Thursday, 18 September 2014

Paul Graham's Rainbows

I wrote something the other week in this post about people  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.'

I think that is a despicable thing when it is done in that particular precious way that is elitist and excludes others from food culture and claims good food as something that is only attainable through either great expertise or great expenditure..

And then I thought about photography and wondered about photography, wondered about this blog and how we could change a few words around so it was all about photobooks and handmades and Japanese stab-bindings and spending £126.73 on an artisanal crafted edition of 45 with slipped in leaflets... and well, we're talking about me and a fair few other people as well. 

Oh well, so it goes.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is I was sent Paul Graham's new book, Does Yellow Run Forever  in the post a few weeks ago. 

Sometimes it takes a bit of time for Paul Graham's work to filter through, sometimes it only filters through in conjunction with other books. So perhaps I'm wrong on this. 

But I couldn't really work myself up to liking it. The pictures are super-glossy and run through a rainbow, dreaming girlfriend, US gold shops riff ( pot of gold, streets paved with gold, sell your gold) but it all seems a bit artificial to me. Or maybe not artificial enough. It seems like the metaphorical is being pushed but it's got stuck in the photobook mode of presentation. Whatever it is Graham is trying to say is somehow blocked by the fuzzy cover and the glossy pages. Or it might be that it's not that interesting a story. 

Maybe it's because I got it at the end of the summer and I am just not in the mood for this obtuse kind of narrative when there's a more obvious one might do. The story feels disguised by the format rather than revealed . Or maybe I am out of practice and need to get back into my artisanal groove and appreciate it a bit more. 

Or maybe I just don't like gold.

I do like Teletubbies though. That's why I have the picture up.

I'm sure it will sell out though. You can buy it here. 

And here's an interesting interview with Michael Mack about the book here.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Osama Bin Laden's Secret Base

The great thing about interviewing Joan Fontcuberta was it gave me a chance to use Osama Bin Laden's secret base in a story. I've been waiting to do that for years and finally the opportunity came.

Osama Bin Laden's secret base was a fictional hideaway that had been dug out of the Tora Bora Bora mountains. It was the cave complex where Bin Laden and hundreds of his fighters were holed up in Afghanistan, post-911, 2001. It was packed with food, water, weapons and everything else that a good Jihadi needs; a mosque, cinema, boutique and bowling alley are missing from the diagram but you can bet they were there.

I remember seeing this in the UK papers and laughing out loud. The story of Bin Laden's secret base went global and was shown on TV. Donald Rumsfeld was shown the plans and said "And there's not one of those. There are many of those."

But of course the base was never found. Not yet anyway. And now if they found it, because Al Qaeda have now somehow been reinvented as the cuddly arm of the jihadist movement ("We would never have kidnapped an aid worker. He was helping muslims"), it would have yoga rooms and Anger Management Therapy and counsellors for religious OCD.

Anyway, now that we know that Islamic State are the real bad guys, the really real bad guys, here is a handy guide to Good Beheadings and Bad Beheadings. There's a difference.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Joan Fontcuberta: Is he real?

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

Who is Innocent and Who is Guilty?

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.

Yunghi Kim went to Goma to photograph these Hutu refugees. But she treated the evolving crisis as if it has started as a ‘deus ex machina’, a phenomenon without a history. And I tend to consider it even more na├»ve to see the captions that now – 20 years (and a lot of reports, books etc.) later – accompany her photos in the NY Times Lens and in the Visa pour l’Image exhibition. To give just one example: she talks of “residents who had fled the fighting” or “fled the civil war.” That is absurd: a great many of them fled to avoid the consequences of killing Tutsi’s.
In her captions, she also talks muscularly about ‘the deadliest crisis in modern history’; we are left in the dark about when ‘modern history’ begins but surely, the refugee crisis at the end (and in the aftermath) of WW2 in Central and Eastern Europe was deadlier. And now that I come to talk about WW2: it would shed light on Kim’s captions, if we consider an exhibition of photos of Germans having fled East Prussia or Sudetenland in 1944-46 with captions that would not mention their fate being related to the Second World War and, certainly in the case of the Sudeten Germans, without touching upon their massive support for the nazis just a few years earlier?
I don't know. I think I'm a bit with Kim and bit with Banning on this one, but ultimately the question is who is guilty and who is innocent? And historically where does innocence end and guilt begin? Even in times as seemingly clear cut as Nazi Germany or genocidal Rwanda, shouldn't compassion and a non-comparative morality be used, however difficult that may be. If we don't do that then we end up in a place where all that exists is vengeance and hatred, where everything is black and white and there is simply right and wrong and no in-between. And considering that pretty much everybody is collectively guilty of something, that is an ugly place to be in. 
So, perhaps Kim was naive or clumsy in her wording, but does that mean that the hundreds of thousands of innocent people (including a great many who were not directly involved in the killing) who were stuck on those Goma rocks didn't deserve some compassion and caring? Or is to show that just to show emotion and somehow be incompatible with informing the audience as Banning suggests (strangely, I've always felt that what made Banning's comfort women so powerful is the anger,grief and sorrow they convey as well as the dignity). Where does innocence end and guilt begin?
More on continuing campaigns for justice by Indonesian Comfort Women here.
...and this from Jan Banning on continued Japanese denial of war crimes.

Friday, 12 September 2014

#bringbackgoodluck, genocide and the first ever photobomb

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

Olympia and her cat

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:

With some repugnance I come to the peculiar paintings by Manet. It is awkward to discuss them, but they cannot be passed by in silence. . . . Many people think it is enough to pass them by and laugh, but that is a mistake. Manet is not without importance; he has a school, he has admirers, even fanatic followers; his influence extends further than is generally realized. M. Manet has the honor of being a danger. But now the danger is passed.
Olympia is inexplicable from any point of view even taken for what she is, a punymodel stretched out on a sheet. The color of the flesh is dirty, the modeling non-existent. The shadows are indicated by more or less large smears of blacking.  What’s to be said of the negress who brings a bouquet of flowers in a paper, or the black cat that leaves its muddy footprints on the bed? We would still excuse the ugliness were there only some truth in it, some careful study, heightened by some splendid effect of color. Even the least pretty woman has bones, muscles, skin and some sort ofcolor. Here there is nothing, we are sorry to say, but the desire to attract…
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

Why make a book? Is that a horse's butt?

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.