Archive for July, 2008

Up and Down: Seesaw Summer 2008

Monday, July 21st, 2008

It’s in the nature of Seesaws that they go up and down, and I have to say there is work in the summer 2008 edition of this on-line magazine that excites and work that depresses me.What depresses me is perhaps not so much a reflection on the photographers concerned, but more on the photographic education some of these photographers have recently suffered. That they occasionally manage to rise above it is a tribute to their talent.

Last year in Birmingham a number of us looking at portfolios were driven almost to breaking point over so many portfolios of work in which students had gone back to their childhood homes and explored their memories (or some such similar idea) producing images that may have had interest for them but frankly were worse than boring for the viewer. But although Betsie Genou‘s Les Moguichets is an example of this genre, I actually found the variation in the subject matter and her feeling for lighting and colour made this a series of pictures I clicked through several times and ended wanting to see more. And there are more at her own web site.

Rian Dundon’s black and white work on the Chinese born since the planned birth policy limited families to a single child is also well worth a look. After getting his BFA in 2003, he worked in China from 2005-8, and on his web site you can see more of his photography from China, the US and Europe as well as his writing about China.

The third set of pictures I found of interest was Latvia:Terminus Riga, a very personal and visual investigation of the city with some intriguing images. You can also see more of Iveta Vaivode‘s work on the Latvijas fotogrāfijas Gada balvas galerija 2007 site, including both fashion and five very wintry images in “Dārziņi” (at the bottom of the page.)

Teaching photographers is never easy, at least once you get beyond the basics (though many photography courses in this country have never quite managed to teach these – where I taught it used to be a constant refrain from students who came back to visit us after a year on a higher level course: “Thank God you taught us how to… , because nobody does here.”) What is difficult is encouraging people to see things in their own way and not to be afraid of actually looking both at the motif and their own photographs and seeing where the visual might lead them, rather than working from neatly expressed and constricting ideas or reworking themes that are currently fashionable.

Perhaps there are some hopeful signs in some of the work here that I’ve not mentioned, some glimpses of individual talents that may escape the academic straight-jacket that photography tied itself into from the late 70s. There are certainly some pictures I like among the portfolios, although I think there is rather more interesting work in the Seesaw archives.

Also in this issue Seesaw is a reprint of an interview with Ryan McGinley which more or less tells us exactly the same as every other interview or feature on him (including one I wrote a few years back) and its main claim to fame is that it was made on his 30th birthday. I wrote not long ago about OjodePez, the Madrid-based on-line magazine for which Seesaw editor Aaron Schumann guest-edited issue 13 on ‘This Land Was Made for You and Me‘, including work by McGinley. Schumann contributes three found images of a bare-breasted Tahitian dancer to this issue, found in Winchester (UK) in 2008. I can see no particular reason for finding these images and even less to publish them.

Dundon is one of the contributors to the fascinating collection – kind of a photographic version of fishing stories, where it is always the biggest fishes that got away – made by Will Steacy, ‘The Photographs Not Taken‘ with an essay on social conventions in China, ‘Drunk in Fujian‘. Here’s a completely gratuitous fish that didn’t get away, a 27lb pike caught in Hornsea Mere in 1907.

The Cafe at Hornsea Mere. (C) Peter Marshall, 2008

Larry Fink’s “The Democrats”

Monday, July 21st, 2008

A Review by John Benton-Harris

“The Democrats” by Larry Fink
(July 4 -15 August)

I told myself, being that I’m a socially and politically minded observer, that I couldn’t leave town without taking this one in. I suppose I was hopeful that Mr Fink would reveal some degree of criticism, understanding and feeling for these candidates, their entourages, the press, and possibly even the political process, that would further enlighten and motivate me, simply because that’s what I aspire to do when looking in on “My America”.

Sadly I was disappointed, but equally not surprised; for it takes a kind of distance from the everydayness of American life, and new American Photography, to begin to see and catch this nation, its people and its problems, with a minded timing, and from a perspective that has relevance. It also takes a certain kind of freshness, deceptiveness and tenaciousness, that no stay at home American photographer ever gets to develop. That is why no one since Robert Frank in the mid to late 50’s has managed to articulate a more lucid and complete visual account of the growing complexities of today’s America, for my fellow American photographers are all much to obsessed now with establishment career objectives (obtaining their “Pulitzers” or their “One Person Show at MOMA”) to truly focus on this subject and a meaningful chronicling of it.

I believe that Frank’s stab at this kind of (here hinted at) critical analysis only failed because Robert committed too little, in terms of thinking, analysing, researching, and seminally never questioned his actions and motives, before during and after his road-running across my native land. He also relied too much on momentary feelings and his innate bitterness towards cold war America, to achieve the exceptional goal that could have been his. If he had only spent more energy and a greater period extending the unique story dialoguing that “The Americans” intermittently revealed, he would be even more regarded the he is today.

Now, if I can say that about Frank, you can guess what’s coming after looking at Fink’s big scale small offering. Let me start by saying, if someone wants to win my vote for being an artist they are going to have to offer up something more then a casual snapping of these candidates and covering all the angles at what is essentially a staged event, especially if they are attempting to market there results as “Art”. Now I do realise it’s not easy to work within a limited time frame and with limited access, but from the look of these 29 large well finished images displayed over two rooms at New York’s PACE/MACGILL Gallery located at 32 E 57th Street, Mr Fink (to my eyes) made no attempt to use this small opportunity to bring anything interesting or remarkable to our attention, as an able journalist or as a significant artist; he merely looked, shaped and shot when he had line of sight. Then he selected, ordered, finished and presented these outtakes from this wasted opportunity, to conform to his art world signature.

It’s difficult enough to seize on a meaningful moment, when one presents itself, even when you’re regarded, as I am, as a constant pricker of the human condition. But if one hasn’t the quintessential qualities for satirical commentary or something even better to aid and guide one in their expression, then one should steer clear of a explosive subject like this, especially in today’s political climate. But if you’re going to stand up and ask to counted, you had better have something worthy and relevant to offer. Otherwise you and those who represent you will rightly be seen just as opportunists, trying to hop a ride on the political bandwagon, for some quick personal profit. In closing, Mr Fink’s view of the Democrats may declare his support of this party and candidate, but it offers up nothing in the way of commentary, criticism or optimism, for it poses no questions, offers no answers, and also does nothing to entertain us.

Copyright © John Benton-Harris – July 18th 2008

Installation views of the show are on the Pace McGill web site.

Local Government workers ask for a fair pay deal

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

Unison and Unite were the main unions involved in a two-day strike in protest at the pay deal the Government is imposing on most workers in local government, which will mean most of them get increases that are less than the current rate of inflation – pay that is worth less.

Various pickets and marches were organised across the country, and I photographed a march by a couple of thousand trade unionists in central London on Wednesday.

Local Govt march

I’m in favour of fairness over pay, and the public sector has always taken a knock when the government finds the financial going tough – and never makes things up when the economy booms. However I couldn’t help reflecting as I was taking pictures that many of the photographers there are scraping by on a fraction of what most local government workers earn, with fees for freelance work generally being much the same as they were 10 or even 20 years ago. The minimum wage doesn’t apply to freelances, and many would be financially better off in any full-time employment.

Many if not most people who try to make a living through photography fail. Often they spend a few years trying, then either give up completely or discover some other source of income to support them while they continue. I’ve known photographers whose living comes from renting property, from selling stuff on e-bay, from delivering milk, from gardening jobs, part-time teaching, waitressing and more. Many rely on partners who have regular paying jobs – some even in local government.

Tent City

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

Tent City“, the occupation of the Wembley Sports Ground in opposition to the building of a city academy on the site was finally brought to an end early last Friday morning, when specialist bailiffs acting for Brent Council turned up and removed Hank Roberts, the local secretary of the two major teaching unions, the NUT and the ATL who had locked himself to the flagpole on the top of the changing room block.

Hank Roberts (left)
Hank Roberts (left) talks to another protester on the roof – with Wembley Stadium in the background

Although I wasn’t there for the eviction, I had climbed the ladders up to the roof to talk to Hank and some of the other protesters on Wednesday, when he was continuing the protest despite a court injunction against him personally and the protest in general. The fight to stop the academy will continue, but the plans to house 200 children in portable classrooms on the site for next September now seem likely to go ahead, despite the poor educational experience this seems almost certain to provide.

I also wrote a complaint to the BBC about their biased reporting of the occupation, which highlighted the comments of a Brent Council representative and failed to mention the educational reasons for the action or that Roberts was a teacher and union secretary. As yet I have not received a reply.

I was very glad I could climb down after half and hour or so, as I have no head for heights, perhaps because my father used to take me up on roofs that he was repairing. Our ideas about ‘Health & Safety’ were very different then and there were times when he had to look after a small child and earn a living.

You can read more about the ‘Tent City’ protest and see more pictures on My London Diary

Up with the Swans

Friday, July 18th, 2008

I’d lived close to the Thames for 25 years before I first saw the swan uppers as they made their annual pilgrimage up the river counting and marking the cygnets. Our local papers typically only notice the event with a short note the week later, although it is a spectacle that would interest many of their readers to see in person.

But perhaps newspapers – like more obviously television – are a way of avoiding contact with the world rather than encouraging participation, other than through patronising the advertisers. (Much of their content is of course advertorial, and even some of the news stories sometimes have me doubting. This week one front-page splashes a shock-horror-shame exposé of a local brothel for which the paper carries a regular advert in its adult section which makes me muse about the quid pro quo for this week’s extensive free advertising!*)

The uppers however, have been on the job since the twelfth century or so, though their modern practices are now considerably less bestial than in the past. The Queen, Dyers and Vintners no longer eat the birds and they don’t even cut their notches in their beaks any longer. It is all about conservation, ecology and the environment, and about a great deal of care and concern for the welfare of these splendid birds. And they are splendid, even though I once was driven to threaten to spit-roast any of my photography students who added yet another image to the pictorial waste-heap of pictures of them.

Swan upping

But it is in some ways an exciting event, and the skilled teamwork involved a delight to watch and admire, and it’s good to meet them again. Travelling back from Hull in the morning I caught up with them as they left the Swan for the afternoon’s voyage to Windsor, along a relatively swan-free section of river. There seemed to be considerably less press interest than last year, when rumours it could be the final year for the upping drew snappers from the nationals and major agencies, and I was able to work without having to use my elbows.

Swan inspection
The swans get a quick medical on the bank and their details are recorded

It was only the second time that I’ve overcome my republican sentiments sufficiently to continue to photograph the royal toast in the lock at Windsor. This year the whisky seemed to be watered down even more than last.

Royal toast

It doesn’t really make for an exciting picture, although probably more saleable as stock than most I take. The final event of the day, when the Dyers and Vintners stand with oars raised to salute the Royal uppers as they pass standing similarly is one that I’ve yet to work out how to photograph adequately. This year I did slightly better than last, but still not to my own satisfaction. The boats are too spread out to photograph – even with the 10mm which in any case makes them look too small – and longer lenses just can’t show enough. So perhaps I’ll go back yet another year and try to find a different approach.

The boat at left had drifted back behind some bushes, and another had gone too far to my right. 

*Note to their legal department. This is not meant seriously, although it does illustrate a certain hypocrisy endemic in the British press rather than any particular newspaper.

A Yorkshire weekend

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

My London Diary went on holiday last Friday to Yorkshire, where I spent a weekend staying with a friend in one of Hull’s stateliest homes, a grand ‘Arts and Crafts‘ mansion near the university, which he is busy restoring to something like its original state, but with modern comforts such as central heating and en suite bathrooms. However I haven’t posted pictures of this rather grand project this time, but from a couple of trips we made during the weekend.

Hornsea, on the North Sea coast, used to be a short rail journey from Hull, although thanks to Dr Beeching, the trackbed became available and is now a recreational trail, but we went there on the bus. It’s the kind of seaside place that is seldom crowded, but since it rained most of the time we were there, even less so. Our route back was interesting, going through Beverley and then passing Bethnal Green, both of which I photographed.

Fish St, Hull
Arthur Fish & Sons, Fish St, Hull, 1970s

Hull was where I made my first major photographic project – and had my largest one person show to date, with almost 150 black and white and colour prints on display in the fine Ferens Art Gallery there in 1983. Traces of the Hull I photographed are still visible, but much has changed, sometimes for the better. The pictures I’ve put on My London Diary from last weekend in Hull were taken within a short walk of where Fish St.

It’s a free country (at least in New York)

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

New rules from the New York Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting (MOFTB) about photographing on the streets of that city will I think be welcomed by photographers who work there. They make it clear that you don’t need a permit unless you want to use extensive equipment or vehicles or want to block a significant part of a street for your work.

If you only use a hand-held camera (still or video) – even if it is on a tripod, you don’t need a permit, as it makes clear: “Standing on a street, walkway of a bridge, sidewalk, or other pedestrian passageway while using a hand-held device and not otherwise asserting exclusive use of City property is not an activity that requires a permit.” Tripods can still land you in trouble if you block road lanes or use them on narrow pavements, but do not in themselves need a permit – they too are generally regarded as “hand-held equipment.”

Similarly it states ” the filming of a parade, rally, protest or demonstration does not require a permit” and you don’t need a permit if you are a press photographer with a NYPD pass.

To photograph in city parks and inside public buildings will still require authorisation from those in charge of them and permits will continue to be required for the certain activities “including but not limited to animals, firearms (actual or simulated), special effects, pyrotechnics, police uniforms, police vehicles” etc.

The new rules came only after several rounds of public consultation and seem a useful clarification of the right to photograph on public streets (and the activities that, largely reasonably, require a permit.)

Although we have a similar freedom to photograph in public places in the UK without need of permits, it might perhaps be nice to have a similar statement clarifying this in our country and in our major cities in particular, where increasing photographers are finding their right to photograph while on the public street without permission challenged, particularly by the growing armies of heritage wardens, community support officers, security employees and others who police our streets.

One site worth looking at for UK photographers is UK Photographers Rights
by Linda Macpherson LL.B, Dip.L.P., LL.M, a lecturer in law at Heriot Watt University, and I’m glad to read from one of the comments that she is working on a revised version of her “short UK guide to the main legal restrictions on the right to take photographs and the right to publish photographs that have been taken” which you can download there.
The comments on the page, and in particular Linda’s replies to them make some interesting reading, although they are occasionally debatable (as are so many things in law.)

Trafalgar Square - without a licence
Trafalgar Square – without written permission to photograph
(Seventh Day Adventist Youth march against gun & knife crime)

One particular instance concerns the by-laws which apply to Trafalgar Square which thousands of photographers – myself included – regularly break which require written permission for “photographs or any other recordings of visual images for the purpose of or in connection with a business, trade, profession or employment or any activity carried on by a person or body of persons, whether corporate or unincorporate“.

This is exactly the kind of nonsense that the New York MOFTB rules clarify and largely dispense with – making clear exactly what kind of photographic activity needs a licence, and provides a very good example of why would benefit from a similar document in London.

Photo Arles on Foto 8

Friday, July 11th, 2008

So far it would seem there hasn’t been a great deal to report from Arles if the first batch of images in George Georgiou’s photo-diary Photo Arles is to be believed, but it’s a nice idea and there are certainly a few images that made me wish I was there among others that made me glad I wasn’t. So far the toilets don’t appeal and only Vanessa Winship’s exhibition seems worth more than a cursory glance, but some of Georgiou’s pictures certainly look better than those on some other walls. Doubtless more will appear as the week progresses, and I’m sure there will be some interesting text on the festival too.

Also on Foto 8 is news of their latest monthly competition, which has noticed that next month we will have a Friday 08/08/08, and invites anyone to submit low-res files pictures taken on that day- either by e-mail or by posting on Flickr.

Editors Don’t Look at Pictures?

Friday, July 11th, 2008

When a picture of Iran’s recent missile tests hit the front pages of major US newspapers and made news services including the BBC, one thing was obvious at a glance. It was a fake, as a blog on the NY Times clearly shows (thanks to State of the Art where I first saw the story, although there is rather more about it and how it broke on PDN Newswire, as well as a later update on the story on PDN Pulse.)

An Irani Photoshop user had cloned in an extra missile, and it wasn’t a convincing job. One missile doesn’t look a lot different to another, but when several clouds of dust from the right hand missile appear identically and rather distinctively underneath the missile to its left it is a bit of an instant give-away.

(When I looked there were over 600 comments on the post, although I’ve not read them all. Some suggest there may have been further doctoring of the image.)

Yet though it was an obvious fake, not only did the picture fool Agence France Press, who picked it up from an Iranian Revolutionary Guard web site who picked it up and distributed it (and I rather doubt will be sending the licensing fees back to Iran), but editors at leading newspapers and web news sites.

If anyone in the media was seriously looking at photographs, the cloning would have been spotted immediately – it really is rather an amateur job as surely there must have been other images with the dust clouds at a different state from which they could have been borrowed – or a little intelligent reworking could have made them a less than perfect match. Of course it isn’t the only case of bad photo-manipulation – and State of the Art have also reported Fox News being caught badly uglifying a NY Times reporter recently, I think using one of the tools available for making a mess of your mates to post on your social networking site.

But the news is dominated by people whose business is words.

Panoramas and Balazs Gardi

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

I’ve long been a fan of panoramic images, though since moving to digital for most of my work I’ve taken far fewer (and there are still a few rolls of film containing them waiting for me to develop them.) Having tried a few panoramas on film by combining several exposures (so much easier with digital!) I saved long and hard for a rather expensive Japanese Widelux swing lens model in around 1990 and worked fairly hard with it and a cheap Ukranian Horizon 202 I acquired a few years later.

(See it larger on my Lea Valley web site)

With digital you can fairly easily stitch images to make panoramas – especially with static subjects, but it is hard to work with people, and cameras such as the Horizon or the no longer made Hasselblad XPan – a superb rectilinear panoramic camera, especially when fitted with the wide-angle 30mm lens, which became another favourite of mine, still have a role.

What brought panoramic photography to my mind was a fine set of black and white images, The Valley, taken in Afghanistan in late 2007 by Hungarian freelance Balazs Gardi of VII Network which includes some panoramics. Gardi first came to my attention when he won a Getty Grant in 2005 for his work on Roma. I’ve also mentioned ‘The Valley’ before but it was brought back to mind by a recent mention on PDN Pulse, where I also read news of another panorama currently arriving from Mars, which will take several Martian days to complete!