A couple of weeks ago i spent the day at the Dana Center in London for First Person Plural: The cult of the photographer and the culture of social media, a symposium hosted by The Science Museum in collaboration with Film and Video Umbrella.
First Person Plural accompanied the final days of Only in England: Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr, the first exhibition of the Science Museum's brand new Media Space. The conference briefly paid homage to the legacy of Tony Ray-Jones, who chronicled the social rituals of the English in the 1960s, which he feared were at risk of disappearing with Americanisation.
In the increasingly globalised world of the early 21st century, are there equivalent expressions of cultural identity, or equally idiosyncratic social rituals and behaviours, that modern life seems to be passing by - and who are the contemporary artists and photographers who are recording them? Or, taking our cue from new technology, should we turn this question the other way round? In the age of the 'selfie' and social media, might it be the figure of the Photographer, as observer and recorder of social change, that is becoming passé, destined to be replaced by a new type of collective 'portrait' formed from the aggregation and analysis of big data?
The symposium looked at the impact that current technologies and social media have on the roles, image and identity of the photographer. Some of the highlights of the day included Natasha Caruana explaining how she met with married men in search of an extra-marital affair and documented fragments of their restaurant encounters using a disposable camera, writer and lecturer Julian Stallabrass reminding me how much i love Martin Parr's work (though i'm pretty sure that wasn't Stallabrass' objective) and a talk by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin whose work i've been following with enthusiasm since i discovered it At Strozzina in Florence a few years ago.
My notes from the events are going to be limited to Broomberg & Chanarin's talk because they highlighted valid points about notions of authorship, about the perception that technology is 'neutral', but they also exposed how representation is complicit in events, not only documenting them but being actually involved in them.
One of the first projects they discussed what the Afterlife series which reconsiders a photograph taken in Iran on 6 August 1979 by a very young Iranian photographer called Jahangir Razmi. Taken just months after the revolution, the image records the execution of 11 blindfolded Kurdish prisoners by a firing squad. This is the kind of photo that wins prestigious awards, like the World Press photo prize. And indeed it won the Pulitzer Prize award. But why is an image like this so beautiful and alluring? Broomberg and Chanarin found and met Razmi and discovered that he had taken many more pictures of the dramatic moment. They looked at Razmi's 27 other frames and dissected them in an attempt to deconstruct the moment. For example, each time the prisoner blinded appeared on an image, they isolated him and included him in a collage which aim was to stop the emotional response triggered by the original image. The collage revealed also the mechanical movement of the photographer around that event.
The deconstruction and reconstruction of the image was inspired by Razmi's answer to the question "What is your favorite film?" He answered that his favourite film was a film that hasn't been made: a film of the assassination of Kennedy but taken from multiple angles.
Next, Broomberg and Chanarin also explained the importance of chance in photo reportage. For example, Robert Capa's iconic photo of The Falling Soldier was an accident. Capa didn't even look through the lens, he held the camera up and clicked on the shutter. It truly was an accidental image.
B&C illustrated chance in photography with the project The Day Nobody Died, a work made while they were embedded within the British army in Afghanistan. Once there, they turned a military vehicle into a dark room. Each time an important event happened, the duo took up photographic paper and exposed it to light and then put it back in the box. The result doesn't reflect in a figurative way the events that Broomberg & Chanarin were supposed to document in Afghanistan.
The works questions the viewer's expectation from the proxy, the photographer who goes off to the war or to the scene of natural disasters to act as a witness, record and show it to to the public. How much do the images he produces have to be figurative to act as a piece of evidence of the events?
The piece of photographic paper they took to Afghanistan was there. It did go on a journey and, abstract or not, it stands in for this notion of the witness.
A fascinating point the photographers made was to question the assumption that there is an inherent neutrality to the technology of photography. They illustrated it with a couple of projects. The first responds to the photo of a woman called Shirley. When employees of professional photo laboratories calibrate the printing machine every day, a piece of paper comes out and it comes with various shades of grey to black, then the picture of a lama appears and finally, the picture of a woman. The woman is Shirley. In the beginning of colour films, the Kodak corporation photographed one of the workers, Shirley, and sent the picture out with the word 'normal' as the normal print for caucasian skin. Jean-Luc Godard refused to use Kodak, he called it racist.
Right after the end of segregation in the USA, black and white children started to sit side by side in the same class. Kodak's range was so limited that it was at the time impossible to take a photo of a black and white child in the same frame. It was just a basic limitation of way film had evolved and that's what Godard regarded as racist. Kodak didn't respond to the problem until 2 of their biggest clients, the furniture industry and confectionary industry complained and lobbied Kodak because they were unable to photograph the various nuances of wood and chocolate.
When Broomberg and Chanarin were invited to a ludicrous mission to document Gabon for two weeks, they went on bay and collected unprocessed 'racist' films which they used in Gabon. They only produced one picture. It is pink (because the green pigment is more stable.)
From there, the photographers became increasingly interested in the idea that a camera or a piece of films could somehow embody ethical ideas, that a piece of technology wasn't ethically neutral. The collaboration of Polaroid with South Africa's Apartheid State is a clear evidence of this.
Polaroid developed for the apartheid government the ID-2 camera that was used to produce the pass book picture that all Africans had to carry around with them. The camera has two lenses so that you can make the portrait and the profile in same sheet of paper. There is also a special button at the back of the device that has been especially designed for black skin. By pressing it, you increase the flash power by 42 percent.
Two Afro American employees of Kodak ("Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement") campaign to convince Polaroid to retire from South Africa. They were fired but the Head of Polaroid eventually sent a delegation in the country and subsequently withdrew all Polaroid products closely linked to end of Apartheid.
Again, B&C went online, bought one of those cameras and traveled to South Africa to take pictures that turned on its head the toxic use of the camera. They decided to ignore the rules they found in the guide book that comes with the camera and proceeded to photograph the flora and fauna of South Africa.
The last work they mentioned is their ongoing curatorial project Shtik Fleisch Mit Tzvei Eigen, a Yiddish insult that means "A piece of meat with two eyes".
Once again, the work emerged from what the photographers call a 'ludicrous' commission. When the G20 met in Saint Petersbourg, one photographer from each of the G20 countries was invited to come and create a piece of work about Russia. B&C discovered a small Russian company at the avant-garde of surveillance software. Their cameras are invisible and can be placed anywhere. They capture data as you pass through and make marking of your face. The result is not a photograph but a 'data double', an algorithmic map of the face, a structure of your bone. The machine doesn't need the image to portray and identify a person. This technology heralds the breakdown of the photographer and the collapse of camera. At the same time, it announced the advent of software and computer.
The developers of the software said that the biggest challenge was developing a camera that could operate in a non collaborative mode. We are thus entering a new era of non collaborative portraiture, the subject does not even need to be aware that their face is being scanned in 3 dimensions, that can later be rotated and scrutinized. The technology totally substitute the meaning of the face with the mathematics of the face.
Some of the presentations are on soundcloud.
Previously: Only in England: Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr.
Art14 is "London's global art fair." It took place a couple of weekends ago and it is my favourite art fair in London. Not that i'm a big fan of fairs but, you know, "In the country of the blind," blablabla. Art14 changes its name every year. Last year was its first edition and it was called, you guessed it, Art13. If i had to compare it to Frieze i'd say that catering is far better at Art14 (which for me means "WOW! there's a juice bar, here!"), the public is much younger and the art is more accessible and not just financially. Last but not least, there's no Jeff Koons inflated glitter in sight. I did see too many Botero though. At least one.
The reason why Art14 defines itself as "London's global art fair" is that the 180 participating galleries come from all over the world. Europe of course but also Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America. 38 different countries in total.
What follows is a long series of images of works i discovered at the fair. Most of them are photography because that was the medium that stood out at the fair for me.
Johannesburg was founded on the wealth that came flooding in from a gold rush beginning in 1886. The mines didn't just create the fortunes, they also generated six billion tonnes of waste dumped outside the city's poorer areas. Some 400,000 people now live surrounded by these mountains of waste.
This series records some of the structures damaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Hirohito Nomoto explains: The photographs of the facade of each building were taken using techniques of architecture photography that allowed me to keep my emotions at bay, in order to depict the scene as naturally as possible. The aim of this work was to present the viewer an image of what happened there on the day. Most of the buildings in the series were pulled down and do not exist anymore.
Shen Chao-Liang photographed the extravagant stage trucks employed by cabarets and other performers to travel across Taiwan. In less than an hour, the stages turn from mundane vehicles into 50-foot sensory spectacles complete with powerful sound systems, neon lights, and splashing painted stage sets. And back into trucks again until their next destination.
Bauhaus artist Albert Renger-Patzsch looked for beauty and dignity of prosaic industrial machines.
Abdul Abdullah's Siege refers to the 'siege mentality'; a state of mind in which one feels under attack. Abdullah feels this is a condition suffered by many minorities and marginalized groups, particularly young Muslims who live in traditionally 'Western' societies. Growing up in the post 9/11 era, Abdullah has stated that he believes that if there is a 'bad guy' in the popular imagination, it would be Muslims, and as a Muslim he has felt obligated to defend his position.
Ramune Pigagaite was born in Varena, a small town in Lithuania. People of my Town is a series of forty small sized colour photographic portraits of people from Varena. Their professions seem antiquated, strange and curious: baker, beekeeper and poet.
Hugh Holland documented the early days of the skating culture in California. The young people he photographed in the 1970's became legendary names of the sport.
It would be unfair to reduce the fair to photography:
Anton's works are a cultural fusion of African/European cultural references and phenomena. Influenced by his family's history with tales of deterritorialisation, migration, displacement and assimilation his practice is multiplicitous, presenting an ongoing exploration, a type of meta-anthropology, a broad sweep of culture(s), conglomerations of many themes, histories and ideas (from natural/world/art histories, language and media).
Photography: A Cultural History (Fourth Edition), by Mary Warner Marien.
Publisher Laurence King writes: Mary Warner Marien discusses photography from a truly global viewpoint and looks at a wide-ranging collection of images through the lenses of art, science, travel, war, fashion, the mass media and individual photographers. In addition to representing the established canon of Europe and the United States, key work from Latin America, Africa, India, Russia, China and Japan is also included. Professional, amateur and art photographers are all discussed, with 'Portrait' boxes devoted to highlighting important individuals and 'Focus' boxes charting particular cultural debates. New additions to this fourth edition include an overview of photography's involvement in conceptual art, a detailed review of the photographic work of artist Ed Ruscha and new material on European Worker Photography during the 1920s and 30s. Many new pictures have been added throughout the book, including superior versions of historical photographs and recent images from contemporary photographers, including Walead Beshty, Youssef Nabil, Lalla Essaydi and Ryan McGinley. A rich and vivid account of the history of photography placed in an essential cultural context, this indispensable book shows how photography has charted, shaped and sharpened our perception of the world.
Mary Warner Marien is Emeritus Professor at Syracuse University and this publication started as a textbook for her students. Don't let that detail alarm you, this is by far the most engaging, exciting and informative book on photography i've ever read (and i've read quite a few).
The author examines the story of photography, the technical innovations and the key figures of the rather brief story of the medium but she also looks at the impact it had on society and culture. And vice versa. Photography is indeed a powerful weapon. From its early days until its current guise, it has been equally used to denounce social injustice and to function as an instrument of political propaganda.
By explaining the historical and cultural contexts in which photographers worked, Warner Marien shows us how to research, interpret, understand and ultimately look at a photography. A skill we often overlook in our age of image overload.
Have a look at some of the works, ideas and facts i discovered in the book:
French neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne used electrical currents to stimulate facial expressions. The newly invented photography offered him a tool to capture the resulting expressions of his subjects.
His monograph The Mechanism of Human Physiognomy was the first publication on the expression of human emotions to be illustrated with actual photographs.
John Thomson collaborated with journalist Adolphe Smith to produce the monthly magazine, Street Life in London, from 1876 to 1877. This early type of photojournalism documented in photographs and text the lives of the street people of London.
The "Crawlers" lived in the street and whenever they had enough cash to buy tea leaves then they would "crawl" to a pub for hot water.
Photographs of American Civil War veterans were circulated to teaching hospitals in an effort to improve battlefield care, recovery and prosthetics
Lewis Hine, photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, recorded the lives and work of hundreds of children in the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century. His pictures were instruments of persuasion. He believed that if the public could see for themselves the abuses of child labor, they would demand laws to end it.
Ruth Snyder was sentenced to death for killing her husband. Her execution, in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison was captured in a well-known photograph.
Because photographers are not permitted into executions in the United States, the New York Daily News commissioned a man no one at the prison knew to document the moment. Tom Howard strapped a miniature camera to his ankle and linked he photographic plate by cable to the shutter release concealed within his jacket.
The next day, the photograph made the front page of the paper. For many years afterwards witnesses to executions were searched and asked to hold up their hands so they could not operate hidden cameras.
Imogen Cunningham was one of the first photographer to portray older people in a way that reflected their individuality. She was 92 when she started working on After Ninety, a series of photos of elderly people. The photo above sows tattooed circus attraction Irene "Bobbie" Libarry (83) in a nursing home.
From 1950 until 1990, Kodak's gigantic Colorama photographs dominated the east wall of Grand Central's Main Concourse. The photographers employed used the company's innovative technology to print oversize and meticulously staged photos that portrayed an idealized view of American life.
Charles Lee Moore documented the American civil rights era.
The famous photography Leap into the Void is also a famous photomontage. Harry Shunk first photographed the street empty except for the cyclist. Then, Klein "climbed to the top of a wall and dived off it a dozen times--onto a pile of mats assembled by the members of his judo school across the road. The two elements were then melded to create the desired illusion." (via)
Catherine Chalmers portray predatory insects and animals snacking on other living, wriggling creatures.
Chris Killip spent two decades in the industrial communities of the North East of England. His gritty images attest the impact that the decline of industries and the detrimental economic policy had on British working class.
Susan Meiselas is best known for her coverage of the insurrection in Nicaragua and her documentation of human rights issues in Latin America.
The Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University has scanned more than 10,000 photographic images pertaining to various aspects of gross human rights violations under the Khmer Rouge regime. In this preliminary release of data from our existing archive, we focus on the victims of the Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, the notorious "S-21" extermination center.
More than 5,000 photographs were taken of prisoners being processed into the facility for interrogation and execution.
A2 poster produced and distributed through the hospital campaign committee over 30 years ago. Still painfully relevant.
Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, a "photograph of the crucifix submerged in the artist's urine"), was made in 1987 and wherever and whenever it was exhibited the work met with controversy, protest or vandalism. In 1989, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato used it as an example of art that ought not to be supported by state funding.
Tim Head created brash, seductive compositions using discarded mass-produced materials.
Ray's a Laugh is probably one of my favourite photo series ever (together with Pieter Hugo The Hyena & Other Men.) In this work, Richard Billingham portrays the domestic life of his alcoholic father Ray, and chain-smoking, tattoo-covered mother, Liz. The wonky framing and approximative focus gives the series sincerity and authenticity. It is brash and unforgiving but in the process Billingham managed to make his parents perfectly lovable.
Larry Sultan photographed his father and family over a ten year period spanning the 70s and 80s as part of an elaborate project that included his parents own photos, home movies and statements.
In 1952, the U.S. Navy began illegally testing high-explosive bombs on an enormous expanse of public land near Fallon, in Nevada. Richard Misrach's photographs capture both the natural beauty and the man-made devastation of the land.
Blood and Honey: A Balkan War Journal chronicles the horrors that the Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Kosovar Albanians perpetrated against each other. The image above shows a young Serb militiaman about to kick a woman in the head.
Views inside the book:
The largest private estate ever 'owned' by man in recent history was perhaps an area of Africa acquired by Leopold II King of the Belgians in 1885.
For over 20 years, he would be the de facto owner of over a million square miles of central Africa (a territory roughly 76 times larger than Belgium.) He ironically called the country Congo Free Stateand modestly named its capital Leopoldville (via.)
Hiding behind humanitarian and philanthropic promises to develop the region and insure the prosperity of native people, Leopold II acquired the territory and set out to extract its resources. In particular ivory, rubber, and minerals. Nowadays, his rule over the country is associated with the regime of violence, murder or mutilation of the Congolese people. No human right consideration could indeed stop Leopold II's agents in their efforts to meet the growing demand for rubber and maximize profits:
Failure to meet the rubber collection quotas was punishable by death and a hand of the victims had to be presented as proof of the punition, as it was believed that they would otherwise use the munitions for hunting. [...] Soldiers sometimes "cheated" by simply cutting off the hand and leaving the victim to live or die.
When Harmony Went to Hell. Congo Dialogues at Rivington Place in London brings side by side archive photos shot by Alice Seeley Harris while Leopold II was still the sole owner of the land and new work from Sammy Baloji, a Congolese artist who has been investigating the legacies of colonialism in his country.
In the early 1900s, the English missionary Alice Seeley Harris was traveling the Congo Free State with her husband and one of the world's first portable cameras, a Kodak Brownie. Shocked by the contrast between the king's claims of colonial benevolence and the oppressive regime, she carefully documented everyday life as well as the atrocities and brutality towards the inhabitants.
The result is often regarded as being the first photographic campaign in support of human rights. The couple took the images on a tour around Europe and the US. The photos of the Harris Lantern Slide Show were accompanied with powerful lectures which managed to raise the public awareness about human rights violations in Congo.
The Alice Seeley Harris archive was last shown to the public 110 years ago. Her black and white prints are exhibited in an up stair gallery at Rivington Place. The ground floor, however, hosts Sammy Baloji's stunning photos which explore the cultural and architectural 'traces' of Congo's colonial past; in particular, the Katanga province and its capital, Lubumbashi. Some of the pieces exhibited belong to a series of photomontage works that juxtapose post-industrial landscapes with ethnographic archival imagery.
The photos i found most extraordinary, however, are part of Baloji's new body of work. The photos of the Gécamines mining district and of the derelict Office of Post and Telecommunication in Kinshasa are simply jaw-dropping, even for someone who has seen her fair share of derelict buildings. I can't seem to find much images of them so you will have to take my word for it and swing my Rivington street to see them. You won't be taking much risk, the show is free.
I'm going to end this post with an anecdote i read online..
With his ZZ Top beard and his neat outfits, Leopold was also a feisty man and he particularly loved women. His last, embarrassingly younger, and most adored mistress was Caroline Lacroix. She gave him two sons, the younger was born with a deformed hand, leading a cartoon to depict Leopold holding the child surrounded by Congolese corpses with their hands sliced off. The caption said Vengeance from on high!
When Harmony Went to Hell. Congo Dialogues is at Rivington Place in London until 7 March 2014. If, like me, you're a Belgian expat who's never really been taught the whole colonial story at school, you shouldn't miss the show.
The Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool is probably the most exciting photo gallery in England (especially now that Foto8 has closed.) On 22 February they will open a show dedicated to Letizia Battaglia's chronicle of the brutal anni di piombo in Sicily. And right now they have a show that brings together self-taught photographer Alvin Baltrop and 'anarchitect' Gordon Matta-Clark.
I went to see Alvin Baltrop and Gordon Matta-Clark: The Piers From Here a couple of weeks ago. I had never heard of Alvin Baltrop before. His photography met with very little artistic appreciation until after his death when art institutions finally started paying attention to his portrayal of emerging gay subculture in New York.
At first glance, Matta-Clark and Baltrop seem to have very little in common. In fact, the two men probably never met. But they both turned their artistic interest to the Piers of New York City during the mid 1970s.
They found Manhattan's West Side piers abandoned and decaying as a consequence of the oil crisis that reconfigured the geography of the city along with the international trading system. Left to rot, the vast industrial space on the outskirts of the city was soon occupied by people living at the fringe of society: graffiti writers, artists, drug addicts, prostitutes. the homeless, etc.
Pier 52 is the site of one of Matta-Clark's famous building cuts. In 1975, the artist made large cuts into the floor, ceiling and sides of a derelict metal hangar, exposing the Hudson River and sky, creating a sculpture brought to life by the rotation of the sun. Matta-Clark argued that he had created an indoor park. He called it Day's End out of a decrepit space. However, visitors were afraid to cross the large lacerations, the police shut down the opening event and the artist faced an arrest warrant for trespassing and defacing property.
Matta-Clark described the piers as being completely overrun by the gays. So much so that the piers became the site of at least two pornographic films, Arch Brown's Pier Groups (1979) and Steve Scott's Non-Stop (1983). And while Matta-Clark was seesawing his architectural installation, Alvin Baltrop was documenting men having sex, cruising or sunbathing there. Or corpses dredged up from the river.
Most of the time, Baltrop was hiding from his subject, hanging from steel girders, shooting from afar, capturing the freedom these crumbling spaces gave to their occupants. The images are voyeuristic but, perhaps paradoxically, they are never pornographic.
Baltrop photographed the piers and their residents from 1975 to 1986, right up to the moment they were razed. The result is an archive of thousands of photographs that hover between raw passion, violence, furtiveness and tenderness.
Gordon Matta-Clark believed that art could be used as a tool for urban regeneration and the exhibition offers an opportunity to reflect on that very topic but also on the gentrification of (sub)urban areas that usually comes with the dissolution of underground culture.
Both the Piers in New York and the docks in Liverpool experienced a similar process of transformation during the 1970s. Dispossessed of their industrial activity, the areas were gradually reclaimed by people living at the margins of society (from prostitutes and drug dealers to visual artists, performers and film-makers.) I've never been to what is left of the New York piers but Liverpool's docks, where Open Eye is situated, has now left place to office buildings and luxury apartments.
Alvin Baltrop and Gordon Matta-Clark: The Piers From Here is up at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool until 9 Feb 2014.
More art adventures in Derry/Londonderry....
Willie Doherty is currently at the City Factory Gallery with some of the photos and videos he made from the mid-Eighties in and around Derry/Londonderry. The show is called Unseen. Because unseen is the way Doherty used to work when had to remain as inconspicuous as possible to the British military that kept a close watch on Northern Ireland.
Unseen are also the memories of violence, control and conflicts that are lurking in overcast landscapes and dark city corners. There's always something in his images (and their laconic title) that seem to conceit and conspire. At least that's what the viewer suspects because Doherty is a master of making them paranoid.
Doherty, I keep reading, was born in the city, witnessed the Bloody Sunday killings from his bedroom window when he was 12, was later told by the media later that 'it didn't happen' and is still looking at the indelible marks that past violence has left on the local community.
Doherty, however, doesn't do documentary photography, he uses dark images to explore issues of surveillance and brutality but also the truth that a photo can both hide and reveal, the multiple meanings of an image and the blurring between fiction and non-fiction.
The voiceover of his new film, Remains, dispassionately describes three kneecappings. This form of punishment for serious offence was often carried out by paramilitary groups who imposed their own idea of "justice," especially at a time when police was regarded as the enemy.
The fictitious work is situated in Derry and it is based, said Doherty to The Guardian, on real events. Two of the kneecappings took place in the 1970s, the other is much more recent. "A father from a prominent republican family in Derry was told to bring his son and another boy, a cousin, to a certain place to be kneecapped." This was a punishment for drug use, an activity the IRA saw itself as policing.
"It had happened before that a father had been told to bring in a son to be kneecapped or expelled from the city or be murdered," Doherty said. "So I used these locations and the idea of the generational nature of the conflict, how it passes through families and how there is a vicious circle that people get caught up in."
I very much enjoyed this retrospective of Doherty in his hometown but it could have been titled UNTOLD as well because the exhibition space contained so little information about the works. It was frustratingly intriguing.
Related story: Donovan Wylie: Vision as Power.