Archive for the ‘Photo Issues’ Category

Siege of Haringey

Friday, January 12th, 2018

Housing has been an issue very high on my agenda for some time, though I’m fortunate enough to own my own house, I can still remember the days when things were different, and the sometimes frantic search for somewhere to live when I was a student. I spent my first year in a hall of residence, but then moved out into flatland along with two of my former schoolfellows. The first place we found was just one very large room on the first floor of a Victorian house that had been marginally converted, and we spent a term there. I think I was the lucky one who got the single bed while the two others shared a double.

The place had a large open staircase up its three storeys and we were sometimes disturbed by noisy footsteps going up and down it and pretty well all hours of the night. We soon found out that the fairly demurely dressed young woman in another room on our floor made her living from the many men who paid her relatively short visits from early evening to late at night, and that the older and brassier woman from the ground floor who came every Friday to collect the rent shared a similar occupation. And there were a few rather embarassing moments when I was the only flat-dweller in when she came to collect and seemed to want rather more.

We began to look for better accommodation, searching through the Manchester Evening News and phoning any likely looking adverts or rushing to them where there was no phone number. We found a very nice place in a quiet part of North Manchester, just what we wanted and a reasonable rent, but having shown us around the woman asked said to us “But you’re not Jewish are you – I’ll have to ask my husband” and promised to let us know. We weren’t Jewish and we never heard. Finally we did find another flat, rather more poky, on the first floor of a house on the edge of Moss Side, and spent the next two terms there before hearing of a rather better place some third years were leaving from in Dickenson Road which we snapped up. Unlike the earlier two this was a real student flat, with a landlady living on the ground floor who always had students (though I hope most were quieter than us) and was often pleased to make us tea and tell us some often fascinating stories about her youth when she had been a secretary to Lloyd George. I only wish I had written them down.

The following year, after 6 months as an industrial chemist, I returned to Manchester and was again looking for accommodation, this time on my own. The first room I found, in an Irish house in Fallowfield looked OK, but after my first night I found I was covered in red bumps where the bed bugs had found warm flesh. I bought some powder that was supposed to kill them, but I think it just made them more vigourous and multiply. I gave my notice and moved out at the end of the week to a Polish house in Rusholme that served for the rest of the year until I could get a place in university accommodation. The Poles were friendly at it turned out fine, though the glass of Polish spirit I was handed every Friday night when I went to pay the rent was near lethal.

My first two years of married life were spent on the top floor of a terraced house off Platt Lane. The rent was reasonable, but the gas and electricity meters swallowed coins at a huge rate, with great profit to our landlord. Draughty sash windows made it a truly chilly place and we plugged the gaps with plastic bags and bought a paraffin heater, the damp from which brought the wallpaper falling off the walls. And first thing when we moved in was to get rid of the several inches of congealed fat on the bottom of the cooker. But it served us well for the next two years and I was sorry to move away, especially as the next flat we found, in Leicester, was rather worse. It was there I had to break the ice to wash, and began to grow a beard because it was too cold to shave.

But from there I went to work in a New Town, with a two-bed flat from the housing corporation at a social rent and a really decent sized living room and the luxury of built in heating. But we wanted to move nearer to London and industrial action including strikes by teachers led to the 1974 Houghton report and a considerable rise in teachers’ pay; together with a promotion to Head of Department it meant there was a short window when I could afford to buy a house, and we took the opportunity and have lived in it since. Other colleagues who made similar purchases at that time have moved and ‘traded up’ and now have properties worth several times as much, but we like it here, so why move?

In many ways we would have preferred to live in social housing. Its a system that works and can provide quality housing at much lower cost than the private sector. But government after government of both parties have found ways to take money out of the system. The Tories are keen to destroy it and to make profits for private enterprise, and much of Labour is the same, though with a greater delusion that somehow this is in the public interest, holding to this even as they trouser the proceeds.

The Haringey Development Vehicle, or HDV, looks at those large, well planned council estates, with large amounts of green space between the buildings (which still achieved high densities) and sees it just as acreage, ripe for development with large numbers of high market price units with the odd sop of unaffordable “affordable” housing. It’s perhaps unfortunate that there are some people currently living there, homes and communities, but CPOs, minimal compensation and vague promises that will never be kept will soon deal with that. And £2 billion of public property is gifted to the developers who will doubtless find various ways to reward those benefactors generous with what they do not own.

It should be criminal, but we don’t generally have laws against the kind of crimes that make the rich wealthier, which is after all how those who make the laws – and particularly the monarchy and aristocracy – got where they are.

You can read about what happened when the march reached the council offices, and you can see it in the pictures. Technically there were a few problems as the light was getting a little low, and there was a lot of crowding and movement. It was hard to get to the right place, and hard to keep the camera still while taking pictures. Once again it was a situation where the 16mm fisheye proved its worth. I had been taking pictures of people behind the barriers in front of the council offices at ISO 800 when the rush to the doors began, and had to climb over a railing to get rapidly near the doors rather than take a longer route around. Around the entrance was a dense, surging crowd, in the middle of which I needed to increase the ISO and make some lens changes.

I began photographing with the 18-35mm on the D750, changing the ISO to 3200, then decided I needed a wider view and put the 16mm fisheye onto the D810. It also has the advantage at f2.8 of being a faster lens. Unfortunately it was only after taking a few images, some of them rather blurred, that I realised I had left the ISO at 800, and needed to increase it. I soon spotted another mistake too; I’d been using the D810 with my 28-200 telephoto in DX mode (makeing it a 42-300 equivalent) and had left it in DX mode rather than switch to FX. When things really happen suddenly like this it is hard to get everything right.

Things calmed down a little and I suddenly saw that some of the protesters were heading for the back of the building and rushed to follow them. Soon I was standing against a huge glass window there feeling it flex around half an inch or more as the protesters attacked it, and at first I stood back a few inches to avoid the movement shaking my camera before deciding there was a good chance it would shatter and I wasn’t in a good place. I rapidly moved back a couple of meters, just as the police rushed in from the front of the building and formed a line across the front to stop protesters trying to break it down. I did feel a little relieved.

Those inside the council offices were still looking very worried, but the police stood their ground but sensibly didn’t try to take much action as they were greatly outnumbered, and the situation slowly settled down, with a rally with speeches taking place on the steps at the front of the building. Inside the council meeting continued, though they would have been very aware of the strength of feeling being demonstrated outside. Not all of the councillors had managed to get into the meeting, and there were a few protesters inside who were unable to leave, but it seemed clear that there would be little else for me to photograph and I left for home.

Council meetings now are largely a matter of rubber-stamping the decisions already taken by a very small group of cabinet members, with little real attempt at discussion, and I’m told that this was the case, with the plans passing through to the next stage. There will of course be further protests, as well as attempts to challenge the decision in the courts, and it seems likely that a number of councillors backing the HDV will lose their seats in the May elections, though this may be too late to stop the plans.

Haringey Residents protest housing sell-off


The Conversation

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

I’m often critical of the BBC, and they way they promote an establishment view in many of their news programmes, often failing to report or minimising stories which would embarrass the government and, as academic studies have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt, being extremely biased in their treatment of trade unions, Jeremy Corbyn and class issues generally.

It is a very middle-class institution, and employs too many people as commentators who come from highly privileged backgrounds (with private education and Oxbridge), but does produce some excellent programmes. And one whole area that particularly stands out is the BBC World Service – which also covers the news more neutrally than the internal services, which often follow the lead of the UK newspapers which are owned by a small handful of billionaires including of course Rupert Murdoch and reflect their perspective on matters.

On Monday morning this week the BBC World Service broadcast in their series ‘The Conversation’, which looks at the experiences of women across the world on “image, work, relationships, equality, migration and working lives” had presenter Kim Chakanetsa talking with two women, Mexican photographer Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier and Ami Vitale from the USA.

It was a lesson in sensitive presentation, with Chakanetsa encouraging the two women to talk with pertinent questions (unlike some BBC programmes which end up being more about the interviewer than the guests), and in the roughly half-hour programme there were some interesting reflections on photography, on women photographers generally, on news, on ways of working and more, much of which as they state applies to photographers whatever their ethnicity or gender. You can listen to the programme online (along with 169 other episodes of the series) or download it from the page.

Both women are photographers for National Geographic, and Mittermeier’s recent video of a polar bear starving without the ice it needs to hunt has attracted global attention to the problems of climate change. She is also the founder and President of SeaLegacy, a non profit organization working to protect the oceans. Ami Vitale’s ‘Pandas Gone Wild‘ won her second prize for Nature Stories in the 2017 World Press Photo – to add to her many earlier awards.

I first wrote about Ami Vitale many years ago as one of the more interesting photojournalists around, and it was a great delight to meet her in Poland in 2005.

Ami Vitale (in red) at Alcatraz, Bielsko-Biala, Poland

You can read more about that event, the first FotoArtFestival on My London Diary, which links to my own diary of the Festival.

Civil Rights for Photographers too

Thursday, December 14th, 2017

It’s some while since I last mentioned a post from the New York Times Lens blog, which publishes something of interest most days.

Today’s story, A Look at the Heart-Wrenching Moments From Equal Rights Battles, comes with a slide show of 18 amazing images, many of which have become well-known. One of the most striking of them shows a row of Memphis sanitation workers and supporters walking with posters ‘I AM A MAN’ (and one man without) past a row of the fixed bayonets of the Tennessee National Guard fixed bayonets  in 1968. What upsets me somewhat is that the picture is not attributed.

It isn’t the fault of Lens. I’ve searched the web and not found any better attribution than ‘Unknown photographer’, though I’m sure that there are still people out there who were on Beale St in 1968 and will know who took it. Probably it would be a name none of us have heard of, perhaps an amateur, perhaps a press photographer ‘working for hire’. It might be someone who had good reasons to keep their name out of it.

But generally I think photographs should always be attributed to the photographer. It annoys me that some of my pictures have been published as by Alamy or Corbis or some other agency and without my name, or with no name at all. Many pictures that I know who they were taken by have been published as if Hulton or Getty was a photographer – and the civil rights image is published as if it was by Bettmann Collection/Getty Images.

Friday Protests

Monday, December 11th, 2017

I’ve had a few busy days and not had time to write on this blog, partly with several events to photograph, but also with other things to do and to worry about, but also with trying to get my main web site, My London Diary, a little more up-to-date with events. A diary should really be something you write up at the time, not as I’ve been doing recently around a month later. But should you click on the link above today when I post this, you should find that it only a day or two adrift – and later today it should include some of the latest pictures I’ve taken from Saturday.

Yesterday, Sunday, as I came around in bed the curtains were open and I could see snow falling, and when an hour or two later, having posted my daily picture of Hull I turned to post this onto Facebook I was greeted by picture after picture (mainly by rather bad picture after picture) showing people’s back gardens and streets with a little snow on them. I’d been wondering whether to go and photograph a couple of things in London, but decided not to; although I could have coped with the snow, our transport system would probably be on the blink. Later several of the things I’d had in mind were cancelled due to the weather, and there were reports of transport chaos. And more bad snow pictures.

It wasn’t much of a snowfall where I live (and today it has all disappeared and we are getting cold rain with the odd snowflake mixed in) and I decided not to bother to try and take photographs of it. We had snow rather better in the past, with weeks in the 70s and 80s where it lay inches deep – and drifts of a foot or more, with many suburban roads only passable with difficulty on foot and some closed to traffic for several days, and I felt I’d already served my share of snow pictures.

Today it feels quite good to look back to when days were longer and warmer around the end of May, and another Friday where I was busy, starting with a very similar event. Human rights group Inminds holds regular fortnightly protests about Palestine, usually on a Friday afternoon, drawing attention to the human rights abuses by Israel against the Palestinians, and calling for freedom for Palestine and for a boycott of Israel, and when I’m free and in London I try to cover these events, although often my visits to them are rather brief. The protest on this occasion was outside the Moorgate offices of the UK Mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross, demanding it end complicity with Israel’s violation of the rights of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom were then taking part in a hunger strike.

It was easier to photograph than most of their protests, partly because it was a new location, but also because there were specific posters for the event, and unlike some other of their protests there was little traffic and few pedestrians to get in my way as I was taking pictures; it was almost a private event, so photographs, mine and also those that Inminds itself take – had an added importance as the only way it reached the public.

There are accusations made that some of those who belong to Inminds are antisemitic, but protests such as this are clearly against particular illegal activities of the Israeli state and part of their campaign against the occupation of Palestine. I’m clear that it is possible to support the Palestinian cause without being antisemitic, though it isn’t possible to do so without being accused by some of antisemitism. I’m also clear that I’m not a member of Inminds, but a journalist who reports on some of their protests – as I do on protests by many other groups.

From Moorgate my next stop was Walthamstow Central, where parents and children were marching after school to a rally against education cuts. Photographing children has become difficult now, and photographers are always under suspicion if they point a camera at a child for whatever reason, and I did feel a little difficult doing so. In the past there were so many great photographs of children and I think it is a shame that we are now so inhibited about taking pictures of them. Of course there are terrible abuses of children and it’s right to do all we can to prevent the activities of abusers, but there is no real connection between those abuses and people taking pictures on the streets.

If taking photographs will not generally harm children, the changes in funding for schools certainly will, and that effect will be greatest in city areas such as London E17, where Waltham Forest schools were to lose over £25m from their annual budgets – £672 per pupil on average, with some schools losing over £1000 per pupil. It means fewer teachers – coincidentally also around 672 fewer in Waltham Forest, and at a time when numbers in schools are increasing. As a retired member of the NUT as well as a current member of the NUJ I have a particular concern.

I listened to a few of the speeches, but then had to leave, traveling back to the centre of London with the Victoria line taking me direct to Westminster. I’d missed the pre-election protest by Stop Killing Cyclists a few days earlier outside the Labour HQ, but this evening it was the turn of the Tories in Matthew Parker St, a short walk from Parliament.

There I photographed another child, wearing a face mask sitting beside his father who was lying ‘dead’ on the ground outside as a part of a protest against traffic and air pollution both killing cyclists in London. Not just cyclists of course, traffic and pollution both kill pedestrians and drivers too, but cyclists face a particular risk when riding amongst faster moving and much more massive vehicles, and breathing their fumes on the road.

Later enough of the cyclists lay down to fill the frame of my fish-eye lens – and the house in the centre behind them is the Tory HQ.  Money spent on making safe protected cycle paths encourages many more to use their bikes to get around the city, reducing transport pollution which currently results in over 9,000 premature deaths a year in London as well as much suffering from illness, and more people getting on their bikes also means more people getting a little exercise to improve their healths.  More people cycling also cuts traffic congestion – with an increase in road space considerably greater than the loss caused by building protected cycle routes. In fact the only downside is that it leads to greater traffic speeds and so greater impact damage when vehicles hit people, something that needs to be mitigated by greater use and enforcement of 20mph zones.

But policies are generally driven not by facts, not be research, not by safety but by lobbying of politicians and the prejudices of the press, also  firmly guided by the saloon bar ‘common sense’ (not that we still have saloon bars – but we still have the attitudes.) Neither of the main parties had a sensible road traffic policy and was willing to spend the amounts needed to encourage cycling by making it safer.

Red Cross act for Hunger Strikers
E17 Protest Against School Cuts
Cyclists Tory HQ die-in against pollution


Thursday Lates

Wednesday, December 6th, 2017

I hate the early nights we have at this time of year, when sunset comes to London at around 15.52 and so many things, including most protests take place in twilight or darkness. So I look back with some warmth at my diary for May 25th, when the sun only set at 9pm, giving me some colourful sunset skies to watch from the train window on my way home.

Photographers notice the light more than others, or at least we should, though on some winter days I’ve been caught out by the falling light and only realised too late that my shutter speed in some auto mode has dropped far too low giving an unwanted motion blur to my subjects, often only noticeable when I zoom into the image. Viewing the whole image on the camera back can seem sharp even when images are unusable.

The answer I’ve now adopted on the Nikons is auto ISO. Working in Program mode and setting the minimum shutter speed to perhaps 1/100th and the maximum ISO to 6400 or even 12,800 more or less guarantees usable results except at more extreme focal lengths. Once I realise its getting dark, or have a need for flash or greater depth of field or stopping faster movements I’ll change the settings, but until then I find this works. The Nikons have an Auto setting for the minimum shutter speed, which takes into account the focal length of the lens, and does allow you to choose different settings, faster or slower, based on this, which sounds useful, but I think fails with moving subjects, where the fixed speed seems to work better.

But back in those longer days, I had no such problems. I started work at 4pm – which at this time of year is just after sunset, but towards the end of May was bright sunlight outside the building behind Harrods which houses both the Ecuadorian and Colombian embassies. A small die-hard group of supporters of Julian Assange was outside as they had been on so many occasions over the almost five years he had been holed up in there. His continuing detention is a monument to the stubbornness of Theresa May, but it is a pointless act which has cost us millions and harms us diplomatically. He should have been allowed to leave for Ecuador when granted immunity there.

Grant Assange Safe Passage


Protesting on the same pavement – and with some overlap both physically and in terms of people – were the Colombian Solidarity Campaign, demanding that the Columbian government end the use of force against the people of Buenaventura and instead tackle the social, economic and ecological problems that have led to the civic unrest there.

Photographically my problems were mainly that half of the protest was in bright sun and half in shade, giving a huge dynamic range. Even with careful exposure this still requires considerable post-processing to reveal shadow details and tone down the brightly lit areas.

Timing was also a problem, and although the protest was due to begin at 4 pm,  people only began to drip in slowly some time after that – and I had to leave before the event had really got going. South American time, as I learnt when I visited Brazil some years ago – is a rather different concept to English time.

Lift the Siege of Buenaventura

Axe the Housing Act were rather more punctual for their protest intending to make housing an issue in the snap general election which was taking place, thanks to a moment of madness on the Prime Ministers walking holiday.  Labour were still in disarray, with its centre and right MPs refusing to accept the zeitgeist that had moved the party membership to elect Jeremy Corbyn and were still acting like spoilt children who had lost their toys and encouraged and supported  by a Tory-dominated media were determined to undermine him in any way possible with a series of smears,  lies, coup attempts and party machinations.  Had they accepted defeat with any grace and got down to work for the party rather than for their own interests the election would never have been called, as Labour would have had a massive lead in the opinion polls.

But we had an election, and housing despite the effects of protesters which have put it on the political agenda, never became a major issue.  It’s an area where Labour still has a great deal of work to do, with many Labour councils still busy demolishing council estates and cosying up with private developers despite a new direction from the leadership which at the party conference a few months later called for policies based on housing people rather than realising asset values. Its a battle still to be fought, let alone won. Although the protest was called a vote for decent, secure homes this wasn’t generally a choice on our ballot papers.

The picture above shows Piers Corbyn (Jeremy’s elder brother) signing the poster-sized letter which the protesters were to deliver to Downing St, and the sun is still bright at ten to six, a time when now we would have passed through civil twilight and nautical twilight and be about to move from astronomical twilight into full blown night time.

Vote for decent, secure homes

I left the housing protesters as they left for Downing St and walked down to Tate Britain, where the PCS Culture Group were to picket the leaving party for retiring director Nicolas Serota. Staff there, many of whom are on zero hours contracts with lousy conditions from Securitas and are paid on or close to minimum wage – much less than the London Living Wage and something the Tate could not dare to justify for anyone it directly employed were asked to contribute to a leaving present for him of a sailing boat – and of course were not invited to his leaving party.

Instead they launched their annual Golden Boat Awards, naming Serota as the first recipient for his services to the cause of privatisation, casualisation and low pay at the Tate. They demand an end to this cheapskate use of facilites companies to provide staff who should be employed directly with acceptable conditions and pay.

It was around 7pm when I left the Tate, still two hours before sunset.

Golden Boat Award for Serota


Brooklyn’s Sweet Ruin

Friday, December 1st, 2017

Sixteen years ago, with Mike Seaborne, who was then both a photographer and Senior Curator of Photographs at the Museum of London, I agreed to set up a web site dealing with one of our great shared interests, photography of the urban landscape. I had some web space for it, wrote the site registered the domain in December 2001 and the site was online for the start of 2002, with pictures by Mike and myself.

It was never our intention that the site should be limited to just our own work, and from the start there was an invitation to submit work, both photographic essays and theory, that fitted our ideas of urban landscape photography, and I tried hard to include some definition of what we were looking for.

As well as the ‘contribute’ page which was a part of the original site, which began with the message:

We welcome critical essays on urban landscape and small bodies of urban landscape work by photographers, although we are unable to offer any payment.

and continued to give some details, at the start of the following year I added another page, which attempted to explain my definition of urban landscape, with some example images.  We had added a few of the many submissions Mike and I had received, but far too many were just from people who made pretty pictures in the urban environment without any real intention to say anything about the city.

But there have been other submissions over the years which have have given us a great thrill to receive and one of earliest of these was by Paul Raphaelson, whose work ‘Wilderness‘ we added to the site in 2005.

So I was delighted to get an e-mail from Paul a day or two ago announcing his new book, Brooklyn’s Sweet ruin.


You can see some of the pictures from this project on Paul Raphaelson’s web site, along with more of his work, and they appeal to me greatly. I’ve long had an attraction to decaying former industrial sites – which you can see in some of my own work both on Hull and in London’s docklands and estuary – and Paul’s images have a clarity and elegance that I admire, along with some fine colour. I’ve not seen the actual printed book, but it appears to be a fine publication, available from Amazon through various UK suppliers.

Both Mike Seaborne and I have moved on considerably since we set up the site, and although it is still on line and still open to new contributions, we haven’t really been keeping it up to date. As readers of this blog will know photographing protests around political issues have been engaging much of my time, and this year I’ve been putting another image from my work in Hull in the 1970s and 80s on line every day as a contribution to Hull’s year as UK City of Culture both on the Hull web site and on Facebook. Next year as well as adding some more images on the Hull site I also hope to put a new site about my work on London Buildings from 1986-2000 on-line, most of which has not previously been published.

LSE Cleaners Strike for Equality

Thursday, November 30th, 2017

As a photographer I see it as my role to record events and not to set them up, but sometimes that does mean not quite getting the pictures that I would like. But I think it vital to place integrity above impact, though of course I work hard to make pictures that tell the story as best I can.

I’d earlier walked several times past a poster in one of the many street-facing windows of LSE buildings which celebrated the LSE’s record in fighting inequality, and thought it was one which spoke to the central theme in the dispute between the cleaners and the LSE, and thought it would be good to use it in a picture.  So as students marched past holding the appropriate banner I tried, but rather failed as you can see above.  The marchers were walking quite fast and there were a number of parked bicycles at my right that made it difficult to get into exactly the right position, and I was a foot or so too far back to keep ahead of the banner by the time I could take the picture.

Had I been setting this up I would have had a second chance – and more, but the moment had gone as soon as I pressed the shutter. It would have been nice to have had the letter ‘I’ at the start of the word ‘Inequality’, to have got the gut carrying the rear pole of the green banner to move a little to the right, to have moved a little to my right and framed the poster and the banners a little more tightly…  But that would not have been how it happened.

Of course there are some posed images in my set LSE Cleaners strike for equality on My London Diary. But they are pictures that those taking part set up and posed themselves in, not ones that I imposed on them.  Sometimes other photographers do set up pictures and I sometimes also photograph these, though I try to make clear in the caption with phrases like “pose for photographs”. But generally I photograph things that happen as they happen, though of course I impose my own order on them. Though I do like a bit of chaos, which can help to get away from the clichés.

There was perhaps a little more chaos two weeks later when ‘Life Not Money at the LSE’ staged a somewhat surreal happening in the cleaner’s support. Though perhaps my rather deadpan description at End Gross Inequality at the LSE does it little justice:

The group sprayed chalk slogans on the road chanting ‘London School of Exploitation’ in a wide range of silly voices and then performed a short play in which a character playing the LSE director tore the shirts off the backs of several cleaners and boasted about his huge and rapidly rising salary.

The tall buildings surrounding Portugal St created a rather eerie echo as the players chant loudly ‘London School of Exploitation’ in a range of silly voices, and the interruption of proceedings by a cement mixer and a man on some kind of cherry-picker (what a useful photo accessory that would be) somehow added to the event. But I did feel it was one event where sound and movement would have helped, though I think it would have needed a team with several cameras to film it adequately.

It wasn’t too easy to follow the finer details (such as they were) of the playlet that ended the performance, with several cleaners having the shirts stripped off their back by the ‘LSE Director’, a little rogering and a lot of tinsel, but I did my best.

LSE Cleaners strike for equality

End Gross Inequality at the LSE


On and Off Photography

Monday, November 13th, 2017

Back in the late 1970s when there seemed to many of us that their was a least a glimmer of a photography culture emerging in the UK that might support serious photographers, thanks to the efforts of Creative Camera, the Arts Council  and a few people in education, particularly in the Midlands, including Paul Hill and Ray Moore, we suffered a huge academic land grab which more or less snuffed out that fledgling. Creative Camera degenerated, the Arts Council altered course and many photographers were relegated to obscurity.

Photography was largely sacrificed on the altar of academic respectability, becoming subservient to the word, being relegated to what many saw as its rightful subservience in our logocentric culture. You want a degree you’ve got to read learn a secret language to read deliberately obscured texts and write pretentious essays, never mind the pictures.

The flagship of this enterprise was a curious work, On Photography by Susan Sontag, which came at the top of every degree course reading list. My own copy of this 1977 best-seller soon got into a sorry state from being thrown down at its more ridiculous sentences, its margins annotated with my explosions at her ignorance and misunderstandings, her half-digested regurgitations from earlier sources.

It did make rather a good television programme, which I had recorded and watched several times, and felt to be far superior to the book, not least because in it her thoughts became tied to actual examples, the particular rather than the generalisation.  And perhaps because of the work of a better editor than at her publisher and the more limited canvas available.

It was a book that spawned more books, but never provoked any photography of significance, that led to a whole school of academia that treats photographs as just an abbreviated list of the objects and events they depict, largely dismissing the aspects that make photography an vital and visual medium.

We no longer simply looked at photographs, no longer experienced them, but in that oh so reductive usage, we ‘read’ them. Not that reading photographs can’t give us valuable insights – and it was always a part of looking at them – but it is only a partial exercise, and the visual, expressive, aesthetic aspects were generally dismissed as unworthy of study.

On Photography is a book that should only appear on reading lists for students with a health warning, and one of the best health warnings is provided by an article recently resurrected by A D Coleman, Susan Sontag: Off Photography, originally written by him in 1979 but not published until 1998. In his introduction to this republication, Coleman notes:

Sontag subsequently acknowledged that photography was not her real subject and had simply served her as a convenient whipping boy, and — in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) — she eventually retracted most of what she’d had to say in her original diatribe.

Regarding the Pain of Others is certainly a far better book about photography, and the photography of war in particular, but I don’t recall ever seeing it on the reading lists for photography students. Perhaps it should be, replacing her ‘On Photography‘.


f8 and Be There, plus …

Wednesday, November 8th, 2017

f8 and Be There‘ is a famous quote attributed to ‘Weegee‘, the New York press photographer Arthur Fellig whose brutal flash-lit exposures documented the seedier side of the city’s life and crime in the middle years of the last century, and is often quoted as the maxim for photojournalists and street photographers.

Weegee got to many crime scenes before the police, not because he used a Ouija board as the nickname implied, but at first because he hung around in the Manhattan Police Headquarters and watched the teletype, rushing out to take photographs when a crime report came in. He started without any police permit, but from 1938 because he was the first journalist to get permission to have a police-band short-wave radio, which he kept in the boot of his car along with portable darkroom facilities. He would get to the location, rush in with his 4×5″ Speed Graphic camera and bulb flash, take a picture, develop and print the sheet film, stamp the back with ‘Credit Photo by the Famous Weegee’ and have it at the newspaper or agency hours before other photographers.

Despite the quote, Weegee seldom if ever worked at f8. You needed greater depth of field for his work, and he would generally have his camera set at f16, with the focus at 10 ft and the shutter speed of 1/200th, probably the fastest speed to synch the flash bulbs with the lens he used. It worked, and he didn’t have to think about technique, just get in the right place and press the button.

Of course not everything needed to be done at such a rush, and despite the impression of naked emergency given by the flash and the often slightly dynamic framing, as with other newspaper photographers many of his pictures were posed. He was a photographer who knew what he wanted and made sure he got it.

Photojournalist‘ is an overused term in photography, as too is ‘street photography‘and I don’t think Weegee was either, but essentially a news photographer. His work was certainly effective and his simplified technique worked well.

Much of the time many professional photographers now use the ‘P’ setting on cameras, often derided as for amateurs and newbies (including by me in years long past.) It generally works well and enables you to concentrate on framing and content and let the camera get the exposure more or less right. And should you need a faster shutter speed or greater depth of field a control dial is there under your finger or thumb to give it – and automatically adjust the other exposure parameters (these days we can use shutter, aperture and ISO) to retain correct exposure in P* mode. Though should you be using flash (other than for fill), S seems to be a better choice, at least with Nikons.

‘f8’ simply means the technical side of making an image, not the literal aperture, though I often do work at f8, though in winter more often at f4, or whatever the maximum aperture of my lens is, stopping down one or two stops if light allows – or for greater depth.

‘Be There’ is of course a sine qua non, but it isn’t sufficient. To make good pictures you have to be in the right position – sometimes with almost millimetric precision, with the right lens and the right framing. Often there will be dozens of photographers at an event, but only one will get a great image. Even good photographers take plenty of pictures that are marketable without being of any great merit, and many feel that if they get paid that’s all that matters. It’s one area where I find myself in agreement with Ofstead; when taking pictures, ‘satisfactory‘ isn’t good enough.

But ‘f8 and Be There’ still isn’t enough, though it may make for the financially successful newspaper photographer – so long as they can also get the pictures in before the next photographer. Perhaps the word I’d choose to add is ‘attitude‘. It’s what you need to have to know which is the right place, the right framing and the right moment, even if you may not always be able to catch it (for that you usually need a little luck as well.) Unless you have a point of view how can you know how to express it through your pictures?

Though it may well not help you financially. When Kertesz went to the USA in 1936 attracted by an offer from the Keystone agency, the editors complained his images “speak too much” and they soon parted company. In his pictures Kertesz said he interpreted “what I feel in a given moment, not what I see, but what I feel.”

You can see some of the best of last year’s press photography in London now at the Royal Festival Hall, where the 2017 World Press Photo Exhibition is on show – free to view – until 20th November 2017.

Exploiting Terror

Sunday, November 5th, 2017

I don’t like photographing the extreme right, though I think it is important to document their activities, as well as those that go out onto the streets to oppose them. But their attempts to exploit the reprehensible attacks by a few deranged terrorists on people on the streets of London for their Islamophobic agenda I find particularly depressing and distasteful.

Londoners had made their feelings clear, both in the flowers on Westminster Bridge and in Parliament Square, and in the vigil the day after the Westminster attack in Trafalgar Square in which all communities in our city – including many Muslims – took part.

Britain First have a record of insulting Muslims, of making a nuisance of themselves in mosques and more. Their deputy leader was found guilty of religiously aggravated harassment and fined £2000 for abusing a woman simply because she was wearing a hijab, and their leader jailed for eight weeks for breaching a High Court ban on his entering any mosque in England and Wales.

Behind the banner at the front of their march was a man carrying a ‘Knights Templar’ flag, an organisation including a number of former BNP members with strong links to European neo-Nazi and extreme right groups including the self-styled paramilitary Shipka Bulgarian National Movement and a banned Hungarian group.

But it is too easy to take dramatic pictures full of flags of Britain First – and leader Paul Golding arrived with a van full of them, though a few others had brought their own.

I found the rally upsetting, and in particular its misuse of Christianity, which did make me wonder how many of those present would be in church the following day. Certainly there was no Christian charity or message of love on display, and I think there would be vanishing few sermons preached in churches that would have been acceptable here.

Also out on the streets were the EDL, though they met at the Wetherspoons on Whitehall – and I photographed the police actually forcing them back into the pub as the anti-fascists were being rather heavy-handedly escorted away from the area on the opposite side of the road. At one time one group of police was trying to push them down Whitehall while another group of officers attempted to stop them, and a few protesters got rather badly squashed in the middle. It was rather a muddle, and there were a few arrests and at least one photographer assaulted by police. I got just a little pushed around but tried hard to keep out of the way.

Eventually police did manage to escort the few EDL supporters down for a rally close to where Britain First were holding their rally. For some reason they didn’t want to be photographed, and one of their stewards insisted I leave – and made a complaint about me to the police.

I didn’t have any time for the officer who came to speak to me, reminding her of the MPS Guidelines which clearly state “Members of the media have a duty to report on incidents and do not need a permit to film or photograph in public places. Police have no power or moral responsibility to stop them filming or photographing incidents or police personnel” and saying it was none of her job to run around for the EDL.

So I took my pictures and then left, hoping to be able to take some more pictures of the anti-fascist, but because of the police barricades it took rather a long walk to get to them, and many had left by the time I arrived. But it was good to be back again among people who were happy to be photographed.

More at:
UAF protest extreme right marches
Britain First & EDL exploit London attack