Little old lady


In a previous century I was walking in one of the Greek islands, Levkas I think, though I can’t be sure and whilst I had ‘shot’ a few people surreptitiously I hadn’t really made the jump to gain acceptance with someone completely unknown. I had watched this lady as she drew her donkey to the shade of the tree clearly in wait for someone or something. Before she knew what I was doing, maybe before she knew I was there I made a few pictures in the following sequence: 1c2


This looks like a camera strap got in the frame, maybe I knew it as the next frame is very similar..



She has now noticed me. I remember lifting my camera and making a gesture, I don’t remember if she nodded, but there was something that passed between us.


And now she has started to pose. Her scarf is undone to show more of her face and she also made sure her hair didn’t interfere with the shot. 6c2

This is the last shot (the edited version is the first image), I have moved closer and she has drawn her donkey closer to herself. I remember she closed her mouth, hiding a very ‘gappy’ set of teeth. This is the shot I thought best and I remember walking past her and we exchanged nothing more than a glance.

This post is tagged on the Documentary Blog, my current blog for Body of Work is here:


Objects in the Field

Reprinted by kind permission of the artist Sophy Rickett

Reprinted by kind permission of the artist Sophy Rickett

The Space that hosts the ‘Objects in a Field’ exhibition at the Camilla Grimaldi Gallery is a new space, recently opened it isn’t well indicated on the outside and enjoying the torrent of rainfall on the Old Burlington Road whilst trying to hunt down the entrance was an act of determination. Rickett’s work had been pointed out to me by my tutor and in particular the use of text, and so therefore I expected to see the text that I had already read being associated with the work. Not only did I not see it on the wall (the text was available as a booklet) but it was being read by Dr Willstrop (i) in a video presentation; the second of two disjuncture’s to deal with on the day. I had previously ‘read’ the text as a female narrator, so listening and viewing a man deliver the text provided an interesting challenge to how I had interpreted the narrative. Similarly I had ‘seen’ the images in a completely different scale to what I found on the wall.

Reprinted by kind permission of the artist Sophy Rickett

Reprinted by kind permission of the artist Sophy Rickett

The image ‘Observation 111’ I had ‘seen’ as a moderately sized print, when in actuality the diameter of the ‘galaxial view’ is about a yard. This size invited this viewer to both stand back and admire the scale, but also to peer into the image, to try and make sense of the depth of detail; I find the notion of ‘space’ difficult to comprehend, the vastness, the seemingly endlessness of it all and the inconsequential nature of our existence in that limitless space. And by peering I noticed something that I had overlooked previously, at the top of the circle was a niche, which first reminded me of a ‘sun flare’, an ‘escape’ from the retaining forces that hold these huge vastnessess in check. It was a trigger that held me, something that I could grasp; it seemed to present a sense of scale, but when I looked at a couple of other similar exposures there was the same promontory at the same place on the print. I had a chat with one of the gallery staff who seemed to know a lot about Rickett’s work and she told me that it was a ‘North’ point; a register to provide calibration, which of course seemed a reasonable feature in a scientific instrument and then looking at ‘Observation 123’ I notice the twin variances; the image has been rotated and is printed in negative form. I checked with the artist and this was done for purely aesthetic reasons, saying also that it provided a greater dynamic; I’m not so sure about the dynamic change, I inverted it to see how it looked, but then my monitor isn’t large enough to test the hypothesis, I think the image of the comet would be dynamic in whichever form it is displayed.

An integral part of the exhibition, of which the images are but part, is the use of narrative. There is a pamphlet of ten sides which is a text about a couple of things, the first about the artist meeting with Dr Willstrop but also about when she had her eyes tested, or perhaps more accurately her reaction to the process by which she had her eyes tested. The words though are spoken by Dr. Willstrop on a video which is being constantly played. Again I am surprised to hear these words, which are very clearly set in my mind as those of the author being spoken by someone else, a man. That this someone else is the catalyst that provoked the work at the Institute of Astonomy is a delightful contrivance; the video has him grinding the glass lens that he use in the telescope he has retired from, glass is the means by which we are allowed to insulate ourselves from and also by which we can amplify their existence in the frame of view, lenses draw things closer, present them, shield us, open up vistas decoupled by a medium that allows only light to penetrate leaving all other senses devoided of interaction. The narrative is the adhesive element by which this whole project seems to coalesce and aesthetic choices about position and scale, leaflet and video are all supportive of that chronicling of the artist’s experience.

(i) See Photoparley piece here 

Documentary and Beauty and Documentary

One fifty light

One fifty light

Just before two pm one family, four generations, sat for lunch. Sharing this meal I wondered whether I would have the opportunity to break bread with a great grandchild? Happy and privileged to do so at this time with those whose histories are nearing completion and others barely beginning. This light radiated into a new space in a new room newly completed in time for this occasion. A new light, an old practice, this illumination that is now captured and framed for as long as those that want to allow it to provide a memoir.

Thoughts on documentary.

Repetition is a word that keeps coming up as I reflect on my thoughts, the more I research, the more I find repeated messages,

not only the: Grieving mothers,

charred human remains,


women giving birth,

cock fights,

bull fights,

Havana street scenes,

reflections in windows,

football posts in unlikely locations,

swaddled babies,

portraits taken through mosquito nets,

needles in junkies’ arms,

… and on, and on – Broomberg and Chanarin ‘Unconcerned But Not Indifferent’, 2008

but also the need to question the validity and the purpose of the medium of photography as a ‘Documenting’ schema. What is the purpose? As Ingrid Sischy wrote in The New Yorker on 9th September 1991 (about Salgado’s Uncertain Death at the ICP in New York, a show guest curated by Fred Ritchin who also wrote the main text): “To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action.” The direction of travel for the ‘Documenter’ is away from the presentation of image to accompany, or to illuminate news – tragic or otherwise – that role is being granted to the ‘citizen journalist’ with Iphone and other mobile devices. It is implicit, that in the act of triumphanting the democratization of the means of image capture that the industry, that commercial practice of news ‘packaging’, has freed itself of any responsibility to the bounds of comprehension of the ‘why?’ to just the ‘what!’ “Were you there?” asks the BBC website. “Can you send us your pictures?” says the New York Times (and the Chicago Sun Times who now have no photographers on staff, how long before they all go the same way?).

Is there inherency in a photographer’s DNA to transcend the ugly beautiful, or to at least reify it to another more acceptable plane? But as Alfredo Jaar comments in an interview with Strauss et al 2009, “there is no way to represent anything without aestheticization. In other words, there is no representation without aestheticization.” And the squeeze to the gallery wall allows for both the release of the image maker and for the market to collude – how much now for the rights on Carter’s vulture picture? We know it as the ‘vulture’ picture and not of the infant being regarded by a vulture, we know it perhaps because we are complicit in it’s worth as cultural icon, but also as an emblem of the ‘Documentarist’s work; how many of us would love to have taken that vulture shot, the one that Carter waited for twenty minutes in front of, what we can only suspect was a dying infant, to get the composition, to win the prize that perhaps cost him his own life as well.

Geoff Dyer, in his documentary of documentarists ‘The Ongoing Moment” suggests I think that the spectator to these documents is convening with the photographer as much as the event on the screen or page. Responding to Sontag’s comments on “Here is New York” where she writes about the ‘Democracy of Photographs’ suggesting there was “ by amateurs as good as all the work of seasoned professionals. Unattributed and uncaptioned, all of the pictures in the show, whether by ‘a James Nachtwey or …. a retired school teacher’…. If Nachtway is a destination or place as much as a photographer, then that place can be New York as well as Grozny.”

Of course ‘Documentary’ isn’t only about the re-presentation of a mise en scene unnatural to the spectator’s eye for the purpose of excitement – eroticizing as Barthes might have it – and drawing the viewer in to that time honoured contract between advertiser and conduit. The purpose maybe much more prosaic; to communicate the response to a subject that the lens holder may be wanting to comprehend for themselves. And so to that oft worn trope of beauty; was there ever a subject so much discussed and so little understood, apart from maybe love? The recurrence of this one questioning theme, above all others on this voyage, has kept me at arm’s length. No painted work of pre-modernist art displays a lack of beautiful intent; moreover the rendition of beauty still lies at the heart of most artists’ work that I’ve witnessed. The painter and drawer seem both unwilling or unable to depict without challenging their capacity to deliver beauty, and when that isn’t achievable the notion of prettiness lies still on the canvass. The photograph has at its core the purposeful decision of what to exclude from the frame, the mechanical artist what to include which seems to me to be a much easier deliberation to contend with. However the ‘sunset’ still draws the photographic artist and its detractor to the conversation; it’s capture and safekeeping being both a hindrance and a burden to the artist who feels the need to express and expound their feelings on any subject in a medium, that which is still defying popular belief as a legitimate means of artistic expression.

The indexical nature of photography depicts everything as a ‘document’ of course, and so in that sense all photographers are “Documentarists”. And the question that I am most interested in is what is it that I want to document and why? Is the purposeful exclusion of elements from a frame evidence of censorship in the sub-conscious a portrait of the self and if so is it therefore a recognition that what I ‘frame’ is evidence of some epistemological development? Do I want to meet me in the frame?

Along with Broomberg and Chanarin, I care “…not to judge whether a photograph of a child suffocating to death in a mudslide is sufficiently beautiful to win a prize…” ‘Unconcerned But Not Indifferent’, 2008:  because that (unknown to me) photographer’s self depiction is not one I would want to mirror. My quest is myself.

And so to where should I look to find that sense of self; released from a need to express an other, either sublimated or prettified, I should perhaps look, as I remember my tutor extolling me to do very early in this course, to the reasons I made what I deemed ‘pretty’ pictures for they were surely an expression of me, however much I wanted to distance myself from them. I will not be a photojournalist, nor yet a pale imitation of campaigning media correspondent. My direction is inward, to an exploration of the self and to try and understand or at least search for why and how I react to what I see and feel about what is in front of me.

10:31 light

10:31 light

10:45 light

10:45 light

As ideas ebb and flow, these running rivulets of rain provide an echo to the hosts of thoughts that are collecting. Light is coming at the end of the year.

“As a two dimensional object they [the photographs] seek to represent the third. Yet they live by the forth.” Barry Thornton, ‘Edge of Darkness’ 2000. I knew Barry, not well, but well enough to talk to him occasionally, ask his advice with which he was very free. It was Barry that encouraged me to convert from traditional film based photography to digital at about the time this book was published, though he made his living from the likes of Ilford who utilised his knowledge, expertise, contacts and audience. This quotation is from the last book he published before he died prematurely and alone from a heart attack in a Birmingham hotel room. Barry was recounting how the photograph can represent many things, but universally they hold time as a marker, and the revelations he found after his father had a heart attack and died and whose photographs provided keys to Barry’s own past. I will not be countenancing any discourse on my father, rather I think I want to think about how I can mark time and use its representation as a memento. Whilst I will not set out to make ‘happy’ pictures I will seek to engage the viewer with some notion of the motion of time, how things might happen in a place and mark them, however prosaic they may be, with a sense of that time when the light, or the ambiance,  drove me to record that instance in my life.

I am aware that most of my work so far has been autobiographical in nature, stemming from a desire to find/understand my place. I think that now, and assuming I pass through to Level Three, which I am hopeful for, it will be an acknowledged engagement rather than skirting around and dipping toes. I’m not sure I want to dodge issues that have dogged me, and maybe I feel better about myself after facing things from the past through this course. I never expected it, but I sleep easier now.

Today I made some nice images

At today’s session at the Echoes Group I was somewhat thwarted in my plan to take a full set of portraits, a significant number – more than half – were not able to come chiefly through medical reasons. I had planned a set of similar portraits, similar light etc so have decided to put that exercise off until next week. Whilst I was still able to collect resource for the calendar project I was interested in a set of abstract images that appeared to me within the space at the Fusion Arts Centre.

The conference at the University of Westminster had Jason Evans talk about ‘Nice’ images, about how he, amongst his practice, enjoys presenting images that appeal to him. “I like the secret places in a photograph” and “..the points of magical light, to a specific place, Wednesday afternoon at 4 o’clock…” thoughts that I felt immediately drawn to. I see those things every day – I especially like the Tuesday morning light just after nine thirty – photographers tend to do that. I remember talking to Barry Thornton who said that photographers are very lucky because they ‘see’ pictures all the time, we become accustomed to framing, to recognising both macro contrast local contrast, instinctively ‘seeing’ that it would work as a ‘nice’ image. Geometry, symmetry, harmony those distinct structures that inform the eye that things are combining for the lens. Evans has a website dedicated to showing a ‘nice’ image every day (though at the moment is has been a bit variable as to whether it gets updated). The object of the Dailynice is to display a pleasant image to make people feel better than they would had they not seen the image. That’s nice isn’t it?

I have struggled with my own images for some while now. I have found it too easy to produce pretty images, those that are on this blog piece for example, so I’m thinking about the difference between ‘nice’ and ‘pretty’. Evans’ ‘Nice’ images are filtered through an Art practice that is mature – his is a distinguished career already – so I wonder if he isn’t being a tad disingenuous calling his images ‘Nice’, where they might be considered as a comment on the ephemerality of photography today. Having resigned from an educational career in art photography, having been a photographer in the fashion business, Evans has witnessed several complexions of the face of a photographic artist. His images appear for short periods of time and there is only one image to consider, untroubled by the narrative complexities of other images to scroll into, Evans presents an image for the viewer to contextualise or not, as the fancy takes them. Surely he knows why he has made those images, they surely contain ‘points of magical light’ as the clock ticks relentlessly through the witching hour of 4 pm.

These images presented here were taken because they struck me at the time as nice images (I fear to associate the capitalised edition of the word with my own creations, lest a comparison is made) and whilst the word kindled a connection with Evans’ work, I have attempted to make them nice. I have prettified them, abstracted them further from the abstractions that they clearly are, but I was inspired by Evans’, I heard his words echoing as I gazed through the viewfinder and that together with my tutor’s encouragement to make some images that I don’t hate (a reference to the ‘war’ photography I have been researching for some time, and a battle area of “Documentary” that I would like to leave behind me).

A turning point?

Documentary photography

During my visit to Arles I stayed in a house owned by the parents of Isabelle Wesselingh a reporter, currently in Roumania but who has had extended periods in Caucus’ from where she published Raw Memory. We met a couple of times and chatted about photography – she also went to see some of the work in the festival. I decided to ask her about her thoughts on ‘Documentary photography’ her response came a little later than she had wanted because she is covering the case of the stolen (and possible incineration) of the Monet, Picasso and Gaugin paintings. An interesting reflection on the conversation today at the Thames Valley Group. Nevertheless I thought I’d share both my question and her response in it’s entirety.

“…In the Rencontres there were two distinct approaches to documenting the big issues in Africa, war, famine etc. One by Robin Hammond for example and the other by Alfredo Jaar. Hammond has a hard documentary style, focusing on the depravity, the injustices etc, whilst Jaar seems to project a futility in the use of images.


I would be interested to understand your views from a position of privilege about whether you think either position is worthwhile, appropriate?”


Date: 17 August 2013 17:07:43 BST

To: John

Subject: Re: Documentary photography

Dear John,

I think both positions are appropriate and worthwhile in a way but:

Hammond is focusing on depravity, injustices etc. Of course, we need to have this type of testimony not to forget about the fact that people in the world do not have the same chances as us for example. I think it is very important for people in Western Europe (who generally tend to complain more and more about everything) to be conscious of the living conditions of people in Africa. It is so easy to forget. Hammond with his hard documentary style provides an insight of the fate of people suffering from mental health for example. I think this approach is important. That is also why I think images from wars and the horror of wars are also important, especially nowadays when governments make us believe that wars are “clean”, with precise strikes and no suffering for the civilians or the soldiers. But there is also a danger linked to this hard documentary style. Photographers can be tempted to focus only on this aspect of life in Africa and hence contribute to create and reinforce clichés about Africa. In general, the public expects sad news about Africa –famine, poverty, violence–. If you focus on this, you meet the expectations and newspapers, magazines are happy to publish your pictures. Jury members for photo contests (World Press Photo, Perpignan etc…) are also very sensitive to this aspect, so your chances to won a prize are also bigger. But by focusing only on depravity, injustice and violence you are actually not documenting a continent but only a very small part of life on this continent. So what is the value of your documentary? How long do you live there to get familiar with the local culture and not react only with your own cultural background?

I give you just one example I witnessed. A photographer I know called me once, four years ago, because he wanted to do a documentary on the Romanian orphanages. Of course, everyone remembered the terrible state of orphanages in Romania under communism. After the fall of Ceausescu, the images were broadcast all around the world. This was in 1990. He called me in 2009. “I spoke with Care (the NGO) and they tell me that the state of orphanages has not changed since the fall of communism. This is realy horrible”, he told me. “Care wants to pay all my expenses to document the situation and they will then use the pictures to raise funds. We will help these people”, he added. Well, you could think, +how nice, someone wants to document the injustices and try to help the poor children+. But “the problem” is that Romania made tremendous efforts to improve the conditions in orphanages in the last twenty years and the conditions are not at all like they were in twenty years (this is what experts working in the field for Unicef, child protection, other NGos told us, this is what my colleague who wrote about the orphanages twenty years ago witnessed). So basically this photographer who never set a foot in Romania wants to document something with a preconceived idea that is completely untrue. I told him things have improved a lot (even former orphans told us so) but he did not want to listen. Care neither as they wanted sad pictures to make people emotional and donate money. The photographer even told me that with this “scandalous subject we could denounce injustice and maybe win a prize”…..My text colleague who covered in depth the subject of orphans in the last twenty years went with the photographer to several orphanages. In one town, he was convinced the children were still in the old Communist orphanage. They were not. They were in a very modern building, small unit with psychologist, play therapists etc….He as very disappointed. As he could not shoot the sad pictures he wanted, he chose to make close up on mentally disabled and physically disabled children. Of course, they look disabled and people feel sad about them. But this was chosen to so call “document” the terrible state of orphanage and this was just a lie. The photographer is seen by many as “a very good photo documentary maker”. As I saw how he worked, I cannot consider him so and I would consider his position inappropriate.

I think to document a country and a continent, you have to focus on complexity and sometimes the hard documentary style in photo is unable to do so. As a correspondent in Romania, I do not want to write only about the clichés people have about this country, so I think a lot about the “balance” between subjects. Yes, there is corruption and poverty (but corruption cases you also find in Britain, France, Italy etc…) but there are also some of the best IT specialists in the world (Romanian is the second most spoken language at the head office of Microsoft in the US), there are incredibly successful Roma (This year, a Romanian Roma actress graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London….are British newspapers talking about this, are we having pictures of this?), the average internet speed is higher than in Germany. So what are the pictures we are seeing about Romania? How do they really document the country? Or are they just confirming preconceived ideas? I think the dilemma is the same for Africa.

And that is where the approach of Alberto Jaar is appropriate and important: because pictures should be questioned as much as anything else but we are not taught to question them, to read them. His approach is telling us about the rest, the things we are not shown. It is telling us about who is talking about what. For example, I think you need to live a certain time in a place to understand this place and not only judge it through your own cultural filter. You need to go deeper than the surface and this takes long. That is the reason why for example news agency like Reuters, AFP and AP work with local photographers (and text journalists), who are full time staff. This is combined with foreigners who come to stay four five years to have time to understand better a country: combine and external eye to an internal one.

I hope this helps. Feel free to ask other questions if you want.



Whats the point?

Reflecting on Barthes:

Studium and Punctum

Or rather Punctum and Studium, for it is the Punctum that stops us, punctures our general gaze as our eyes wander over an image, over our personal landscape, over anything our retinas engage with. It isn’t just photographs, or paintings, or sculptures; for if we accept the notion that Barthes espouses, that of the ‘prick’ of the conscience that alerts us to consider/reconsider an image with a found/newly-refound awareness, then we accept that all vistas contain that possibility. Because Barthes writes about this in Camera Lucida, and in particular to specific photographs, the reader is impelled to consider this wisdom in respect of photographic images when of course it is perfectly reasonable to view any part of the world in this way.

Coming across the text some time ago for the first time I suppose I had expected to be ‘caught’ by a barb on every photograph – well at least every photograph that had some form of legitimate claim to be by ‘a’ photographer; and when I didn’t I suspected it was because my visual vocabulary wasn’t developed enough and when I still don’t get it I still wonder about how nascent that vocabulary is, or perhaps I will never get them all!

For the point surely about Punctum is that it has two aspects to it; nature and nurture. Nature is what comes through the life we have led and nurture through the things we have learned. And, whilst these twin contributors to the well of experience are interwoven, the one without the other will leave the one lesser by far than the two combined.

If I imagine a darkened house in the dead of night, and a noise that seems out of place, surely here is a puncture that makes me stop and concern myself with the extra ordinary. As I view the garden lawn and notice the slight mound in the turf that doesn’t appear in my memory, then again I start to consider the possibilities of underground invaders. The former as a heightened awareness through the jarring of senses, the latter through a learned experience (of the last time I viewed the same scene that ‘appeared’ without the possible presence of a mole). It is though, the learned experience that I am most interested in here.

A McCullin image of a shell shocked soldier is so extra ordinary that the whole image, at whatever size presented, is the Punctum. It would surely be an extra ordinary individual not to be instantly captivated by that image. The grim aspect of the soldier staring glassy eyed into the distance and gripping tightly to the stock of his rifle, I can see this image in my mind and need not refer to the library to remind myself of it’s countenance. But then if we view his picture of the schoolboys – written about here – outside Bedford prison on the day Hanratty was to hanged I start to consider multiple halting points. The boy’s in the centre of the image staring confrontationally at the viewer is a key, and so also is the boy on the bicycle looking almost insouciantly at the the same place. The others, the women and men all, in the first instance, seem generally normal. Of course we are directed by the caption “Outside Bedford Prison on the morning of the execution of James Hanratty, Great Britain, April 4, 1962” to ‘know’ what this image is about, and this is itself a Punctum within the framework of understanding that Barthes outlines And for most viewers these elements would surely be enough to decide to contemplate, to consider the event that took place on the cold morning in 1962. But it is the fact that I know it was cold that reminds me that I was in Bedford that day and that I recognise that schoolboys’s school blazer badge – I didn’t go to that school, but my sister went to it’s twin Girl’s school.

So McCullin’s ability to steer the viewer is quite apparent (and probably a good number of others too); but what of the ‘Art Photographer’, can they rely on the viewer to recognise the point at which to start to study an image? To a certain extent this is what this course is about, how to comprehend an image, whether by an artist’s statement or by the elements within the frame, or how to construct an image that will provide both the point that interrupts a viewer’s general gaze and also the point that is the narrative of the image. It is important to do both, it may be possible to engage a viewer without resort of a punctive operator, but if the viewer cannot consciously or sub-conciously engage with the image then the work will have no value as a visual conduit.