Archive for August, 2008

Harry Benson – Let Glasgow Flourish!

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Harry Benson – A photographer’s journey

Friday 30 May 2008 – Sunday 14 September 2008
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow

People who know me won’t be one jot surprised to learn that Glasgow is my favourite Scottish city – though Edinburgh’s nice enough, and as Irvine Welsh reminds us, in particular Leith has its moments.

And although Harry Benson’s glittering career working for the major news magazines took him to London and New York which is now his home, it is clear from his photographs that his native city is where his heart still lives.

His large and interesting show at the Kelvingrove until September is worth a visit, not least for another chance to view the TV program on show there where Benson talks about his work, and is shown taking pictures in the city and around. You can see at least most of the pictures from the show (and some others) on his web site – with around 30 pictures from Glasgow which includes a portrait made with the giraffe and Spitfire in the art gallery itself.

Benson is the kind of press photographer who makes a career of setting up his subjects – often the rich and famous (including every US president since Eisenhower) – to perform for his camera. Were I ever to try to cover an event at the same time as him I can imagine he would leave me fuming , one of those guys who feels he has to organise things. At one point on the film he says something like if you just take pictures of people as they are they would look boring, so he gets them to jump in the air or something. But equally I’m sure he would be a fascinating guy to talk to in the pub afterwards.

In the end its his own pictures that provide the best argument against what he says. For me the strongest work in the show – or on his web site – isn’t the organised images of celebrities (though you can surely see why they have been so popular with editors and readers alike) but the pictures from the streets of Glasgow where he has taken things as they were. Beside his pictures of the boys at the Stewart Memorial fountain (a short walk from the gallery) or the couple of girls in front of graffiti playing with the city motto his pillow fighting Beatles are empty, meaningless decoration, however nicely done.

Like I say, Glasgow rather than Edinburgh.


Thursday, August 21st, 2008

River Kelvin and Kelvingrove Art Gallery

Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery. is a gallery I can whole-hardheartedly recommend with a fine collection of paintings and other objects.

My companions and I differed in our opinions of the ‘Glasgow Boys‘, whose contribution to art in the 1880s and 90s deserves to be better known, but the gallery has a superb collection of French painting, although unfortunately too many works were absent on loan, some in Edinburgh for a joint show, ‘Impressionism & Scotland‘ which comes to Glasgow later in the year. I don’t like these big collected shows – much better I think to see the works a few at a time, but having paid your £8 you feel obliged to slog round all hundred and something of them.

The gallery (entry is free)  also has a fine display of work by C R Mackintosh and friends  – rather more authentic than in most tea-rooms and certainly than the ‘Rennie Mackintosh’ hotel I was staying in. (Like W H F Talbot, Mackintosh seems almost always saddled in the popular mind with his middle name.)  It also made clear how much his work relied on that of sisters  Frances and Margaret Macdonald, which I found more interesting than his. Good though buildings such as the ‘School of Art’ are, I find a little Mackintosh goes a very long way.

It’s also a great place for kids, and there were a lot enjoying it while we were there on a wet August morning. What other museum can boast both a Spitfire and a giraffe?

(Also showing at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery were photographs by  one of its most illustrious photographer sons, Harry Benson – which I write about separately.)

John Benton-Harris – “a son of the beach” – looks at Joseph Szabo’s “Jones Beach”

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

Michael Hoppen Gallery, London (1 August – to -19 September)

It takes courage to be a leader, instead of simply playing it safe by being yet another follower, just as it’s refreshing for us, not to gaze upon works by people who’ve been over-celebrated and over-marketed. But sadly Mr Hoppen’s courage isn’t quite enough; it also takes the ability to differentiate between imagery that is adequate, or even good in editorial terms, and seeing that goes way beyond familiar observations of everyday existence.

However, imagery that take us to this new plain of awareness is always the by-product of those who take the trouble to know this history, and also something about their subjects and those earlier eyes that contributed to both. Sadly Joseph Szabo’s love affair with Long Island’s Jones Beach has more the look of a voyeur then someone engaged in a fine romance.  He, as this imagery states (excuse the clumsy metaphor) has been operating in the dark while he’s been out there basking in the sunshine of this subject. So as adequate as these first images looked on paper, as illustration, they do not pass muster as notable examples of fine art, on a gallery or museum wall.

And when I first caught sight of his Jones beach snaps while flipping through a copy of a recent Sunday supplement, the thought that came to me was something Walker Evans wrote (for a show of his work at MoMA in 1956 – quoted in full in “Walker Evans and Robert Frank: An Essay on Influence”, Tod Papageorge, Yale University Art Gallery, 1981) in regard to where he believed “Valid photography” could not to be found; after listing several unlikely spots, he concluded – “under no circumstances is it anything ever anywhere near a beach.”

Looking at these images without the benefit of my knowing of my medium and its achievements, I might well agree with Walker’s prejudice. But since I have this knowledge and openness, I can also see what Mr Szabo’s simple approach denies him: a message or opinion to deliver; a desire to entertain; a determination to seek and capture what has not been previously seen; and a talent for invisibility.  Understandably all this allows, even demands, that I be under-whelmed by Mr Szabo’s shoot, and Mr Hoppen’s choices, as well as Mr Evans’s words, when it comes to understanding what the beach has to offer.

At this point, I must confess I haven’t yet seen the complete show, only the synopsis of it. But having experienced Mr Hoppen’s disregard for fact, his poor visual sensitivity tells me he’s simply looking here to sell lower priced works, to gain some advantage from the recent down-turn in the photographic market.

Well, now that I’ve seen the “whole tamale”, I’m left feeling that the additional 30 images only devalued his smaller view, for it became clear that the diversity that was hinted at in the first eight images that illustrated his “DAYS OF SUNSHINE AND POSES”  revealed more about him then his subject. Snap, after snap, after snap, this beach was used as his premier place for watching “dolls strutting their stuff”, mixed in amongst a few muscle flexing Adonises. If Joseph truly wants us to be taken seriously (by me at any rate) he needs to stop letting little Joe point the way, and also attempt to look beyond the reach of his lens, for a contact that strives to go beyond the best – and nothing of that is to be gleaned in this display of beach trekking

The variety hinted at in the small editorial advertisement for this show was never delivered, but a diversity of sorts was to be found; it was in the prices asked, which ran from £790 for an 11 x 14 inch print to as much as £8289 for something near 2 by 4 feet. So I must admit, I got Mr Hoppen’s motivation wrong, it was not after all about a show at a lesser cost to everyone, it was about giving us an “AMERICAN FANTASIST” to follow in the wake of his first “AMERICAN FICTION” – “The New York School” – his last American offering.

So thinking there might also be a fictional aspect to this show as well, I took one last look around these 36 exhibited prints, to make sure there weren’t any from Brighton, Ramsgate, Margate or Scarborough, by another true “son of the beach” like myself, that could more justifiably be connected to either of these poorly represented and distorted offerings.

© John Benton-Harris – 6 August 2008

More Pictures on My London Diary

Monday, August 18th, 2008

Holidays have rather disrupted my postings to this site and also My London Diary over the last couple of weeks – one spent in Glasgow and the second in Iona.  It is possible to connect to the Internet in both places, but the hotel I stayed in on Renfrew St was in the 1980s and the Abbey on Iona medieval in terms of communication. Anyway I wanted a rest away from it all, though that didn’t stop me using a digital camera.

Given the low cost of CF cards at the moment, it’s hardly necessary to take a computer away on holiday, and the market for portable hard disk devices must have plummeted.  I did in fact take my notebook, as I wanted to be able to show my presentation and work from Brasilia to some of the people I was to meet in Iona, but in future I’ll perhaps travel light with a few 8Gb cards.

Of course it is good to be able to see what you are doing on a larger scale than the camera display while your away – and to share them, and at around 3.5 lbs my notebook isn’t a huge weight to carry – and there are smaller, lighter models now.

I’ve still not had a good look at the holiday snaps, and many will be more of interest to family and friends than a wider audience, but I expect I’ll put at least a few on line. But my priority on getting home was to get the pictures from before I went away  onto My London Diary (and deal with those 1500 or so waiting e-mails.)

No New Coal
The march forms up to go to Kingsnorth for the Climate Camp

The No New Coal Rally and March pictures are now available as well as those from the Hayling Island Carnival

Hayling Island (C) Peter Marshall

Collecting on the Cheap

Monday, August 18th, 2008

I first came across Jen Bekman in 2003, when she started a small gallery in New York in 2003 and curated a show (the third at the gallery) ‘made in ny‘, a mixed show that included work by Mitch Epstein and other photographers along with street art and “works on paper” (also what most photos are printed on!) but what really brought her to my attention was the international photo competition, Hey, Hot Shot! which she started a couple of years later. This describes itself as “The best thing going for emerging photographers” and it is certainly worth considering an entry, though you have missed the latest of these now semi-annual events, which closed on June 17, and you can see the Hey, Hot Shot! 2008 – First Edition Winners on the blog along with pictures from some other entrants, and, until Aug 23 at the Jan Bekman Gallery in NY.

The two photographers who interest me most among the five winners are Kate Orne and Colleen Plumb, but all of the winners and those of the 20 or so ‘Honorable Mentions’ I’ve looked at have some fine work – this is a tough competition.

Entering Hey, Hot Shot! is also how photographers approach Bekman’s latest venture, 20X200 which is based on a simple formula:

large editions + low prices x the internet = art for everyone

Each week two new art works come on sale, one of them a photo, available in 3 sizes. The smallest size (on 8.5×11″ paper) is in an edition of 200 and sold for just $20, hence the site name (though mailing to the UK more than doubles the price), with a medium size print (17×22″ paper) at $200 – edition 20 – and a larger print (30×40″ paper) at $2000 in an edition of 2.

Some of the $20 editions – which go on sale online at 2pm EST on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (which I think makes it 7pm in the UK) – sell out in a few minutes, but others are slower sellers, and there were 20 of the $20 photos still available when I looked at the site, and a great choice of the more expensive editions – though $200 is still cheap looking at current market prices.

If you are interested, you can sign up for free on the 20X200 site and get advance notice of future editions. I think this is a great idea, although the delivery cost for those not in the USA makes it considerably less attractive.

You can of course buy low cost prints of some of the classic works of photography from the Science and Society Picture Library.  Their prints are not editioned and come from the Science Museum, National Railway Museum and the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television which includes the Royal Photographic Society Collection, one of the best collections of the first 100 years of photography in the world. Prices are extremely reasonable and print quality sometimes rather better than that of vintage prints. You can buy some really iconic photographic images- if you’ve always wanted a print of Alfred Stieglitz’s ‘The Steerage’ it’s yours for £7.50 at around the correct size.

LIbrary of Congress- Walker Evans
Walker Evans, Auto parts shop. Atlanta, Georgia. 1936
Library of Congress  (available as 20Mb Tiff)

Cheaper still is the Library of Congress. Its pictures are also available as prints at low cost, but you can also download some as high quality scans for free and make your own prints  – which can be better than the originals. Only a limited selection of the work is available as high quality TIFF files, but it does include a number of pictures by Walker Evans to name just one of my favourite photographers.

Prison Justice – Paula Campbell

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

Prison Justice Day, August 10, started in Canada in the 1970s.  On August 10, 1974, Eddie Nalon bled to death in solitary confinement, and on that day a year later prisoner in the jail held a one-day hunger strike and a memorial service – and were themselves put in solitary for doing so. By August 10, 1976, there were two deaths being remembered by the prisoners, and thousands of prisoners in jails across Canada took part in a hunger strike, with Prison Justice Day Committees in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia organising events in the outside community.

In 1983, prisoners in France joined in, calling for the day to be an international event and by the mid 1990s those in Germany, England and the US were also involved. You can read the details of the history on the Prison Justice web site.

In this country, one of the best known campaigners for justice in our prisons was Pauline Campbell. After the death of her daughter in Styal Prison in 2003, she put all her considerable energy and organisational skills into a constant campaign against deaths in prison. I first met her later that year in Trafalgar Square at the annual United Friends and Family Campaign Remembrance demonstration, where her story moved me to tears.

Pauline Campbell speaking  in 2003

I photographed her on several occasions after that and got to know her rather better this January at a protest outside Holloway jail in London, in memory of Jaime Pearce, a 24 year old who died there the previous month, aged 24, the eighth woman to die in jail in 2007. From then on – like many journalists – I received regular emails from her about her protests, as well as frequent personal messages about my own work.

Pauline assaulted
Pauline Campbell assaulted by a police officer outside Holloway, Jan 2008

Like others who knew her I was deeply shocked (but not surprised) at the news of her suicide at her daughter’s graveside in May this year. So I was sorry to miss the demonstration for Prisoner Justice Day organised by the group No More Prison outside HMP Styal on August 10 to show solidarity with women in prison and pay tribute to Pauline Campbell, who we remember as a fearless campaigner and a remarkable person.

Police States – Hoo and Beijing

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

I’ve been in Scotland for the past couple of weeks, visiting Glasgow and Iona, and missing much of what’s been happening both actually and in the media – though I did see a few seconds of the Olympics when I walked through a lounge on a ferry near Oban.

In a previous post I wrote about the rally at Rochester and the march to the Climate Camp at Kingsnorth in Kent on August 3, but I left the march after a couple of miles to come back, make that post, then pack for Scotland. The few press reports and radio news items I heard in the next week weren’t at all informative about what was actually happening at the camp, with no mention at all of the workshops, talks and other educational events taking place, and very little about the activities of the police.

In Rochester, the police were, so far as I could see, doing what they should do, having  regard for the safety of the protesters on the march and allowing the rally and protest to proceed while also ensuring that those not involved in it could carry on with their activities with minimal disruption. While I was present, press and others photographing or reporting on the event were not impeded in any way.

Down the road and later in the week things appear to be very different, as you can see from the reports on various blogs. One of the best is Jason N Parkinson’s, with a number of reports including one with a video showing the police searching journalists – including Jason himself and Marc Vallée, who also has some powerful images.  Although some situations might justify such searches, this would not appear to be one, and the length of time for which they were detained seems totally unjustifiable and the incident seems a clear attempt by police to restrict press freedom.

For the week, this part of Kent – the Hoo Peninsula – became a police state, apparently under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice Act, which police appear to interpret as giving them the power to do “anything they like” – including – as Marina Pepper describes, for male police officers to touch her in a way that in any other circumstances would have had her “pressing charges for sexual assault and expect justice to be done.” They also confiscated her grandmother’s table cloth as an offensive weapon and then lost it.

Section 60, intended by Parliament to give police powers to deal with football hooligans or others who might be ‘tooled up’ for trouble, should only be used where there is a reasonable belief by a senior police officer of incidents involving serious violence taking place. Few actual occasions where the police have used Section 60 orders would appear to meet this condition, and the intentions of the climate campers were largely if not entirely peaceable.  Does trespass and the possibility of some damage through direct action qualify legally as ‘serious violence’? I would have hardly thought so, but then I’m not a lawyer.

Section 60 gives police the power to “stop any person or vehicle and make any search he thinks fit” whether or not he has any grounds for suspicion, and to seize articles which “he has reasonable grounds for suspecting to be an offensive weapon.” This means “anything made or adapted for use for causing injury to persons” or “intended by the person having it with him for such use by him or by some other person.” It seems highly unlikely that that there could ever be reasonable grounds for seizing a table cloth.

The police have often if not always pushed laws beyond what Parliament intended in defence of the status quo, often knowing that if and when things come to court there may be a fair trial and the case will then be thrown out or lost – as has happened frequently in recent years. Perhaps one day we will get a government that believes in freedom and attempts to rein in the force, but I’m not holding my breath.

As we have all seen, in China these things are simpler, and journalists covering the protests at the Olympics have been prevented from photographing, assaulted and in some cases detained, despite the promises of press freedom given by the authorities to obtain the Games. Among those assaulted was the Guardian’s Dan Chung, and his pictures as well as those of him being attacked are on the Guardian site along with a video of ITN News correspondent John Ray being taken away in a van. There is link to another video of the event on the  PDN Pulse site.

Incidentally Ray says he was detained by the Chinese for about 30 minutes, ten minutes less than the photographers stopped in Hoo.

Hayling Island Carnival

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

Just a few pictures from the Hayling Island Carnival on Saturday:

Children’s Fancy Dress Competition

Waiting for the start of the carnival parade

These were all taken by me, but I went to the carnival with three other photographers, Paul Baldesare, David Trainer and Bob Watkins, and the four of us have an exhibition in a couple of months, part of the east London ‘Photomonth‘, at the The Juggler, 5 Hoxton Market, N1 6HG in Hoxton, London from  29 Sept- 31 Oct, 2008 .

These pictures won’t be in it, as I will be showing black and white work from Notting Hill. You can get a preview of the show on the English Carnival web site.

I’ll be travelling around quite a bit in the next couple of weeks, so it may be some time before my next post to this blog, or before I have time to put more pictures from the carnival on My London Diary.

Climate Camp – Kingsnorth

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

Photographers – including my own union, the NUJ – have again complained about the media policy at this year’s climate camp which started today at Kingsnorth on the Isle of Grain in Kent, the proposed site of a new coal-fired power station.  Last year I decided I wasn’t prepared to work within the restrictions that the organisers had set, and only covered a little of the actions outside the camp on the final day.

This year, my reasons for not covering the camp are simpler – I have to be in Scotland while it is taking place, but I was able to photograph the ‘No New Coal’ march from Rochester to the camp, or at least the rally in Rochester and the first couple of miles of the march.

Climate Caravan arrives in Rochester from Heathrow

Rochester is certainly a historic city (or an historic one) and I think we were perhaps making history there today in an action – along with those against a third runway at Heathrow that may come to be seen as a turning point for our government – and our planet. Unless we  move beyond green rhetoric to green action now, the opportunity to save the world may be missed.

There is no such thing as clean coal. If a new coal burning station is built at Kingsnorth this single plant will add more pollution than many whole countries currently produce.  The company and our government talk about carbon capture and storage, but Kingsnorth will not incorporate these (just be ‘ready’ for them.)  It is far from certain that these technologies will ever be developed and even less likely if so that they will be economic.

The nettle that we have to grasp is that of decreasing energy use. So far we have cut emissions simply by exporting the industries we used to have to other countries. We still actually use the products of the energy, but the pollution counts against the producing countries not us.

‘No New Coal’ march sets off from Rochester

Some things would be relatively easy to cut. We could travel less, and do more of it by less polluting methods – using rail or ship rather than air, possibly developing the use of slower but more fuel-efficient methods such as airships rather than aircraft.  Increasingly better on-line communications should be cutting down the need for travel to meetings, but in fact we seem to be travelling more despite using them.

Renewable methods of power generation would cut down emissions, although we also need to cut down the use of power and also of water.  A shift to more local methods of power generation rather than increasing reliance on large power stations could have a very useful effect.

But importantly people need to be persuaded that you can live better while using less energy and less resources.

The ‘No New Coal’ march goes over the Medway towards Kingsnorth

So although I still have reservations about the media policy (and there is considerable interest from the media in the camp) I hope it will be successful. Because I’ll be away it will be rather longer than usual before more pictures appear on My London Diary.

City of Ambition – Ferit Kuyas and other shows

Friday, August 1st, 2008

Yesterday I had a day of looking at pictures rather than taking them, though I couldn’t resist a few snaps later on – after too many glasses of red wine – as you can see here. Between a couple of meetings I fitted in visits to the Michael Hoppen Gallery in Chelsea and the Photographers’ Gallery near Leicester Square in an afternoon involving far too much sitting in hot buses in slow moving traffic and sweltering in the underground.

There were three shows at Michael Hoppen, but the only one I found of much interest was of work by Miroslav Tichy who I had written briefly about in 2005, around the time he won the ‘New Discovery Award’ at Arles (he first allowed his work to be shown in public in a show in Spain in 2004.) Tichy was obsessed by women, how they looked, stood, their gestures, and carried that obsession beyond normal limits, photographing through windows, the fences of swimming pools and on the streets, taking sometimes a hundred pictures a day with his handmade cameras.  Part of the charm that these pictures do possess is that they are so crudely made, but I think they are really objects that are talking points rather than photographs.  I certainly find the idea of paying 8 or 10,000 euros for one extremely curious. Yesterday was the last day of the show, but if you missed it I don’t think you missed a great deal. You can read the story on the web site (and elsewhere) and that’s what this is all about.

The Photographers’ Gallery has a show that clearly demonstrates how much better fashion photography used to be. I never thought I would walk around a show and decide that the most interesting picture was by Helmut Newton (there is a nice Irvin Penn and a quite a few others of interest.)  But frankly I don’t think any of the more current big names in the show stand up to the earlier competition and printing them big just makes them seem more vacuous.  Fashion in the Mirror continues until 14 Sept 2008.

Outside the gallery
It was cooler on the street outside Photofusion

In several ways my most rewarding gallery visit was to Photofusion in Brixton, where Turkish-born Ferit Kuyas’s City of Ambition was having its private view.  The city in question is Chongqingin, China, whose 32 million inhabitants include the family of the photographer’s wife. The large colour prints made from his 4×5 images are mainly from the outskirts of the city, showing areas of rapid growth through the haze of pollution that appears to cover most of the country (and will possibly lead to the cancellation of the Olympic marathon in Beijing.)

Ferit Kuyas
Ferit Kuyas (centre) at the opening

You can see some excellent images of his work from the project on his web site, along with some other projects worth looking at. ‘Agglosuisse‘ is a collection of colour images of “mediocre suburban spaces” that I really like, while the black and white images in ‘Archetypes‘ show more of his sense of design. You can also read more about him in a feature in the Hasselblad Masters Archive.

Down the pub
Brixton – band in pub

My evening finished at a pub a short walk away, before a rather long wait for the bus to take me to Clapham Junction for the train home.  It’s a pain that the Victoria line closes at 10.00pm – these works seem to be dragging on for ever.