Archive for the ‘Photo History’ Category

Magnum Capa

Friday, April 21st, 2017

As regular readers will know, I’ve followed with interest the long series of investigative articles by A D Coleman and his team of co-workers ferreting out the truth about Robert Capa’s D-Day pictures. There are after all few more iconic photographic images than Capa’s grainy and blurred US soldier in the surf of Omaha beach, and the story surrounding it must thus be of great interest in photographic history.

So while to learn about the whole nest of stories that have been deliberately built up to hide the facts came as something as a shock (even though its central story of the darkroom mishap had never been believable) it was good that at last we were getting to the true story. And while it isn’t always one that reflects well on Capa, it doesn’t alter my assessment of him as a photographer.

The latest instalment, Alternate History: Robert Capa on D-Day (32), does include a mention of my post here, A Capa Controversy, and describes it as “thoughtful, balanced, and closely attentive to the specifics.”

Mostly it looks at the recent re-publication on the Magnum site of D-Day and the Omaha Beach landings, a chapter from the 2004 book ‘Magnum Stories‘, edited by Chris Boot, which begins in a bad way with the sub-head declaration “The only photographer landing with the first wave on Omaha Beach, Robert Capa’s iconic photographs provide a unique documentation of the event“.

It’s hard to make a great deal of sense out of some of the introduction to a lengthy quotation from Capa’s own ‘Slightly Out of Focus‘ story of D-Day, although it does remind us that Capa’s book was written “with film rights in mind” and that on its rear cover Capa tells readers that he has allowed himself to go “slightly beyond and slightly this side” of the truth. His was a radically different approach to Gene Smith’s ‘Let Truth be the Prejudice’.

Of course it’s impossible to know exactly what happened on D-Day, though there are some other relevant eye-witness accounts, but I think that we can be sure that “my friend Larry, the Irish padre of the regiment, who could swear better than any amateur” and the “Irish priest and the Jewish doctor” are simply a part of the Hollywood treatment rather than Omaha beach, along with much of the rest – and that Capa took only ten or eleven of the 106 pictures he mentions.

My other complaint about the Magnum chapter is that by mixing pictures taken by Capa before leaving for France and with others from after he left Omaha beach along with half a dozen of the 10 images it attempts to mislead readers as to his actual work on D-Day, though careful attention to the captions would probably clarify things for the careful reader.

As Coleman says, Capa remains an important asset to Magnum, who offer “second- or third-generation derivatives” of two of his D-Day pictures at $3500 each which he describes as “nothing more than posh, high-priced posters.” Copyright normally extends only to 70 years after the artists death, so unless Magnum have some way to extend their monopoly, others could market such prints from 2024.

Of course it goes beyond this. Capa was the driving force behind the foundation of Magnum and something of a deity so far as the organisation is concerned. I’m not quite sure what “he created a narrative myth for Magnum too that has helped propel it over more than half a century” means, if anything, but I think it is more religious dogma than rational thought.

Another Maier?

Monday, April 17th, 2017

Although I think we can disregard the hype, the negatives bought by holidaying American Tom Sponheim at a Barcelona flea market in 2001 are of interest, like those I’m sure of many unknown photographers in countries around the world, and certainly it was a $3.50 well spent.

Sponheim scanned them and put them on a Facebook page, Las Fotos Perdidas de Barcelona, in 2010 and the few I’ve seen show the work of a competent photographer and some interesting subject matter, though like Maier’s certainly nothing that is going to change the history or trajectory of photography. Though if those examples I’ve seen on the Mashable page where I read this story are typical, possibly some would benefit from better scanning and retouching. Along with the pictures he posted this text:

In 2001 I bought a few envelopes containing negatives at a flea market in Barcelona, Spain. When I got back to the US, I scanned the negatives and discovered that the photos were taken by a very talented photographer. Can you help me identify the people in the photos and the name of the photographer?

Sponheim also advertised in the Barcelona area to try to find information about the photographer, but it was earlier this year that Begoña Fernández saw the page, was thrilled by the pictures and decided to investigate. It took a while for her to find the vital clue and recognise a particular elementary school as the location for some of the images, and then further research in archives of the Agrupació Fotográfica de Catalunya, where finally she found a 1961 magazine with an image she recognised from the Facebook page.. and image by Milagros Caturla that had won 4th prize in a photographic contest.

Back in the late 1970s I was a member of one of the UK’s leading photographic clubs (I usually say we later parted company on sartorial grounds, which is almost true – like many photographic stories) and Caturla’s images would certainly have done well in their monthly competitions. Which is perhaps somewhat faint praise on my part, since many pictures that did well were extremely tedious and clichéd, though their were occasional pictures which rose above this- as hers would have done.

Often more interesting than those club competitions were the occasional jumble sales, where I picked up the occasional bargain, particular among old photo books and odd pieces of equipment, including an old Rolleiflex, but also some junk, including a large stainless steel sink which I had every intention of converting into a print washer, but has actually just cluttered up my loft ever since.

But sadder than these were old exhibition prints from the collections of deceased members, some I think of similar quality to the work of Caturla (and probably representative of other work by the photographers concerned.) A few of these went for as much as a pound or two (and being pretty impecunious at the time, I was outbid on the few that interested me) but many went for pennies or remained unsold – and almost certainly ended up in landfill.  It’s the fate of most photography – including much that would be of interest to later generations and some that might lead to a little posthumous fame.

Black Lives Matter

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

Sir Henry Tate, looking down on a part of the crowd in Windrush Square, Brixton was a sugar manufacturer who made a fortune out of refining and selling cane sugar here in the UK. Although his business had no connection with the slave trade, which had ended in the British colonies around 1840, a few years after the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act and Tate only began in the sugar business in 1859, his was clearly a colonial business, making its profits from the sugar grown by freed slaves and their descendants in the colonies, notably Barbados.

Tate was a great philanthropist, giving generously to colleges and hospitals and endowing south London with four free libraries, at Streatham, Balham, South Lambeth, and Brixton and treated his own employees well, building a dance hall and bar for them opposite the Silvertown factory. And of course in 1897 he gave his art collection to the nation, paying most of the cost for a gallery to house on Millbank – which has officially borne his name since 1932.

Although the sugar he made the profits on came from workers in the Empire, I’m not aware that any of Tate’s philanthropy extended to them, but he did provide the library outside which the protest I was photographing took place, and the gardens, now known as Windrush Square in which we were standing were given to the public by Tate’s wife after his death, in keeping with his wishes.

Many of those who came from the Caribbean to Britain in the post-war period, starting with those on board the Empire Windrush in 1948, found work in and around Brixton after the first arrivals were housed temporarily in the no longer needed deep shelter on Clapham Common. And for some, that Tate Library was their university and the gardens outside a popular meeting place. It was renamed Windrush Square as a part of the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the ship, but a few years later was the subject of a savage makeover by Lambeth Council (whose offices are opposite) designed largely with the objective of making it an unpleasant and windswept place to discourage any gatherings there.

Despite this it remains a centre for the community, and several hundred gathered there for a rally and march in Memory of Alton Sterling, shot several times at close range while held on the ground by two white police in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile, killed by a Mexican-American police officer in St Paul, Minnesota, two of the latest black victims of police violence, and to show solidarity with those murdered by police brutality, both in the US and here in the UK.

Police, here and in the USA, don’t just kill black people, but the victims of police killings are certainly disproportionately black, and Brixton has history of such events, including the deaths of Ricky Bishop, Sean Rigg and Olaseni Lewis. The situation is clearly even worse in the USA than here largely because all police carry guns, but at the annual commemoration of the lives of those killed in custody in London a list of several thousand who have died in suspicious circumstances is carried at the front of the procession down Whitehall.

One poster in particular – I think from a US source – had a message worth quoting in full:

“Yes, ALL Lives Matter. But we’re focused on the Black Ones right now OK? – Because it is very apparent that our judicial system doesn’t know that. Plus if you can see why we’re exclaiming #BLACKLIVESMATTER you are part of the problem.”

Speaker after speaker, all I think black, though there were a significant number of white supporters in the crowd – mainly at the back, wanted to have their say, and the rally went on much longer than had been planned.  So long that I was unable to stay for the march, which later I was told went to Brixton Police Station, where several young black men have died over the years in suspicious circumstances, blocking the road and bringing traffic on the busy road through Brixton to a stop for several hours.


Brixton stands with Black victims
(more…)

Fink notes

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

Although many photographers have worked with square format cameras, notably those made by Hassleblad and Rollei, few have really taken to the format and worked with it. Many always cropped their images, and saw the square format simply as enabling them to shoot in the same way for either a portrait or landscape format, with none of the problems of needing to tune the camera on its side. And some cameras really did make this a little of a problem. For those photographers who work with a camera on a tripod or stand it can also present some difficulties. But with the square format you just took the pictures and cropped whichever way you wanted afterwards.

What I like about Larry Fink’s photographs – most of them on square format ands presented as square is how he really gets the frame to work, getting in close to his subjects and using those edges in a really dynamic way.

The front page of his web site contains the text:

Viscerality is my perceptual mode. Simply spoken,it means that I want to touch everything that I love. Hopefully my pictures are a testimony to the love of the senses.

I’ve long thought of photography as being a very tactile medium and I’m at my happiest photographing people and groups of people at the kind of range where I could reach out and touch them, though often I have to work from a rather longer range.

Fink’s best-known work remains Social Graces, a book published by Aperture in 1984 (with a later Powerhouse edition in 1999.)

Born in Brooklyn, like others of a similar generation he studied paintings in the museums of that city, as well as photography with Lisette Model at the New School for Social Research. And he got to know many of the artists and literary figures living in the city.

Visura has a great portfolio of his images of ‘The Beats‘, taken in the late 1950s and published as a book in 2014, and you can read more about him and the book in The New Yorker. Olivier Laurent wrote about him on Time LightBox in 2015, and there is an interesting interview with him by Julie Ma on The Cut.

What prompted me to write this post was Fink on Warhol: New York Photographs of the 1960s which appeared recently in L’oeil De La Photographie.

I’ve owned several square format cameras over the years, including an ancient Rolleiflex (it cost me £35) but never really got into the cameras or the format.

The Capa Controversy

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

Regular readers will have seen (and perhaps got rather tired of seeing) my frequent posts about the persistent detective work by A D Coleman and his co-workers, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist J Ross Baughman, photo historian Rob McElroy and military historian Charles Herrick. Together they have succeeded in putting together a minutely detailed and evidenced examination of Robert Capa‘s exploits on D-Day and the subsequent processing and publication of the ten or eleven frames he took before leaving Omaha beach along with the stories fabricated around this begun by Life‘s then assistant picture editor John Morris within hours or days of the events and shortly after by Capa himself but with later embroidery by others.

It was of course obvious to any photographer who looked at the published images and thought about the story that was being told that it was absolute bunkum – film just doesn’t melt like that – but that didn’t stop it being repeated in book after book after film and web site, even those of some of the most prestigious organisations in photography (or perhaps especially them.)

I return to it because of a post by Coleman in iMediaEthics, Conflict of Interest, Cubed: Robert Capa’s D-Day Photos, John Morris, and the NPPA in which he looks at the article in the US NPPA’S (National Press Photographers Association) publication, News Photographer, The Fog of War – D Day and Robert Capa by Bruce Young. You might like to read both before continuing with my comments, though if you have been following the story I think you may well agree with me.

Young got considerable cooperation from Coleman and Baughmann who hoped he was going to acknowledge their work and put the record straight, but he does the opposite, muddying the water, adding some half-baked and unsubstantiated suggestions and parading a great deal of ignorance while somehow pretending to make some kind of objective overview that would put the matter to rest. NPPA members surely deserve better – we all do.

When Young gets down to business, he quotes at length from Capa’s own published account, written in Capa’s best story-telling mode, a fictionalised Hollywood version of his life story, followed by John Morris’s totally unbelievable account of the darkroom mishap. Young’s next paragraph is interesting, beginning by stating that this was the established story and legend for 70 years (which isn’t quite true – many of us challenged parts of the story long ago) and goes on to say “but if the devil is in the details, this story carries enough demons to populate all nine rings of Dante’s Hell“, going on to list a series of questions.

If he had bothered to read all of the published research by Coleman and others and had understood it, he would have found we now have answers to all or virtually all those questions, supported by evidence from various sources, but instead he goes on to suggest that Coleman, one of the best known and highly regarded critical writers about our medium over very many years, is not really qualified to comment because he has never been a professional photographer. While I sometimes think it helps, being a pro is neither necessary nor sufficient, why mention it when the research was the result of a team including one player with a Pulitzer for photjournalism?

There are many other curiosities in Young’s piece. Speaking about Morris’s reactions to Coleman’s research he suggests “But what if John Morris, now 98, sticks to the story because … well, it’s true? There are problems with some exacting details, but…” But it isn’t exacting details there are problems with but a fairly tremendous weight of evidence, and Morris himself has since accepted at least some of the facts, whilst spinning new fictions.

Young then goes into rather a lengthy digression on memory, which is to some degree irrelevant, as the fictions were written down close to the event, but rather fails to see that what he says about memory makes a nonsense of relying on Morris’s memory – having based his life and career around the story for the past 70 years he doubtless came to believe in his story. That’s how memory works!

I started writing not meaning to criticise Young, meaning to leave it to readers to make their own judgements. But it is really so bad I couldn’t resist, but I’ll spare you the rest of my thoughts. Of course Coleman has a lot more to say about it and about many details, and its hard not to feel his criticisms are at least largely justified.

But does it all matter about Capa? Well, obviously it does, from the angry responses that publishing the series of articles has generated from much of the photographic establishment. I think it matters because of the wider issues. Personally I’ve never been a great advocate of academic research that is too concerned with the details and minutiae, I’ve always been more concerned with the fate of the forests rather than the leaves on the tree. Integrity is the bedrock of photojournalism and documentary practice, and I think this research calls into question not so much the integrity of Capa – who didn’t make up the story about this or about the Falling soldier (about which Young also seems uninformed about the most recent research) but of the whole system that promulgates news to the public – immediately through Life Magazine in this case, but in the 70 years since then various other organisations including Magnum and the ICP.

Of course I didn’t know Capa, who was killed when I was still in short trousers, but I get a strong impression of him from his writing and photography and the stories about him I’ve heard over the years. I can imagine him opening the magazine and seeing the caption under the ‘Falling Soldier’ or the D-Day pictures, shrugging his shoulders and saying ‘Oh well, it’s a better story’ and thinking it was in any case too late to stick to the truth.

And of course the picture is still the same, still a powerful, truly iconic image of war. For me it isn’t diminished by knowing the truth, and it in no way diminishes my respect for Capa as a photographer to realise that he was only human, cold, wet, scared and shaking as he lay on the beach, only able to make ten or eleven exposures in the 20 minutes or so he was there. One was really enough.

You can read Coleman’s post about this at iMediaEthics and the NPPA, though I wrote this post before doing so. It contains a link to Young’s change of mind over the ‘Falling Soldier’ that I was unaware of, and also to another of Coleman’s own articles, Ethics in Photojournalism Then and Now: The Case of Robert Capa which I’m now reading with considerable interest.

Dog control

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

In his latest contribution to Photocritic InternationalOn John Berger on Photography‘, A D Coleman provides the answer to something which had worried me about the photographs of Finnish photographer Pentti Sammallahti. I remember looking at length at a display of his photographs at a corner in Paris Photo a few years ago and wondering how he managed to control the dogs who play such an important role in many of his images (such as Solovki, White Sea, Russia, 1992.)

It wasn’t as if the same dogs appeared in many images, so it was unlikely that he had a troupe of highly trained canine actors, and the pictures were taken in various countries, which would create tremendous logistic problems for such a company. And the animals certainly did not look stuffed (though some stuffed animals have been realistic enough to fool the judges in prestigious wildlife photograph contests.) Many of the images show the dogs on a background of snow, which would have made it rather easier to add some or all of the dogs in printing, but there were none of the signs of that making it highly unlikely. But obviously the photographer had to have some way to attract and place the animals, and something that left little trace in the images. There were no signs of bones.

Coleman’s revelation, first made in an essay for a 2010 book, comes in a shortened form on his web site, but there is a link to download his whole essay. In it he comments on a text by the late John Berger which was printed in Sammallahti’s ‘The Russian Way‘ and is also on-line.

Berger, like Coleman and myself and almost everyone else who looks at the work of Sammallahti had of course noticed the dogs – it would be hard not to – and he posits:

“It was probably a dog that led Sammallahti to the moment and place for taking each picture.”

Coleman comments that on this occasion Berger (for whom he expresses respect and admiration) got it precisely wrong – and spills the beans, having asked the photographer and, perhaps surprisingly, got a straightforward reply – which you can read in his post. I’m pleased too, that Coleman mentions his collaboration with Jean Mohr, which produced the works by Berger I most admire, and was the main subject of my remembrance of him in Berger & Mohr last month, though neglected in much of the media comments.

It is of course, as Coleman makes clear, not just a matter of the dogs, but about how critics need to examine the actual evidence – and where necessary to ask appropriate questions rather than simply postulate theories. It’s often also important to be or have been a photographer so as to appreciate what is likely or possible – and what isn’t. Those who write about photography without having had an intimate practical involvement in making photographs are often likely to get the cart before the horse.

Coleman has also recently added more to his comments on John Morris’s continuing fabulation about Capa’s D-Day pictures. Morris’s story (or now rather stories) fails on many points, but not least the photographic practicalities. Things like knowing that in the days of film, working photographers when unloading 35mm film would usually rewind the leader inside the cassette or at least tear it off so there was no doubt the film had been used and could not be reloaded by accident. Like knowing that after fixing, unexposed film is clear.

Early Days

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

One of the sites I like to look at occasionally is the Blogs page of British Photographic History, launched in 2009 by Dr Michael Pritchard, where there are often posts from members that interest me, though I write far less about photographic history than I used to when I was writing for another place.

There of course I chose to write about many of the important figures in the medium, including its inventors and many of the early greats of the medium, drawing very much on the lessons I’d earlier given on photographic history as well as published works and the generally rather small amount of information on the Internet in the early 2000s. But although I spent some time looking at actual photographs in collections, exhibitions and museums and was involved for some time in actually creating images using some of the early techniques, I was never really a historian, relying largely on the contributions of others though occasionally with a little of my own interpretation and perspective. And just a few times being able to point out some of the errors in published work.

I wrote at least four full-length features on the work of W H F Talbot, both about the processes he developed – photogenic drawing, salt paper printing and the calotype – and his use of photography, particularly in his ‘Pencil of Nature‘. And while I had access to a number of books on him and his work, the William Henry Fox Talbot catalogue raisonné now available in a beta version and formally announce this Friday would have been a great extra resource.

You can read more about the project, led by Larry J Schaaf on the site itself, so I need not waste your time with details here. There are some parts of the site which are not yet complete, but there is already a very large searchable collection of the work of Talbot himself, as well as a number by Calvert Richard Jones and a few by others.

From the catalogue record you can click on the image to go to the image viewere, which as well as allowing you to zoom in, also has some tools (at top left) by which you can alter brightness and contrast, change from colour to greyscale, and invert the image – particularly useful when viewing the paper negatives.

There are some exhibits that seem almost to be blank paper – either because they were greatly underexposed or because images have faded with time. But perhaps as a scientist, Talbot beleived in keeping the result of every experiment he made with the new medium. Fading of prints was certainly a major issue in the early days, and many surviving Talbot prints have faded badly, sometimes to the extent that they have little value as pictures, though this doesn’t stop them being sold for silly money.

Photography on paper really became practical with Talbot’s calotype process, and the two people who produced the best-known body of work in the early days were Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill (who I think should be thought of in that order) working as a team in Edinburgh in the early 1840s. Also on British Photographic History was a post about the sale of their former premises, Rock House, next to Calton Hill in Edinburgh for more then £1.7m. The post links to both the estate agents site for the property and to an article in The Herald about the sale. Although it would be a grand place to live, I didn’t put in a bid for it, as the “house was recently redesigned internally by Jonathan Reed, a designer who had worked for figures such as David Bowie, Giancarlo Giammetti and Queen Rania of Jordan” and I think I would want a complete redesign for comfort before trying to live there having seen the pictures.

The studios, later home to other notable Scottish photographers, have been bought by an individual who wishes to remain private, but Adamson & Hill’s real studios where they made the great majority of their portraits are the Edingburgh cemeteries which remain open to the public.

Tish Murtha

Monday, February 6th, 2017

I’m not a fan of the Metro, the free newspaper that litters our trains in the mornings. It’s useful if you have to wait for a train, to put underneath your bottom to sit on those cold metal benches, but otherwise I never bother to pick up a copy myself, and when occasionally I pick up a copy someone else has left on the train, a quick flick through confirms my belief that it isn’t worth reading. Which is what you expect given it comes from the same stable as the Daily Mail, a sorry excuse of a right wing newspaper.

But for once the Metro web site has published something worth reading – and my thanks to friends on Facebook for point out Ellen Scott‘s article Powerful photo series captures unemployed youths of Thatcher’s Britain, about the work of Trish Murtha (1956 – 2013), a photographer who lived the life she photographed in Newcastle’s west end.

Murtha first used a camera to frighten away men who would proposition her on the streets where she lived, taking it out and threatening to take their pictures – even if there was often no film in the camera, but soon got hooked on photography and aged 20 went to study at Newport’s School of Documentary Photography in 1976, returning to photograph in the community where she lived. Later she spent some time in London.

The Guardian published a piece written by her younger brother Glenn Murtha, in their That’s me in the picture‘ series in 2015, and you can find out more about her on Wikipedia, which also links to a number of sites with her work on them. She died suddenly of a brain aneurysm just a day before what would have been her 57th birthday in 2013.

Her daughter Ella Murtha wants to make sure that her mother and her pictures are not forgotten, and manages an official Facebook page dedicated to her. She is planning to create a Kickstarter page shortly to fund the publication of a book of this series of pictures and her essay, Youth Unemployment. I’ll add details here when they become available.

My opinion about the Metro was confirmed by the two stories listed under the heading ‘MORE’ at the bottom of the piece which includes eighteen of Tish Murtha’s pictures.

MORE: Photo series celebrates hard-working cats on the job
MORE: Photographer captures the weird and wonderful things people have flushed down the toilet

Grove Hardy

Friday, January 27th, 2017

I’ve just come across an article about what used to be one of the leading professional darkrooms in London, and one where one of my friends, the late Townly Cooke, once worked as a printer. One of the more interesting exhibition visits I made was to a Magnum show, I think on the South Bank, some years ago with Townly, where he talked about some of the images which he had worked with, although I think the prints in the show were not up to his and Grove-Hardy’s standards.

Grove Hardy ~ Requiem for a Lab is on the unattributed Darkside blog – I’m unsure whether the author wishes to remain anonymous or has simply forgotten to add his name, so I won’t name him either. After Bert Hardy, who had set up the lab with printer Gerry Grove in the 50’s, died in 1995, his wife Sheila continued to run it, renaming it ‘The Bert Hardy Darkroom’, and it finally closed in 2007 after the retirement of the last remaining printer – there simply was not enough work to keep it running.

The darkroom perhaps doesn’t live up to what many might expect of a professional darkroom, and certainly not like some of those that have appeared in books which have looked at photographers and their darkrooms, though it is in most respects a little more well equipped than my own black hole. But its enlargers are a little more primitive than mine, and unable to make sensible use of Multigrade papers, so all its prints were to the end made on graded papers. The writer comments that by “the 2000’s Grove Hardy were probably the only lab in London still using graded paper, and Ilford were making it primarily for them and a handful of other labs worldwide.”

The darkroom was just off the Blackfriars Rd in Southwark, a short walk from where Bert Hardy grew up, and close to another site many photographers knew well some years ago, the Valentine Place premises where Martin Reed set up photographic suppliers Silverprint. Reed sold the company a few years ago, and Silverprint has now moved out of London, but still supplies hard to find photographic materials (like film and silver-based papers) and equipment at new address in Poole, Dorset or by mail order.

Laughlin’s Third World

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

One of the books I’ve had on my shelves for a very long time – since soon after it was published in 1973 – is is ‘Clarence John Laughlin: The Personal Eye‘, a catalogue for the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition and a double issue of Aperture, Volume 17, Numbers 3 & 4, also published ‘as a book for general distribution’.

I don’t think its distribution in the UK would have been very wide, but like many US photographic publications of the time it would have been available at the Creative Camera bookshop in Doughty St and doubtless advertised in the magazine.

For those without a copy on their bookshelves, you can get a good idea of Lauglin’s thinking from ‘First Principles of the Third World of Photography – THE WORLD BEYOND DOCUMENTATION AND PURISM ONE – TEXT AND IMAGES BY CLARENCE JOHN LAUGHLIN’ on Carnival of Dogs. His 12 point manifesto there begins “In Photography, as in all arts, the quality of the human imagination is the only thing that counts – technique, and technical proficiency, mean nothing in themselves” and ends “The limitations of photography are nothing more than the limitations of photographers themselves.”

Much of Laughlin’s work is now in the Historic New Orleans Collection, where you can view and zoom into many of his pictures, so many indeed that it is hard to know where to start. But it is worth paging through the many pages of thumbnails and picking some to look at.

Although in the end I learnt that my own creative interests were in purism and documentation, in my early years in photography work such as Laughlin’s made a strong impression on me, and I’m rather surprised that although I wrote about him and other photographers who might be considered to follow in his footsteps such as Arthur Tress in another place, this is the first time in several thousand posts I appear to have mentioned him here.

Laughlin’s work was brought to my mind by two posts Clarence John Laughlin: In Memoriam on Photocritic International by A D Coleman, who wrote about Laughlin in his 1977 critical survey The Grotesque in Photography.

The first piece takes its sub-title Prophet without Honor from the subtitle of the Laughlin biography, Clarence John Laughlin: Prophet without Honor by A. J. Meek, professor emeritus of art at Louisiana State University (University Press of Mississippi, 2007), and one of two stories in it recounts Coleman’s meeting with Laughlin around 1975 when the photographer showed his of work to collector Sam Wagstaff. He set out a strict set of conditions about what he expected anyone who bought his pictures must do – and after looking through the work, Wagstaff rejected the idea that a photographer should have any rights over their pictures after they had been sold.

Over the ages, artists have almost always had an uneasy relationship with those who have provided them with a living, but it is only in relatively recent times that photography has succumbed so entirely to patronage by individuals and corporations. Most of the early photographers were themselves wealthy and others have maintained some sort of independence based on various commercial practices and around the reproducibility of the medium.

The second piece, subtitled Lament for the Walking Wounded, is an article published by Coleman in his “Light Readings” column in the December 1977 issue of the magazine Camera 35, together with a postscript.

Published at the time without names, it recounted the speech by Hilton Kramer, then chief art critic for The New York Times, at a New York City national meeting of the Society for Photographic Education, in which Kramer held Laughlin up to ridicule not for his photography, but making tasteless jokes about his eccentric nature. Coleman himself felt ashamed after the event at having joined in the whole-heated laughter at a man he describes as on of “the walking wounded of photography” who have suffered from their dedication to the medium and “never got their due and are beginning to realize that they may never get it.”

Though relating events now around 40 years in the past, these are stories which are still relevant, perhaps even more relevant, today.