4 December 2011

About Love, Gay Block

'Through photography, I have learned about love.' The words that open this anthology of Gay Block's work, and give it its title, really are the best possible introduction to her warm and sympathetic photographs. Photography as a way, almost an excuse, to connect with others and as, fundamentally, an empathic medium - these are the principles that shape this collection of portraits.

Intertwined with these concerns, and essential to the structure of About Love, is Block's own biography – born and raised in a wealthy, Reform Jewish community in Houston, Block followed what she felt to be the typical 'plan,' leaving college when she was 19 to marry and raise a family. She discovered photography later in life, having returned to college at the age of 31 after the death of her father. In the coming years she also, this book suggests, discovered herself, eventually entering a long-term relationship with her current life-partner, Malka Drucker. This story emerges only gradually, through the extended texts that Block appends to each 'chapter' of About Love, and would not be afforded so much importance in this review were it not for the fact that the core themes of Block's 'story' – of curiosity, self-education and discovery – are reflected so strongly in the construction of the book and its content. Photography was, as Block herself states, her 'vehicle to consciousness.'

Arranged chronologically, in loose chapters that are more like families of related works than formal 'series,' the photographs presented here (and the films included on two attached DVDs) relate Block's exposure to ever-widening circles of society and acquaintance – from her own family in Houston, through Jewish pensioners in South Beach, Miami, touching on her record of Holocaust Rescuers (exhibited in MoMA in 1992) and on to her studies of America's female spiritual leaders and Santa Fe's lesbian nightclubs. Her personal and creative development is perhaps best illustrated by comparing the two chapters titled 'Early Portraits' and 'Late Portraits.' The first of these largely consists of portraits taken within the Jewish community of Houston – these appear slightly limited, in both content and technique, compared to the later works, in which a much wider variety of styles and sitters appear. In the later collection, Block's eye hones in on signs of difference (as perhaps is to be expected from journalistic commissions) and on the trappings of style and lifestyle, as well as on the physical markers of age. A number of photographs here depict scars and Block's use of colour highlights the varieties of 'costume' on show among her subjects.

However, Block's work is never detached or disdainful and the abiding quality of her photographs – their empathy – can be traced back to the earliest, and most substantial, body of work in this book. Yes, the world of her early subjects in Houston is strictly delimited and David Chickey's thoughtful book design, with a great deal of bright white space surrounding smallish frames (Block also credits David Skolkin for his design input in this regard) emphasizes both the claustrophobic, suburban atmosphere of these shots, as well as our sense that we are only 'glimpsing' a world set apart. Block often accentuates the careful choreography of this social milieu through artfully arranged shots in which family members postures echo either each other or the objets d'art in their homes. However, at the same time, these photos often feel convivial, with Block taking photographs from across a table or a couch, in an intimate fashion. Their subjects are individuated and gaze straight into the camera, frank, so that the images carry no formal atmosphere of pretence or hypocrisy. Here, as throughout this book, hands are important – people hold or gesture towards the people and objects they hold dear, in a physical, visual expression of inner feeling. The experience of reading these pictures seems to echo the process Block describes of taking them; of being puzzled, curious and then increasingly sympathetic as her knowledge of these subjects deepened. It is no wonder that Block felt a twinge of frustration in her 'Camp Girls' series when, on returning to her subjects after 25 years, she felt unable to get beyond their polished appearances and homes to see 'what life might have in store for them.'

The autobiographical, personality-centered approach of this photography, and this book, has its limitations. A grid of colour photographs of 'People I'm Close To' feels uninformative and a little self-indulgent. Similarly, none of these photographs are accompanied, on page, by captions; they are arranged, not in strictly chronological order, within chapters corresponding to periods of Block's life, rather than within clearly described projects. The approach can feel a little unclear and scatter-shot. Still, the work at its best is dense and powerful and feels like a coherent, humane vision – no doubt down to its clear-sighted, humane author.

This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 1st December 2011, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are from About Love by Janelle Lynch, published by Radius Books, 2011.

1 December 2011

The Book

This is a slightly off-piste post: partly, I cannot lie, it is a way of apologising to readers for the shocking lack of other posts recently! 'PLATE' is not dead and there are items on the way, but, in the meantime, I'm just posting a link to layouts from issue 2 of The Book, a free culture magazine for London founded and published by my friend Kohinoor Sahota. The magazine is bi-monthly (this issue is for Dec/ Jan) and features reviews of forthcoming events and releases in film, theatre, technology, art and more, alongside regular features, interviews and 'issue' pieces. If you're reading this in England, think of it as Time Out-slash-the culture section from your favourite paper (as long as your favourite paper isn't the Socialist Worker - the theme for this issue is 'shopping'). This issue's 'headline act' is Emeli Sandé.

Anyway, I'm responsible for the art pages of the magazine  - not much chance to review or feature photography yet but I'm hoping to get some more photo-writing into forthcoming issues. If you know of a show in a London venue that you'd like to see featured in the Feb/ March pages, just drop me a line and I will take a look. In the meantime, enjoy the magazine itself - you can read online or pick up an issue at Bloomsbury theatre, Oval theatre, Shakespeare's Globe, Young Vic, The Book Club, Queen of Hoxton, Whitechapel Gallery, Proud Camden, Old Truman Brewery, and more exciting locations!

25 October 2011

New Gallery!

Gustave Le Gray. The Brig, 1856
Well, I say 'New Gallery!' - I actually mean 'expansion and re-launch of a previously-existing gallery/ collection!', but it's not really as snappy... I'm referring, of course, to the opening of the Victoria & Albert Museum's new Photographs Gallery, a permanent space for the display of the V&A's massive photography collection, now half a million items strong. Yep, you heard me - half a million items. The V&A was the first museum to collect and display photography as an artform (or documentary tool, or scientific/ technological marvel – I don't think the Victorians had really decided) in its own right and now has one of the oldest, most significant and most wide-ranging collections in the world.

According to my (not nerdy) V&A magazine, by the time the museum opened in 1857, the director, Henry Cole, had already amassed quite a collection of photographs.  Some of these early works were donated by Prince Albert himself and others were acquired by Cole on studio visits to new practitioners; I love the idea of this – an English civil servant, whose picture probably appears next to 'Victorian' in the dictionary, going on studio visits to see the innovators of the new art form.. Anyway, in the years since, the collection has grown and grown, keeping pace with developments in the medium so that now, not only does the museum have a remarkable record of the very first developments in photography, but these works exist alongside recent acquisitions by contemporary artists - both established 'names' and up-and-coming practitioners. I love the V&A.

Curtis Moffat, Dragonfly, c. 1930
Anyway, history lectures aside, I have always loved going to see the photography displays at the V&A, been totally amazed by the range of work on display and the thoughtful way it is arranged, and always been slightly disappointed that this gorgeous collection (and its skilled curators) are relegated to a tiny room, off a dark corridor, behind the bookshop. Now, however (as of 24th October 2011), that space is to be joined by a large, renovated gallery. Two floors up, the new gallery will be dedicated to the existing, historical collection, with temporary displays of contemporary work to be shown in the ground-floor space. Several major newspapers have reported on this opening – which opens with a 'historical sweep' of the collection, including a special focus on the figures of Julia Margaret Cameron and Henri Cartier-Bresson – and the curators/ arts editors/ V&A press representatives have chosen to emphasize many of the collection's earliest works in this coverage. I, for one, was pleased to revisit (and discover) some of the works posted here - cigar-chompin' Brunel features in one of my favourite photos ever..

Robert Howlett, Isambard Kingdom Brunel..., 1857
I am massively excited about going to see the new display and will aim to report back as soon as I've seen it. I'm looking out for the pics above especially, as well as some more recent work that I've never seen in the flesh, including Ed Ruscha's Every Building On The Sunset Strip and some Ansel Adams landscapes. Get in touch if  you've seen it and have any favourite works!

18 October 2011

Los Jardines de México, Janelle Lynch

Photographs by Janelle Lynch. Published by Radius Books, Santa Fe, 2011.

Los Jardines de México is a meticulously crafted book, with every aspect of its production – from the choice of paper stock through to the finishing on the page and the choice of image printed on its endpapers – calculated to facilitate and enhance your experience of the work contained within. This care over the details of the bookmaking is particularly fitting, as Janelle Lynch uses photography to conjure up a very particular and rarefied world – she cultivates an atmosphere that you can’t help but think would suffer in less sympathetic conditions.

The particular quality of Lynch's work can be felt most intensely in the fourth and final series presented in this book: La Fosa Común. Here, 11 full-page images are arranged, one per spread, on large, glossy leaves of paper, beginning with Untitled 8 – a photograph of one, spreading, moss-encrusted tree, whose branches reach round and through each other and out of the frame into the surrounding foliage. Like all of the images in this series, the photograph is visually complex, the frame crammed with textural information, and, as with all of the works in the series, the subject is plant life, to the exclusion of all else - no animals, humans or signs of human civilization intrude upon the tangle of bushes, grasses and trees. The effect is claustrophobic and not a little repetitive, but also decidedly, intensely, eerie and otherworldly. The combination of abundant foliage with a lack of any other visual reference – even the sky is obscured – and Lynch's frequent use of soft, misty lighting conditions gives you the impression of stepping into a science fiction novel in which humans have receded and plants reclaimed the surface of the earth.

This sense of animism and almost threatening fecundity is picked up by author and architect José Antonio Aldrete Haas in his essay for Los Jardines. He argues that Lynch's photography is informed by the notion that life and death are not separate but continuous and 'of the same reality,' and points to another series – there are four presented in this book, made by Lynch between 2002 and 2007 – to illustrate his point. Akna (translated by Aldrete-Haas from the Mayan as 'mother') is a series of portraits of individual tree stumps. These remains – dead or decaying matter appears throughout the book - are in fact now burgeoning with life, each of them sustaining communities of smaller plants and grasses. They are even given names by the photographer, 'Vladimir' and 'Albertina,' to go with the focused, individualizing portrait style of her photography in the work.

Loss, through violence or through simple neglect and decay, is another theme of the book, drawn out by author Mario Bellatín in the fictional element he contributes. The fact that Bellatín's short story deals with the death of a child gives Lynch's work in the series El Jardín de Juegos added resonance, as it is the abandoned pieces of playground furniture in the overgrown parks photographed here that give them their special sense of stillness and absence. Again, this lack of human presence is made conspicuous by the way Lynch arranges her photographs, emphasizing the anthropomorphic qualities of slides, climbing frames and basketball hoops to somehow evoke the playfulness and liveliness that is now only present in this space as a kind of haunting.

All of the above-mentioned elements are bound together in this book in a tightly-structured narrative, so that one has the impression of wandering from series to series like the last human survivor exploring a post-apocalyptic world. This idea is even made explicit through the foot's-eye view of photos in the Donde Andaba set, which show fragments of green foliage as they appear through the cracks in buildings and sidewalks in an urban setting. These images even seem to have been treated differently in production, so that they have a grainy, gritty texture subtly evocative of the dusty streets they depict. The overall effect is of moving through a world carefully constructed by the photographer, as if it were a stage-set.

It can sometimes feel, moving through Lynch's world, like a too seamless experience. The claustrophobia I mentioned earlier slips into tedium occasionally, and the book itself could feel a little overcooked for some readers. Why is it necessary for the cover of this book to be a close-up of the grass shown in countless photos within? Why use the same image again as a graphic theme within – monochrome and negativised, so that the washed-out feel of neglected spaces is stated yet again? These details can feel a little forced rather than poignant, as is perhaps intended. However, this is not to detract from the work within, which is a rigorous, yet affecting, statement on the natural world and its ambivalent beauty.

This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 17th October 2011, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are from Los Jardines de México by Janelle Lynch, published by Radius Books, 2011.

1 October 2011

Three things of note..

1) W.G. Sebald in the London Review of Books

I started reading this excellent article in the LRB because I happen to like Sebald's books, especially Rings of Saturn, and wanted to see what was new in the world of German history, cultural memory and esoteric allusion.. Quite a bit, as it turns out. There is a new edition of Sebald's novel Austerlitz due for release, and James Wood, who has contributed a new introduction to the book, has written a thoughtful summary and study of it for the magazine. This, dear reader, is where I get to the point of this post.  It's frustrating that the article doesn't appear in full on the LRB website, because Wood, after providing a basic introduction to the (convoluted) structure and character of the novel, goes on to focus on Sebald's use of photographs in his books, and it's a really fascinating, original read.

For those who haven't read any Sebald, I should point out that one of their many unusual features is the use of fairly poorly-reproduced, black-and-white, anonymous and unexplained photographs scattered throughout the text. These usually allude to particular characters or locations in the novel, but the reader is left to surmise how they were sourced, who took them and whether indeed they show the real (or imagined) people and places described. Wood reminds us that Sebald was a collector of second-hand 'junk' photos and postcards and that, according to the author himself, over 30% of the photos in, for example, The Emigrants, 'had an entirely fictitious relationship to their supposed subjects'. Wood weaves this fact into a broader argument about Sebald's use of photography, which, he argues, is in constant dialogue with Barthes' Camera Lucida and the notion that 'photographs shock us because they so finally represent what has been'. Essentially, photographs are an evidence and embodiment of mortality and, for an author who deals with historical trauma, a way of challenging the reader to remember all those who have passed on before us and been made anonymous by time and forgetting. Cheery, no? Anyway, I strongly recommend the article and Austerlitz itself, if you've never picked it up. Onwards to...

2) Jonny Lee!

These beautiful, luminous shots were taken by my friend Jonny, who has a fancy website and 'photography' in his e-mail address and can therefore be said to be doing this stuff FOR REAL. I noticed the pictures on Facebook and asked to post these for your viewing pleasure, as I really think they're lovely - unpretentious, atmospheric and with a real voice of their own. Here's to more photos from this man and his camera..

And last but not least...

3) Photography, Postmodernism and the V&A

I recently visited Signs of a Struggle: Photography in the Wake of Postmodernism at the V&A and have been meaning to recommend it via PLATE ever since. This small display is dwarfed by the main exhibition in the museum's Autumn programme – Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 – but is well worth a visit in its own right and, from what I've heard, might even be the superior show.

On display in the ever-excellent V&A photography rooms, Signs of a Struggle is a relatively small exhibition, and does not pretend to be a comprehensive survey of 'Postmodern' photographic practices - instead, the curators have given themselves the humble task of exploring photographs that 'make reference to themselves, other media and texts'. The exhibition is coherent and thought-provoking, with so many great individual works on show that you could easily spend the best part of an hour touring one room -  big hitters include Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, Anne Hardy and Clare Strand. Clare Strand, in particular, is given a whole three walls for the work that gives this exhibition it's title - this series of prints is one of the more challenging works on display, but it is engaging and mysterious, making reference to forensic and domestic photography, as well as the less-commonly mined sources of instructional and functional imagery.

Admission is free and it's well worth a look!

15 September 2011

River of Shadows/ Motion Studies Guest Review!

UK edition, published by Bloomsbury Publishing
As mentioned here some time ago, I've managed to manipulate my fellow bookclub members into generating some blog content.. That is to say, for our last meeting, they all kindly read Rebecca Solnit's book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (also known in the UK as Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge), discussed said book, and one of their number has now gone above and beyond the call of duty to contribute some of his thoughts to PLATE!

US edition, published by Viking Adult
I'm really interested in the conflicts and connections between the written word and visual materials and I wanted to read Solnit's book, in particular, to see how she would incorporate art criticism with biography of Muybridge and cultural criticism. I had been really impressed by (for which, read, 'I fell in love with') her book A Field Guide To Getting Lost, after it was recommended to me by a colleague, and came to River of Shadows hoping for the same absorbing, lyrical, reading experience. I was also interested to see how the bookmakers would present the photographs in question.

I have to say, I was slightly disappointed by the book. I felt that, despite Solnit's in-depth knowledge of and passion for her subject, she struggled to weave together all of the historical and cultural strands in the book into a coherent whole (I'm inclined to agree with Carl, that the book's cultural analysis becomes too repetitive). As a fan of photography - and particularly the work of Muybridge - I was also hoping for more extended criticism of his work, and was only really satisfied by the section discussing his 'Yosemite' photographs in this respect. However, there were lots of things to like as well, and I will leave my excellent guest writer, Carl Fulbrook, to give you an idea what these were!

US edition, published by Penguin
Carl Fulbrook - I had few expectations before beginning River of Shadows; I hadn't heard of Eadweard Muybridge, I barely knew anything about the history of photography, and I (still) have only obscure notions of American history during Muybridge's. In frankness, these are not subjects I'm usually drawn to. But that's the beauty of a bookclub: you read things your friends want to read and discuss, and this usually yields a reading process of enjoyment and critical analysis in a more-or-less fruitful balance.

So I began Solnit's book knowing only that it was about one of the great innovators of photography and cinema. And it is in part a biography of Eadweard Muybridge. But the great strength of this book is that it is a lot more than biography; Solnit deftly traverses several usually discrete genres to develop a book that is at once the life story of Muybridge, a history of photographic technology and Silicon Valley, a cultural critique, and a portrait of an era in America's mid-West that is too often distorted by myth - including fascinating accounts of the so-called 'Indian Wars' and the General Strike. There's even a bit of sassy murder trial courtroom drama and, at the very end, a nostalgic personal postlude. In fact, one salient feature several people noted during our bookclub discussion was that Muybridge the character is almost the book's ellipsis. Something of his tenacity emerges through his achievements, but his photographic career was so varied (in the best sense) that it is hard to gain any definite impression of him through his work, and the brief flashes of personal drama (most obviously, murdering his wife's lover) occur like aberrations in a rather anaemic account of the externals of his life. No matter - Muybridge was evidently not remarkable for his charisma.

At her best, Solnit handles her subjects with a confidence that figures genre as irrelevant: it is quite often a very carefully woven narrative. I didn't find that this level was maintained throughout, however, and there were a several passages that seemed repetitive and didn't maintain my interest. I found The River of Shadows most compelling when it placed the concerns of Muybridge and his contemporaries in a larger historical frame. It was sobering and unsettling to realise how rapidly and dramatically technology have altered our relationship with both other people and with the physical world. By the twenty-first century almost every experience of our lives is structured and mediated by increasingly bureaucratic technological apparatuses. As Solnit points out, in a commentary inflected by Marxism, new technologies did not simply feed but created an appetite for a commodified representations of the world. By framing and freezing phenomena through human innovation, we lent ourselves the impression we were mastering the world; by converting this spirit of innovation into a means for profit, we commodified and alienated ourselves from it, although in doing so feverishly stoked the desire to innovate. Solnit is nostalgic in her commentary, although not wholly bleak - cinema is, after all, a very exciting and potentially reflective technology. The book ends in a very ambivalent key, and I'm grateful for it: it is rich food-for-rumination.

If you've read River of Shadows and have your own thoughts about the book that you'd like to share with PLATE readers, just drop me an e-mail at platethephotoblog@gmail.com - I will aim to publish a collection of new comments on the blog in a month or so. Even better, if you have photography-related book recommendations for me, the bookclub or other readers, send them over and I will incorporate these into another post!

11 September 2011

Ordering Principles: Taryn Simon

Installation view. Courtesy my smartphone..

The following article appears in the August-September 2011 issue of Hotshoe magazine - available from all good bookstores/ newsagents! Apologies for the lack of illustration - more to come when my computer stops crashing..

I first encountered Taryn Simon’s work in 2007, when An American Index of The Hidden and Unfamiliar - later nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize - was presented at The Photographers’ Gallery, London. Walking round that exhibition a friend declared that he enjoyed the work but found it too ‘magazine-y’; in other words, too editorial. While, admittedly, the images in that show – arresting, technically excellent photographs of unexpected subjects, including the art collection at C.I.A. headquarters and the results of exotic animal inbreeding at American ‘refuges’ -  did seem destined to appear in every Sunday supplement for months, implicit in this sort-of criticism of Simon’s work is the idea that her projects rely on human-interest storytelling, novelty value even, rather than technical and ideological rigour; that her use of the word ‘index’ to describe her photographic investigations is , at best, an ironic device and, at worst, lazy.

new exhibition at Tate Modern dispels these doubts. A Living Man Declared Dead And Other Chapters I-XIII is the result of four years (2008-11) research and travel, during which time Simon has compiled photographic, anecdotal and documentary evidence into a visual exploration of 18 ‘bloodlines’ and the internal and external forces that have shaped the collective destiny of these groups. In the meantime, of course, Simon has also exhibited Contraband (2009), for which she spent four days and nights at John F. Kennedy Airport, New York, continuously photographing all items seized before entering the country – a rigorous conceptual exploration of bureaucracy, illegality and the lives of dumb objects. A Living Man, however, simultaneously reaches further afield for its subject matter and delves deeper into themes that preoccupy Simon; the collision of physical, psychological and historical forces in determining our lives, the significance of those lives and the limits of any medium, photographic or otherwise, seeking to record or ‘index’ them.

Each ‘chapter’ of
A Living Man consists of three panels; the first (usually the largest) presents a grid of half-length portrait photographs, each taken in a deadpan style reminiscent of a mugshot or medical record photograph, ordered meticulously according to the age and position in the bloodline of each subject ; the second provides neatly ordered and scrupulously complete biographical captions to these images, in addition to textual information relating to a ‘post person’ or central figure in the line; and, in the third, ‘footnote’ panel, a more abstract collection of ephemera and photographic material is scattered across the ground, touching on contextual and peripheral matters. The sheer abundance of this material – bear in mind that each ‘chapter’ may deal with a bloodline of over 100 individuals – is overwhelming and it would be a hardened gallery-goer whose heart didn’t sink ever so slightly at the prospect of absorbing every scrap of research Simon has collated. Not only this, but the visual flair of An American Index is restrained here, with Simon self-consciously borrowing from scientific methodology to present work stripped of decorative or ‘editorial’ appeal. She has said herself that she became, at one point, ‘tired of photography’ and has begun to take photographs in a far more forensic vein.

The result, however, is complex and fascinating, if not always easy to assimilate. Even the grids of portraits display variety, personality and, very occasionally, direct evidence of family’s intersection with history. The most terrible case of this is in the chapter dealing with the
Srebrenica massacre in 1995 – six ‘portraits’ in this genealogy are composed of only the remains of the men who died in the atrocity.  Elsewhere, evidence of violence and trauma is affecting when juxtaposed with the apparently cool presentation of fact, as when Simon presents a grid of portraits showing a Tanzanian bloodline effected by albinism and, in the footnote panel, photographs of albino men, women and children affected by skin cancer. 

Of course there are questions to ask here: amid all this order, what organizing system generated Simon’s choice of her bloodlines?  It can feel, as you move into the fourth large room of this work, that you are on the look-out for the next ‘issue’ Simon is addressing, be it censorship and propaganda in China or, in the chapter from which this exhibition takes its title, a false declaration of death, used in order to cheat family members out of their land in rural India. Where these contextual ‘issues’ relate to racial identity, could you accuse Simon of restating the circumstance that conditions her subjects lives? 

These questions would be harder to dismiss were it not for the fact that Simon herself so insistently challenges any system used to document or organize human history, even her own. Her ‘chapters’ throw together straight photography, text and documentary evidence, including government records, newspapers and medical photography – all making competing claims to authenticity. Contradictions emerge between disparate sources – the portrait of a living man and the certificate that declares him dead – and occasionally they declare their own falsity, as with photographic ‘reconstructions’ in which members of the ‘Druze’ religious community (yet another subject) re-enact their deaths from past lives for Simon’s camera. The exhibition format itself stages a conflict between artistic and scientific approaches to documentation. In its use of ‘chapters’ and the juxtaposition of individual with genealogical, political and social external factors, the show is reminiscent of the novel form. At the same time, Simon’s deadpan portrait style recalls medical and scientific forms –
she even describes her grid-like arrangement as ‘like a periodic table’ and the exhibition itself as a kind of ‘experiment’ – as well as ethnographic portraiture.

There are blanks – absences – in
A Living Man and they draw attention to Taryn Simon’s continuing interest in what is invisible or hidden. Literally blank photographs take the place of those who cannot be photographed in the portrait series. There are formal ‘gaps’ in the work where we are encouraged to speculate about the meaning, the truth, of what we are seeing. It is these spaces that generate the mystery and complexity in an original and absorbing exhibition.

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters is showing at Tate Modern, Bankside, London from 25th May – 6th November 2011. Sunday to Thursday, 10.00–18.00; Friday and Saturday, 10.00–22.00; Entrance Free. A catalogue is available from Mack Books/Neue NationalGalerie, Berlin for £80.

17 August 2011

Better than your average holiday snaps

Hello my little blog-babies - this is a slightly shorter and less text-heavy post than usual, partly due to time pressures (team Hayward Publishing are hard at work on this at the moment) and also just because, y'know.. variety is the spice of life..

I am due to go on holiday at the end of this week and I'm not ashamed to say I am limping towards the finishing line. It's only four months since I last had a break but I'm as tired and run down as can be, so it's nice to take a moment, look at some great photographs and breathe a (vicarious) breath of fresh, Mediterranean air. The great photographs in question are by a young man named William Matthew Harvey, who also happens to work at Aperture Foundation - one of my favourite photobook publishers, and home of the very beautiful Aperture magazine.

The photos were taken near Lake Garda, in Italy - as if the warm light and hazy atmosphere in some of the shots weren't enough to tip you off. Sun-burnished buildings, vivid flowers and foliage, and rocky terrain all give you a sense of the landscape and climate, but what I like best about these photos as a series is that you really get the send of someone wandering - taking their time to explore a new terrain and taking pictures whenever something appealing catches the eye. Apologies to Matt if I grossly misrepresent his process here!

Considering that these are, broadly speaking, photographs of landscape, it's interesting that the photographer doesn't use that format much - focussing instead on the edges of buildings or placing some complex feature of the scene, like the creeping plant above, in the centre of the, vertically-orientated, frame. The images are all the more intense for it, and the partial views presented preserve the sense of movement or 'wandering' that I mentioned above, even when the subjects are static.

The photo above is definitely one of my favourites in the set  - the way this building is framed, and it's broad, brightly-coloured 'facing' is emphasized, really throws your attention onto the light effect of the low evening sun. It's a sensory image, in that you are made to identify with the building, leaning into the last of the day's light. I also love the way those fine cables and the filaments of the aerial are arranged in the top of the space - situating the building in space in really delicate fashion.

The expanse of warm rock above has some of the same effect as that beautiful yellow house - it can really be felt outside the frame, and, as a subject, is reclaimed from the stock, holiday-scenery background by it's scale and presence. Some of the images above also remind me, dare I say it, of John Gossage's interest in the boundaries between different kinds of space, not least the natural and manmade worlds.

Anyway, a big thankyou to Mr Harvey for allowing me to put these images on my blog and jot down some of my thoughts on them. I will leave readers with the image that best represents my feelings this week.. The holiday scene, so near yet so distant, obscured by the dark, obfuscatory foliage of the workaday week... Am I being suitably melodramatic? See you all on the other side, when I will return refreshed and hopefully less prone to the excessive prose..

12 August 2011

Just when I thought..

Semi Submersible Rig, 2007

..I couldn’t love the Whitechapel Gallery more, they go and put on this summer’s exhibition - Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010. Weirdly, my mood was set by looking at the exhibition catalogue, which I usually do after coming out of a show (I have lots of strange, nerdy exhibition rituals, mostly to do with a childish desire not to ‘spoil’ the surprise of the work before I see it..) While waiting for a friend to arrive at the gallery, I took a look at this publication (which isn’t obviously a catalogue as much as a trade-focussed ‘survey’ of the photographer) and loved it enough to splurge a precious £30 on it.

It’s a large-format paperback, in a wide, square size you wouldn’t expect in this binding. The design – by Fernando Gutierrez Studio - isn’t ‘shouty’, it’s pretty understated in fact, but there’s something about the treatment which is strikingly original. The cover image, for example, isn’t an obvious choice, but the hi-tech industrial colour-palette of Space Shuttle 1 Kennedy Space Center  is very beautiful and deliberately engaging.  Inside, the plates are beautifully printed on one paper stock, and four substantial essays are printed on another, with an illustrated ‘list of works’ section at the back. From the perspective of someone who does this stuff for a living (a geek), this book is pretty inspiring and definitely the best catalogue I have seen for a long time.

Something else that struck me about the show itself was the generosity of the photographer – he speaks in the exhibition film, at length, about his practice and his working process, in detail and in the context of his studio. Struth’s insights into his work and inspiration feel very intimate – they seemed to chime exactly with the experience I had standing in front of the photographs, which leads me to feel that Struth has a very exact and finely-tuned sense of what his photographs do and how they do it. His description of the Paradise series and its effects, for example, seemed disarmingly precise. Standing in front of these huge, colour prints – dense, apparently unstructured scenes of tropical vegetation – I feel drawn into the viewing experience, into an act of looking which retraces the steps of the photographs making.

Paradise 36, 2007

Struth talks a lot about the viewer and about looking – particularly with regard to these jungle scenes. With nothing to ‘interpret’ as such – a jungle is a jungle is a jungle – the viewer is thrown back onto themselves, onto an awareness of where they are standing, what they are looking at and how they are looking. The effect is generous, thought-provoking and meditative.

El Capitan, 1999
He also speaks intelligently and informatively about photography and what it can do in other contexts – about exposing social architectures, the simultaneity of different strands of existence in urban life (his cityscapes), about the sublime, the way his pictures work, and about the function of art – it is, he says, a reconciliation with the past and a way of thinking about how we will move forward into the future; a way of making sense of, and coping with, the present. This joins up completely with my experience of the show and the photographs, which face up to subjects such as the overwhelming complexity and strangeness of modern technology, the abundance of visual cultures and even how families look and relate to each other in ‘family portraits’. All of the subjects are treated with a sort of intense, investigative gaze that is reflected in the way you have to look at the photos – there are clues and visual allusions everywhere that help you to read the photographs for history, social context and personal resonance, and to think through them.

Milan cathedral, 1998

Lots of reviews of this show have mentioned the same aspects of the work – it’s scale, Struth’s interest in architecture and human responses to the awe-inspiring or sublime. Few mention how subtle and warm the photographs can be. It’s awe-inspiring to stand in front of a ceiling-height photograph of the façade of Milan Cathedral, but it’s also interesting to note how the photographer pulls focus into the foreground, to where ant-sized tourists mill around the cathedral entrance. When Struth’s gallery photographs are hung, at full-size, so that you are on a level with the crowd of spectators inspecting great works of art in institutional settings, these images become involving rather than alienating, and witty with it – you recognise yourself in the works and their subjects. That’s the feeling that stayed with me after leaving this exhibition – I’d been looking at photographs, but they’d been looking right back.

Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010
is showing at Whitechapel Gallery, London from 6th July – 16th September 2011. Tuesday to Sunday, 11.00–18.00; Thursday, 11.00–21.00; Entrance, £9.50/£7.50 concessions. All photographs used in this post are courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, London, and copyright the artist, Thomas Struth.

21 July 2011

Foto8 Summershow, London

Photo: Jane Stockdale

Now and then it’s refreshing to go and see a photo show that takes things back to basics. At the Foto8 Summershow this year, there’s no obligation to wade through a curatorial justification of the arguments, themes or influences behind the selection of work; nor do you feel like you’ve missed out on anything if you haven’t read a photo-critical tome before leaving the house. Those things might heighten your viewing experience of course, and all of this isn’t to say that the show isn’t serious or rigorous… but in reality, it’s this simple: Foto8 accepts submissions for the show in any style, size or format, with a remit to ‘engage or challenge the viewer’. This year, 1000 entrants answered the call with 2,853 images, out of which the team at Host Gallery and Foto8 magazine picked 150 to hang, ‘salon-style’, in the Host Gallery space.

The criteria for selection is ‘single image impact alone’, which might suggest that the single biggest danger for the curators is succumbing to the photographic equivalent of the ‘quick thrill’ – images that rely on shock value or tired visual tricks for their appeal. However, in the two years that I’ve visited the Summershow (it’s been running for four), I’ve found the opposite: the pared-down, almost ‘naïve’ curatorial mission statement results in a fresh, absorbing selection of works. The relaxed, open format of the show (which must belie some pretty furious organisational manoeuvrings) translates into a selection of photographs that feels contemporary, unpretentious and bursting with life.

Photo: Neil Craver

The style of the exhibition hang itself is simple and democratic – the walls are filled, floor to ceiling, with prints of different sizes and framings.  More significantly, in my opinion, and surprisingly, given the emphasis on photojournalism and reportage in the selection of work, none of the prints are accompanied by caption information of any kind – not the photographer, title or date of the works. To find this out, you have to refer to the little exhibition catalogue that is on sale (or on loan, in my, cash-poor, case) from the nice people at the Host gallery front desk. This, by the way, is also a complete steal at £2; all of the works are presented in full colour in the little A6ish guide, with more impact somehow than in the most lavish coffee-table books.. In the exhibition itself, this unfussy presentation does the extra work of giving back to even the most literal photographs some of their mystery, and throwing the viewer back on their visual responses to assess the work.

Photo: Sebastian Meyer
Going back to the ‘quick thrill’ problem for a moment; many of the works here, as previously mentioned, are photojournalistic. I love this kind of photography, but with certain exceptions. Not to diminish in any way the remarkable bravery and creative ability under pressure of documentary and ‘news’ photographers, but I personally find it frustrating, in an exhibition context, to be faced with images that are judged to be striking because their subject matter is so. Blood, conflict and explosions are all ‘dramatic’, but I often feel that these images are done greater justice in the context of series or editorial presentations. However, this one (probably mealy-mouthed) criticism of mine doesn’t apply to many works here and there is one – Sebastian Meyer’s ‘Smoke Screen, Zhani, Afghanistan’ – which really stood out for me in this genre, combining the presentation of factual, ‘documentary’ evidence with that essential ingredient, the ability to communicate thought and feeling to and through the viewer, by visual means. The smoke here is so thick as to be almost tangible; the individual soldiers are just the opposite of that – unindividuated. The photograph embodies, for me, how it might feel to be out in that smoke – without anchor or orientation and without visual identity. I’m not sure whether the thought is calming (the image is strangely calm, luminous) or terrifying.

Photo: James Morgan
My favourite works in the show are all photographs that have this communicative quality, and that’s leaving out the ones which are appealing simply for their beauty, their technical mastery or their enigmatic subject matter. It’s hard not to mention a photograph like James Morgan’s remarkable ‘Enal with Pet Shark’, from a series dealing with the lives of Indonesian sea nomads, in which the little boy of the title is shown gliding, grinning, through clear water, clinging to the tale of the shark with enviable confidence. Neil Hall’s photograph ‘After The Crash’ (given an ‘Honourable Mention’ by the competition judges) is also compelling, showing UKIP MP Nigel Farage staggering from the scene of a light aircraft crash in an otherwise banal rural landscape. The aircraft wreckage itself cuts through the composition, drawing our attention to Farage’s strange, contorted expression.

Photo: Lydia Panas
And… well, I could go on for hours. Revisiting the Summershow’s website the day after I went to the exhibition itself, I had the aim of restating to myself some of the themes’n’memes I had identified in the work at first hand – the lives of children, vulnerability, visual identity, the individual figure’s relationship with landscape. This aim dissolved as I came across one after another photograph that demanded analysis on its own merits. Some of my favourites include Lydia Panas’ portrait of the unidentified ‘Kitty, Christine and Kira’, shot in some indistinct rural location, the sense of transience the portrait evokes heightened by the way in which the photographer has caught her beautiful subjects at odds, posturally, with themselves and each other. Martin Osborne’s studies of ‘Dogs in Cars’ are strange, condensed snippets of fear and aggression, and ‘Untitled’ by Lydia Goldblatt is a glimpse of what a single, well thought out, frame can achieve in terms of encouraging the viewer to reach for narrative outside it. Seen as if through a door stood ajar, bare legs rise up out of soupy green bath water, facing towards an unseen light source as if the bather has stood to catch a glimpse of an unexpected dawn.

Photo: Lydia Goldblatt

What more can I say? It’s a joy to visit this exhibition and I heartily recommend it – four superbly qualified judges – Richard Billingham, Charlotte Cotton, Emma Morris and James Reid – have selected their official ‘Best in Show’, but my advice is to get down to EC1 and choose your own (not just for this reason)!

The Foto8 Summershow 2011 is on display at Host Gallery, 1-5 Honduras Street, London, EC1Y 0TH, from 8th July – 12th August 2011. Monday to Friday, 10.00–18.00; Saturday, 11.00–16.00. Entrance Free. A catalogue is available from the gallery shop for £2.

All photos courtesy of Host Gallery, London.

19 July 2011

State of the Union, Mitch Epstein

Photographs by Mitch Epstein. Published by Hatje Cantz.

State of the Union has the scope and character of a photographic 'Great American Novel' (even if it does not trumpet its status as such) and it's hard to avoid the description 'novelistic' when turning the pages of this handsome, thematically substantial volume. The comparison is somewhat specious, in that authorship here is the business of publisher Hatje Cantz and the Kunstmuseum Bonn - this is, strictly speaking, an exhibition catalogue rather than a monograph - as much as it is of the photographer. Strictly speaking (again) these photos also constitute two chronologically distinct bodies of work rather than one long narrative. However, the description seems to suit work that is as complex and eloquent, and as sensitive to the shifting relations of individual, social and natural scale, as this photography is. 

Epstein himself remarks in the engaging interview with Stefan Gronert, that he is working in 'a tradition of projects that address the idea of nation, and specifically America as a nation.' The two photographic projects presented form a coherent, intelligent overview of the artist's engagement with American life, both from a street-level, intimate perspective (more frequently in the earlier Recreation series) and from a wider, more emphatically detached point of view (in American Power). These series have been published previously as discrete monographs, but this volume makes plain how the artist's distinctive vision has persisted - and evolved - over time.

Prevailing characteristics include an ability to 'disappear' into a scene, enabling the photographer to capture intimate, even whimsical, moments in everyday life without the resulting image feeling either too staged or else incoherent. A photograph of four women crowded round an obscured object on the city sidewalk in Recreation, for example, is a cannily snapped piece of street theatre. A dense, hectic, unmistakably urban composition as well as a magical visual moment; four crazily-patterned dresses that are, the photographer knows, a joy to look at, though their owners strain to look elsewhere. There is also a genius for making visually legible the relationships between people and their neighbours, their belongings and their surroundings. In the earlier series, this skill manifests itself most obviously in portraits of groups of people, whether it be a family - strung out in a long line, each member subtly failing to connect either physically or by eye-contact with each of the others - or a crowd of Vietnam veterans, each individuated but not one detached or dispensable in terms of the composition. In American Power, an investigation of energy production, consumption and waste in the United States made in 2009, this skill transfers onto a (literally) larger canvas, where Epstein juxtaposes human beings (rarely individuals), their homes and their industry, all within the setting of grand American landscapes. 

It is hard to adequately convey the impact of these wide-angle, densely detailed landscapes, which document domestic American rituals, industrial apparatus and epic landscapes, often all within the same frame. The photographs individually become colder, both in mood and palette, partly as a result of the flattening effect that occurs when elements far and near - a golf course and a wind farm, in one memorable example - are given equal attention and brought into direct visual comparison. This is partly also, as both Christoph Schreier and Stephan Berg point out in their thoughtful, precise essays, because the photographer who was once in-amongst-the-crowd, close to his human subjects, has now distanced himself and resists the vivid, humanistic images he made in earlier, less pointedly political works. The cover photograph of this volume - from American Power, depicting an unfinished concrete bridge cutting through untamed countryside - seems to suggest that the 'State of the Union' is not necessarily cause for optimism; technologized but alienating, ambitious but without direction.

What is equally impressive, however, is the sensitivity and variety of Epstein's response to his surroundings and subjects, so that at no point do the photographs (or the book itself) become heavy handedly didactic or self-righteous. This is a point made variously by each of the three focused, analytical texts that have been contributed to this volume, as well as by the photographer himself, who states that he was keen to avoid a 'simplistic agenda' in American Power. The almost collage-like effect of some of these photographs - showing, for example, a glowing oil refinery at the end of a long avenue of trees, or a vast windfarm in the background of a sleepy small town - does not act simply as an indictment of complacent consumers, or a representation of the impassive face of big business. It is also a manifestation of the difficulties many of us face when confronted with 'energy issues', our blankness when presented with, as Stephan Berg puts it, 'the simultaneity of necessary energy production and the exploitation and destruction it wreaks.' 

The book itself makes light work of crafting an enjoyable, absorbing reading experience from two sections of dense, large-format photography, combined with a substantial amount of text in both German and English. The text is handled elegantly through a two-colour, highly readable design, and the two 'plate' sections are laid out in two distinct styles, contrasting the less consistent Recreation works with the more imposing, formal American Power. The only obstacle to the reading experience one may encounter is that the upright format of this book seems wilfully designed to disrupt the large square and landscape-format images - a deep gutter cutting right through the centre of some works. Yet somehow this 'human' orientation does not prove disastrously distracting. The format is dynamic like the work itself and seems to complement images that throw the reader back on his or her analytical skills, as much as on their appreciation for sheer aesthetic skill.

This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 8th July 2011, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are by Mitch Epstein, from State of the Union, published by Hatje Cantz, 2011.

14 July 2011

Juchitan De Las Mujeres, Graciela Iturbide

Photographs by Graciela Iturbide. Text by Mario Bellatín, Elena Poniatowska. Published by RM/Editorial Calamus, 2009.

In 1979, Graciela Iturbide was just one of a group of artists invited by Juchitán-native Francisco Toledo to create work in his hometown in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The town of Juchitán de Zaragoza, the district to which it belongs, and the unique culture of its inhabitants form the subject matter of Juchitán de las Mujeres (a title which translates, awkwardly, as 'Juchitán of Women'). However, the scope of this body of work, made over a period of ten years, and of Iturbide's vision, suggest that the photographer somewhat exceeded her original brief.

Indeed, this work, initially intended for an exhibition Toledo planned at the Juchitán Casa de Cultura, exceeds many of the expectations one might have for a geographically-anchored project, which takes a visually and ideologically distinct culture as its subject. While there are elements of the work that seem straightforwardly anthropological - Iturbide's interest in dress, for example, or the recurring presence of particular totemic animals and animal icons - the photographs in which these emblems appear can be read equally as investigations in personality, identity and, more generally, presence. In one image, a girl, swathed in fabric, walks along the street with a group of similarly-clad women. She is recognisably part of a group, recognisably dressed for an occasion, but the image, dominated by her frame-filling figure and the billowing, patterned cloth that surrounds her, speaks as powerfully of how it feels to be this person, ceremonial yet exhilarated, as of how it looks.

We have become familiar, from more explicitly 'documentary' projects, with a photographic style that informs the viewer, through narrative detail, of the texture of the society we are observing. Iturbide's work is far more spontaneous in effect. In most of these images, the women she photographs are central to the frame, often making eye-contact with the viewer and obscuring their backdrop. The 'backgrounds' in these works are somehow nondescript - bleached out skies and bare or basic rooms usually direct attention back to the women portrayed, who stare and smile back, sometimes engaged in mundane activities, but more frequently, or so it seems, performing for the camera, aided by props, costumes and familial 'extras'.

These women are - as the book and its publisher, Editorial RM, emphasize - uniquely powerful. The indigenous Zapotec people who form the majority of Juchitán's population are unusual, we are told, in being a society dominated by women, and the essay contributed to this volume by novelist Mario Bellatin, evokes their gregarious, voluptuous, extravagant nature. However, it is instructive to compare the effect achieved by this essay with Iturbide's work itself, which does communicate a mood of female vivacity and community, and touches on similar themes of ritual, interaction between the generations and interaction with nature, yet seems far closer to its subjects in that it shows, rather than tells, their lives.

This emphasis on culture as it is lived rather than as it is described, is somehow also communicated through the design and format conceived for this re-release of Iturbide's project, first published in 1989. An elongated, upright format allows the work inside the book to be reproduced on a large scale, yet in an unusual and lively way, without large and deferential 'coffee-table book' borders. The unusual placement of some images on the page adds to this idiosyncratic, unexpected feel, and the individuals depicted in these photographs seem to jump up into the viewer's vision. The overall effect is one of assurance on the part of both photographer and subject.

There are moments of vulnerability and tenderness also. Indeed, solitary and introspective moments are expressed in a more conventional language, as in a photograph showing a young girl alone in bed surrounded by petals according to tradition and apparently anticipating her bridegroom, with eyes averted and the camera apparently a detached 'observer.' However, for the most part, this is a collection that identifies with its boisterous subject and forces the viewer to attempt the same feat.

This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 9th March 2011, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are from Juchitan De Las Mujeres, by Graciela Iturbide. Published by RM/Editorial Calamus, 2009.