Rene Burri (1933-2014)

October 21st, 2014

René Burri, who died on October 20th, aged 81, was a photographer who was not appreciated as he should have been here in the UK – something which could be said about almost all photographers, but especially true in this case. Wikipedia lists almost 20 major shows of his work, quite a few of which were shown in several cities, but not a single one of them in the UK. I saw his René Burri – Rétrospective 1950-2000 in Paris in 2004 and was surprised at the breadth of his work, with many images that were unknown to me.

Most of us will recognise the six images he talks about in the video on Vimeo, and there are some others that are well-known as well as others that surprised me in another short video, Impossible Reminiscences, which came out for the publication of the book of the same title. But the best place to see his work is probably on his Magnum page, although the material on show there still only scratches at his huge output- he has left his archive of over 30,000 pictures to the Musée de l’Élysee in Lausanne.

The slide-show on Magnum starts with his first picture, Winston Churchill standing up in a car going through Zurich in 1946, when Burri was 13, and he was supremely a man with the great ability to be in the right place at the right time. But he was more than that; for him it was not just ‘f8 and be there’, but the ability to be there and to see things differently.

Of particular personal interest on the Magnum site was his set of over a hundred images of Brasilia, mainly taken around the inauguration in 1960, but also some images from the 1970s. Some of these brought back memories of my own trip there in 2007, though I wasn’t there to take pictures but to show them, and only took a compact camera with me.

I wrote briefly about the 2004 show in Paris as follows:

The queue at the MEP stretched out the length of the garden into the street, but it only took us around fifteen minutes to get in. Inside it was pretty crowded, at times too full to really look at the pictures. The main show was of work by Swiss photographer Rene Burri (1933-) who joined in 1955. Burri was a pupil of Hans Finsler at the School for Arts and Crafts in his hometown of Zurich. It was both an exhaustive and exhausting show that left me feeling that he would have been better served by a significantly more selective editor.

Burri is best known for such iconic works as his portrait of Che Guevara smoking a cigar. By far the strongest of the work on show was from his book on Germany made in the late-1950s (he brought out a revised version including some later pictures more recently.) Burri’s work is more traditional than that of his compatriot Robert Frank and more cerebral than that of Leonard Freed (who also produced a book on Germany.) Burri caught the Germans at a time when their memory of the war and the consequences of defeat were still very evident, and recovery was only beginning to make itself felt.

One image shows two elderly men in Weimar perhaps planning a holiday route, poring over a map spread over the bonnet of a car. The overtones of invasion are only too clear. Another picture of a street in Rheinpfalz on a misty day in 1959 has a man in the centre walking toward the camera. The street looks down-at -heel and the young man is a worker, wearing a hat and muffler. In is arms he holds awkwardly horizontal a baby, whose white bonnet is outlined perfectly against the black coat of an older and more distinguished figure walking away from the photographer. We see the new Germany coming out of its murky past with the hope of a brighter future, while and older generation is left behind in the past.

So far the obituaries I’ve seen have done little more than state brief biographical details together with a few pictures, with the best I’ve seen to date on PDN.  Doubtless more substantial accounts will be forthcoming – and if you come across any before I do, please feel free to add the details in a comment to this post.

 

No More ‘Page 3′

October 20th, 2014

I’ve never been a fan of The Sun newspaper, and have never bought a copy, though I have leafed through the occasional copy left on the train or elsewhere. It’s always seemed stuffed full of non-news about so-called celebrities and opinionated views lacking any factual basis with only the occasional actual news story, usually given an impressively shallow treatment. To me it’s always been the kind of newspaper that makes it hard to hold the views I have about the importance of a free press. And of course The Sun isn’t a free press, but a press controlled by the interests of one man, the owner of the giant media corporation which owns it. It isn’t about all the news that’s fit to print, but about all that Murdoch wants printed, news or not.

Why Murdoch should want pictures like those on Page 3 printed was simple when the paper was launched; it was a straight-forward commercial decision that he thought it would increase sales. It reflected and reinforced a particularly insulting view of the male working-class audience he wanted to buy the paper. It’s a decision he is now apparently having second thoughts about, as the world has changed since the first Page 3 appeared in 1970, shortly after Murdoch took over the title.  Around 40% of Sun readers are women now, and the No More Page 3 petition has so far attracted over 200,000 signatures.

When I wrote about photography for a living, I used to get fairly frequent approaches from so-called ‘glamour’ studios, asking me to publicise their activities, and sometimes offering me the chance to attend their courses free of charge. Although at times I wrote about photography of the nude (male and female) my response to them was always that I found the photography they promoted of no interest, though perhaps I tried to put it politely. But my objection to ‘Page 3′ is not that it shows part-naked women, but that it trivialises what is something very basic and fundamental to our human condition. Worse than that, I think it is essentially dishonest, telling lies about our humanity.

Frankly too, ‘Page 3′ is boring. That’s not to in any way disrespect the young women involved, but the mould into which they are processed. And in many ways the photographers and others involved in that processing are very professional in what they do. It probably isn’t something I could do – but then I don’t want to. I’d find it hard to live with myself if I did.

Part of the reason why ‘Page 3′ is boring is the near-interchangeability of the models, day after day. Real women are far more varied and more interesting – even if not half-naked – and of course not just, and even to a photographer not largely, for their physical characteristics. Too often women I’m photographing tell me that they “don’t look good in photographs” and I think my pictures of them prove the opposite to the world – if not to their own satisfaction.

One of the photographers had brought a chalk board for people to write their reasons for being at the event and be photographed holding. I took pictures of some of them holding it too and you can see them in No More Page Three on My London Diary, but I was too busy taking photographs to write my own view at the event.

Photographically the main problem I encountered was wind. It wasn’t a bad day, but a chilly breeze was being generated or attracted by the Shard and the News UK towers, and the candles on the cake for the second birthday of the campaign kept blowing out. I was also in danger of over-indulging in the seventies party food!
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W. Eugene Smith Awards

October 17th, 2014

I’ve not consciously come across the work of Joseph Symenkyj before, though a few of the pictures on his web site seem familiar, but his is a name I’ll probably now remember even if I’m rather unsure how to pronounce it. I find he is an American photographer who graduated from the New York School of Visual Arts in 2002, and what finally brought him to my attention in a post on the NY Times Lens blog is that he has been awarded this year’s W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography for his long-term project on family life in Ukraine.  On the web site you can also see his work on more recent events on the streets of the country.

The W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund has also made an award to a more familiar name, Spanish American photographer Moises Saman for his four years of work on the Arab Spring and its aftermath, and there is some fine work on his Magnum pages.

James Estrin in his Lens post also mentions that Muriel Hasbun ‘received the Howard Chapnick award for the “Laberinto” project, a collaborative education and cultural preservation project that documents artists who worked during the Salvadoran civil war.’ I have to say I find most of her work on line leaves me rather cold, rather too academic for my liking, though I do admire her ‘Conversacio‘, a photographic  ‘conversation‘ exchanging photographs with Pablo Ortiz Monasterio.

Capa’s Missing Negatives Found

October 16th, 2014

It’s a headline that offers rather more than it delivers. We can now be completely sure that there were no more pictures made by Capa during the D-Day landing. There never were any “missing” negatives, no ruined films. The negatives (or at least a large selection of them) are in the archive.

If like me you have followed with interest A D Coleman‘s investigations into the “missing” Capa negatives from D-Day, supposedly ruined in processing in the LIFE London office, you will want to read the latest episode, Alternate History: Robert Capa on D-Day (13) in which Coleman discloses where they “sit today, intact and available for study” (though currently unavailable until sometime next Spring due to relocation.)

It’s a disclosure that confirms Coleman’s previous conclusion that Capa only took 10 or 11 frames on Omaha beach and very much calls for an explanation of the legend that was clearly manufactured around Capa’s D-Day images. All 35mm four rolls survived processing and that the contents of them – apart from those frames from Omaha Beach – were deliberately suppressed. The existing images in the archive apparently match the notes Capa made about the films containing images of the briefing and embarkation from Weymouth already published.

But you should go to Photocritic International to read Coleman’s account, which gives great detail on his findings. If you haven’t already read them, there is a page linking to all the posts in the series, including those by guests, around 18 in all, with another promised with more about the negatives “and their implications, and related matters.”

Coleman’s correspondence  by email exchange with former LIFE picture editor John G. Morris which he published earlier ended with Morris accusing Coleman of “false accusations” and calling for a public apology. It seems clear now that it’s time for Morris, now 97, to tell the truth about what happened, despite any promises he may have made at the time.

For my own previous comments on Coleman’s Capa series see Capa Under Fire and More on Capa – Fraud.

Poor Doors 4

October 15th, 2014

The series of protests outside one of London’s more prestigious (or at least more expensive) new developments is still continuing – after writing this I’ll be getting on the train to go to the twelth weekly event.  Other committments have prevented me from covering it every week, but I’ve managed to get to most of them, and it has been interesting to see how the events have developed.

August 20th was the fourth week (and the third that I’d attended – you can see the first and third weeks on My London Diary) and as my headline Class War steps up ‘Poor Doors’ protest suggests, the protests were developing.

It was just as well that there were some incidents, as otherwise I was having trouble with trying to come up with something fresh each week, as the basic set-up was the same on each occasion. Protesters, banners, stickers, leafleting, the building security…  It really was getting hard to produce new images.


The 8mm fisheye gives an overall view with the three banners in front of the ‘rich door’

At least the banners had changed a little. Class War, the loose group that is behind these protests, has a good line in banners, intended to offend. As I wrote in My London Diary:

Class War draws attention to real and important issues – the gentrification of this and other areas of London and the financially based social cleansing that is resulting. They do so in a manner that is confrontational and theatrical, but amusing and not always entirely literal. Among the banners at today’s protest was that of the ‘Women’s Death Brigade’ with its message ‘Smiters of the High & Mighty’ and ‘F**K Capitalism! F**k Patriarchy!’

Almost everyone would agree that London has a housing crisis. And that little is actually being done about it. Most of the new developments – such as this block, ‘One Commercial St’ (confusingly its actual address is in Whitechapel High St) are actually making the situation for ordinary Londoners worse. As I also write in my piece on the protest ‘Tower Hamlets has a huge list of people wanting housing. The whole idea of building large blocks as investment properties for rich overseas buyers is simply obscene.’

Tower Hamlets council is at least I think doing its best to house its people, unlike neighbouring Newham, a monolithically Labour council. But council powers are very limited and no match for the developers who make huge profits from blocks such as these. The best they can manage are a few crumbs from the table – including the flats here behind the ‘poor door’ in a dingy alley along the side of the building.

You can read more about what actually happened on the evening, and more on the background in My London Diary. When I wrote it, I believed that there was no internal connection in the building between the parts containing the ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ residents, but that appears to be untrue, though I’m sure the door between the two parts is normally kept firmly locked.

But although there were some incidents to photograph, and I think I took some decent pictures of them, it also left me thinking about how much the still photographs leave out, and how easy it is to miss the critical moment.

In photographing this and other protests, I normally try to avoid taking pictures of people who are not really involved in the event, except in the background. Most of those actually going in and out of the ‘rich door’ are tourists staying there on holiday lets, who know nothing about the building and are not profiting from it, and unless they choose to become involved – perhaps by stopping to argue with the protesters – have little to do with the story.

I’m not sure why I took a picture of the woman in high heels and a striped top carrying her white bag towards the ‘rich door’, perhaps just to show that people were still going in despite the protest. But I missed the moment just after this when she turned rapidly and snatched the leaflets from the hand of the woman at the left holding one of the banners, throwing them into the air, and by the time I had reacted she had turned back towards the door and the flyers were actually flying. Had I been taking a movie it would have been an interesting incident. You can tell how rapidly it happened as the papers are still in the air in the second image and the others in the picture have not reacted.

Finally, when someone came forward to hold her end of the banner, the protester moved to pick up the leaflets, as another person – a man in a grey suit – stepped carefully over the leaflets to enter the rich door.

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A long pink scarf

October 13th, 2014


A short section of the seven mile scarf after joining

Seven miles long – and they had a bit left over. CND’s Wool Against Weapons protest on Nagasaki Day, 69 years after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, stretched all the way from the atomic bomb factory in Burghfield to the better-known site at Aldermaston, both in rural Berkshire.  Neither end is particularly easy to get to by public transport, though I have at various times walked most of the way from London to Aldermaston, (including the final Reading to Aldermaston section of the CND Aldermaston March in 2004) it didn’t seem sensible to try to cover a 7 mile long event entirely on foot.


Joining the lengths of scarf at the roadside

Hand-knitting or crocheting a scarf of this length and getting it into place clearly needed a great deal of planning and coordination. If people were knitting a 5 ft scarf you need a thousand of them for each mile and one of the major points about the protest was to get a great many people around the country – including many who for various reasons are unable or unwilling to get out on the streets – to participate. Groups around the country organised the knitting and brought the scarves joined together in rolls of around a hundred foot to centres along the route, from where they were stretched out and joined together.  Along the route there were ‘mile posts’ with small groups coordinating the event and some serving tea and coffee and snacks,  each one allocated to a different region.


Rolling out a spool of joined scarf lengths along the route

I could have got a lift to the route from the nearest rail station – Mortimer – but decided I needed to be more mobile, and the ideal way for the kind of distance and roads involved was a bicycle.  It would have been a long ride from home, but was easy to take it with me on the train to Reading, with Burghfield, where the London Region of CND was meeting a around half an hour’s ride away.

I’d planned it so I could take a relatively slow ride along the whole route, jumping off my bike wherever I saw an opportunity to take photographs, stopping at all of the mile posts to photograph what was happening there, and also between them where people were rolling out and joining up the scarf.  A bike has the great advantage that you can jump off anywhere, lean the bike against a fence or a tree or on the ground and take pictures. The route was along narrow country roads – some quite busy with traffic – and with relatively few places where it would be easy to park a car, particularly as the police were intent on keep traffic moving along the road as well as avoiding the protesters becoming roadkill.  It took me around 75 minutes to cover the 7 miles to the fence of the site at Aldermaston.


Two women were still knitting away at Aldermaston. Eventually the scarves will be turned into blankets for refugees

I’d wanted to be sure to cover as much as possible of the activities involved in the protest, and arriving at Aldermaston I was pleased to find a couple of women still knitting scarves, as well as a large display of various banners tied to the fence and to roadside trees.


‘Pom Poms not Bombs’ on the fence at Aldermaston AWE

Going back to Burghfield was considerably faster – helped by a little wind and a longish downhill stretch, but mainly by only stopping once to take a few pictures – I made it roughly three times as fast. I even sped past the turning to Burghfield, but quickly realised my mistake as there was no roadside scarf, and had to brake and turn around.


Anti-nuclear protesters from France joined in and had knitted some scarves

The event had been planned to reach its climax at 1pm exactly, and stewards were phoning anxiously to check along the route that the whole length had been joined. They got the message just in time and everyone along the route was lifting up the scarf and making a lot of noise with bells and whistles.  I’d decided to run along and take pictures of as much as I could during the few minutes they would keep this up, keeping on foot as there would be people to photograph every few yards of my way, and this worked well. Stopping to take pictures meant I only covered a little over half a mile, although I got quite exhausted from running with a heavy bag between the frequent stops to take pictures.


Dancing with the scarf where it crossed a minor side road on the route

I stopped and talked with one group who were holding the scarf at a minor road junction  – lifting it up over a car that wanted to go down the side road, and dancing around the rest of the time.  The sun was coming almost directly from behind them and their shadows were dancing with them on the road.  The strong back-lighting took a little work in Lightroom to get the results that I wanted, but there was no way I could have used flash fill with a group strung out away from the camera.


CND symbols and Pete Seeger’s ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ took me back to the sixties

Back at the Burghfield base things were very much getting back into sixties mode – I’m sure they were singing ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ when I took the picture above and there were other songs and poetry readings, as well as some political speeches. I sat around for a while to recover from my run up the lane and back and after listening to CND General Secretary Kate Hudson decided I had the energy to cycle back to Reading for the train home and the lengthy editing of my pictures.

I was quite pleased with the set of pictures, taken with my usual Nikon D700 with 16-35mm and D800E with 18-105mm DX, though more for the overall view they gave of the event than for any individual images, though I had a nice set from my run after the joining up had been confirmed.  But there were one or two places where back home looking at the pictures I could clearly see I’d missed an opportunity. The most glaring was at the Aldermaston fence, where I hadn’t recorded the longest and largest banner in a single image.

I’ve got ‘What would you spend‘ in one frame and ‘you spend £100 million on?’ in another, but really getting the whole thing together would have been rather better!  If I’d taken them from the same place with the same focal length I could have joined them up, but rather better would have been to have used the 8mm fisheye to get it all in a single frame.  I was just in too much of a rush, too worried about actually making it back to Burghfield, and not realising quite how much faster my return journey would be.

Wool Against Weapons.

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Marcus Garvey Centenary

October 12th, 2014

After working and studying in London, Marcus Garvey returned to his native Jamaica in 1914 and on 1 August founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) to unite all of Africa and its diaspora into “one grand racial hierarchy.”  The movement flourished when he took it to the USA and in 1920 claimed 4 million members.  August 1 had been chosen to found the organisation as it was Emancipation Day, the anniversary of the legal ending of slavery in the British Empire in 1834.

The slave trade had been banned in 1807, and two hundred years later I had photographed events commemorating this in Central London and in Kennington, Brixton and Clapham, which I described as “the spiritual and physical home of the abolition movement.”

As I wrote then, “fortunes made from slavery helped to build many of the institutions from which we still benefit, including our many of our great galleries and museums. Slavery founded many of our banks and breweries and other great industries, and made Britain a wealthy nation.” All of us in the UK – black as well as white – benefit from this legacy, even if, as I also pointed out, “the same wealthy elite that treated Africans so callously exploited the poor in Britain. My ancestors were thrown off their land and probably some were imprisoned for their religious beliefs by these same elites.”


The bottle is of African Palm Juice, traditional for libations in many West African ceremonies

Since at least 1999, some African organisations and countries have been pressing for compensation to the descendants of those who were enslaved by the Atlantic Slave Trade, and the Marcus Garvey anniversary event in Brixton was a gathering before a march to Parliament to present a claim for reparations.

Among those at the event were a number of people who recognised me and greeted me, and a few  who wanted to know why I was taking photographs – who I was working for. As usual I answered them politely, telling them I was a freelance photographer with a particular interest in London and its communities and in protests, and that my work went into agencies and could be used in newspapers, magazines and books, and almost all seemed satisfied. Except one man, in pseudo-military garb, who felt that my presence as a white man at this event wasn’t appropriate, and threatened that some people present might violently object. But others were much more welcoming and clearly happy to be photographed, some asking me to take their pictures.

I’d hoped to photograph the start of the march but things seemed to be running rather late and I had to leave to cover another event while the speeches were continuing.

Pictures and Text: Rastafari demand reparations for slave trade
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Faces & Funerals

October 10th, 2014

A couple of short clips from the BBC World Service that are worth watching, both by photographers I know and whose work I admire.

The first is Derek Ridgers who talks to Dan Damon about some of the people he photographed in clubs and elsewhere which are in his book book ‘78/87 London Youth’.  Following on from this, Damon talks with Charlie Phillips about Afro-Caribbean funerals in London, with pictures from his forthcoming book ‘How Great Thou Art‘, successfully funded through Kickstarter. Photofusion in Brixton is showing this work next month – 7 November – 5 December 2014. You can see some of his other work on line at Akehurst Creative Management.

You can see a large collection of work by Derek Ridgers on his web site, with the archive there containing most of the pictures, and his blog containing some interesting and often amusing posts about his experiences while making the pictures.

 

 

Stowage Now

October 9th, 2014

I was going to meet a couple of friends for lunch in Greenwich today and stopped off in Deptford to photograph some of the areas I photographed back in the 1980s, including the scenes in yesterdays post Stowage, Deptford.

It was hardly possible to recognise the area which has almost completely changed. Apart from an Electricity sub-station on Stowage itself, about the only buildings left standing are a couple of pubs on Creek Road.

And sadly, one of them, The Hoy, open as a pub for a couple of hundred years,  now appears to be a trendy café, though I had neither time nor inclination to examine it more closely.

To the south of Creek Road there are still just a few of the old industrial properties, but they are now behind hoardings and the yards between them and the river a dense overgrown wilderness, doubtless soon to be replaced by flats.

Mostly the area is tall slabs with a lot of glass, and down the alleyway between them you can just see the Laban building.

Images in this post are panoramic with a roughly 146 degree horizontal angle of view, taken on the Nikon D800E.  They have an aspect ratio of roughly 1.5:1, and normally I make use of this to provide the equivalent of using a rising or falling front by cropping the image to around 1.9:1, but here I’ve used them without cropping.

With such a wide angle of view, on sunny days the sky varies considerably in brightness across the frame, and at times the sun is actually inside the frame.  With the bottom image, I made the exposure as the woman walked into the frame. Afterwards I moved slightly to put the front of the lens in the shade of the lamppost which is on the right edge of the image, but by then the woman had moved out of sight.

Quite a few of the panoramas I make start with a reaction to the scene like this, which I then try and re-make more carefully, particularly getting the camera more accurately level. With the D800E you can display visible markers at the centre of the right hand viewfinder edge and the bottom centre which show lines when the camera is tilted and a small triangle when the camera is level. Getting both to show a triangle can sometimes be difficult, but unless the camera is level both side to side and front to back it’s hard to get a straight and level horizon.

When I catch up with things, my full set of pictures from Deptford and Greenwich today will appear on My London Diary.
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Stowage, Deptford

October 8th, 2014

There is still a short section of street called ‘Stowage‘ in Deptford today, running east from Deptford Green, and a couple of buildings remain on it from when I walked along it in the 1980s, but the whole character of the area has changed, and I think most of my pictures from it were taken in what is now a private street on a new estate and is called Clarence St.

Then, Stowage ran from the the side of The Hoy pub in Creek Road, and turning into it was as close to entering hell as most of us would like to go.  Certainly you took your life into your hands walking past unsafe piles of scrapped cars and other metal and junk, and your ears were assailed by the banging and hacking of metal from all sides.  You had to keep a keen eye on where you were walking to avoid slipping in patches of thick filthy oil and tripping over scattered junk.

It was also an area where anyone with a camera aroused  suspicion, if not outright hostility. If you were lucky people just asked accusingly “You from the council?”, but there were others who made rather more direct threats. it was an area where there were dodgy deals, stolen cars and other things going on that it wasn’t healthy to poke your nose into. Most of the time I kept my Olympus OM1 under my jacket as I walked along.

On the other side of Creek Road too, in Copperas St, running along by Deptford Creek there were also some similar scenes, if rather less intense than in Stowage. Unfortunately in those days before digital cameras and GPS there is no record on these images of exactly where they were taken, except for the clues in the images themselves and their position in the contact sheet, and any notes the photographer made.

I was never too good at notes, and except for the broad details I recorded on the contact sheets and the pictures themselves there is little to go on. In later years I marked up my contact sheets more carefully, with street names, Grid References and occasional notes, but back in 1982 and 1984 when these images were made I hadn’t got around to this.

The whole area is rather different now, with new housing on most of it, and the scrap yards and breakers long gone. Copperas St is now the site of the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and where the Deptford Power Station was a two bed flat will set you back half a million.

These pictures are among those in the next book in my London Docklands series, the fifth, which will cover Deptford and Greenwich and possibly along to Woolwich, though I still have quite a lot of work to do on the images. Typically, retouching the scans takes about half an hour per image, which slows down the production.

Previous volumes from the series (as well as my other books) are still available on Blurb, either as soft-cover books or PDF:

London Docklands 1   City to Blackwall 1978-84
London Docklands 2   The Deserted Royals
London Docklands 3   Southwark & Bermondsey
London Docklands 4   Rotherhithe & Surrey Docks: 1975-1985

Those with an address in the UK can order printed copies direct from me at a reduced price of £25.00 post free for volumes 1 & 2 and £28 for volumes 3 & 4 post free – most titles are usually in stock. But as always I recommend the PDF versions from Blurb at just at under a fiver.

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