde

Making interesting photography is a long game. Interesting, complex photography of whatever genre is about bringing together aesthetics and ideas from art, history, design, war, politics, struggle, sex, wherever. Interesting photography makes links between different cultural and political expressions. It's never simple.

The ideas feed up, they come from the ground, from activist, engaged, earthy, obsessive photography that has a story to it. The ideas come from people who are inspired, creative, neurotic, who have an opinion, A World View and a life that is a bit out of the ordinary. Strangely enough it's never really a functional or a balanced life. A lot of the time it's a bit of a lonely life that ends in rejection and tragedy.

picture Erwin Blumenfeld

Think Lewis Hine, Erwin Blumenfeld or Alexey Brodovitch, three of my very favourite photographers, all of whom created very different work, all of which was amazing, all of whom ended their lives in different degrees of tragedy.

Before going to Paris I watched the Blumenfeld documentary, The Man Who Shot Beautiful Women. It features his amazing images where faces are obscured, where there is a feeling of mystery, intrigue and threat. He worked for Vogue and Harpers' Bazaar, but these are never just fashion images, they are rooted in a past that links directly to Dada, collage, surrealism and protest, and Blumenfeld's passion for seeing and making, especially when beautiful women were involved. If Blumenfeld had never been involved with Grosz and collage and propaganda, he would never have made the work that he made later. Through Blumenfeld, Vogue dined out on his work. They were voyeurs, reliving his experiences second-hand through his images.

And Blumenfeld knew that. He differentiated between his creative work, the work which we now know and love, and the commercial work that he saw as prostitution. Even Blumenfeld made work that was photographic muzak. Muzak of the highest photographic quality no doubt, but still he hated himself for it.

So there is a cultural feeding up from the ground up, from politics and propaganda, from Dada, from Berlin and Paris at the turn of the century, from the tumults of the revolutions and wars that blighted Europe in its Age of Extremes. All that feeds into the pictures.

And it's the same at Paris Photo. There is great work all around. It has meaning that seeps up from the ground and stands out in the decontextualised environment of the Paris Photo Selling booths. The giant abstract William Klein print has weight and substance, the Bill Henson pictures glow with sweat and sickliness and Margret – Chronik einer Affäre tells a fantastic story wherever you see it.

Horst P. Horst, Carmen Face Massage

But there is some work that seems pointless and ugly, that is made to be sold and that is bought because it's sold. The photographers know it and the gallerists know it. I don't know too much about the business of print-selling but from the conversations I have had with gallerists I know there is always the trade-off. If you care about photography you want to sell the work that has depth and intelligence and is great.

pictures from Margret Gunther K.

But what if that work doesn't sell. Do you subsidise it by selling work that sells, when often the reason that work sells is because it sells. There was some work on show that was simply dreadful. It was obviously made for people with lots of money who want to buy photographs because that is what you do when you are extremely wealthy. It shows you have taste. Except they don't like pictures, they don't want pictures, they are simply spending their money to be seen to be spending money on art (except it's not art they're buying). And they are catered to because hey, it's a business and when it costs around £20,000 to have a basic gallery booth at Paris Photo, money always comes into the equation. But everybody except the people buying know what that photography is about. And in private gallerists will admit that at least some of the stuff they sell is there to subsidise the interesting work. They know that they are selling photography to people with no taste, to people who hate photographs.

You get great chefs who work in very good kitchens and sometimes people come in who know nothing about food but want the cachet of eating at this or that restaurant. And they come in and they order a club sandwich. The chefs hate this. The servers hate this. They despise the people who order the club sandwiches. It's an insult to their skills and intelligence and the integrity of the restaurant. But it turns a profit and the margins are fantastic. It's the right clientele in some ways because it makes money. I guess it's the same for galleries. They hate selling the average work. It's Club Sandwich Photography.

But very little of the work was like that. Once you skim over the bad photography and the flogging-a-dead-horse photography, most of it is amazing work, albeit shown in what is essentially a very expensive and tacky supermarket. It's stripped of its meaning somewhat because of where it's shown - there's that production/fabrication/dissemination disconnect, but because the work isn't easy, because it is nearly always intelligent in some way, there is an aura that carries it beyond the gallery shelf so to speak.

And if Paris Photo is a supermarket, then the galleristos and galleristas are the sales people. You get the interested, normal ones who wore their business lightly, under a skin of art-obsessed humanity, then you got the ones who rather resented the massed crowds bundling around their artwork, you could feel the discomfort on their skin at times, they were like monkeys in a zoo wondering at the distastefulness of it all. The best were the really sharp ones who could smell money or the lack thereof and let that affect their dead-eyed faces. they were fun to look at, an alien species with sharp suits, plastic skin and bristly hair -  gallery sharks feeding on the money scraps that fell off the excessively monied folk passing through.

picture by Ingar Krauss

That didn't happen with the really good ones though because the passion for their work came first and  they loved talking about it in tremendously knowledgeable and interesting ways - which is always the best way of selling work. There were also the dealers who were having a bad fair, who shrank into their booths the longer the fair went on (I was only there for a couple of hours so do understand I'm being creative here - with everything), and the ones who had hit their targets and were relaxing into the happy land of a job well done and the night is young.

But the Grand Palais is only part of Paris Photo and there are all these offshoots that laid a kind of foundation for the event, that give it the foundation for it to stand upon. There are satellite exhibitions all over the place, speaking events where you get curators, writers, academics, photographers and blogeurs perform, but also the book events - beyond the Grand Palais trade publishers, there is Offprint, Polycopies and Fotofever. And I'm guessing the expansion of Paris Photo into these events gives the Grand Palais a grounding. It no longer stands in isolation but has photographic roots that tie the lots-of-money work seen in the booths to both a range of opinions and the current no-money works that are visible in the offshoots. They are like the roots of where future work will come from, where the energy and the dynamism and the fun is.

picture from Mc Hotel

The result is you can go from top to bottom of the photography food chain just by moving from Polycopies (a boat full of books) to The Grand Palais and back again. That adds a dimension to the fair and makes it be whatever you want it to be. I bought a photobook called Mc Hotel Tokyo by Olivier van Breugel and Simone Mudde outside the Polycopies Boat. They had a little table with music and free wine. The book cost 2 euros and it is great. But I didn't buy any of the Mapplethorpe flowers that were on sale in the darkened recesses of one Booth because they cost 300,000 Euros. Paris Photo can be expensive or it can be cheap. At 2 Euros I think I found my market!

I had never been to Paris Photo before but I have to say that I loved it. Speaking to other people who had been before, there was a pretty unanimous view that it was more enjoyable than in previous years, that the other events added a balance to the frenetic and rarified atmosphere of the Grand Palais.

It's like mixed housing. If you ever go to an area where you only have wealthy people living, it is invariably, without exception, a soulless place without life, dynamism or heart, a place where people, ideas and ways of being are locked out and kept in separation. Mixed communities are more functional and they reveal the workings of a city. They also create a better communication and understanding between different parts of the community. They are not apartheid communities in that rich and poor sense.

That's what Offprint, Polycopies and all the rest do for Paris Photo. They give it a soul and mean that you, as a visitor can make of it whatever you want to. Including not going near the Grand Palais - or Polycopies - or Offprint. There's enough going on everywhere. And that's a good thing.

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Egg Theatre, Paris Photo and Sarcastic Single Ladies

Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested at Buckingham Palace, 1921

My daughter's been in rehearsals morning, noon and night for the last 3 months for a production at the Egg Theatre in Bath. I missed the first two nights because I was at Paris Photo but I dashed back to catch the final night.

Her production was called Hear Me and was part of a collection of 4 great plays called The Eleventh Hour, all with a first world war connection. Hear Me was a devised play in which the cast relived the roles that women have played in the 20th and 21st centuries with a focus on anti-war movements.

It was amazing. Most of it was in mime, there was a rolling projection of moving images showing demonstrations, strikes and full on conflict involving women. Greenham Common, the Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo, Palestinian women fighting the British, Germaine Greer, Malala, it was all there It wasn't sentimental. It was anti-war with a strong, feminist message.

There were songs. All the Single Ladies was recontextualised as a hugely sarcastic piece from the Roaring 1920s complete with a brilliantly sarcastic line of chorus girls mocking the lyrics with every hip and finger flick and ooh, ooh, ooh.

A Fordist production line of female identity was created with a Kraftwerk-esque soundtrack that took identity into every corner of 20th century history. The costumes ranged from sexualised glad-rags to utilitarian jumpsuits and dungarees. All the bases were covered; suffrage, employment, sexualisation of teenage bodies, gender identity, eating disorders, sexuality. Experimental, evocative and with a clear message. It was brilliant and they had the audience in tears by the end.

Funnily enough, at Paris Photo (which I really, really enjoyed - and more of that later in the week), there was lots of work that focussed on the same things; gender identity, sexuality, eating disorders, the body.

There was work on show that was made to be progressive and challenging, but at the same time there was reactionary work that focussed on those things in an opposing way. The message is constantly changing so one's brain is flip-flapping here and there in a quite confusing manner (especially if one is trying to see everything in a couple of hours - which I was), and because it's Paris Photo, the context of production is often rather obscured.

But confused and hurried as I was in the Grand Palais, there were a few things that grabbed my attention for a longer span. And the project that grabbed me most was a kind of All the Single Ladies in photographic form. It was the story of the  man who wouldn't marry his mistress, it was the diary of an affair.

Margret – Chronik einer Affäre (Margret - Chronicle of an Affair - exhibited at the Suzanne Zander booth) showed the obsessive visual documentation of that Gunther K., a Cologne businessman, made of the love affair he had with his secretary Margret from 1969-1970.

The pictures are polaroids and are direct and straightforward. You see Margret at the hotel, getting undressed, getting changed, on the street. Nothing too surprising there. But the pictures were in a suitcase that was found during a flat clearance. Also in the suitcase were documents. and other ephemera These are what make the pictures so very interesting. There are receipts that record the prices of hotel rooms, notes that remember the sex they had, how long it took, the contraception used and so on. It is obsessive stuff. The suitcase came complete with other bits and pieces; hair, fingernails and scabs for example!

We've all been there.

Anyway, the affair broke up when it was clear to Margret that it was only an affair, that Gunther K. wouldn't be marrying her (I think). He liked her, but not enough to put a ring on it!   

Which completely ties in with my daughter's production at the Egg-  it's All the Single Ladies given an unreconstructed 1960s twist. 

The pictures were part of a show at the gallery booth of five ouevres that  "...lure the spectator involuntarily into the role of a voyeur." Considering that Morton Bartlett and Miroslav Tlichy are in there as well, the idea that the spectator is being lured in 'involuntarily' is very gentle. 

I found the voyeurism to be completely voluntary. Isn't that what photography is all about - voyeurism. Looking. Enjoying. Being fascinated in some way, having a story told to us. I'm never quite sure how you're supposed to look at pictures, or films, or plays, or anything really, without being voyeuristic.I wish somebody could explain that to me sometime. No, I don't. 

Anyway, it is a great story that raises questions that I'm still waiting to be answered, that add a layer of mystery to the images. It's not a fully realised story and that is what makes it so three-dimensional. Margret – Chronik einer Affäre is also available in book form. It's only in German, mind, but after a few days of hearing people roll through Spanish, Italian, French and German at the flick of the tongue, I think I could manage that. 

More on Paris later in the week. 

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Sacre Bleu, Ou est le Powerpoint?

I will be away from this blog for a few days for a trip to Paris Photo.

If you're in town, I'm speaking at Platform in the Grand Palais on Friday at 6pm or thereabouts. It's a 10 minute talk on where pictures come from and where they go to and part of a great programme of talks that Urs Stahel has put together. They have a hook to yank you off if you go over so I won't go over.

Come along and say hello if you're in town.

Seeing 3,000 Pictures and Remembering One

In light of the other week's post on photographic muzak, I asked a couple of people (er, my wife and daughter) who had walked through Bath city centre in the morning what pictures they remembered. They came up with two - one was a Red Cross advert on a bus, the other was an advert on a pub (not in Bath City Centre) showing a happy couple asking if people would be interested in running the pub. The happiness of the picture was at odds with the words and the backdrop. That's why it got remembered. That's all they came up with. One picture each.

On their walk through Bath, they probably passed around 3,000 photographs. They remembered one of them! One out of 3,000. Of course, some of the pictures they passed are not designed to be remembered, they work on more cumulative, subliminal levels, some of them are not shown well, and most of them are illustrative (they definitely would have walked past around 500 photographs in estate agent's windows) and designed to be looked at rather than seen.

But still, the photographs were all there and even if they weren't consciously remembered, some of them went in by other means, and some of them are even designed to go in through other means. They will have been noticed on some level.

Then yesterday I found myself looking at the Pastoral work of Alexander Gronsky. It was online and click, click, click I went, skimming over the surface of the pictures, spending a few seconds at most on each.

It was another example of pictures not getting noticed. Here they are fine landscape/documentary images of the highest order (look at Norilsk. Amazing). They have a visual heritage that ties right into Atget and they are fantastic, but the problem is the same. They are appearing on a platform that begs you not to stop, to consider or to think. You dismiss them.

I write a lot about photobooks on this blog. Gronsky made a book of this work and he did it for a reason. The purpose of photobooks (if they are any good at all) is to make the viewer take some time over an image, to consider where it's come from, where it's going, to revel in its aesthetic glory, to touch on the world outside, to make links and connections between art, history and ideas.

That's the point of half the writing on photography as well; it examines and tries to link photography to art, to process, to psychology, to ethics, to add a dimension to a two-dimensional bit of paper or a no-dimension scrunch of bytes.

Making people stop and consider an image is not something limited to any medium then. It's central to all photography, it's central to all art, it's central to writing. How do you get people to stop.

And that's what this piece by Francis Hodgson is about. It's about the marks we make on paper, how we make an image stick in a tactile sense almost. Does photography work like art? Artist, Ian Mckeever, thinks not.

“A photograph”, said Ian McKeever that day, “is at its maximum position at the very moment it is made. [Afterwards] it can only ever be less than that…so a photographer is left with a dilemma: how to extend the language. The painter has a year or two in which to inflect meaning into what he’s doing. The question becomes how does the photographer bring that to the photograph?” And McKeever’s answer, clearly felt, although never in fact stated outright, was that he can’t.

Hodgson disagrees and argues that the fine print is something designed to hold the viewer.

I’ve argued that the whole Pictorialist tendency contained at root a kind of campaign for viewers to be held longer on the surface of photographs than has been the norm in news, or advertising or topography or any of the one of the dominant zones of photography. Maybe it was not always mark making, but certainly mark-imitating. Interesting surfaces will do, if you can’t have marks upon them or seemingly upon them. Anything which counters the tendency in viewers to see a photograph as a single rectangular frameful of information can help to slow the viewer’s mind within a photograph. 

He goes on to talk about how dimension, eye movement, attention grabbing and composition attract attention. Hodgson has a background in and a specific interest in the photographic print, but the key idea is, if a photograph is something that we want people to invest time and energy in (and we don't always), how do we get them to do that, especially when we view them on the computer.

Sooner or later photographs will become rare as physical objects. On screens, photographs never have those marks: unless … somebody has put them there on purpose. And that’s where we began. It’s not really about mark-making as such. It’s just making marks or finding ways to imitate them is one of the very best ways to keep the eye of the viewer where you want it. And once you’ve done that, you can begin to say whatever it is you have to say. But you’ve got to find a way to keep the viewer from sliding off your photograph.

 Read the whole piece here.