My interest for photography, working class culture and marginal communities is fairly well documented on this blog. Hence my enthusiasm when learning about the upcoming For Ever Amber exhibition.
The Amber Collective was born in the late 1960s when a group of students at Regent Street Polytechnic in London realized that their education drove them away from their working class background. Resolving to reconnect with their origins and document working class culture in photos and videos, they moved to the North East of England in 1969 and in 1977 opened Side Gallery.
Over the past 45 years, the members of the collective have been documenting the industrial and post-industrial communities living along the river Tyne, the fishermen, the shipbuilders, the people working in the coal and steel industry, but also their families, the unemployed and the marginalized communities. The result is a vast archive of photos and films that present both both artistic and historical value.
In parallel with Amber's own film & photographic production, the collective has also been collecting and presenting to the broad public a series of classic and contemporary international documentary works, presenting similar socially-engaged concerns.
Hi Graeme! Why is this a good time for an Amber retrospective? Does the timing reflect a particular social moment for example?
There's never a time in this country when an exhibition of this kind isn't relevant!
For Ever Amber is actually part of a programme of works funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England to redevelop the gallery, do some digitalisation and make the works more accessible to people.
The work of the Amber Collective is rooted in social documentary, built around long term engagements with working class and marginalized communities in the North of England. I'm curious about the situation of the working class. How has it evolved over the 45 years of Amber's existence?
That changes constantly. A lot has happened over the last 45 years because in the North East of England (and elsewhere but particularly in the North East of England) many of the industries that shaped the identity of the working class communities have closed. When these industries shut down, people send the message out that these industries are not important, that they should be eradicated.
The sense of their identity has changed considerably. This week, members of the Amber Collective worked in a school in Easington. Children there didn't know anything about coal miners even though there is a miner banner hanging in the school hall. It is interesting and important to help children and others find their sense of identity, even if this is an entirely new identity. But having your sense of identity is important. The nature of these communities have changed. It was quite late before you saw widespread immigration in the North East of England. As a result, many of the communities were still overwhelmingly white working class but that has changed since the 2000s.
Whether they are white working class, or marginalised communities, these are people have a lot in common and their voices are denied by the mainstream.
The early members of Amber came themselves from a very working class background and felt that their education pushed them away from the places where they grew up. Instead, they wanted to celebrate their origins and the people who, so far, had mostly been used as material for jokes in films and on tv.
What about the cultural value of the work done by Amber photographers? The photos seem to resonate not just with people living in the North East of England but also with the rest of the country and i think i can also say that they are interesting far beyond the UK borders.
We find that the work resonates enormously with people from other countries. When you go to countries like Spain, France or Germany, you find that people immediately connect with these images. People see that the images depict lives and streets that are not so dissimilar from their own. It's actually much more the case in Europe than it is in some parts of the UK.
In this country, especially in the cultural world, there is a resistance to document these marginalized worlds. The UK has a few difficulties with documentary. I'm not talking about the audience but about curators and funding bodies. They show some interest in documenting the 1930s and the 1940s up until the 1980s but they don't seem to be interested in documentaries about the present days.
Konttinen explained to The Guardian why the photo above is her "best shot."
Do you think that television is doing a better job at representing the working class then?
No, with TV, we've even gone backwards. We are going back to a situation in which the working class is there to provide cheap laughs. But these things come in circles and we need another movement to challenge the current situation.
I was reading a letter published in The Guardian this morning. The street photographer was from Birmingham and he explained that he was often stopped in public and private spaces. Security spots him on CCTV and ask him to stop shooting. I haven't photographed children playing in a public space for many years, and the work of people such as Vivian Maier and Shirley Baker would be impossible these days. It seems to me, from a photographic point of view, that the public space has become privatised, with CCTV everywhere and the lone photographer increasingly unwelcome. Is this something Amber members have noticed as well? Are people still comfortable with being photographed nowadays? Or are they reluctant because of privacy or other concerns?
Yes, when Amber began, street photography was very much a part of what documentary photographers did. But things have changed in a number of ways. Nowadays, people are suspicious that the photographer might be a pedophile for example. Then there is also the issue that part of the public space has been privatized. Almost everyone has a camera phone so, in a way, there is now more street photography than ever. But people are more suspicious than in the past when they see a camera. All of the photographers responded to the challenge in their own way. By negotiating access to people's life, for example, and by making certain that people were genuinely inviting them into their life. If people were not happy with the photo, the photographer would not use it. This in turn enables the photographer to go further and opens up new areas.
In any case, we've lost a significant amount of what is happening in the street. In terms of photography, a lot of questions have been raised as to what is legitimate for a photo to portray.
I was also curious about Coke to Coke, a series of photographs you worked on together with Peter Fryer. The photos were taken in the 1980s and follow the closure of Derwenthaugh coking plant and the opening of the nearby Metro Centre shopping mall. What was the mood of the people then? Where they angry or sad about the end of an era or optimistic of what the new shopping mail represented?
You can't generalize of course but i think that when i accompanied Peter to photograph the opening of the Metro Center, we had a sense of people being dazed by it. It was all bright and artificial and protected from the weather. It was like a place to visit. It gave you a sense of the 'new world.' And it still does because it is so artificial. People loved it. In the States, it was nothing new but it was the first out of town shopping mall in the UK. There was a fun fair aspect to it, with people looking at the shop as if they were at the fair.
At the time, i had just moved to the Derwenthaugh Valley. Derwenthaugh Coke Works was a vision of Dante's Inferno at the end of the Valley. One place was closing, another one was opening. It was a symbol of time changing. That's why we looked at it.
People working at Derwenthaugh Cokeworks were sad but they were also starting to realize that they worked in a cancerogenic atmosphere. Looking back at the '80s, that's when people started to think about the environmental impact of fossil fuels. Before that, these issues were not really discussed.
The opening of the Metro Center was a moment in time. The steel making town was closing its steel factory, the miner strikes had failed and Thatcher's programme of closures was accelerating.
For Ever Amber opens at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle on 27 June and runs until 19 September, bringing together over 150 original photographs and film clips capturing over 40 years of cultural, political and economic shifts in North East England.
'For Ever Amber' is a partnership between Amber Film and Photography Collective and Laing Art Gallery, with support from Tyne & Wear Museums and Archive. The exhibition has been supported by Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England.
Past Futures. Science Fiction, Space Travel, and Postwar Art of the Americas, edited by curator Sarah J. Montross.
Publisher MIT Press writes: From the 1940s to the 1970s, visionary artists from across the Americas reimagined themes from science fiction and space travel. They mapped extraterrestrial terrain, created dystopian scenarios amid fears of nuclear annihilation, and ingeniously deployed scientific and technological subjects and motifs. This book offers a sumptuously illustrated exploration of how artists from the United States and Latin America visualized the future. Inspired variously by the "golden age" of science fiction, the Cold War, the space race, and the counterculture, these artists expressed both optimism and pessimism about humanity's prospects.
Past Futures showcases work by more than a dozen artists, including the biomorphic cosmic spaces and hybrid alien-totemic figures painted by the Chilean artist Roberto Matta (1911-2002); the utopian Hydrospatial City envisioned by Argentine Gyula Kosice (1924-); and Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan, in which Robert Smithson (1938-1973) layered tropes of time travel atop Mayan ruins. The artists respond to science fiction in film and literature and the media coverage of the space race; link myths of Europeans' first encounters with the New World to contemporary space exploration; and project futures both idealized and dystopian.
Once in a while, i like a good catalogue. Especially when they educate me about a topic i know little about: retro futurism in the Americas. Past Futures. Science Fiction, Space Travel, and Postwar Art of the Americas is the catalogue of an exhibition of the same name at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. The book explains in 4 essays and many many images how artists of the period that goes from 1940s to 1970s imagined the future.
The context is exciting enough: it's the time of the Cold War, of the growing popularity of the science fiction genre, of a faith in the power of science to transform society and the human condition. Artists were more than ever stimulated to imagine what the future would be like.
Times were full of hope but they weren't, however, all naivety and science worship. First, people were afraid of nuclear extermination. And believe it or not, they were also already worried about government surveillance. Or about the disruption that technology would bring to the social fabric. And, for some artists from Latin America, space control evoked unpleasant memories of a colonial past.
The first essay, by curator Sarah J. Montross, explores the impact that space travel and science fiction had across the Americas and also the tensions between the promises of the present and a rich cultural past.
Miguel Angel Fernandez Delgado looks at Latin America's long tradition of studying the cosmos (which dates back to the Mayas, the Incas and the Aztec) and presents the work of artists whose work is related to astronomic phenomena and utopian ideals.
Rodrigo Alonso's essay on the influence of science fiction over art in Argentine in the 1960s shows how much artists also had to contend with a political atmosphere that oscillated between a transition into democracy and surges of repression and censorship.
Rory O'Dea explored the influence that science fiction had on the work of land artist Robert Smithson.
Unsurprisingly, i was more interested in reading about art from Latin America and discovering how they questioned the nature of progress. I found some real gems in the book, works by artists involved in scientific inquiries, building robots, walking through a desert that evokes a lunar terrain, or expressing a critical ambivalence towards technology. Too bad i couldn't find images for some of these works online. I managed to dig up a few though:
Tired of the housing models proposed by Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and functional architecture, Gyula Kosice plexiglass maquettes and drawing of dwellings 5000 feet above the surface of the earth. The Hydrospatial City, which finds some echoes in the cloud cities of Tomas Saraceno, responds to fear of ecological degradation and overpopulation.
In 1970, Peter Hutchinson climbed the Paricutin volcano in Mexico. Upon reaching the summit, he spread 450 pounds of bread along its rim. After 6 days of high humidity and intense heat at the crater's edge, the bread began to sprout spores of luminous orange mould. Life grew in a place thought as lifeless.
Luis Fernando Benedit built dwellings for snails, ants and other tiny creatures in order to observe the behavioral conditioning in an artificial, enclosed environment.
The artist participated to the Venice Biennale 1970 with an installation that included a beehive with live bees, and a garden of artificial flowers that supplied nectar.
SEFT-1 is resolutely contemporary but the curators of Past Futures found some resonances of Past Futures in Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene's half car half spaceship hybrid called SEFT-1 (the Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada, in english Manned Railway Exploration Probe.) The artists traveled along the ruins of the Mexican passenger railway system, which was left to rot after privatization in the 1990s, and investigated the remains of what they consider a misuse of common resources and therefore a political issue.
This post might suggest that the book is all about early forms of media art in the Americas. It's not. Plenty of paintings in there as well.
Photography Visionaries, by Mary Warner Marien.
Publisher Laurence King writes: Photography Visionaries is an inspiring guide to 75 of the most influential photographers from around 1900 to the present. Entertainingly written by an expert on photography, it provides fascinating insight into the lives and careers of men and women working in a medium which perhaps more than any other in the visual arts has been deeply affected by technological change.
The entries are arranged chronologically, instilling in the reader an understanding of what marks each photographer as a visionary. Each entry is less about providing a full biography of the person and more about creating a sense of excitement regarding their work and the lasting impact that it has had on photography.
With the aid of an arresting selection of photographs, some well-known and others less so, this book offers a unique and engaging perspective on the development of photography through some of its most inventive practitioners.
"A good photograph is like a good hound dog, dumb, but eloquent." Eugène Atget.
Mary Warner Marien knows where to find a quote or anecdote that says more about a photographer's life, career and ethos than a long biography. She found something witty or striking to say about each of the 75 photographic visionaries she selected for the book. Those visionaries are people who experiment, expand the scope and significance of photography and are inspiring to their peers. They work in any field: portraiture, advertising, photo reportage, documentary, fashion or conceptualism.
Each of them gets one page of bio and three pages of images with a timeline charting the most salient moments of their career. There is always also a portrait of the photographers. I thought i didn't care much for artists' portraits until i realized i had never seen a photo of Bernhard and Hilla Becher before. Or one of Cindy Sherman being no one else but Cindy Sherman.
Obviously not everyone is going to be happy with the author's selection. And i'm going to agree with the English reviewers who deplore the absence of Martin Parr. Another reviewer mentioned Hiroshi Sugimoto. Indeed! He should be there as well. I'm going to add Broomberg and Chanarin to the list. What i like in the author's selection, however, is that women and non-Caucasian people do not feature only as subjects. I don't know if there was a conscious effort to include women photographers, black photographers, Chinese photographers, etc. But it feels just that the white male monopoly is somewhat under assault.
Warner Marien is also the author of Photography. A Cultural History, perhaps the most informative, interesting and intelligent photo book i've ever read about photo. Photography Visionaries is very different (i probably shouldn't compare one with the other anyway): it's snappier, shorter and less elaborate. But it's written with the passion and verve that characterizes her style.
And now for some images and (fairly random) comments
August Sander's major project, People of the 20th Century, attempted to give an overview of the most archetypal figures of contemporary society, categorizing his subjects by profession or social class. His photos represent types (The Woodcutter, The Farmer, The Sculptress, The Bricklayer, The Bohemian, The Bank Official, etc.), not individuals.
Although there was nothing progressive about this model of society, the Nazis disapproved of Sander's work. In 1936 they confiscated the publisher's copies of Face of our Time (a selection of portraits from his series People of the 20th Century); the printing plates were destroyed and the book was officially banned.
Inspired by Sander's work, Liu Zheng traveled throughout China to portray archetypal Chinese characters from every social stratum: homeless children, transvestite performers, provincial drug traffickers, coal miners, Buddhist monks, prison inmates, Taoist priests, waxwork figures in historical museums, and the dead and dying. The images of The Chinese series depict a country caught between tradition and unprecedented economic upheavals.
When she was herself in her early nineties, Imogen Cunningham started working on After 90, a series that portrayed the elderly. One of them was Irene "Bobbie" Libarry who used to be a circus attraction and was living in a nursing home at the time of the photography.
John Heartfield was one of the first artists to use photomontage, manipulating photographs to satirize the brutality of the Nazi regime.
Lisette Mode never formally studied photography but took it up in the 1930s while living in Paris. Her images are early examples of "street photography," a style which developed after the invention of the hand-held camera, which made impromptu shots possible.
Yes, the photo above just made me realize how black and white the book is.
López orchestrated situations in public space and document passersby reactions. In the series "La Venus se va de juerga", for example, a man travels through the crowd carrying a blond mannequin.
The WORK Gallery in London has recently opened a fascinating exhibition that looks at the role that photography has played in constructing the public image of atomic energy and 'the bomb'. I was expecting a dark and dramatic show but many of the images on the walls are alarmingly cheerful and wonderful.
The first group of works exhibited are the iconic images of the mushroom cloud. What i didn't suspect is that some of these explosions were accompanied by 'atomic tourism' (which has in no way disappeared, even though we might take contamination less recklessly these days.) Atmospheric nuclear testing in Nevada, for example, drew enthusiastic crowd of journalists and curious. They sat down wearing 'protective' eyewear and admired the explosions from vantage points which were sometimes perilously close to the blasts.
Those were times of faith in science and in particular in nuclear energy. As illustrated by Walt Disney/s 1957 tv episode Our Friend the Atom, the crowning of miss Atomic Bomb, families proudly posing into their fallout shelter, the futuristic architecture of nuclear power structures, as well as streets and venues that celebrate everything nuclear in Richland, a town located near the first full-scale plutonium production reactor.
The exhibition also shows the other side of the nuclear medal: scars on the bodies of civilians injured in Hiroshima, an elementary school built on grounds contaminated by nuclear waste, artistic works that use views of New York to visualize the scale of an atomic destruction, protests that bring to light overlooked issues of safety and security.
Most of the photos on display at WORK gallery come from the archive of art historian and curator John O'Brian. The show also accompanies the publication of his latest book: Camera Atomica.
I'd recommend checking them both. The exhibition and the book. The show is up until 20 December, it's not far away from King's Cross station, i think it would be rude to miss it if you're in town. The book is a gold mine of photos, historical facts, shocking anecdotes. It's also a demonstration of the strength of the image when it comes to shaping memories and imagination. I've mixed images seen in the gallery and photos found in the book in this quick post.
Camera Atomica: Photographing the Nuclear World, edited by writer and curator John O'Brian. Contributions by Hiromitsu Toyosaki, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Blake Fitzpatrick, Susan Schuppli, Iain Boal, Gene Ray, Douglas Coupland (available at Blackdog Publishing and on Amazon USA and UK)
And now for the many photos i promised you:
Check out After The Flash. Photography from the Atomic Archive at the WORK Gallery in London, until 20 December 2014.
Related posts: Anecdotal radiations, the stories surrounding nuclear armament and testing programs, La Cosa Radiactiva / The Radioactive Thing, Book review - Fallout Shelter. Designing for Civil Defense in the Cold War,
Photo on the homepage: Michael Light, 100 Suns: 099 Bravo, 2003.
This is Giulio Andreotti, a legend in Italian politics:
For almost half a century, Andreotti occupied all the major offices of state. He held the post of prime minister 7 times and for longer than any other postwar Italian politician except Silvio Berlusconi. Andreotti was not as farcical as Berlusconi though but he was every bit as shrewd as a Borgia. He was involved in most political corruption scandals, was tried for mafia association and has also been accused of being involved in a variety of conspiracies related to high profile assassinations, massacres and banking crimes. In his 2008 film, Il Divo: La Straordinaria vita di Giulio Andreotti, director Paolo Sorrentino, highlighted the responsibility of Giulio Andreotti in the kidnapping of Aldo Moro, former prime minister and then president of Christian Democracy (Italy's relative majority party at the time). Sorrentino is not the only one to hold that suspicion. Many believe that Moro was the agnello sacrificale, the sacrificial lamb who had to be executed because of his efforts to include the Communist Party in a coalition government.
On 16 March 1978, Moro's car was assaulted by a group of Red Brigades terrorists in Rome. His corpse was later found in the trunk of a Renault 4 after 55 days of imprisonment.
Andreotti, Moro but also Andy Warhol, Federico Fellini and many others appear in Amore e Piombo: The Photography of extremes in 1970s Italy, one of the exhibitions of the Brighton Photo Biennial. Amore e Piombo means Love and Lead. Lead as in the anni di piombo, the tumultuous years of social conflict and acts of terrorism carried out by right- and left-wing paramilitary groups in the Italy of the 1970s. Now the Amore comes with the glamour of Cinecitta and the stars photographed by paparazzi in the streets of Rome. Two worlds poles apart that characterized Italy in the 70s and were documented by a group of photographers working for the agency Team Editorial Services.
The press photographers constantly shifted between battling film stars at play and the reality of near civil war unfolding on the streets. Politics and celebrity are brought together through the paparazzi style of alto contrasto, collusion and intrusion. Alluded to, although less visible, are the murkier dealings of clandestine groups linked to the Italian Secret Services, The P2 Masonic Lodge the CIA and NATO, operating against the backdrop of the extremes of the Red and Black Brigades. Archive prints are presented alongside television news footage, film sequences and sound recordings. A choice of Italian photo-books of the period, loaned from the Martin Parr collection, add a further layer of reference.
Amore e Piombo is an exhibition as fascinating and enigmatic as the years it portrays. Don't miss it if you're in or around Brighton:
Views of the exhibition space:
The Guardian has more images.
Amore e Piombo: The Photography of extremes in 1970s Italy was co-commissioned by the Archive of Modern Conflict and Photoworks, curated by Roger Hargreaves and Federica Chiocchetti. It is open until 2 November at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.
A few weeks ago, i discovered the existence of the Barts Pathology Museum. And then i visited it so you don't have to.
The museum was opened in 1879 and its collections of organs and tissues were used to train medical students. The museum is located in a charming wood, steel and white shelves space with three mezzanine levels and a spiral staircase. The 5,000 specimen collection, however, is even more gruesome than i had suspected.
The jars are filled with all kinds of deformed and diseased body parts: a gout-swollen hand, an inguinal hernia from around 1750, the bound foot of a Chinese woman, the skeletons of conjoined twins, a liver dented by years of wearing tight corsets, a brain perforated with an ice pick during a frontal lobotomy, a rat that died of tuberculosis, a cabinet of surprisingly voluminous objects that people inserted into their bodies (more about that one in the video below), etc.
I loved the place and i hope it will be open to the public more often in the future. Even though that museum will haunt my nightmares for years to come. Photos were not allowed on my visit. I've therefore stolen as many images as i could online (with due credit wherever i could find it, of course.)
Here's a quick presentation of some of the specimens. Some with comments, others with only the shortest description:
On the afternoon of 11 May, 1812, John Bellingham, a bankrupt businessman, walked into the lobby of the Palace of Westminster and shot prime minister Spencer Perceval, making him the only UK prime minister to be assassinated. Bellingham was sentenced sentenced to death by hanging. As was customary for the time, his body was donated to hospitals to be dissected and anatomized. His skull is preserved at Barts Pathology Museum.
These vertebrae were damaged following a method of judicial hanging called The Long Drop or "Measured Drop" which takes the person's height and weight into consideration. It meant that the rope was the right length to ensure an instantaneous death caused by 'a broken neck' but didn't result in the decapitation of the victim which did occur frequently.
This pot contains a large portion of the liver of a 52 year old female. It is supposedly exhibiting the deformities caused by prolonged 'tight-lacing' of corsets and is dated 1907. The liver is on its side in the glass pot, and the deformity can clearly be seen in the form of a cleft splitting the right lobe of the liver in two.
"A fracture of the mandible. The jaw is broken between the canine and the first bicuspid teeth on either side. This is the common seat of fracture. It was wired during life. (1886)
I'll close this post with a little gem. Carla Valentine, Assistant Technical Curator at the museum takes us through some of the dangers of inserting foreign objects into orifices:
The Barts Pathology Museum is located at the St Bartholomew's Hospital in Smithfield in the City of London. The museum is usually closed to the public. Except for a few afternoons in August and for special events and taxidermy classes. Unfortunately, The Gordon Museum of Pathology which seems to be bigger and fascinating is not open to the public either.