Archive for February, 2008

PGDB Shortlist: Jacob Holdt

Friday, February 8th, 2008

Jacob Holdt‘s work is a slide-show of images he took while hitch-hiking across America as a penniless and trusting Dane from 1970-75. On his odyssey he met and befriended many, mainly from the poorer American underclass, both black and white (though mainly black), living with them. As he has often said, he was a wanderer, a vagabond (occasionally an image made me think of Gaylord Oscar Herron, a photographer of the same era with very different work – and like Larry Clark, from Tulsa) I though and not a photographer and took his pictures largely as a record of his travels with a cheap Canon Dial half-frame camera sent him by his family so he could show them what he was up to. Back in Denmark, he made a slide show, which became in great demand, and before long he was showing it to mainly student audiences across America and elsewhere, a career that has kept up for over 30 years.

This work has been available on the web for years, and I wrote about it and linked to it a few years ago in those days when I had an audience of millions. Last year his work was picked up by Steidl and published in a book, leading to this nomination.

Holdt obviously has a great deal of interest and empathy for the subject that he took on – the American underclass and its treatment by rich America. He has a great ability to get to know people and gain their confidence (and apparently still keeps in touch with many of those he photographed.) But much as I liked his work on the web I found the slide show at the Photographers Gallery hard to watch. It’s perhaps some measure that, having come in part way through the showing I found it very hard to be sure when I had got to the same pictures again, and I think watched another 10 or 15 of the 81 slides before I was sure I had seen one before.

Much of the problem for me is quite simply his photographic incompetence. Almost every picture I found myself thinking “if only…” There was this guy in a fantastic situation and if only he had taken a slightly different viewpoint or moment, or got the exposure closer to correct or had better lighting… Add to that some decidedly odd colour processing and rather small negatives, along with what appears to have been a deliberate immersion in dust and hairs. In a way it’s like citizen journalism, those fuzzy cameraphone images whose very lack of quality sometimes adds to their impact, the feeling that comes from them being records from someone who was really caught on the spot when the bomb went off. Powerful as they may be, I wouldn’t be happy if one of these scooped the World Press Photo Prize.

There is a programme at the gallery with his captions in running order, but it isn’t really good enough (and impossible for me to read in the dark.) What the slide show needs is his commentary, as well as more thought about the timing for different images.

For the book the images were made much more respectable, cleaned up, and some corrections made to the exposure, though some images are still clearly beyond the limits of the film. Together with the much smaller scale of the printed images, these changes make the work look much better in the book than in the slide show. The book is also I think better edited, although most of the pictures in the slide show are also in the book.

Several of the images shown included TV sets, but in one the screen appeared on the initial view to have a huge crack across it, sending my mind flying in a particular direction until I realised that it was only either a hair (or the image of a hair) on the slide. The interiors did make me recall the very different work of Chauncey Hare, truly one of photography’s forgotten figures, and his book ‘Interior America‘ whose work showed a deep spiritual despair at the centre of the nation. Unlike Holdt, Hare was a photographer, although after making the work in this book and ‘This Was Corporate America‘ (1985) he moved out of photography into taking more direct action as a co-director and therapist involved in a not-for-profit community-based business supporting those who have been abused at work.

Holdt tells a powerful story, and the pictures provide some good illustrations for it. On the web presentation he also makes use of pictures from other sources, including historical documents about slavery. He writes about his own pictures “I have never been interested in photography as art so very few of my pictures can stand alone“, and I think he is right. And whatever you think about photography and his work I think it would be beyond human ingenuity (even of such ingenious people as those on the jury) to justify his work as making any significant “contribution to photography over the previous year.” So perhaps he should be my hot tip!

PGDB Shortlist: Esko Mannikko

Friday, February 8th, 2008

It was seeing the work of Elina Brotherus which won her the 2000 Finnish Photography Prize that first prompted me to take a deeper look at Finnish photography, and to write a feature about it at the start of 2001. Before then I think most of us had thought of Arno Rafael Minkkinen as the only Finnish photographer. Esko Männikkö was not among the almost 30 photographers I mentioned in my feature, nor did I feel it necessary to add him when I revised it a few years later.

This isn’t an opinion that the work on show at the Photographers’ Gallery would cause me to revise. There is something deeply wrong when the most interesting thing I could think of to write about is the frames (and these are not very interesting) and the fact they are hung without space between them, apparently his ‘trademark.’ Though not it seems in Berlin.

But I have actually changed my mind rather about him as a photographer, not because of the pictures on show, but for the book ‘Mexas‘ (1999) included in the corridor display at No. 5. This must qualify for some kind of award for the worst colour repro in recent years, looking like a comic book version of poor inkjet printing. More like the kind of thing we got in the 1950s than modern publishing. For $75 I expect more, although Photo-Eye, where you can see a few pages from it, thinks differently, writing “The printing, done in Finland, is lush.” But despite this I found the work impressive.

At least one of the pictures from this book is in the show, ‘Simon, Batesville’ and on the wall – like the other works – is impeccably printed there. In fact the most positive thoughts I had about his work on the wall was about the quality of the printing, particularly in the still life works.

Batesville, Texas, near the border with Mexico is the location for many of the pictures in ‘Mexas’ and in particular some very impressive panoramas (as Gary Michael Dault remarks in one of the two introductory essays, “The panoramic works are the key“.) My advice is not to waste too much time looking at his stuff on the wall, but to take a good slow meander through the pictures in this book.

PGDB Shortlist: Fazal Sheikh

Friday, February 8th, 2008

Fazal Sheikh’s work is far better for me in the book (and on the web) than on the gallery wall. On his web site he describes himself as “an artist-activist who uses photography to create a sustained portrait of different communities around the world, addressing their beliefs and traditions, as well as their political and economic problems. By establishing a context of respect and understanding, his photographs demand we learn more about the people in them and about the circumstances in which they live.”

Reading the exhibition labels, and even more so the book, I found the texts considerably more interesting than the photographs. You can read the complete book, Ladli – ‘Beloved Daughter’ in either English or French on his web site (or of course you can buy it in print.) The text on the web (actually present as images) is just a little small for my comfort on the web, but the images are well reproduced.

Part of the problem on the gallery wall is the scale of the images. In his work, Sheikh makes use of a narrow plane of focus, usually rendering the eyes and face sharp, while the side of the head and ears are out of focus. It’s a technique that for me only really works at a particular size of print, as the print size alters the apparent degree of ‘fuzziness’, giving a different effect at different scales. The web images, at around 13.5 cms high are a little too small, and just look slightly annoyingly unsharp, for example the ears in the portrait of Kajal. It looks more like a slight mistake than deliberate decision, while in the large gallery prints they seemed too fuzzy. There is an uneasy line between when a ‘signature’ becomes merely a ‘formula’ and seeing all these works gathered together on the gallery wall rather than embedded in the lengthy text of the book did start to make me find the approach relentless.

Sheik’s prints are inkjet prints, and according to the catalogue are maked on “handmade Photo Rag paper.” They are actually pretty good prints, but the paper looked to me rather like a machine made Hahnemuhle paper that many of us use for our exhibition prints. But perhaps this is just another manifestation of the extreme problem that galleries have in spitting out (or gicleeing) the “i” word.

I think his are fine books, and that they deal with important issues. However I think that other photographers have produced essays around these topics that are more powerful photographically, less mannered and more direct.

The Final Four: Deutsche Börse

Friday, February 8th, 2008

This evening I went to the opening of the Photographers’ Gallery Deutsche Börse Photographic prize, where work from the 4 shortlisted photographers is on display until April 4, with the winner to be announced on March 5, 2008.

The drinks for the event were kindly supplied by Asahi (beer) and Errazuriz (wine) but as usual were not to my taste. So perhaps my thoughts I’m now writing will be more lucid than might otherwise be the case. I’ve been a supporter and member of the gallery for over 25 years, because I think photographers ought to give their support to the major London gallery supposedly devoted to the medium. However I sometimes despair of the gallery’s taste in photography as well as wine and beer!

In previous years, when I was writing for the largest commercial site yet to deal seriously with photography (alas no longer) I’ve given a prediction of the winner of this prize (formerly sponsored by another bank.) I’ve always found it necessary to think who should win the prize because of their photography, but then to look at the jury and where they are coming from and try and predict the winner on political grounds. This is a process that usually gives me two chances out of four of being right, although my experience is that choosing the photographer “who has made the greatest contribution to photography over the previous year” (the stated purpose of the award) seldom finds the winner.

This year the contest is between John Davies (b1949, Britain), Jacob Holdt (b1947, Denmark), Esko Männikkö (b1959, Finland) and Fazal Sheikh (b1947, USA). Although I personally think one of them stands heads and shoulders above the rest, it is perhaps possible this year, unlike in some previous years, to see reasons why any of the four might walk away with the £30,000 first prize. There is a reasonably illustrated catalogue available from the Photographers Gallery at £16.99, though I didn’t feel moved to buy a copy, for reasons that will probably be clear when you have read my four pieces on the people in the show.

In my previous post on the Deutsche Börse Shortlist I gave some basic information about the four people selected, along with links to their work online. What I will write now are some fairly short pieces based on the work as now displayed at the gallery and my reactions to it.

John Davies
Jacob Holdt
Esko Männikkö
Fazal Sheikh

You can read some of the basic information about these photographers (and a little more) on other sites – one of the better examples is the Daily Telegraph, (not a paper I would normally bother to read, though many years ago my step-mother used to take it simply on the grounds that it had a crossword she could cope with.) This has features on Davies, Holdt, Männikkö and Sheikh, each accompanied by a set of pictures from those at the gallery.

Learning Lessons in Africa

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

I was very pleased to see that the Guardian Unlimited online feature ‘Learning Lessons in Africa’ has won the multimedia storytelling competition. Using photographs by Ami Vitale and video by Danny Chung taken in Mali, the report was produced by Elliot Smith and designer Paddy Allen.

It is a well deserved award. The report superbly integrates the colour images by Vitale with black and white video by Chung. The commentary by Vitale (and a second story by Jeevan Vasagar) is lucid, intelligent, moving and very much makes it point, as to do her powerful images.

I’m also pleased because the report shows work that it funded by Oxfam, a charity I’ve been a supporter of since I started work.

Finally I’m pleased because Ami Vitale is a fine photographer whose work – you can see more on her web site – I’ve written about on several occasions in the past.

Me in Alcatraz. Photo (C) 2005, Ami Vitale

It was a great pleasure to meet her in Poland in 2005 – and to find that she was a a fan of the web site I was then running. As you can see from my diary (and the pictures) we got on very well together. You can also see her taking my picture on the street, although she took a better one in Alcatraz later.

A Busy Friday

Monday, February 4th, 2008

Demonstrations are sometimes rather like buses, with none for ages and then three come along together. On the afternoon of Friday 25 Jan it was four rather than three, and I think there were a couple more I didn’t manage to get to.

Stop Kingsnorth – No new coal fired power stations

The first I photographed was outside the Pall Mall offices of energy company E.ON who have recently got planning permission from Medway Council to build a coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth on the Thames Estuary. It’s now up to the government to decide whether to give it the go-ahead – another test of whether they take environmental issues seriously.

Of course it’s time we were moving away from large power stations and the high energy losses that come with transferring electricity long distances on the grid, moving to a decentralised low energy use society.

I like the picture above because of the way it lines up demonstrators and police facing each other and shows the whole situation with a speaker addressing the demonstration at the left of picture.

In fact I largely had to work from the side as the officer in charge told me I was obstructing the pavement when I stopped in front of the demonstrators to take photographs. We had a small argument and I reminded him that the police had reached an agreement with the press that recognised we had a job to do and should be allowed to do it, but it didn’t help. I pointed out that if I stood in the large gaps between the officers on the kerb I would not be either obstructing the pavement or impeding the police in any way, but was simply refused permission to do so, without any attempt to justify the decision – but with the clear suggestion I would be arrested if I disobeyed the instruction. So much for police cooperation. As you can see from the other pictures I took, I didn’t entirely do as I was told, but it did make my work difficult.

From Pall Mall I walked along to Trafalgar Square, stopping briefly outside the Uganda High Commission where a group of Kenyans was beginning to gather to demonstrate against the Ugandan president who has given support to the fraudulent Kenyan President. I didn’t stop long as I wanted to go to a larger gathering in Whitehall.

President Musharraf was visiting England, and expected to arrive in Horseguards Avenue by car. A group of around 50 Pakistanis was waiting their to protest against him. I took some pictures of them (and as with the other demonstrations you can see them on ‘My London Diary’.)

Finally I went to Borough in Southwark, where ‘Feminist Fightback‘ were demonstrating outside the offices of the Christian Medical Fellowship.

The CMF gave misleading evidence to the Parliamentary Committee which was considering possible reforms of the abortion act last year, and a number of its members with little direct scientific knowledge also gave evidence as if they were expert witnesses. They also support (and hosts) the minority report, which is in part based on their unreliable evidence.

Here there were no police and I was able to work without hindrance. Several people came out of the CMF office to talk to the demonstrators and they also had a table with soft drinks and biscuits although I don’t think anyone took any.

Although it was only a small demo, it was more interesting than many to photograph, and presented a few interesting problems, particularly because of a stiff breeze that kept blowing the items of ‘washing’ on the line that the demonstrators strung between a couple of roadside posts, making it hard or impossible to read the slogans on them. But I also liked the contrast between the CMF people and the demonstrators (with whom I felt considerably more at home despite a religious background.) Abortion is a subject that arouses strong and not always rational feelings, often with a failure to understand or appreciate what others are saying.

More about all these events – and of course more pictures – on My London Diary:
Stop Kingsnorth – No New Coal
Kenyans protest against Ugandan President
Protest against Musharraf
Feminist Fightback

Leica Full Frame?

Monday, February 4th, 2008

Leica’s announcement last week of a “perpetual update program” involving hardware upgrades to the Leica M8 to keep the camera always up to date with the “latest refinements and developments in technology” is certainly an interesting development. Given that Leica has such a commitment to the body size and shape of its cameras, and the really solid build quality – unlike other modern cameras, it certainly makes great sense.

The cost of the upgrade is now said to be 1200 euros (£900.) This seems fairly reasonable compared to the replacement cost of a quality digital camera – and particularly given Leica prices. After the upgrade the M8 will essentially be a new camera with a new guarantee period. I’m not sure if the update policy will keep my M8 useful for as long as my Leica M2 has been but it is certainly a revolutionary policy for a digital model.

The Nikon D200 which I’ve now been using intensively for over 2 years, will cost me rather more to replace and I probably will do so fairly soon (and in any case I will soon have to take it in for fairly expensive repair.) So

One of the more interesting statements from Leica is “We are presently investigating
the possibility of further upgrade steps including the camera’s complete digital section, even including the sensor itself
.” What has become clear is that at some future date Leica hope that this will include the replacement of the current 1.3x sensor with a full-frame one, assuming that they can find a technical solution to the problem of using such a sensor with Leica wide-angle lenses. Those people who’ve said to me that they are “waiting for the M9” need wait no longer.

I downloaded and installed the new firmware (1.201) and it seems to have improved the colour balance noticeably; I haven’t yet found any problems. You can download it and the information about the upgrades from the M8 download page.