Archive for April, 2008

Miley who?

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

Thanks to David Schonauer at American Photo for an almost totally incomprehensible link to an amusing video clip about some photographs by that most mis-spelt of photographers, Annie Leibovitz . I’m pretty good at the typos myself, and names are one thing a spell-checker isn’t a lot of help on – even if I can be bothered to sue (sorry, I mean use) one. For Leibovitz, mine gives various helpful suggestions including Bovinely.

Once, having written and published several features and posts about Leibovitz, I received a very irate e-mail from a reader, complaining I had spelt the photographer’s name wrongly. I did a quick search on all the features and found that my correspondent was right – I had got it wrong on I think 2 out of 20 or 30 occasions I’d used it. But it gave me great satisfaction when I replied to be able to point out – of course very politely – that she had herself used an incorrect spelling in her complaint to me.

The non-story that prompted the clip is about some mildly ordinary images of a 15 year old I’ve never heard of, Miley Cyrus, who apparently appears in some American TV series called Hannah Montana, trying rather unsuccessfully in my adult male opinion to look sexy. The picture which show large areas of her back and right arm, neither in my opinion the most erotic of areas, was taken for and published by Vanity Fair. Personally I would have been inclined to put them on the spike, but I guess having committed huge expense to stylists, hairdressers, assistants and a celebrity photographer you really have to use the stuff.

Once the tabloids had held up their hands in inaccurate shock horror at these “topless” images, the Vanity Fair server was brought to its knees by America clicking to view. Hard to understand why, since around 50% of the population share similar similar characteristics, and many of them in rather greater abundance. It isn’t exactly hard to find nudity on the internet, and perhaps I’ve been lucky, but most of that I’ve come across has been less clichéd than this image. For a particularly po-faced commentary on it you can rely on Murdoch’s London The Times, with
Shame on you Annie Leibovitz, Carter – and Miley Cyrus’s parents. His New York Post was at least accurate in describing the pictures as “near nude,” which, as Schonauer writes, “is a Rupert Murdoch way of saying ‘not nude’.”

A while back I wrote about Leibovitz’s portrait of Mrs Windsor (or Saxe-Coburg-Gotha as the family were once known, before a German connection became less fashionable) suggesting that the affair was perhaps a publicity stunt. This too, and I suppose by writing this I’m colluding in the whole sorry sordid business. But the clip by Stephen Colbert did make me laugh.

Sweet and Sour Protest

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

The scene in Trafalgar Square on April 20 was a pretty amazing one as it was packed out for a demonstration by the Ethnic Catering Alliance, representing the many Chinese, Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani and Turkish restaurants and food outlets that have revolutionised eating out in Britain.

Showing the crowd – a ‘Hail Mary’ with the 10.5mm fisheye

Gordon Brown‘s proposal that British workers should be trained to fill staff shortages that are hitting ethnic restaurants no longer able to recruit staff from the home countries seems more a gift for comedy writers than a serious proposal. And our Polish friends who came over to fix our plumbing problems (and increasingly to run so many service industries) are hardly likely to bring a great knowledge of curry-making – or be prepared to accept the below minimum wages and poor working conditions that some ethnic restaurants offer. Nor do I foresee a great marketing opportunity for dumplings.

One of the speakers brought up the very pertinent observation that very few of the sons and daughters of migrants who grow up in this country want to go into the catering industry – and indeed their parents want them to do better, to become lawyers, doctors etc. The reason was pretty clear in the square, with the contrast between the smartly cut expensive suits of some of the restaurateurs around the platform and the mass-market clothing in the bulk of the square. Although owning a restaurant can be extremely profitable, working in one tends to be a low paid and unpleasant dead end. A real symptom of the actual problem of the restaurant industry was the lack of union participation in the event.

Of course there are very real problems, and a considerable amount of victimisation of migrant workers, both those here legally and those without permission to work here (who are never illegal workers but may be people working illegally.)

One of the longest placards at the demonstration – see above – read:


There are thousands of
illegals in the ports,
streets & working in the NHS
and HOME OFFICE. But Only
SOFT targets like Chinese restaurants
are being raided with heavy-handed
Tactics By BIA


Those who regard the BIA, (the Border and Immigration Agency, now a part of the UK Border Agency) as an institutionally racist organisation set up to implement an inherently racist immigration policy, largely driven by knee-jerk political responses to the distortion of a racist popular press would perhaps find this naive. Rather too much like being surprised that the SS persecuted Jews. But still of course something that people – and not just ethnic caterers – should be demonstrating about.

Ethnic Catering Alliance – Save the British Curry Industry on My London Diary

Steichen Portraits – National Portrait Gallery

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

Americans visiting London sometimes express surprise at coming across the National Portrait Gallery close to Trafalgar Square, so perhaps I should make it entirely clear that the show of portraits by Edward Steichen (1879-1973) is not at that venue, but in the National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Fortunately some 21 of the portraits are in a web gallery, and a good reminder of why, as the site reminds us, in the 1920s Vanity Fair called him “the greatest of living portrait photographers” although this was perhaps coloured by the fact that he was being taken onto the staff as chief photographer for Condé Nast publications.

There are several very fine photographs among those on the web, including his well-known self-portrait as a young artist and his dramatic image of J P Morgan, both made in 1903, although perhaps the selection of later images misses some of his best. You can see a wider range of his work on Luminous Lint, or of course on Google Images, which includes one of my favourite portraits by him, of Greta Garbo, hands on head. It’s interesting to see it along with other images of the star on the Greta Garbo page (click on the images for larger versions.)

Here is something from my notes about the Morgan picture:

Use of the gum process, together with high contrast lighting led to a powerful effect. Morgan sits on a chair, facing the photographer squarely. Virtually all of his dark suit merges into the dark background, leaving his face with it’s piercing eyes staring intensely out. The lighting falling at an angle across his hand and on the arm of the chair produces a sunlight shape that can only be seen as a dagger in his grip, grasped and menacing. Also emerging from the dark background are Morgan’s white business collar and his watch chain – clearly symbolising the industrial process by which human labour was combined and synchronised to the clock.

The show ‘Edward Steichen : Lives in Photography‘ opens at the Palazzo Magnani, Reggio Emilia, Italy today, until June 8, and then travels on for a showing in Madrid. A collaboration between the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography and the Swiss Musée de l’Elysée, curated by William Ewing and Todd Brandow, it has already been shown in Paris and Lausanne, but surprisingly there is no British showing planned for this major show with over 250 original prints and considerable supporting material.

Or rather it isn’t surprising, just a reflection of a continuing lack of real recognition for photography in the UK.

May Comes in April

Friday, April 25th, 2008

Climate Change seems to be noticeably with us, with the hawthorn around the local footpath in blossom for a couple of weeks – and the generally early flowering of the May actually made the news headlines last week.

Gathering the may is an ancient British custom, when young men and women went off together into the woods in the early hours of the morning, ostensibly to cut branches of blossom, bringing these back to decorate the houses in the village to mark the coming of Spring. Doubtless there was much drinking of ale proffered in return for the gift of the boughs, and not a few maidens and masters nipping back to the woods, but Henry Peach Robinson made it a rather less raucous event in his carefully constructed rural idyll, ‘Bringing Home the May’, made in 1862.

Robinson was one of the first masters of the constructed image, although it was Oscar Rejlander who had led the way with his ‘Two Ways of Life‘ in 1857. This was a dramatic combination print made from 30 negatives, whereas Robinson’s ‘May’ made do with only nine (you can see them on-line in this pdf, and a thumbnail of the final print here.) While such feats are now made ridiculously simple with Photoshop, he had to do things the hard way, printing each negative in turn onto the same sheet of paper, although the fact that he would have exposed each negative for long enough to produce a visible image rather than developing the paper made registering the images rather simpler. Few photographers in those days developed paper, almost all images were made by printing out – and many photographers continued to work in this way well into the 20th century.

Robinson and other photographers worked by combination printing largely for technical reasons. The most common use of the technique was to add an interesting sky to a print. Until close to the end of the 19th century photographic emulsions were sensitive only to blue light, and areas of blue sky were far denser on the negative than they should be, resulting in very pale or ‘paper white’ skies. ‘Sky negatives’ were made by giving several stops less exposure than was needed for the rest of the image – and many photographers had their favourites with fine cloud formations and used them on a number of pictures.

Robinson often – it not always – sketched out in detail how he wanted his pictures to be before he made his exposures, and it was doubtless easier to set up smaller parts rather than an overall scene. The people in his pictures were actors, models or friends and it might well be possible to use one of them in different roles in the same image – as Rejlander had done in his picture. The actual country people didn’t suit the idyllic view he wanted to give of rural life, they were doubtless too coarse, dirty and often disfigured, although he did aim for a certain authenticity, noting that country girls could easily be persuaded to sell their clothes for a few shillings.

Another important reason for working from multiple negatives was quite simply size. Almost all nineteenth century photographs are contact prints. To make a print the size of his ‘Bringing Home the May‘, approximately 40 x15 inches, would have needed a camera that took a plate that size. It was easier to work with something rather smaller and build up the final result.

If you really want to know all there is to know about H P Robinson, you may like to download David Lawrence Coleman’s 2005 dissertation, ‘Pleasant Fictions: Henry Peach Robinson’s Composition Photography‘ from the University of Texas, which includes some well-chosen illustrations at the end of its very informative text.

Looking at his pictures – which he regarded essentially as art – I find it hard not to think of advertising photography. But then I get the same feeling about most of the constructed photography that has appeared in galleries over the last 30 or more years, although the advertising sometimes seems less false.

Crowning the Hayes Village May Queen, April 2008

Along with this image, Robinson exhibited another, entitled ‘May Queen’, which unfortunately I can’t locate on line. But other Victorian artists and writers took an interest in these traditional May festivities, and John Ruskin in 1881 established the May Queen ceremony at Whitelands College in Chelsea, the oldest recorded continuing May Queen event (Hayfield makes a claim to this, but despite an ancient tradition, it’s procession had to be revived in 1928, rather later than the start of processions at Brentham in 1906.) The Whitelands celebration survived the move of the college to East Putney and its incorporation into Roehampton University, although they now crown a ‘May Monarch’, alternating between sexes.

May Queen procession in Hayes, Kent, 2008

More pictures from last week’s Crowning of the Hayes Realms.

April Biofool

Thursday, April 24th, 2008

Last week’s ‘April Biofools demonstration opposite Downing St looked a promising event to photograph, but I ended up finding it rather disappointing. At least one photographer wisely decided not to hang around and went home after taking just a few pictures.

The issue is of course a serious one. Using biofuels looked green enough to attract the support of the EU – and so we got the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) – and it’s ratification was the reason for this demonstration. Biofuels were seen as a technical fix for carbon emissions, but unfortunately turn out in practice to be the kind of fix that creates more problems (and more carbon dioxide) than it solves.

Buring down the forest

Commercial biofuel production means taking land out of food production, burning down forests and more. The organisers had gone to some trouble to show some of this in visual terms, with protesters from West Papua, one of the largest areas of rain forest under threat from biofuels, and others dressed up as trees being destroyed by some brightly painted flames.

What the event really lacked was numbers, and perhaps this was because they had set up another session for the press at lunchtime. It did however allow me for the first time ever to make some real use of the Campaign Against Climate Change‘s greenhouse containing the Earth, which photographers have cursed at since it first appeared. One of many great ideas that just doesn’t really work visually (like those huge banners that you need a helicopter to photograph.)

West Papuan independence protesters

I wasn’t sure where West Papua was, and I was able to get those campaigning for its independence from Indonesia – who invaded it three months after it became independent from Dutch rule – to show me exactly where it was. For once I really made the earth move, turning the globe around to photograph them in front of their country on it.

Still not much of a picture though!

Ryan McGinley’s Lost Summer

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

In the past I’ve written appreciatively about the work of Ryan McGinley, thoough I wasn’t greatly overwhelmed by his Oscars portfolio. I have to admit I share much of Joerg Colberg‘s doubts about his current work on show at the Team Gallery in New York, although I’ve only seen it on the web, not in the flesh (and there is plenty of that in the show.) James Danziger, in another blog on my regular reading list, suggested that the opening of this show on 3 April was “the place to be in New York this week (if not the entire spring)” and goes on to includes most of the publicity from the Team web site. But it’s worth looking at his blog on the show, not just because it saves you a bit of clicking to see some of the pictures at a viewable size (Team does really need a site redesign) but for the comments that others have added.

McGinley is now 30, and frankly seems to have got lost, perhaps seduced by becoming too well-known. From being someone who said “I eat, sleep, move and breath photography 24-7” and trying to photograph the whole of his life and his fantasies, he has moved into everything being a production. “In the summer of 2007, for example, he traversed the United States with sixteen models and three assistants, shooting 4,000 rolls of film. From the resulting 150,000 photographs, he arduously narrowed down the body of work to some fifty images, the best of which are on display here at the gallery.”

Perhaps if he fired the models and assistants and got a life again the work would be more interesting – or he could have tried perhaps a million shots. Getting his inspiration from “the kinds of amateur photography that appeared in nudist magazines during the 60s and early 70s” may not have been such a good idea, though it may explain why the word that sprang into my mind on seeing this stuff was “insipid“. Actually some aren’t bad, but even the better images seem to me to be a kind of pastiche. One reminds me of my least favourite (but incredibly commercial) American painter of the 20th century, others I’ve seen on poster stalls in markets, as nude pictures of reader’s wifes…

One picture I do rather like is Firework Hysterics, which has a kind of medieval touch to it, and has a curiously flat figure floating in a starry black sky, though I have a suspicion that it works far better at the 272×400 pixels of the web site than as a 40×30 inch C-Print.

McGinley sprang into the photography world when still a student at Parsons School of Design in 1999, by printing a 50 page book ‘The Kids are All Right‘ on his computer, selling 50 copies and sending another 50 free to magazine editors and artists that he admired – including Larry Clark, who had photographed the young McGinley a part of his 1990 series “Skaters“. He also put up a show of this work in an empty area of a building being refurbished on West Broadway in New York in 2000. His initiative got him work for magazines while still a student and into a group show in a New York gallery in 2002, as well as shows in Berlin and Milan. In 2003 became the youngest artist to have a one-person show at The Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as shows at the Rhode Island School of Design and in Toronto. The ICP were perhaps a little slow in waiting until 2007 to give him the Infinity Young Photographer Award. The New York Times ran a feature on him at the time, as well as publishing my piece on (no longer available on line.)

Tiny Vices has links to pictures of a number of his projects, including work from ‘Sun and Health‘ and ‘Irregular Regulars‘ and some more pictures elsewhere from I Know Where The Summer Goes.

Wide Angle on Global Day Of Action For Darfur

Monday, April 21st, 2008

I do like working with wide angle lenses, as anyone who has ever looked at My London Diary will have noticed.  Most times when I go out to take pictures I start off with a wide-range zoom on the camera, either a Sigma 18-25mm or the Nikon 18-200mm. The Nikon adds that extra length, has VR (I keep it switched on all the time, but don’t feel it does a great deal) but is quite a bit heavier and bulkier and mists up badly in dampish conditions. Image quality is very similar – both need software correction for chromatic aberration and distortion for critical use.  The Sigma feels better made, has a much better lens hood – the Nikon hood often falls off at inconvenient moments. Annoyingly the Sigma zooms in the wrong direction, but that’s the only real problem I have with it.

These lenses are both very flexible, allow you to work from a little distance or get in reasonably close. But when things are going well, there is usually a time when I feel I need to take off my jacket and get stuck in with a real wide angle, such as the Sigma 12-24.  And sometimes when I want to get really close and personal, the 10.5mm Nikon semi-fisheye. The curvy perspective can be a problem with the fisheye, but often when I use it I’m already thinking how I can sort things out a little in software afterwards.

The Darfur Day of Action marked five years of conflict there, and I needed the wide-angles for the two Darfur events I photographed in April and September 2007 as well.

Sudanese Embassy
This shot, with the 12-24mm, manages to show that the demonstration is taking place at the Sudanese Embassy. A little work with Photoshop would help to bring this out – but this is a simple development of the RAW file. Probably I could have improved it a little while I was taking the image, but I had to stand on top of a wall with a rather long drop down to cellar level in front of me, the kind of situation that always leads me into a bad case of the shakes. I’ve just no head at all for heights – I blame it on my father taking me up with him on roofs where he was working when he had to look after me when I was a very small child.

But the wide angle has let me put together the brass plate and the demonstrators, and the perspective on it brings in the eye to the demonstration. I’d have preferred it to be wider to show more of the demonstration which stretched roughly twice as far across the street.  Although this was only at 24mm, it is tolerably sharp from the Y of Embassy to infinity, depth of field being a great advantage (usually) in wide angle shots – this one at f13.

Shortly before I’d poked the 10.5mm into the Embassy letter box, with this effect:


Earlier I’d photographed people putting postcards through the door, and here they are in a pile on the floor inside., almost covering the area in front of the steps. Here I’ve used the Image Trends  Fisheye-Hemi 2 filter, followed by a slight crop. I couldn’t quite get the lens as far into the letterbox as I would have liked, but I think it still gives a decent effect.  The closest cards are really very close to the lens, and even the vast depth of field of the fisheye doesn’t quite cover.

The filter makes vertical lines straight, but leaves horizontals such as the steps with the curve that you see.  It is easy to remap to rectilinear perspective, but that seldom works unless quite severely cropped. The horizontal angle of view of roughly 140 degrees just results to too distorted a stretched effect towards the edges, and much of the image is lost when the remapped image is cropped to rectangular. You also get a drastic loss of quality at the edges and corners where there are simply not enough pixels to give a good result.

You can also try remapping fisheye images with the Panorama Tools plugin (particularly using the PSphere projection) or RectFish although this latter is perhaps better for circular fisheye images. Another alternative – and a great way to deal with distortion in all normal lenses, is PTLens.

The Darfur Protest pictures include a number taken with an ultra wide or semi-fisheye lens – as well as those taken with longer focal lengths. These things are useful tools, but can’t do everything you might need to do.

Protest and Publicity

Monday, April 21st, 2008

On Saturday morning, April 12, I arrived at a hostel in Stoke Newington from where residents, together with supporters of the London Coalition Against Poverty, were intending to march to Hackney council offices to highlight the appalling conditions they lived under and shame the council into taking action rather than simply making promises.

As I arrived, another photographer, photographing for a local paper advised me I needed to talk to the organiser of the event. She told me that it might be a problem if pictures of some of the women involved were to appear in the press, as some had been rehoused after suffering violence from their partners and that photographs might reveal their location and expose them to further attacks. Since one of the issues the protest was about was the lack of security at the hostel, with no locks on the outside gate and easily broken doors to the flats themselves, this seemed a real problem.

Of course, publicity was important to the case the residents was making. So they wanted publicity – and pictures. There was a dilemma here, and one which I don’t really think sensible that I should have been faced with. This was a protest in public, walking through busy streets in a major shopping area full of people with cameras – and I later saw many holding up their phones as the march past.

If there are ever real concerns about people being recognised in public protests, the solution is obvious; they should cover their faces (and any other recognisable features.) Many people in demonstrations of course do, for various reasons and in various ways. In this particular event, masks depicting mice, rats and bed bugs would all have been appropriate, and added to the impact of the march, although simple scarves or balaclavas would have done the job.

PHoto call
Photo call outside the hostel gate before the march. The umbrella is a bed bug.

There were some ‘mice’ present, and they were difficult to keep out of the camera. I tried hard to make sure everyone in my pictures was happy to be photographed, because the last thing I want to do is to cause any problems to people who are already in difficult circumstances. Nobody I asked had any problems with having their picture taken, so perhaps all those whose position was sensitive stayed at home.

Story and more pictures on My London Diary

Vaisahki Woolwich

Monday, April 21st, 2008

Vaisahki celebrations continue around London – one of the last this year will be in Vaisakhi in the Square at Trafalgar Square on Sunday 4 May, around three weeks after the actual day, where some 25,000 people are expected, mainly to watch the dancing, music and drama in the afternoon. I probably won’t be there, as I find such events too organised to be of great interest and usually too crowded to work effectively. But if you do go, go early and enjoy the religious events in the morning – and get in the queues for the free food before they stretch all the way round the square.

Coming out of the Gurdwara
Calderwood Gurdwara, Woolwich, April 2008

The Vaisahki celebrations in various places around London are of much greater interest, and I greatly enjoyed photographing those in Hounslow at the end of March. Others I’ve photographed in previous years are in Slough, East Ham, and the largest of them all, in Southall, which I’ve attended several times. This year it took place on the same day as the Olympic Torch debacle and so I missed it. One I’d not been to before was at Woolwich.

Woolwich Vaisakhi
Vaisahki procession at Woolwich

As you can see from the picture above, the weather was April at it’s most intense, lead-grey clouds and dramatic colour. Sunshine was soon replaced by a rainstorm that, apart from the temperature, could have been tropical.


I took shelter, taking pictures of the people continuing in the procession through the torrential rain, many without umbrellas. Fortunately it wasn’t too long before the sun was out again and people beginning to dry out as they walked up the hill. I was sorry to have to leave them here, as the celebrations were to continue when they reached the second Gurdwara – another year I’ll make sure to have more time.

Woolwich view

The rain had cleaned the air, and the view from the hill into the distance had an unusual clarity as I walked back down to the station. Across the rooftops of Woolwich the distinctive student accommodation of the University of East London 2.5km distant seemed only a stone’s throw away.

More pictures of Vaisakhi in Woolwich.

Free at Last! But…

Thursday, April 17th, 2008

The pictures of Bilal Hussein that we’ve been waiting for- in an Associated Press feature on Google News.

So all of those who campaigned on his behalf will be celebrating his release after two years of imprisonment without cause by the US in Iraq. But like his mother, who is quoted there as saying “I thank God for Bilal’s release and I hope that all Iraqi detainees will be released” we know that he is only one of many who have been detained without proper cause.

In the same feature, Joel Simon, of the Committee to Protect Journalists deplores the way that the U S Military is increasingly removing journalists from conflict zones and locking them up for prolonged periods before releasing them without bringing charges.

Of course, as the prisons in Iraq and most obviously Guantanamo Bay attest, it isn’t only journalists who get such treatment. The demonstrations in January marked six years of the illegal detention of prisoners at Guantanamo, with some now having been held over three times as long as Bilal. Binyam Mohamed was arrested in Pakistan on April 10, 2002 and the CIA took him to be tortured in Morocco for 18 months, then imprisoned him in Afghanistan before he ended up in Guantanamo, where he remains despite a request from the British Government for his release made last August.

Guantanamo demo, London
London demo marks 6 Years of Human Rights abuse at Guatanamo

Of course the USA isn’t the only country abusing human rights, but what makes it stand out is the gap between the rhetoric of defending freedom and the practices of torture, maltreatment and illegal imprisonment used in the so-called ‘war on terror.’ It’s perhaps a continuation of the same hypocrisy and failure of understanding that led to disastrous US foreign policies that took them into Vietnam, supported dictators and corrupt regimes around the world (including for many years Saddam in Iraq and in too many South American countries to list.)

Of course there are many countries with a considerably worse record in terms of human rights in their own territory – China springs immediately to mind – and of course for its activities in Tibet as well as for its abysmal record in China itself. And of course Britain isn’t entirely blameless. In My London Diary I’ve recorded protests about human rights abuse in countries around the world. I sincerely wish there was less need for them.