Archive for the ‘Photographers’ Category

Robert Frank: The Americans

Tuesday, September 17th, 2019

The final part of my essay on Robert Frank, written 20 years ago and published on the web in 2000 looks at his iconic book ‘The Americans’ which changed photography after its publication in 1958/9.

The discussion of the pictures and their sequencing owes a great deal to other photographers, including two whose workshops I attended in the 1990s, Charles Harbutt and Leonard Freed and many others, but I think I added a little of my own. I’ve come across parts of it on various web sites since it was put on the web, and I’m told it was widely plagiarised in student essays, at least in the years following its publication.


The Americans

The Americans‘ was turned down by New York publishers, but Frank took it to Delpire in France. There, Robert Delpire only persuaded the company to publish in 1958 by threatening to leave the family firm if they didn’t. The French edition was not entirely successful as a book, including texts by a number of well-known writers which had the effect of making the photographs seem like illustrations rather than a coherent work in their own right. The following year it was published by the Grove Press in America, in a form that respected Frank’s vision and which has been followed with minor revisions in later editions. Sales were poor and the reviews were vituperative, but the book has been republished in many editions and has I think been continuously in print.

The Grove Press edition had an introduction by Jack Kerouac, who Frank had recently met: ‘That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he traveled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car (on Guggenheim Fellowship)…’ Kerouac continued for five pages, showing a clear knowledge of Frank’s work and an understanding of what he was trying to do, concluding with some short sentiments which have been often been quoted, among them ‘Anybody doesn’t like these pitchers dont like potry. See?’ and his description ‘Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.’

The work starts with a picture of the front of a building, an American flag draped across its front and two windows, in each a person. Both are apparently female, though both are obscured. Taken during a parade at Hoboken, the bottom edge of the flag visually cuts off the head of the figure at the right, preventing us and her from seeing. On the next page, the City Fathers line up, probably for the same event, on a stand behind a rail with a flag pinned to it. Soberly dressed old men, hats and coats against the cold, the man at the back stands with eyes closed, apparently totally elsewhere in his thoughts as his lips pucker into a kiss.

Next on a balcony in Chicago, a demagogue raises both fists, arms outstretched, above a very bored looking sculptured head in a frieze below. Cut to a car park in a field in South Carolina, black men attending a black funeral, heads titled, hands to cheeks, lost in thought probably during an address. One man clearly has his eye on Frank, wondering what this white stranger is doing. Next to a rodeo in Detroit, a white man in a cowboy hat, in profile, smoking a cigar, hand also up to his face, behind him two women apparently subservient; we turn the page and a uniformed man is dragging a woman on his arm (probably his wife, though it almost looks like an arrest) along the street in Savannah. The uniform leads us to the doorway of a Navy Recruiting office, though which we see the flag on the wall and the end of a desk with two feet resting on it.

Already we begin to see some of the ways Frank is building a story, using montage – the recurring element of the flag, the orator followed by the listeners. A couple of other motifs have also been presented – the car and the American Dream, but have yet to reappear. Frank concentrates on the ordinary, the things you see on the road and along its edges, but he also deals with real issues, whether of race, as in the pictures of the black nurse with the white doll-like baby in Charleston, South Carolina or the trolley in New Orleans with whites at the front and blacks at the back, or spiritual emptiness in the ‘Merry Christmas’ signs at the fast food Ranch Market in Hollywood or the plastic crosses, ‘Remember your loved ones’ on sale for 69 cents. A petrol station forecourt, the pumps like figures in a religious procession, carrying a tall banner that says S A V E in heavy capitals. It takes a second look to see the lightly written G A S in the gaps.

Perhaps the two most famous of the pictures using the flag are from a Fourth of July celebration in New York, where the giant hanging flag is shown to be patched, torn and threadbare, and a of a man playing a tuba at a political rally, rendered anonymous, the bell of the instrument replacing his head, and growing out from this a pole with the flag spreading out. These pictures are used to start the second and third loose sections of Frank’s book – the first also starting with the flag.

We think back to the rodeo picture when we come to another vision of the Wild West, a bar in Gallup, New Mexico, taken from a low viewpoint, perhaps even shot appropriately from the hip. The picture is at an angle and slightly blurred, half obscured by the looming back of a man close to the camera. Across the bar a man stands alone and desperate, hands perhaps just in pockets or on his hips, but giving the suggestion of a gunfight that is ready to start. Later we see an immaculately dressed cowboy on the streets of New York, seated not on a horse but on the edge of a litter bin.

Another of the motifs, or in this case perhaps more of an icon, is the jukebox. It glows weirdly like an alien visitation in a New York bar, leers obscenely among apparently drugged kids in a Candy store. An ornate model dominates a wooden shack bar in Beaufort, South Carolina, with bare tables and chairs and a small black baby escaping from his mattress on the floor.

At Long Beach, California, Frank came across a car covered with a white cocoon in front of a low plain building with two palm trees. Here the car is clearly an altar, the trees forming the columns and roof tracings of a church dedicated to the Holy Motor Spirit; next we have the site of a car accident; a blanket covering some bodies at the edge of Route 66, four people in a line looking at the and a row of buildings back form the road; next a road in New Mexico stretching into the distance, its centre line absolutely vertical.

A woman needs on the banks of the Mississippi at dusk, her white robes contrasting with her black face; kneeling she holds a white cross. The next picture is captioned ‘St Francis, gas station and City Hall – Los Angeles, and St Francis is silhouetted in the foreground holding up a cross. Next come three crosses marking the site of a highway accident, lit by a shaft of sun from a cloudy sky. We get an assembly line at a car factory, followed by a political assembly line at a Chicago convention, a fine row of urinals and a black man cleaning the shoes of a white businessman in a men’s room…

I’m conscious of how much I’m not pointing out in these pictures; this is a book every photographer or anyone who wants to be a photographer should own. All eighty three of them are worth close study, although they work together to produce something much greater than their sum. Despite the mauling it received on publication – it showed a personal view of America and one that was distant and uncongenial to comfortable middle-class America who were, by and large, both the major cultural producers and consumers – and poor sales at the time, it has become a classic. It marked a new vision in photography, a shift in the paradigm, and, as often happens it took some getting used to. To modern eyes it is difficult to see how critics could fail to see the good points in Frank’s work – the irony, the capturing of the essence of the small towns on the road, and even the humour of some of his work. Students of photographic history will certainly also be amused by his deliberate introduction of references to other photographers, with at least one carefully taken ‘decisive moment’ and a couple of pictures that are pure FSA.

Of course the clearest stylistic reference is, as Tod Papageorge pointed out, in his ground-breaking ‘Walker Evans and Robert Frank – An essay on influence‘ to the work of his mentor, Walker Evans. The debt is at its strongest to Evans’s own work with a 35mm camera, particularly to his pictures of people on the streets, where there are many pictures which could well have been taken by Evans. As Papageorge points out, various aspects of the design of ‘The Americans’, not least its title, also clearly derive from Evan’s masterpiece, ‘American Photographs’.

Later Work

After ‘The Americans’, Frank turned most of his attention to film, although continuing to take some still pictures, despite stating later that in 1960 he decided to put his camera ‘in a closet‘. His first film in 1979 was the only film which allowed the beats to present themselves on screen, ‘Pull My Daisy’, starring poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, artist Larry Rivers and musician David Amram. Kerouac contributed an act of his never completed play ‘The Beat Generation‘ as the screenplay and also appeared as a narrator. Better known is his controversial ‘Cocksucker Blues‘ about the Rolling Stones, though this was never commercially released, and probably more known about than actually viewed (there is a poor digital copy on YouTube.) Altogether he directed around twenty films, as well as acting in some, and being an editor and writer.

Frank’s photographic output was increasingly linked to the problems of his family, including the death of his daughter, Andrea, in a 1974 plane crash in Guatemala and his son Pablo’s mental illness. Increasingly his pictures were carefully constructed but also captioned with texts, often crudely scrawled or scratched on the images. There is a raw emotionalism and outpouring of grief that is sometimes hard to bear in such texts as ‘She was 21 years old and she lived in this house and I think of Andrea every day.

More recently he worked on a series of photographs of common tools and objects, referring back to the series produced by Walker Evans for ‘Fortune’ magazine when Frank was working as his assistant.


When I wrote this the only other widely available book of Frank’s photographs was The Lines of my Hand published in 1972 which included a range of his work but lacked the coherence of The Americans. In 2003 came London/Wales, and in 2008 a revised edition of The Americans with most images uncropped and some variants. In 2009 Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, gave us scholarly essays with a great deal more information (and more pictures) about Frank and his work. From 2010 on Steidl published a series of half a dozen ‘Visual Diaries’ with photos from his early career together with the later more personal images. But despite all this, The Americans in its earlier editions stands out as the essential Robert Frank and the book that changed photography.

Frank continued (part 2)

Monday, September 16th, 2019

Here is the second of three parts of my longish essay about Robert Frank, certainly the greatest influence on other photographers including myself in the years that followed publication of his book ‘The Americans’ in 1958/9. The final and I think most interesting part, in which I take a look at that book in some detail will follow shortly.


New York and Travel

As soon as he possibly could, in 1947, Frank left Switzerland and moved to New York. Art director Alexey Brodovitch encouraged Frank to photograph for Harper’s Bazaar and other fashion magazines. Frank soon found fashion restricting and also contributed to “Life”, “Look”, “Fortune”, “McCall’s”, and “The New York Times”.

Frank also began to travel, coming back to Europe in 1951, where he photographed in mining villages in Wales and in London, as well as photographing in South America for a book including work by Swiss photographer Werner Bischof and the French photographer Pierre Verger who devoted more than half of his life to the study, promotion, and practice of Afro-Brazilian culture.

In Wales he took a powerful if slightly predictable close view of a miner coming back from the pit, blackened by coal. It is a powerful portrait, the cheery face beneath a cloth cap heightened by contrast with the broader out of focus miner in the left of the frame. His picture of children playing on the slag heap, and of a miner at home scrubbing himself in a zinc bath while his wife sits at the table reading the newspaper are vibrant reminders of vanished times, and were surely informed by pictures from the 1930s of similar scenes taken by Bill Brandt.

In London too he was drawn to the stereotype, but rendered it in a personal and interesting fashion; men in bowlers and top hats stroll through the fog of city streets, carrying umbrellas. There are also some odd moments and places – a dog in a foggy street, an angel peering over a wall, mothers (or nannies) struggling with giant wrapped babies and prams in the park, bombsites and hearses.

Back in New York in 1953, Frank began to work with Edward Steichen in selecting work for an exhibition on ‘Post-War European Photographers’ at the Museum of Modern Art, and later on ‘The Family of Man’, although as Frank says, he did not share the ‘Captain’s’ sentimental vision behind this. Frank took Steichen to visit the studio of Jacob Tuggener among other photographers, and his work was included in the exhibition.

American Influences

Meanwhile, Frank had discovered another of the elements that was to influence him greatly, Walker Evan’s seminal book ‘American Photographs‘. Again this was a carefully and subtly sequenced work, with picture linking visually to picture and recurring themes. Evans possibly drew his ideas about sequencing more from literary than film sources. Frank took his work to show Evans, who was impressed; it was Evans who was the major support behind Frank when he successfully applied for a Guggenheim Grant to make a journey across America taking photographs.

A further influence on Frank was also largely literary (although at that time derided by the literary establishment.) This was the ‘beat generation’ – writers and poets such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Kerouac had written ‘On the Road‘, his second book, using a single long roll of paper in his typewriter so he could let his stream of thought flow out through its keys to paper without interruption, without pausing to think or editing. The book is based around a series of four largely pointless journeys by Kerouac (Sal Paradise), driving across America with or to visit his friend ‘Dean Moriaty’, whose wild behaviour and unreliability are legendary.

Written in 1950, Kerouac’s publisher turned it down, and it did not appear until 1957. Frank was probably not familiar with the detailed text, but certainly was aware of the movement and had met some of the principals including Ginsberg in the early fifties before his own road trip around America, and in his attitudes and view of America he echoed those of the beats.

On the Road

Frank’s journeys across America were however rather less frenetic than Kerouac’s and fuelled more by his experiences than drugs. Much of the the time he was accompanied by his wife and son who both appear in the final image of the finished book. Throughout 1955/6 he crossed America, driving a second-hand car given him by Peggy Guggenheim, shooting around 500 rolls of film, photographing on the streets and in post offices, Woolworth stores, cafés, small hotels, bus stations.

He started work early in the mornings and usually continued all day. He seldom talked to people and usually tried not to be noticed while he was photographing, though his subjects in some pictures are clearly reacting to his camera – and not always positively. After his travels he edited the roughly 18,000 images down to the 83 which appear in his book, on average around one from every six films.

The journeys were not without problems, particularly when he was arrested and held in jail for 3 days in Little Rock, Arkansas. A police officer saw a Ford with New York plates being driven by a badly dressed and dishevelled Frank; he stopped the car and spoke to him and discovered not only did he have a strongly foreign accent, but saw that there were several cameras and other boxes and bags in the car. Clearly this was a spy, and that he had a piece of paper with something about Guggenheim on it (another foreign name) made circumstances even more suspicious.

So Frank was arrested and left in jail for around seven hours before being subjected to a series of interrogations for another four hours. This was at the height of the cold war and McCarthyism, and the police were totally unable to understand what Frank was trying to do. Why was anyone photographing America other than to supply information to a foreign power? Every possible point in his papers and his attempted explanations was fuel to their paranoia –the name Brodovitch – one of his Guggenheim sponsors – was clearly Russian, one of his children was called Pablo – a foreign name, he had marked routes on his maps and so on.

Fortunately Frank was able to persuade them not to have any of his films developed locally as they had threatened to. When they asked him if he knew anyone in politics or the police or similar, he told them he knew Steichen, and that his wife’s uncle was a close friend of Mayor Wagner of New York.

What concerned Frank most after he had been released was that his fingerprints had been taken and sent to the FBI; he was worried that this might prejudice his application for American citizenship.


The final piece of this essay, first published on the web in 2000, will appear shortly and looks at the content of ‘The Americans’ and then concludes with a very brief section on his later work.

Me, Kerouac and Frank

Sunday, September 15th, 2019

I can no longer remember what led me to the work of Jack Kerouac as a 15 or 16 year-old in an outer London suburb around 1960, though I think it was linked in some way with my addiction to jazz, and modern jazz in particular.

The old-fashioned Grammar School that I attended had a weekly lunchtime jazz record session for older pupils led by one of the younger staff and I became an avid fan, though it was a little later that I began to attend live music. But for several years the only record that I owned (and was very occasionally allowed to play on big sister’s record player) was the 1956 Esquire 7″ 45 rpm ‘The Mastery of Miles’, featuring The New Miles Davis Quintet, with Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Jo Jones. I still have it.

I can remember the look of disgust on my Headmaster’s face as he presented my prize for distinction in academic work for the year 1961/2 (we were allowed to choose books to a certain value), the Grove Press edition of Jack Kerouac’s ‘Dr Sax‘. It was a look repeated the following year when he handed over ‘Big Sur‘, with in an Andre Deutsch edition, its cover image of a man clutching a wine bottle lying on a mattress taken looking between the soles of his footwear.

It was of course Kerouac who wrote the introduction to Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ (the first draft is here) although only after Frank had been disatisfied with an earlier introduction by Walker Evans – and Delpire rejected both for the initial French edition, including instead texts by various authors which perhaps seemed to relegate the pictures to illustrations.

It was around ten years later that I came across ‘The Americans‘, possibly at Leicester University where I took a short and basic course in photography as a part of a teacher training year. A year or so later I managed to borrow a copy on inter-Library loan and later still I bought my own copy, probably from the ‘Creative Camera’ book room.

I still have that copy of the 1978 Aperture edition, possibly the best of many, but also the huge 2009 volume of essays edited by Sarah Greenough, ‘Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans: Expanded Edition’, a book too heavy to read but which includes much previously unpublished material as well as the 83 pictures in the original.

Frank took almost 28,000 pictures during his travels across America, and in 1978 sold his archive to pay for making films and living expenses. You can see a few in a New York Times feature, and at the Danziger Gallery, which also includes some earlier and later work. Although in 1976 Frank wrote in his volume in the Aperture History of Photography series:

1960. Decide to put my camera in a closet. Enoug of observing and hunting and capturing (sometimes) the essence of what is black or what is good and where is God.
I make films. Now I have to talk to the people who move across my viewfinder. It isn’t easy nor particularly successful.”

and continues in the entry for 1969, “Camera still in closet”, this doesn’t appear to have been strictly true. But I think for most of us what really matters about his work, and what remains his huge contribution to photography are those 83.


I’ll continue with some of my old essay on Robert Frank shortly – unless like today my mind gets diverted!

Women in photojournalism

Saturday, September 14th, 2019

When I taught photography – which I did, mainly at beginner level to students between 18-20, though my oldest student was in his eighties – for around 30 years – the great majority of my best students were female. Partly this was because generally they worked harder and met the deadlines more often, and perhaps they listened more carefully in my lessons and made better notes, but I think there were also some differences in thinking, perhaps because of peer pressure which made boys reluctant to show sensitivity lest they be thought feminine.

Because many of my students were women I tried hard to show examples of work by women when I could – despite at one time teaching a syllabus with a number of named photographers in the history of photography in which the only woman was Julia Margaret Cameron. And when I wrote a popular photography web site I made sure it featured the work of women who I thought had been neglected in both the history of our medium and in current practice.

I’ve also known many good women photographers and although there are fewer women than men among the photographers I’ve known (and in most areas of the profession) I have the impression that a higher proportion of the women are photographers whose work I particularly admire.

Many women have shown they can do as well as men even in the more hazardous areas of photography including German photographer Anja Niedringhaus who was the only woman on the team of AP photographers awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for their coverage of the Iraq War. That year she also won the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism award. On the web site ‘Menschen im Krieg: Das Lebenswerk der Anja Niedringhaus‘ buttons link to her work from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Gaza, Iraq and Bosnia. Her career had begun with a move from a local paper after covering the fall of the Berlin Wall and other events she covered included the aftermath of 9/11 in New York.

Niedringhaus died age 48 in Afghanistan on 4th April 2014, shot by an Afghan policeman while sitting in a car at a checkpoint near Khost while covering the presidential election. The officer walked up to their car, shouted “Allahu Akbar!” and shot killing her and severely injuring a woman journalist sitting beside her. He gave himself up and was later sentenced to death for wounding, murder and treason. The International Women’s Media Foundation founded the Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award in her honour with the aid of a $1 million gift from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and it is given out every year to a female photojournalist whose work “follows in the footsteps of Anja Niedringhaus.

A feature in The Week’s ‘Captured’ photo blog shows the work of Niedringhaus together more stunning photography from this year’s winner Heidi Levine, Rebecca Blackwell (honorable mention) and Anastasia Vlasova (first runner up). All of their work is worth exploring.

Robert Frank – the Early Years

Friday, September 13th, 2019

My essay on Robert Frank started as my rather briefer teaching notes which I used with A Level and BTEC students in the 1980s and 90s which I later extended for publication in a photographer’s newsletter and then for a photography web site. Behind the first part of the essay was an attempt to show something of the sources of Frank’s inspiration in his photographic apprenticeship in Switzerland.

It amused me somewhat that many, particularly Americans seemed to treat Frank as an essentially American photographer, while to me it seemed to me that the strength of his vision came from the fact that he saw the country as a foreigner. Even though he had had longed to escape his native Switzerlandto find a new home in the States, his thinking was still from a European tradition – if one of which most Americans were unaware. So I began with an introduction about his early years and some of the influences on him.


Robert Frank was born in 1924 in Zurich, Switzerland; his parents were Jewish. He was part of a European generation most of whom fought in the Second World War, but Switzerland remained neutral; it was also a time when Jews across the border were being killed by the million. Although the German-speaking area of Switzerland was dominated by Nazis, freedom of speech and the freedom to create remained.

Frank learnt photography from a photographer who lived in the same block of flats as his family, Hermann Segesser. In 1942, at the age of 18, he was apprenticed to Hermann Eidenbenz and later worked for Michael Wolgensinger in Zurich. Wolgensinger (1913-90) had learnt photography from Johannes Meiner in Zurich before attending Hans Finsler’s classes at the Zurich School of Commercial Art and becoming Finsler’s assistant from 1935-7. Both taught Frank to use large format cameras and controlled lighting in the studio. Following this, Frank worked for a short time for a film company in Zurich, Gloria Films. Wolgensinger later also worked with experimental and commercial film – including ‘Metamorphose ‘ – and colour installations.

The young Frank was impressed by Paul Senn’s pictures of Spanish refugees, as well as by the resolutely Swiss pictures of Jacob Tuggener. Although Tuggener was right wing and conservative in his views, the ‘beatnik’ bohemian Frank admired both his work and his artistic intransigence. He compares Tuggener to the famous Swiss national hero, William Tell – Tuggener’s work was Switzerland seen totally without sentimentality. Frank was also impressed by the way he used his photographs in sequences – particularly in his book of factory photographs, ‘Fabrik‘, creating something like a film.

Montage was a term and technique developed particularly by the great early Russian film directors, Eisenstein – in ‘Strike’, ‘The General Line’ and ‘The Battleship Potemkin’ – and Pudovkin in ‘The End of St Petersburg’ and elsewhere. Pudovkin tried to analyse its use in his book ‘Film Technique’ where he states that montage is the foundation of film art. He set out five techniques of montage:

  • contrast – where for example the plight of a starving man is heightened by following it with a scene of a feast;
  • parallelism – which extends contrast by inter-cutting the scenes;
  • similarity – which makes use of similar content – as when Eisenstein cuts from strikers being shot to an ox being slaughtered in an abbatoir in the finale of ‘Strike’;
  • synchronism – which involves cutting between events happening at the same time – will the hero rescue the helpless female from the track before she is hit by the fast–approaching locomotive;
  • recurrent theme (Leitmotiv) – a recurring image or scene.

Although this schema was extended greatly by Timoshenko and usefully extended and clarified by Rudolf Arnheim in his ‘Film as Art‘ – still a useful resource for both the study of film and for photographers – it has the merit of simplicity.

Tuggener was not of course the first to sequence photographs with some care. One of the strengths of the great editors of the illustrated magazines of the 1920s and 30s such as Stefan Lorant was their skill in photographic layout. However in general this was largely a matter of linking photographs to a narrative line, often corresponding to a temporal sequence. Lorant also often worked with pairs of pictures as a contrast, often humorous, seen at its most obvious in the magazine ‘Liliput‘. Bill Brandt, the great British photographer of the 1930s-50s, was also adept at sequencing, for example in his book ‘A Night in London‘ (1938), where a temporal structure is used.

Tuggener’s approach in ‘Fabrik’ and other projects was more radical in its use of montage, making use in particular of contrast, similarity and leitmotiv. It represented a decisive move away from viewing the single photograph as the photographic work to seeing it in terms of the whole series of pictures.

By 1946, Frank was photographing on the streets of Zurich with a 35mm rangefinder camera, developing his own style. He was learning to use the camera in a fluid and intuitive manner, trying to capture his impressions spontaneously rather than to calculate and impose a composition on them.


More of my essay on Frank in a later post.

Visa pour l’image

Saturday, September 7th, 2019

It’s always worth looking at the web site for Visa Pour l’Image, the annual festival of photojournalism which takes place every year around this time in Perpignan. It’s a festival like Arles that I’ve often though about attending but never got around to actually doing so. Back in the days when I would have got more out of both of them I was always still teaching when took place, Arles in early July and Perpignan in September, and now I feel too old.

The festival has a Facebook page and you can read more about Visa Pour l’Image in various sites on-line, many of them in French. In English as you might expect the British Journal of Photography has some coverage with an article with a lengthy title:
Visa pour l’Image returns with a focus on press freedom and fake news

A rather different approach comes from Euronews, whose feature is titled ‘Visa pour l’image: The story of the world from big food to defecation‘.


My London Diary : London Photos : Hull : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated, are taken by and copyright of Peter Marshall, and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.

There are no adverts on this site and it receives no sponsorship, and I like to keep it that way. But it does take a considerable amount of my time and thought, and if you enjoy reading it, a small donation – perhaps the cost of a beer – would be appreciated.


Controlling the Image

Thursday, September 5th, 2019

Two stories I’ve read in the past couple of weeks have illustrated an increasing attempt by organisers of events to control the way they are photographed. It’s something that has happened over many years in some limited areas of photography, particularly around the film and music industries, but which seems now to be widening as PR people become more and more involved.

I’ve only rarely worked in areas where accreditation is vital, and have hardly ever needed to get permission before distributing or publishing images. Occasionally when taking portraits I’ve shown pictures of people to them before sending them off, but generally only as a courtesy; fortunately I’ve never had anyone object to my choices. But then I usually try to show people at their best, and generally delete pictures that show people in an unfairly negative light rather than use them. It’s a decision that has almost certainly cost me considerably with pictures of some politicians.

There have been one or two cases where long after an image has been published on a web site I’ve been asked if I would remove it. Unless there is a legal imperative or a very good reason – for example that it might endanger someone’s safety or even life by enabling a violent offender to trace them – I ignore such requests. Being unflattering isn’t grounds for censorship.

Often I’ve photographed aspects of events which the organisers would prefer were not shown, but I’ve not faced the kind of problems which Manchester-based photographer Joel Goodman describes in his blog post about his experiences in photographing Manchester Pride. Of course people have deliberately got in my way (police and security staff are skilled in this) but I’ve not been threatened with removal and ejection from events, though rather too often with arrest.

One of Goodman’s main complaints is about a PR person who tried to prevent him from taking pictures when “a lesbian gender ideology protest attempted to hijack the front of the parade“. Later the same woman came up to him at a candlelit vigil and told him he had to leave, because of his coverage of the earlier incident and also his photograph of Ariana Grande, taken from a public place after he and other photographers had been banned from photographing the event – for which the singer’s team provided a single image for media use.

Goodman, who I’ve met covering various events in London and whose photographic work is admirable, makes his points about this clearly, stating his legal rights as well as making clear what he feels is his job as a journalist, and his feelings as a gay, HIV+ man in being told by Pride’s PR team he was not “on our side” and would be refused accreditation for Pride in future years.

Clearly Pride’s attitude is totally unacceptable and as Goodman says, it “exposes the ever present danger of the sort of expectations PR operatives have of journalists, in exchange for access.”

At the bottom of the post are links to his photographs of the events, and as you can verify they show a totally professional approach.

The second article I read was by photographer Peter Dench in the Amateur Photographer, in a post I don’t care if my documentary shots are ‘unflattering’ about covering several sporting events. On a press trip to a prestigious horse-racing event for The Sunday Times Magazine he met two people who described themselves as ‘journalists and influencers and vloggers’ who he says seemed ‘to have spent most of their day in the hospitality box making saccharine social media posts of the sponsor’s products.’ I’m sure they were the PR’s delight.

At another sporting event he was asked when leaving by the PR to show the photographs he had taken in the VIP marquee. Dent writes: “‘I can’t do that,’ I said. ‘I haven’t seen them yet and after I’ve seen them, the client will be the next to see them, then I can let you have a look’ ” He was then informed that a photographer ‘the previous year had taken a less-than-flattering photograph of a minor royal and was now excluded from all of their events.

Dench goes on to mention other cases of photographers being warned not to take ‘unflattering’ pictures or have accreditation refused. He concludes with the sentence ‘Photographers shouldn’t stop taking truthful photographs of what they witness. They may not be seen immediately but one day, I hope, they will form an important archive of our time.’

St Ann’s – End of an Era

Friday, August 2nd, 2019

Although the ‘stars’ of photography so far as the media are concerned tend to be those who fly into trouble spots around the world to report on various crises – usually backed by the big international agencies, much interesting documentary work is carried out by people who never get an international reputation, and whose work is made inside communities in which they are embedded, sometimes for years, occasionally for a lifetime.

I’ve long believed that there is a huge unseen body of work out there which has never attracted museum shows, publications or any real exposure, perhaps just seen by a few friends or shown in a local library. Of course now, it may appear on Facebook or Instagram, but tends to remain hidden among the dross and the cat pictures. Of course there are some good cat pictures, probably at least three a year.

My thoughts were directed to this by a Facebook post linking to an article in the Nottingham post, Photographer reveals unseen images of St Ann’s before demolition, about work in the area of Nottingham which was being comprehensively redeveloped when then student photographer Peter Richardson was working ina temporary summer job as a labourer on buildings that were replacing the Victorian housing.

Now, around 50 years later, the freelance photographer has put together a book with 98 photographs that show a real insight into the crowded neighbourhood before demolition. You can see rather more pictures from it in the preview of St Ann’s, End of an Era on the Blurb website.

As well as the quality of the work, the book has other interests for me. At the time when Richardson was taking his pictures I was heavily involved in a similar redevelopment in a similar area of inner-city Manchester, not as a photographer but as an activist. Groups working in the two areas made contacts and learnt from each other – and I think were the first two areas to bring ‘planning for real’ modelling exercises which had originated in Sweden to local community groups in the UK.

I regret very much that I was not at that time an active photographer, being penniless, unable to afford a working camera and lacking any practical training in photography that would have enabled me to work on a shoestring – both things that were remedied a couple of years later. But Richardson’s pictures remind me very much of the people and the homes that I met in Moss Side.

Like Richardson too, I’ve also published books on Blurb – with 16 of them still available. It isn’t an idea way to publish, but does give you the freedom to do so at relatively minimal expense and being print on demand comes with no problems of storing and distributing editions, and the print quality can be good, though not state of the art.

But the problem is price. A single softcover copy of this book costs £44.99, plus an excessive postage charge. Authors can benefit from fairly large discounts offered from time to time by Blurb (and don’t pay any author’s markup), but even so the books are expensive. It makes it impossible to sell through bookshops, where a realistic price would need to be at least £75. There is a cheaper EBook for £9.49 which is more reasonable, and I always advise people interested in my works to buy it in electronic form, though I also sell most of my books direct a little below Blurb prices.

Personally I’ve been thinking for the last couple of years of abandoning Blurb for any new publications. Perhaps publishing a small short-run print book, but making my work available free as PDFs or at higher quality on the web than my current web site. I do make a little from Blurb sales, but hardly enough to notice. For me the point of publishing is to share my work, not to make money.

Philip Cunningham’s East End Portraits

Thursday, August 1st, 2019

I don’t always want to switch on the computer in the morning. I spend far too long sitting at the keyboard these days, very much feeling a slave of the machine. But of course there are many things I want to do – including posting here – which make it necessary.

But of course there are compensations. It’s good to hear news from some of my real friends – people I actually know off-screen – and to see what they have been doing. And occasionally among the mountains of gloom and despondency that make up the news there are some tiny gleams of hope.

One of the small pleasures of each morning is an email from Spitalfields Life, a blog which often presents an interesting view on some aspect of London, usually East London, and particularly at times some interesting art work or a fascinating interview with an aged character.

There are sometimes some fine drawings – such as those by Danish Illustrator Ebbe Sadolin (1900-82)  whose elegant wandering lines show scenes from post-War London including a number of familiar places. And while often the photographs to articles are rather functional rather than inspired, doing their job as illustrations, there are occasional posts of real photographic interest.

One such a few days ago, was Philip Cunningham’s East End Portraits, taken in the 1970s when he lived in the area first as a Youth Worker and then a probationary teacher. These, as the article states, are “tender portraits of his friends and colleagues” and show a real warmth and affection for the subjects. The pictures also tell you a lot about the area and its people.

The subjects include a few people I’ve known (and a couple I’ve photographed in much later years) as well as several others whose names I recognised.

The cameras behind the pictures

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019

I’ve often written about it being the photographer and not the camera that makes great pictures, but of course most photographers spend far too long talking and worrying about cameras, and many of us own a ridiculous number of them, mostly just sitting unused in cupboards.

Of course there are a few pictures that call out for some very special features in a camera, but most of the great images we know could have been taken by almost any working camera. Back in the days of film it wasn’t too unusual for the images used to advertise Camera X to have by taken by a photographer working with a different manufacturer’s system, and when captions included things like the camera model, aperture and shutter speed these were often rather speculative. Sometimes on my contact sheets I noted the camera used – OM1/ M2 etc – but often it was unrecorded. Now we have EXIF data to go on; with film you only had the markings on the film, which confirmed it was Tri-X or FP4 etc but nothing more.

But I think most photographers will find the article “20 Of The Most Iconic Photographs And The Cameras That Captured Them” of interest, even if as one of the comments points out, it really is “20 famous photographs and photos we found on the internet that we think might come pretty close to what wikipedia says they used“.

It rather shows the lack of proper historic research behind the article when it comes to one of Capa’s D-Day pictures:

Capa was with one of the earliest waves of troops landing on the American invasion beach, Omaha Beach. While under fire, Capa took 106 pictures, all but eleven of which were destroyed in a processing accident in the Life magazine photo lab in London.

We now can be certain, thanks to the exhaustive and painstaking work of A D Coleman and his team, that the “processing accident” was entirely fictional, a story invented by Capa (or possibly suggested to him by military intelligence), who was a great story-teller in words as well as images. The story was never believable – film just doesn’t behave as suggested, nor does processing equipment.

Capa only took 10 images on Omaha Beach (or just possibly 11) before deciding that if he was to get his images back to England in time he had to jump back onto a landing craft. His films will have been developed under military supervision, and it seems almost certain that any images that he took on the approach to the coast will have been censored and destroyed, as the censors were anxious to hide the huge scale of the invasion.

Of course Omaha Beach was dangerous, but by the time Capa arrived (an hour or two later than he claimed) the leading US troops had already made their way well ahead, meeting rather less resistance than on other beaches. But it will still have been a very scary place to be, and the image conveys that through its rawness and lack of sharpness, I think a combination of camera shake and under-exposure combined with overdevelopment. I think experienced darkroom workers at that time lifted the film briefly from the developing tank and held their glowing cigarette behind it to judge development, dropping it back into the developer if the image was too weak.

At least they got the make of camera right – a Contax – though the particular example shown doesn’t look as if it got far out of the showroom and certainly not to war. The same is true of quite a proportion of the others here.

Given what is now known about Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ the comment on this seems rather lacking, and the same could also be said about ‘Afghan Girl’ by Steve McCurry. And perhaps it should be pointed out that several other photographers also took pictures of ‘Tank Man’ in Tiananmen Square (and they probably used Nikons too.) Then there is that ‘Raising The Flag On Iwo Jima’ …

A few of the comments are also worth reading, and some tell rather more than the Bored Panda article about the pictures featured.