Monday, 27 April 2015

"I am not a number. I am a free man."






Abdimalik Hajir

I was shocked by these pictures of those murdered by Al-Shabaab at Garissa University in Kenya . It had been toppish story on the TV news for a few days, and pictures had been shown of the outside of the university, with maps to indicate how close the region was to Somalia, and how distant and isolated it was.

In the days following the massacre, some newspapers ran profiles of some of the people who had been killed for their religion, or more for what their religion wasn't. But none of it quite hit home like these pictures.

People say all the time that we can't be shocked anymore by pictures of death, that we are numbed and immune to what they depict, and that's true when the pictures (or reporting) is lazy and just slips into generic massacre tale-telling.

But I never feel that to be true when the picture brings us closer to death and gets something across as the ones above do, or specifically the picture of the classroom.

The first picture shows the people lying dead in a classroom. They've been shot in the coldest of blood and all around them lie empty chairs with those little side boards that you write on, and a frame underneath where you put your books and your bag and your bottle of water. You know exactly where you are in this picture and you know exactly who's been killed.

There were four attackers, only four, and the result of what they did, the scale of what they did is evident in the picture of the bodies in the courtyard. These were students that were killed, who were living and working in classrooms and dorms on a university campus. We connect the two pictures and the language of the space works together to tell us what happened and how it happened.

None of the other pictures I saw in the newspapers or television, the pictures of security forces or sirens or frightened students ever got that across. It was just blind chaos that was more about the failures of the Kenyan army and police. Nor did the graphics, the maps or the analysis. Nor even the pictures of survivors being rushed away from the scene told any kind of story. It all just fell into an undifferentiated morass of news reporting, reporting that never really told you anything, supported by footage and pictures that said less than nothing.

But the classroom with its chairs and its mass of bodies; that made a difference to me. Somehow, Garissa stopped being a remote place near the Somali border of which we know little, and the people shown became much more real. The woman in the red dress; what did she study, who did she love, how tears have poured from the eyes of those who mourn her poor, murdered body. Or the man in the back with his hand up. You fan feel his pain, his bewilderment, and you wonder at who he was, where he came from and what he would have become. Pasts and futures haunt these pictures. There is something there that takes us and reminds us both of what has been lost but also points a finger at those who committed this crime.

There was a hashtage on twitter (#147notjustanumber ) for the Garissa killings, which had the intent of making the 150 (I think that's the latest figure) people killed more than  just a number.

But numbers are all around and so is death and so often the two overlap. Numbers conceal the human cost, reduce it to something abstract. The number of those killed in the Nepal earthquake at the weekend currently stands at 3,000, but that's just a number. It doesn't really mean anything, except when it is made to.

Sometimes the point is to show that a number is just that - a number. This is a picture of a coffin that was widely circulated (on Duckrabbit - and there were variations in other places) following the latest Mediterranean sinkings of  boats carrying migrants.





It's a picture that lays bare the cold venality of the way we use number to list lives that don't matter. You get lots of pictures showing rows of coffins but they don't touch the raw nerve that this one does, because this is a picture of one coffin, one number, one person. This is photography of a process - of how people are reduced to mere numbers on a box (or a cockroach).

And the picture of the dead students in the classroom does the same in a way. It shows the process of living and in so doing shows the process of dying and that it happens to people who don't deserve it.

If this is a man...
If this is a woman...


Thursday, 23 April 2015

Maus: "Having a writer in the family is to have a traitor in it"




Continuing on the cartoon and animation theme are these images from the manga, Doubt. It is wonderful the way that visual tropes get poached and translated from one place to another. In yesterday's post, I looked at the use of still photographs in Black Lagoon ( an anime which was heavily influenced by the films of Quention Tarantino, a film maker who was heavily influenced by anime - as well as everything else )  and here you can see a little bit of Guantanamo creeping into the manga action.





The central symbol of Doubt is hanging rabbits. And as soon as you see hanging rabbits, you are absolutely into Art Spiegelman and Maus; the link is inescapable It's how you get from Japanese teen fiction to the Holocaust in one easy step. Such is the magic of the visual world.



Maus is the phenomenal story of Art Spiegelmann's father and the holocaust. But it's also a story about family, relationships and the destruction the Holocaust wrought after the fact. It's a story in which Jews are depicted as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, Americans as dogs and French as frogs. That notwithstanding, it's a story that Spiegelmann insisted should be filed in the non-fiction section of bookshops. And quite right he was too.

But in Maus, amidst the mice, and the cats and pigs, there are photographs. There are cartoons of photographs and then there are 'real' photographs; three of them. One of Spiegelmann's brother Richelieu (who died before he was born), one of his father, and one of Spiegelmann with his mother.






In Family Frames, Marianne Hirsch writes about how these images ask how 'different media - comics, photographs, narrative, testimony' create multiple voices that may 'definitively eradicate any clear-cut distinction between documentary and aesthetic.'

Maybe, and maybe for Spiegelmann including these images reconstitutes a nuclear family that once was and now is reimagined in a haze of Spiegelmann's  'postmemory' ( that's a memory where the personal and historical overlap).

The top image is of Richeu, the brother Spiegelmann never met. He was poisoned before deportation so 'he wouldn't suffer in the death camps.' The picture is a longing, a memory that isn't, of a being together that never happened. The picture introduces a chapter, it's outside the narrative. It's a stamp of personal sorrow and regret.

The picture of his mother is one of a meeting of histories; Spiegelmann's personal history, that of his family and that of the Holocaust, with the history of his mother smothered; she killed herself in 1968 when Spiegelmann was just out of 3 months in a mental hospital. In the chapter that follows, the mice and cats and pigs of the rest of Maus are replaced by human figures and it's Spiegelmann who is now wearing the camp uniform. He's been transported into the hell that his parents lived through but now it's one of family anguish and guilt with an overlay of the Holocaust to make things even worse.


The picture of his father is a 'souvenir photo'. It shows him after liberation in a borrowed camp uniform provided by the studio where the picture was taken. It's the picture he sent his wife, Anja, to show he survived. He didn't send a picture of himself in civilian clothes, but in camp stripes. But they're souvenir stripes, ironed and clean, and Vladek is full-cheeked and bright eyed. He's showing 'their common past, their survival, perhaps their hope for a future,' says Hirsch. Spiegelman didn't sentimentalise his father in Maus, he portrayed him with all his flaws and in the book stated that he could barely stand to be in the same room as him, so there might be a bit of that coming up in the photograph as well.

"Having a writer in the family is to have a traitor in it," says Spiegelman and the treachery here is the refusal to conform to the idealised view of what a father, a family, a survivor should look like. And it might be that Spiegelman's brutal familial view is slipping into how his father portrait is used in the book. It's another kind of alchemy at play here, one that works at a subconscious level.

The photographs then are fragments, part of the 'testimonial chain' that make us identify with the survivor. And the whole of Maus is made up of framed fragments in 'an aesthetic that is indistinguishable from the documentary.'

But at the same time the photographs jump out of this past/present chain as something that is instantly recognisable as a photograph but at the same time an unfamiliar part of a history 'we cannot assimilate', 'a past that will neither fade away nor be integrated into the present.'


The picture of Spiegelmann's father is also a kind of trophy picture. Vladek is reclaiming himself and is wearing the clean, lice-free skin of the thing that tried to kill him. He's making himself a human again and he's giving the finger to the dehumanisation of those millions that were killed in Auschwitz and in the other campls.






Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The Red Flag and the Reichstag: The Anime Version



 

I watched the first series of  the Black Lagoon anime over the holidays. It centres on Lagoon Company, a gang-for-hire who live on an island of mobsters, racketeers and hoodlums in the South China Sea. In one of the Black Lagoon arcs, there's a story line that features the fall of Berlin in 1945, a sunken Nazi submarine, Nazi treasure and contemporary Nazis (who all turn out to be property developers which is a nice twist!).

The story is introduced with an anime version of Yevgeny Khaldei's Raising the Red Flag over the Reichstag. It's an accurate (?) depiction but cleaned up after an anime fashion. What's interesting is why they include an anime version of such an iconic photograph and how this fictionalisation works within the bounds of Black Lagoon.

A clue may come from science. There's the idea in scientific archives that photographs are regarded as having a scientific foundation because:

a) photographs are essentially objective; it's scientific because of the indexical nature of the chemistry and the relationship between the film/paper and what is being photographed

or

b) when pictures form a more random catalogue, a scientific ordering can be applied to them which somehow makes the photographs then become scientific. It's a kind of alchemy in other words. The touch of science gives the pictures a magic scientific sparkle.

The anime version of the Red Flag over the Reichstag is used as a historical verifier for Black Lagoon. It has the alchemy of b), it's part of a visual history where the Reichstag picture adding a tab of authenticity to the show, a glint of photographic sparkle that makes everything a bit more real.









Later on we get family pictures of one of the submarine captain, with the same picture being shown both in 1945 when the captain is alive and then in the present when the captain is dead.

Here the portrait of the captain's wife and children uses the alchemy of the his family album to show his essential humanity to the evil SS man.

Alchemy is everywhere. We go to the future and the captain is dead, but his picture remains, now lightly stained and ripped, creating distance in time, ideology and intention. The alchemy of what we consider the past is at work here.

It's a strange thing to see photographs used in film, especially animated film, where there is a simultaneous appeal to some mythical photographic authenticity and a subversion of that authenticity through its animation. But then perhaps there are things more powerful at work here; the integrity of the narrative structure and the essential alchemy of the photograph, the way in which we categorise it, the way we attach it to whatever area we think it lies closest to (science, history, family in this case) and the way in which it acts like a lightning rod for our faith and our belief in the basic constructs of life. We believe in it even when we know we shouldn't. That's the alchemy of the photograph.




Monday, 20 April 2015

Showdogs: A Fun Book for All the Family!



I was picking up some books from the warehouse of RRB Photobooks last week when Rudi the owner brought out a copy of Showdogs: A Photographic Breed by Kate Lacey. 

"You should do something on the worst buys ever. This is my worst buy ever. I bought 200 of these thinking I could shift them quickly over Christmas. I priced it at £8, but did I shift any? Not one."

And so he gave me a copy which I took home and started flicking through. And then I flicked some more. It's a book of dogs made by Kate Lacey. It is marketed as a dog lover's book and so doesn't have the kind of god-help-me photobook statement we are familiar with. It's a different kind of god-help-me statement. It's quite straightforward really. Showdogs is  a book of America Kennel Club Breeds shot with pop-up backdrops and little doggy expressions. It's a reference book for dog fans.

I quite like most dogs so I went back and forth with the book, checking out the breeds and then I put it on the table. My wife (Katherine) and daughter (Isabel) came through and picked it up. Now I had Laura El-Tantawy's excellent new book In the Shadow of the Pyramids (get a copy if you can find one) on the table as well. They didn't pick that up. And they don't pick up any of the other 'great' books I put down on the table. They don't find them that interesting which we can put down to either:

a) they are not educated in photobookery (which is rather condescending)

     or

b) they are right and photobooks really are not that interesting (which is rather insulting)

   or

c) both of the above


But the dogs they spent time with. So this was their review.


K: "Most of the dogs are either ugly or look sad."

I: "How can you say that. Ah, look at that one. It's got the wind blowing through its hair. It has so much swag. It's so cute."

K: "There nothing cute in this book, that's for sure."

I: What about the really furry dogs. They're so cute."

K: "Toy dogs! What the hell are those?"

I: "They're little dogs. You have to admit that one's cute."

K: "She thinks it's cute, but I think it's hideous. They look so sad. The problem with these show dogs is they're trained to have the wrong kind of obedience..."


I'll stop it there because it went on like this in a back and forth for about twenty minutes. My daughter thought the baby alien that burst out of John Hurt's stomach was cute, so you'll understand how little discrimination was going on there. Everything was cute. Or the flip side, from my wife's side, everything was hideous.

I know Showdogs is an illustrative coffee table book in miniature, and it doesn't agonise about dogs or place them in some pretentious framework, but it was the most family fun I've had with a photobook since Fauna or Fruits. And it's got those candy coloured backdrops that used to be favoured by a certain breed of new formalist photographers a few years back.

So I wonder if the whole series wasn't reshot with the dogs looking kind of deadpan, and the wind machine turned off, and with the narrative broken up with random bone sculptures and pictures of cans of dog food (actually this is sounding really fucking good. Do it someone!) with a new statement saying how 'these images challenge the bla bla bla of canine bla bla bla-iness' and was published by someone ironic and cool, then wouldn't it just do great and be on our book of the year list.

Well, probably not, but what I'm saying is the shift between the work that we like and the work we denounce as cheesy or commercial (and this is cheesy and commercial) is not as great as we think. What would it take to move this from being a commercial book to being a 'photobook' book.  Not that much I'm guessing. And it wouldn't necessarily make it any better. We could just pretend it's better.

Possibly we can get a bit precious about it all, and not enjoy things just for the sake of enjoying them - while still recognising that there is some work that is just unadulterated crap.

But Showdogs isn't. I don't think. It is what it is; a book of dogs, and I quite like it for that.

Buy the book here.

Or don't buy the book here. 

Friday, 17 April 2015

Don't ask for the meaning, ask for the use!



EVA-04 by Sabine Schr√ľnder is a book about identity and how it is constructed. It's quite conceptual in some ways because it's based on a series of polarities (individual and the social, location and studio), but it has a heart and it tells a story that is both sometimes puzzling but also visually engaging. The clues click together, which is part of the point of the book and the way it has been sequenced..

There's a  Wittgenstein quote at the back of Sabine Schrunder's book, EVA 04. 'The meaning of a word is its use in the language'. That sums up what the book is about; how people function in (Japanese) society, how they are suited and booted by the world around them, by the social constraints, the architecture, the planning, the way of thinking, everything. That's the book explained in verbal form.

The book starts on a grey sand beach with a woman in jeans sticking pieces of straw into the grey sand of the beach, sand that she is patting down with her right hand. She's not looking a happy camper, but does have a slightly wistful air as seen from the back. It seems like she's dreaming of another life, that there's a conflict between what she is and what she is supposed to be. That's the book explained in visual form.

A grey framed window appears next and then we're back on the beach with schoolgirls whose grey socks match the grey sand. Their shoes are brown and they stand pigeon-toed on this rather joyless looking beach.


By the next picture, the schoolgirls are gone and we have two attendants of sorts. Maybe they work in a car park, maybe they work in a hotel. We don't know but what we do know is their shoes are black and they are not pigeon toed. And we can see one of the attendant's face. She's got ill-fitting gloves to go with her ill-fitting jacket but the skirt has stayed the same. And it's grey. The world doesn't fit and the world is dull!


A child watches his mother blowing bubbles. She's wearing a grey skirt too. She's standing under a roof and behind her is a grid of panels. Never mind the bubbles, the child's world is being shaped already to fit into her socially-moulded template.



We see that world taking shape in a rooftop panorama of a city's rooftops. There are squares, there are grids, there are lines that are straight and everything is in grey order.  It's a kit world, one that you put together with steel and screws and concrete.

To emphasise that point there are pictures of a plastic robot kit (the kind that Airfix or Revell make), though these might be pressing the point. The architecture and the grids get the point across. Mixed in with these are black and white studio portraits, Japanese men and women pose deadpan for the camera, but now you can see their faces and (even when there are lines) the lines that society seeks to impose are broken through a particular vulnerability. The organised chaos of uncombed but not unkempt hair, the intimacy (or intrusion) of a hand holding a forearm, and a subtle sense of the androgynous (the skirts have disappeared by the end ) add to the disruption.





By the end of the book we're back where we started, with the sticks in the sand on the grey beach. Only now there's no hand to pat the sand down and without that nod towards scale, the sticks look like driftwood cast onto a wild landscape because that, ultimately, is what we are.


Buy the Book here.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

How Many Bones Does a Dog Bury in its Lifetime

 



The Bristol Artist's Book Event (Babe 2015!) was another fun event. Founded by Sarah Bodman and Tom Sowden, this was three floors of artists, publishers and printers. There was letter press, screen printing and and accordion folds. The overall aesthetic was very different to the photobook world. More flowers, more text, more paper variations, more page fabrication, more colour, more gold and more touching.






Everywhere you went people said 'open it, touch it' and sometimes that was the only point of the book, or the book object, to be touched, to be held to be played with. One stall had book slinkies going on which was quite a thing to behold though utterly pointless - except for the pleasure of touching. So it wasn't pointless at all.




But there was overlap as well.  Eileen White from Winchester made books (see above) that mixed landscape and navigation, the stars and cosmology, all on a cyanotype base. She had an artist's edition of 14 that were going for £69 and if I had had the money I would have bought one. Her neighbour, Noriko Suzuki-Busco worked with landscape, biography and belonging. We talked about Paul Gaffney and Robert Macfarlane and I told her how much her books looked like Kikuji Kawada's Last Cosmology or Jon Casanave's Ama Lur, which are fresh-out-of-the-box photobooks. They didn't know them but the themes and the passions were the same; there was a huge overlap in the work and the themes, only she had more decoration going on. Dutch design was not included in this Artist's Book World.




Similarly on the ground floor, Mike Dutton had a modified book on Aircraft recognition to which he had added details of Broken Arrow incidents where atomic bombs had gone astray. It was all about surveillance and secret information and touched on so many photographic chords (from Trevor Paglen to Lisa Barnard, Lewis Bush and beyond) that he was unfamiliar with but then he was working in areas that I was unfamiliar with.



More familiar ground came with the publishers who made this book on Fear. They went to Ireland for a workshop and gathered together the fears of a group of high school children and then made a book. The strangest fear was a Chinese Nazi Priest, which all seems a bit Father Ted so isn't really that strange at all.





Or there was Red Fox Press which publishes a beautiful collection of books based around collage but also works with found images and advertising. They were the slick end of the operation with a mix of machine made and handmade screenprinted works that simply don't figure in the photographic firmanent, though I'm not sure why. They work with photographs much of the time and with artists such as Katrien de Blauwer (see an interview with Joerg Colberg here) but they gravitate towards the creative print environment, probably because that's the world they inhabit most.


The one 'proper' photography publisher who was there was Craig Atkinson of Cafe Royal Books. Craig said he was doing great business, better than at the usual photobook fairs and you could understand why. After overdosing on out-of-context letterpress and depoliticised screenprints it was like getting your feet back on black-and-white terra firma.

The other reason Cafe Royal Books does so well is because of the healthy pricing. A fiver gets you a book. Not that BABE is a pricey event. One of the the reasons why the exhibition does so well at packing the Arnolfini out is it can be cheap. Sure you can crave the limited edition artist's books that cost in the hundreds, but even with very limited funds you could still come out of there with a few books, postcards, beermats, flyers and whatnots. You did have the editions that came in the hundreds but you also had the smaller editions, some of which were very modest in pricing. The market was made up as it went along because the emphasis is on the process and not on the price.

I don't think there was anything that was stand-out, lose-your-breath great, but that's true of of everything.  As Gene Rodenberry said, "They say that ninety percent of TV is junk. But ninety percent of everything is junk."There aren't many photobooks that will stand the test of time or that are stand out fantastic, there aren't many exhibitions or installations. But if we judged everything by excellence then we really wouldn't bother getting out of bed of a morning. It isn't about excellence, it's about enjoyment and engagement and communication.

To that end, it was so nice to see quite a few kids in there who had no budget at all coming out with little giveaways of posters, cards and flyers. They were are allowed to get their grubby fingers on some fancy flick-through publications. There's some storing up the creative custom for the future going on there. It's a good idea for everyone.


Pests of the North-West by Kathryn Poole


Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Format Festival: 'Viewing discretion is advised'


picture by Fred Ramos


The sun is shining, spring is in the air and I have been visually refreshed over the easter break by Format festival (curated by Louise Mazmanian) in Derby.

One of the loveliest things about Format was the mad dash around the city in search of venues. From a room above the Victorian market to a disused phone shop, the city museum, the police museum and a semi-derelict building called Pearson's, the tone of the spaces was continually shifting which had a huge effect on how you saw the pictures.



And with that shift came a change in the language used. the Forensic Turn was the academic end of the spectrum - and so there in the old mobile phone shop you  got the academic statements - which didn't necessarily help those in the audience who were not already converted to engage with what was visually strong. But engage they did because it was fascinating stuff, as was the Monica Alcazar Duarte and Lewis Bush curated Media and Myth - where there was some of the most engaging and relevant work in the whole of Format. But it took us a bit of time to figure out the names of the Vietnam war dead in Monica Alcazar Duarte's great visualisation of of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Red Mist, and I would have loved to have seen (and read) more on the anti-war magazines in Amin Musa's display (see images below).





But Format was no photographic bubble and there was a huge overlap between the festival and the city. At the Museum of Derby, the Sarah Pickering  installation themed on a famous forger shared space with a line of Joseph Wright paintings - some authentic, some less so. And there was a very nice man (Derby was noticeably friendly) to engage us into guessing what was real and what wasn't - and point us in the direction of the Joseph Wright display downstairs and another very nice man who was only too happy to share his enclycopaedic knowledge of the Wright andhis work ( including 'A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun', shown below) .




In the next room there was an exhibition by Sputnik where I loved the curtained off photographs with the content unsuitable for children; 'Viewing discretion is advised' read the caption.




Possibly my favourite display was at the Police Museum, a dark place with of cells and dampness where the early mugshots of William Garbutt the Deputy Governor of Derby Gaol (not to be confused with William Garbutt, the Stockport born football coach who was the model for Italian football management and won La Liga with Atletico Bilbao) were accompanied by period captions that revealed a mix of criminals, vagrants and outsiders which fitted perfectly in with the low-ceilinged dankness. There was also an old photo-fit kit, on show and out of reach under a glass case. Out of reach That was a shame because everyone was gagging to start handling it.





At the period splendour of Pickford's House, it was great to see the story behind Indian crime photographs, and put a face to Sri Aurobindo, while Pearson's was splendid in its decrepitude and featured Tom Stayte's #selfie which was a great photo-opportunity in itself.




But by the time we got to Quad, which we'd saved till last, we were kind of exhausted and the familiarity of the location (cafe, exhibition space, cinema, sharp-edged architecture) was not as exciting after the eccentricity of the other sites. But it was great to see such a range of works on show, some familiar and some not, and to see what worked better as a book and what, as in Tiane Doan na Champassak's Looters, looked great blown up big on a wall.