Category Archives: Photography

Soul thieves

What I’d call ‘the American traveler photographer mystic’ is a strain of photography particularly infectious (to me) and seems to have become a process, originating in Walker Evans, where the face of America is redefined each time someone photographs it in a new way.

‘Ordinary’ America, in this tradition, appears largely to be the subject matter whether by direct portrait, suburban street scene (with telephone wire and car) or contrasts found between haves and have nots. Ironically the audience, generally speaking could not be further from this apparent ‘common’ world, yet it is amongst this audience and through its media where the identity of America is actually defined and reflected visually.

If they (our folk outside the photographic sphere) get to see these works at all, would they not be looking at themselves and their pictured environment with perplexity rather than recognition? I suspect, too, that they would be too busy living their ordinariness to waste time on a photograph. Perhaps they won’t even be aware, 20 years from the shutter’s moment of truth, that via a gradual cultural osmosis, photography will have given them a new face and called it America.

Because cultures don’t really model themselves on the photographic image; they develop instead along their own lines of traditions and norms, we may find the public visual map of America, widely differing from its actuality and that the pictorial definition is far more about the photographer (and his following) than the subject and their identity, however noble or ideal the pursuit. Was America ever like Stephen Shore’s vision, if so is it still that way?

For those of us that aren’t in that world we may really think it is that way, if we don’t carefully notice that the dates say 1973-1979, or when at some point we are shown a differing image by a new generation of photographers.We’ve tired long ago of the oft repeated fear claiming that the cameras steal our souls. Perhaps though, it’s really true, in so far as it substitutes reality with a select fake?

Leaky Tap Syndrome

Going ‘digital’ doesn’t get you off the hook. Hey, yes that sudden freedom – you can snap away without worry – may not quite be what it seems. With analog you’d be hard hit spending your frames like that, certainly, but going digital well it’s not free either.

Question for the day. How many digital images are worth one film image?

A digital image may not cost much, but you’ll agree with me that it costs something? And would you agree that, generally, you take many, many, more digitals than film? Probably. The other day I filled up a whole 512mb of memory, and deleted the whole lot!

I think, in all, I have at most 200 rolls of film collected since my first camera at the age of 15 ( loverly old mechanical Nikon FM), that’s just over 20 years ago! Some of those images were published and essentially paid for themselves.

Ok, so the point being here that every little digital picture takes up a teeny bit of electricity, often spent without result, i.e. thrown down the drain. And. every time your battery runs dry, well you plug it in and the mains gradually tops it up. It’s kind of like a leaky tap, after a while it leads to an enormous loss of water, as Thames Water will warn us in times of drought. (It must be noted that Thames Water themselves lose huge amounts of water from leaky old victorian pipe, they fix a leak every six minutes. Naturally they don’t hesitate to charge us for their problem)

You do pay for your electricity, I hope? So tell me, if you added up all the images you took and chucked away in the life of your digital camera, how much would it have cost you, and how much was completely wasted?

I think we all suffer from Leaky Tap Syndrome, in more ways than one. Drip, drip, drip.

To caption or not to caption

Look at the image below. Try, first, to determine what is going on, or what you feel about it, without reading its’ caption.

And now the caption:

Red Cross Train, Budapest, Hungary, 1947. A large tear collects under each eye of the girl on the right as she and her companions – orphans under the care of the red cross – stare into an uncertain future. Children like these were often sent to Switzerland for three months of recuperation, only to return to the shocking devastation of their own country – Phaidon 55, Werner Bischof

While I could do without the melodramatic ‘tear collecting’ or the ‘shocking’ bits, the image has, for me, become dependent on it’s caption. The truth? Though I’m not going to waste too much time doubting what is impossible to conveniently verify, I’d take the image with caption, the detail, rather than not know who, why or what.

However, some captions I could do without entirely:

Good Dog, Iglesias, Italy, 1947. Bischof’s Magnum colleague Henri Cartier Bresson claimed that a good photograph should ask questions. This one demands to know: how long has this dog been sitting to attention? – Phaidon 55, Werner Bischof

No, I don’t ask how long the dog has been sitting to attention.

Liu Zheng’s, The Chinese

The Chinese” Liu Zheng’s vision of – something akin to Robert Frank’s over indulged “The Americans”- is something of a retort to an enduring party line of perfect people with a perfect future under, of course, a perfect leadership, who might even be so bold as to claim immortality were their optimism not already spouting beyond capacity.

In Liu Zheng’s tragedy we have Chinese who actually get old and die, have accidents or live in a less than perfect world, among a wide cast of subjects, from strippers, to beggars, to predatory business men to entertainers and asylum cases. If the ‘perfect leadership’ were to actually spend a moment or two reading this book they might find themselves having to sweep quite a few, well, marginal folk, up, in preparation for their perfectly happy olympics.

Liu Zheng’s dedication to what appears to be a rather too true reality, allows us to register our own impermanence – we all share the same fate – while also questioning whether these Chinese are in fact marginalized and on the fringe, perhaps they are rather more the diverse norm, there might even be something of them in us.

An exceptional book, really, and in my view transcending by far Frank’s self obsessed work. I always get the feeling that Frank describes something not even there. By not allowing his own interpretation – he does have one doesn’t he – he’s kind of letting the storm carry his work where it will.

Furthermore, while Frank seems to heavily criticize, there’s always a statement to be found somewhere in his work, Zheng allows his subjects to speak. His images reflect people in a world that really exists. Were it not for the notoriety of the ‘Americans’, perhaps there should not even be a comparison, save the stringing of images bit. Maybe we’re really looking more in the line of Diane Arbus, without the freakery side.

Reflective reality and Ryszard Kapuscinski

I heard somewhere that journalists are second only to politicians and estate agents as the most hated among the British public. Who actually proposed this and what survey (everything has to have a survey attached these days) provided the evidence, I don’t know, but I do know my own thoughts:

If by participating in life, somehow, regardless of intentions, you inevitably participate in its decline, what can you do to transcend it? Well i think, you can, at least, describe it.

Describing is what journalists do, so I don’t feel so bad for liking and aspiring to the best of journalism. There is, though, a wide margin between the endless conveyor belt of instant drama thrown out by newspapers and blogs forced to scratch out content on a daily basis, and what could be termed ‘literary reportage’; well documented, described, commented upon, stories.

For me, regardless of actual possibilities of photography, the interesting thing about the medium is its ability to capture, like written jornalism, for lack of a better term, a reflective reality. This is a kind of journalism, a report on perceived reality. It may only be a fraction of a second, but it’s a story nevertheless, and when done in a certain way may even faithfully describe a reality. This kind of journalism does not cancel out imagination, neither is it separate from art.

There is one particular journalist who fits the bill for me, and there are moments in his descriptions that could easily have been photographs, they are in any case photographs etched on the memory and conveyed by words. The journalist is Ryszard Kapuscinski.

Very memorable for me, in the context of photographic lucid imagery in a written form, is his description of dogs in Angola, in his book: Another Day of Life (1976), a unique and closely observed account of the collapse of Portuguese colonialism in Angola. The particular scene occurs after the departure of all the wealthy Portuguese from their suburb properties in Luanda:

The dogs were still alive.

They were pets, abandoned by owners fleeing in panic. You could see dogs of all the most expensive breeds, without masters – boxers, bulldogs, greyhounds, Dobermans, dachshunds, Airedales, spaniels, even Scotch terriers and Great Danes, pugs and poodles. Deserted, stray, they roamed in a great pack looking for food. As long as the Portuguese army was there, the dogs gathered every morning on the the square in front of the general headquarters and the sentries fed them with canned NATO rations. It was like watching an international pedigreed dog show. Afterwards the fed, satisfied pack moved to the soft, juicy mowed lawn of the Government Palace . An unlikely mass sex orgy began, excited and indefatigable madness, chasing and tumbling to the point of utter abandon. It gave the bored sentries a lot of ribald amusement.