Archive for July, 2007

Rhubarb Rhubarb: Three Canons

Monday, July 30th, 2007

Having just returned home from four days or so in Birmingham (the one that calls itself the “Heart of England”,) where I was one of the many portfolio reviewers at Rhubarb Rhubarb, the annual International Festival of The Image, I’m still suffering from picture shock, overwhelmed by images and many hours of meeting with old friends and making many new ones.

It was my first Rhubarb, and now I can’t think why I’ve stayed away so long, having enjoyed much of it immensely. However I am looking forward to my first decent glass of wine since last Wednesday, having refused to contemplate the 500% mark-up which appears to be the norm in some posher Brummie hotels and restaurants. (And although the lunches at Rhubarb itself were excellent (and rhubarb-free), our limited research suggests an inverse relationship between the expensiveness of dining establishments in the city and the quality of food on offer. Do rich Brummies really so lack taste? And can this blog become even more irrelevant? Rumour does suggest the Pope may be Catholic.)

It really seemed to be a fine event, rewarding for photographers and reviewers alike, and in the coming weeks – once I get back from a short holiday – I’ll look at it and some of the more interesting work that I saw in more detail. And perhaps show some of what went on in the photographs I couldn’t stop myself taking – like this one:

Rhurbarb Rhubarb (C) 2007, Peter Marshall

Before I put down my computer and pick up my bucket and spade, I hope to find time to make a couple of posts. This first one is some advice for all those people who bring portfolios to such events, although I hasten to add many of those I fortunate to see were in no need of it, presenting their work in an exemplary manner. But sadly not all.

Three Canons for Reviewees

  1. Be still, let your work speak and your reviewer think. Say only what is necessary.

  2. When making your pictures think for yourself; when preparing to present your work, think of your audience.

  3. Erase the word memory from your memory, your statements, your discourse. Let your work be memory, if so, then no one will need to be reminded.

Of course there should be a picture to accompany each of the precepts. For the moment you will have to make do with three from the event, two from the sort of formal opening and book launch at the end of the first full day, and one which gives an idea of the interior of the Curzon Street station. This was the first time that Rhubarb Rhubarb was held there and the picture shows a quiet moment during the day.

Curzon St - Rhubarb (C) 2007, Peter Marshall

More features and more photographs about ‘Rhubarb Rhubarb’ on this blog later – and I’ll also put up some galleries on ‘My London Diary’ in a week or two.

Peter Marshall

England under water

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

So far I’ve been fortunate to escape the floods that appear to have crippled much of England, though last week I was in Hull and East Yorkshire where around 17,000 homes were damaged in June. In London just over a week ago I sheltered under a tree on the embankment during one of the heaviest rain storms I’ve ever seen; at its worst there was an almost total white-out, with anything further than around 25 metres disappearing from sight.

I’d kept dry under the tree for some time, but when it really came down it offered no protection at all, and the umbrella I put up wasn’t entirely effective either, though it kept the worst off. I was too busy trying to keep dry to take pictures until the worst was over, and even then it was difficult to keep the camera dry.

London (C) 2007, Peter Marshall
I took some pictures when the rain eased off

The floods are moving down river towards where I live at the moment – we have a flood warning in force and its likely we will get flooded. Its 60 years since the house was last flooded, and the levels are said to be a few inches higher than then. So I’m starting moving what I can to the first floor.

Queens and Looking Glasses

Saturday, July 14th, 2007

My own notions about Queens are largely based on those of Lewis Carroll (an interesting photographer in several ways) in ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland‘ and its sequel. Queens – like the Queen of Hearts in the Dormouse’s tale were apt to come out with “Off with his head!” at the slightest provocation.

So I was shocked to hear on the BBC News one morning this week, that photographer Annie Leibovitz had dared to tell the Queen to off her tiara, and surprised that her maj’s reported response was as mild as saying “I’m orf” (shouldn’t it have been “We are orf” or perhaps “One’s orf”? At the very least Annie would surely have ended up spending a night or two in the Tower of London.

So it came as no surprise to learn that the whole thing appears to have been an ill-advised publicity stunt, using a clever bit of cutting, or that, having carefully allowed the story to play to maximum effect, the big bosses of the Beeb were down on their knees grovelling for the royal pardon.

It’s a sad story. The BBC, and in particular its ‘World Service’, has a proud record that has led to it being a trusted around the world – and listened to in many situations, even at times and places when it was illegal. TV has of course its own needs to present constant noise and controversy, frenetic and demotic, that at times override sense and taste, and always sacrifices subtlety.

For those with a little knowledge of photographic history, there was a certain sense of the similar, remembering the famous image of Winston Churchill, taken by Karsh immediately after he had apparently snatched Winston’s trademark cigar from his mouth, and there was baby without his dummy glaring into the camera, apparently on the edge of bursting into tears.

At least Annie wasn’t said to have snatched the tiara – and once anchored by the Queen’s hairdresser this would probably have taken some doing (and headlines ‘Annie Scalps Queen’). The pictures she made aren’t bad, if perhaps not her best work. But good portraits don’t always arise from making your subject comfortable, and some well-known for the apparent psychological depth of their images have taken quite different approaches. Paul Strand is said to have told his subjects where to stand and then to appear to have ignored them, although obviously he was waiting for the expression or stance that he wanted.

I thought a little about this yesterday, when another photographer butted in (perhaps unintentionally) while I was setting up a photograph and proceeded to give all of the people in it clear and precise directions as to what to do. Well, it isn’t the way I like to work, though of course I do sometimes need to attract people’s attention, and I like to work with people and let them react to me and what I do, but not to direct them.

Peter Marshall

28 Seconds

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

It took 28 seconds from my first view of the cyclists as they rounded the corner some distance down the road until the last of the 189 cyclists had passed me. Last Sunday, the Tour de France started in London, and I thought I shouldn’t entirely miss it. I decided Woolwich would be a good place, just a few miles down the road from the real start of the race in Greenwich.
(C) 2007, Peter Marshall
People had already started to gather along the route when I arrived an hour before the riders. Fortunately it was a fine day and many settled down at the roadside with the Sunday newspapers or a book as the occasional race vehicle drove past.

Finally, along came the pack of riders.

(C) 2007, Peter Marshall
I’m not a sports photographer, and hadn’t really though I’d take more than one or two pictures, but the excitement carried me away a little and I found I’d made around 30 shots – and for the first time ever had managed to fill the 21 shot buffer on the D200. Had I really been intending to take pictures I should have switched from raw to jpeg for the event, and I could have shot many more.

Normally the only time I ever run into buffer problems is when the card is nearly full. The camera won’t allocate more images than it thinks it has space to write to disk, so you can find the buffer will only hold a few images. It usually makes sense to put in a new card whenever you find there are less than 21 shots (the full buffer capacity) left.

Actually it gets a bit silly, as the current Nikon firmware doesn’t attempt to estimate the actual number of shots left if you are using compressed NEF. So it acts like there are only 21 left when in fact you will fit roughly double this number onto the card. It’s a problem that Nikon fixed on the D70 in a firmware upgrade, but which they have left on the later D200.

From the race I went back to the cycling festival in Hyde Park, where there was some more racing (and I took a few more snaps) as well as other related activities.

(C) 2007, Peter Marshall
More pictures coming on My London Dairy

Peter Marshall

Szarkowski Dies

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

one’s point of view is formed by the work one chooses to write about, because it is challenging, mysterious, worthy of study, fun.
John Szarkowski ( interview with Mark Durden, 2006.)

It would be hard to overstate the importance of John Szarkowski to photography, so I suppose it is inevitable that some of the obituaries following his death following a stroke last Saturday at the age of 81 have done so.

Great that Szarkowski was, he didn’t invent photography, and its progression into commercial galleries and the art world would certainly have ocurred (although undoubtedly rather differently) without his presence. One or two writers also need reminding that photography had started to play a significant role at the Museum of Modern Art some 25 years before he arrived there in 1962.

He built his work – as he always acknowledged – on that of others, notably Beaumont Newhall and Edward Steichen. Walker Evans, whose work had a key role in Szarkowski’s pantheon, had his first show at the museum in 1933, thanks to Lincoln Kirstein and Alfred Barr, and his major outing there, “American Photographs” in 1938, a year after Beaumont Newhall’s groundbreaking “Photography, 1839-1937“. (Kirstein, a wealthy “friend” of the museum, was also largely responsible for the publication Walker Evan’s classic book to accompany his show there.) Szarkowski’s 1971 retrospective of Evans was very much following in Newhall’s footsteps.

Szarkowki’s immediate predecessor at the museum, Edward Steichen, had given sterling service as the captain at the helm of photography, doing much to increase its popularity as an art form, particularly with his record-breaking “The Family of Man“.

But of course Szarkowski’s acheivements were immense. During his time as director from 1962-91, the museum set out a coherent direction in photography with shows such as “The Photographers Eye“, (1966), the catalogue from which remains an important text for photographers. “New Documents” (1967) introduced the work of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, giving a new impetus, and one that few critics of the time were ready for. Similar reactions greeted “William Eggleston’s Guide” in 1976, although here the main problem for many was that Eggleston worked in colour. These shows and others changed the course of photography.

Among his other writings, “Looking at Pictures” remains one of the most engaging books on photography, and certainly one that has inspired many writers on photography, as well as encouraging photographers to think more deeply about their own work. If you don’t already own a copy, I’d suggest you go out right now and buy or steal one.

One of the great treasures of MoMA is perhaps the finest collection of the works of Eugene Atget; most came when Szarkowski acquired the Berenice Abbot collection. The set of four volumes, “The Work of Atget” by Szarkowski and Maria Morris Hambourg that were published from 1981-5 are a fine work of scholarship superbly presented.

Szarkowski retired as director in 1991, although fortunately he continued to both curate shows and write, but he was no longer the emperor of photography. At times he must indeed have had grave doubts about the new clothes worn by some of the new emperors who took his place, and photography does sometimes seem to have lost its way and be moving down strange paths with odd bedfellows.

In recent years there have been several shows of Szarkowski’s own photographs. As might be expected, they show a great care and lucidity of thought. However his much greater legacy to us is through his work as a curator and writer.

Peter Marshall

Alec Soth: Badgering Parr

Friday, July 6th, 2007

I take back almost all of those bad things I may ever have said about Gerry Badger, whose writing long ago in the British Journal of Photography was surely designed to wring the most from curmudgeonly misers by using twenty five words where one would have been more appropriate, surely sacrificing clarity for another thousand words at their ridiculously low rates.

His account, recently published by Alec Soth under the heading Badgering Parr is a hilarious story of Magnum’s recent New York sheenanigans. What makes it even more hilarious are the responses of some of the readers, some of whom show a complete inability to comprehend irony – and I assume Soth’s introduction was meant to provoke such AOL responses. I’m not going to join in the controversy about the description of Deborah Bell as ‘fragrant‘ but she is certainly one of the nicest gallery owners I’ve met. (As one of the comments points out, the word is a reference to a notorious British court case.)
I’m rather less certain that Martin Parr’s photography of the event was also meant to be a joke, though I rather hope so. Surely he cannot be serious!

Soth also quotes a letter from Philip Jones Griffiths, surely the greatest of Welsh photographers, and the man whose Vietnam Inc, made such a clear indictment of the Vietnam War that had me in tears as I read it, written in opposition to Parr’s Magnum entry. It is an interesting document, and I wonder how different Magnum would have been today had he swayed just one more Magnum member to vote against Parr. Not just  Magnum, but photography too.

I’m in many ways a fan of Parr. He sometimes makes images that I stand in front of and feel are exactly right and why didn’t I have the nous to do it like that. But at times he does things that make me feel uneasy, or that I just don’t like. Some of these party pictures make me feel that, but others I’m afraid are just, well, boring. I didn’t know Martin had it in him.

But do read the whole piece. As they say on the Internet, it had me ROTFLMGO.

Plossu and Sandberg

Friday, July 6th, 2007

In a way it wasn’t a suprise to find Alec Soth, a photographer whose work I greatly admire, and a guy who obviously knows his photography and writes about it well, hadn’t heard of Bernard Plossu. After all, Soth is an American.

In my 8 years at About Photography (currently my material is still on line, but I am replaced by a shadowy grey presence and no longer contributing or updating content) one of my major aims was to show a largely American Internet public that photography existed outside of the USA.

It wasn’t so much a crusade as a mere statement of fact; the great flourishing of photography that had made America (and particularly New York) the centre of photography from the time of the Photo League, past the Family of Man and on through the reign of Szarkowski at MoMA has more or less burnt itself out, but in its magnificence had blinded the public, particularly in the USA, to the existence of photography elsewhere. Many of us – including some leading Usanian* curators – had just begun to discover the riches of Latin America, Africa, Nothern and Central Europe, Arabia, Asia and elsewhere.

Of course I made sure to cover American photography – that is photography from the USA. As well as American (Usanian) photography I also covered wider American photography, including photographers from Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and most of the other countries of the continent. (I worked alphabetically by country for Central and Latin America, making it as far as Peru before my time was up, so here’s an apology to Uruguay and Venezuela.)

Outside of the Americas, I wrote on photography from Australia, India, China, Japan (I had plans for much more on this), a little on Africa, on Arab photography, as well as of course on Europe including Russia. There were of course many gaps still, and editorial pressures had unfortunately forced me to turn my main attention to other things over the last year. But so long as the material is on line you can find out more about photography in Albania or Iran, about my favourite Greek photographer, about at least two great Turkish photographers, and even a little about photography in Java.

So of course I’ve written a little on Bernard Plossu, and most of the links, including the one to documentsdartistes which has the best collection of his work on-line still work. He was one of the 200 or so photographers who featured in the ‘Directory of Notable Photographers‘ that I produced soon after taking the site on (and had more recently been augmenting in the Photographers A-Z), and got occasional mentions thereafter, such as in the feature on Contretype, a leading Francophone gallery in Brussels, for which he produced his ‘En Ville‘(2000), perhaps one of his more interesting works, with over a hundred images of the city.

Soth also has some information and pictures on Tom Sandberg (b 1953), one of the most acknowledged Norwegian photographers today. Sandberg’s own web site is still under development, but you can view some of his work at Galerie Anhava

Peter Marshall

*It’s revealing that despite the evident cultural aggression in the appropriation of the term ‘American’ (first objected to almost 200 years ago,) it remains as normal usage and alternative terms such as ‘Usanian’ have not made the mainstream.

Gillian Laub – Testimony

Friday, July 6th, 2007

Gillian Laub (b1975, Port Chester, NY) is a New York based photographer who completed a BA in Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin before studying photography at the ICP in New York. Her show at the Bonni Benrubi Gallery in New York, An American Life, closes tomorrow, July 7, 2007, and is a series of large colour images that show often intimate moments in the life of her own extended family, in Florida, New York and the suburbs. It’s work that gives an insight into the life of some Americans, and certainly very proficiently done, with several images that I like considerably (Grandpa eating on the beach at Naples, Florida for example) but overall I had a certain feeling of deja-vu, not least because I photographed a very different family some twenty or more years ago with occasionally similar results.

(C) 1982, Peter Marshall
Joseph, Jan Willem & Samuel 1982 © Peter Marshall
(C) 1977 Peter Marshall
Samuel 1977 © Peter Marshall

Well, families are families, although in some ways it is what is in the background of these pictures that that is of more interest, setting Laub’s particular family in a social context, and perhaps seen most clearly in ‘ Jamie Practicing for the Family, Armonk, NY 2003′.

What I find considerably more interesting than ‘An American Life‘ are Laub’s images from Israel and Palestine, some of which were shown earlier at Bonni Benrubi, and can be seen in the fine PDF portfolio ‘Beyond Wounds‘, as well as on Laub’s own web site. This work, some of which is in her newly published Aperture book, Testimony, seems to be of entirely a different and higher order of magnitude. These images of Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, displaced Lebanese families, and Palestinians all caught up in conflict in the region, taken over a four year period have an incredible depth and complexity.

If you are in London next Thursday, 12 July, 2007, you can hear Gillian Laub talking about her book at the Photographers’ Gallery at 6.30pm, followed by a book launch and signing in the Bookshop. It’s a free event, and no booking is needed.

Family Album was the first web site I ever wrote, and is still on the Internet (with some very minor changes to the code.) I also wrote a feature for, Family Pictures at About Photography, which became one of my more popular features on the site. The discussion about the problems of nudity in images of children it contains surprisingly caused some controversy, although only around five years after it was put on line.

Fourth of July Celebrations

Wednesday, July 4th, 2007

This morning I woke up to the news that Alan Johnston had been released in Gaza, and thought it was great that I had something to celebrate on the 4th of July. Other than getting shot of those troublesome colonials in America of course. Having spent 8 years writing for an American-owned web site (in recent years has been a part of the New York Times) it was a relief to think I could write without having to keep American festivals and feast days in mind.

Although the site had many thousands of visitors from around the world, those from the USA were in a majority, and my non-American sensibilities were a problem so far as the management were concerned, though probably less of a problem than my interest in photography.

Our pleasure at the release of one brave journalist should not make us forget the others who are still in captivity – including Bilal Hussein, an AP photographer who now been held by the US military in Iraq for 448 days without being charged. You can sign a petition for his release at the ‘Free Bilal’ web site4:

According to an IFJ press release, at least 82 journalists have been kidnapped in Iraq. Of those, 28 have been killed and six are still being held, though I don’t think there statistics include people held by the US and other occupying forces
Of course many have been killed. This year so far, up to 4 July, at least 87 journalists have been killed, many of them photographers. Most – appropaching half – have died in Iraq. You can read the details, and the figures for earlier years at the News Safety Institute.
Photographers (still or video) are very much exposed and at risk, becuase they can’t work without putting their heads up above the parapet and actually confronting the motif. There are plenty of stories of people who’ve made their start in photography by picking up a camera and rushing out to cover a war, but we seldom tell of those who went out and met an early death without becoming famous. Of course many of those who did get started like this in the old days had some military training or experience, if only through national service.

Wars and many other situations are now more dangerous. Old ideas about respecting the freedom of the press and the right to report often no longer apply in modern conflicts; you are thought to be on one side or another, often because of your nationality rather than your views. With the Internet (and for photographs, the ubiquity of digital cameras) groups no longer need the press to get their views across in the old way.

If anyone is thinking of working in any hostile situations, it is vital to take advice and to get proper training. You might start by reading the book ‘A survival guide for journalists’, published in 2003 by the International Federation of Journalists, available as a PDF file.

Peter Marshall

Laburnum Street

Monday, July 2nd, 2007

Even if you’re a Londoner, you probably don’t know Laburnum Street. Haggerston has never been the most glamorous area of Hackney, itself on many measures one of the more deprived areas of the country. Even the artist-led regeneration that has brought Shoreditch, Hoxton, Bethnal Green and elsewhere back onto the map of London hasn’t quite got to Haggerston yet, although there are a few studios around in old industrial buildings.

It’s an area with quite a lot going for it. Walking distance from the city. A canal, with an increasing number of desirable waterside properties being built. A new city academy rising. The large Suleymaniye Mosque on the corner. And plenty of other new developments not far away. But for the moment its most interesting features are the lively and very ethnically mixed people who live in the area, and (C) 2007, Peter Marshall, long neglected by Hackney Council, closed without notice in February 2000, and the subject of a lively local campaign to see it re-opened.

(C) 2007, Peter Marshall

The pool is a listed building, and English Heritage want it retained as a pool, as do the locals. Hackney Council have worked on feasibility studies which include a 25 metre pool together with other uses for the west side of the site, and the pool campaign have added their ideas to these proposals through a people’s consultation. The plans for the future are there, but not the £21 million to put them into practice.

(C) 2007, Peter Marshall
This was the only pool open for the street party

The first Laburnum Street Party was organised in 2004 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the pool, and to raise the profile of the campaign for its re-opening. I went to photograph the third party in 2006, and was pleased to have one of my pictures used as the main image on the flyer, poster and programme for this year’s party.

This year the event was bigger than ever, and attracted more sponsorship. There were around 75 street stalls of various types, including food, bric-a-brac and various informational stands. Two stages with performances of very different types and a childrens street parade, following workshops organised by Lucia Wey of Mush Arts, who I first met photographing the 2004 Shoreditch Parade. Free canal boat trips and various kids activities. So much going on that I could only photograph a small part of it, and was sorry to miss some of the acts I’d been looking forward to.

(C) 2007, Peter Marshall

Of course there were many other photographers there, as well as several film makers, including Dan Edelstyn whose hilarious film (with Hilary Powell) on the Olympics I mentioned here a week or so ago in More than the Olympics.

The weather was fairly kind to us, just a few minutes of heavy showers around lunchtime, and then some sun, and we made hay. Too soon it was time for me to go home.

More pictures from Laburnum Street Party 2007 on My London Diary shortly.