Archive for March, 2009

Jobs Justice Climate: Put People First

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

The G20 meeting in London’s docklands this Thursday brought protesters out in force on to the streets of London on Saturday, as well as prognostications of violence and doom for April 1 and 2 from the authorities and some of the gutter press. But the first major event, backed by over 150 groups and attended by around 50,000 people turned out to be entirely peaceful, if rather chaotic.

© 2009 Peter Marshall.

Police led the front of the march at a brisk walking pace, although I managed to sneak in and slow it down a little while I took pictures as it passed the Houses of Parliament, but the groups behind had problems in keeping up, with a number of large gaps developing – so the front of the march reached Hyde Park around two hours before the tail. The major hold-up was apparently caused by a police over-reaction when a few anarchists staged a sit-down.

© 2009 Peter Marshall

The march was enlivened by a little theatre or various kinds, but almost everyone was on their best behaviour except for a curious incident at Speakers Corner where the alternative end of march rally was being held. People who were there report that a mysterious figure in black dumped some tightly wrapped packages and moved quickly away. When some of the demonstrators investigated these and found them to contain catapults, they kicked them into a fenced off area away from the protest.  Before long, a police officer who seemed to know exactly what he was looking for came and found them.

© 2009 Peter Marshall
Susan George, whose books include ‘How the Other Half Dies‘ (1976)

You can see quite a few of my pictures of the event on My London Diary, though I’ve not yet had time to complete all the captions, though there is a little more about the event there.

Helen Levitt (1919-2009)

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Helen Levitt, who died in her sleep at her Manhattan home on Sunday 29 March, age 95, was truly one of the finest photographers of the twentieth century. She photographed on the streets of New York where she was born for over 70 years, becoming very much a photographer’s photographer. Although she lacked the public profile of Henri Cartier-Bresson, she was a photographer very much in the same mould, but perhaps more lyrical, and the best of her work certainly ranked with his.

Inspired by the work of H C-B and Walker Evans, she bought a Leica in 1936 and began taking pictures, getting her first solo show at MoMA in 1943. You can read more about her in the piece I wrote in October 2007,  Helen Levitt – Street Colour and another post the following month after visiting her show at the  Fondation Cartier-Bresson in Paris.

Also on >Re:PHOTO is John Benton Harris‘s review of a show by her and Henri Cartier-Bresson last year in New York, Kings of the Street.

Fontcuberta interview on Lens Culture

Friday, March 27th, 2009

Although I’ve known the work of conceptual artist Joan Fontcuberta for years, it was only in 2007 that I met him in person, when he was showing Landscapes without Memory at the FotoArtFestival in Bielsko-Biala where I was speaking.

Although I wasn’t impressed by the work that he was showing –  computer generated landscapes that seemed to me of no photographic interest and not essentially different from the ray-traced images that I had seen many others – including my own sons – produce in the past, he gave a superb presentation particularly about two of his projects which it seems to me achieve an exceedingly rare successful combination of the photographic and conceptual.

Most impressive for me was his collaboration with Pere Formiguera – Dr Ameisenhaufen’s Fauna and I was also very impressed by the Sputnik Project.

On Lens Culture you can see a selection of his images, including some from these projects (and some of those I find of less interest) and also listen to a 20 minute audio interview made by Jim Casper with Fontcuberta in late 2005 in Paris. It repeats much of what I heard him say in Poland, but if you’ve not hear him talk about his work is well worth a listen. (You will need to make sure your browser allows the site to pop up a window to listen to it.)


Friday, March 27th, 2009

I’ve written on various occasions over the years, here and elsewhere, about the cult of the vintage print.  As a photographer I find it ridiculous that people might regard the prints that I made thirty years ago more valuable than the far superior prints that I might make from those same negatives now.

We all of course get older, and some may get wiser, and certainly for many of us our ideas change, hopefully gaining in depth and insight. While those old prints we made back then simply degrade, our ideas mature and we can add to the work when we make new prints.  Valuing the older prints seldom makes sense.

Of course there may sometimes be aesthetic reasons for preferring the older work. In the immediate post-war period, Bill Brandt printed his work in an intense and moody fashion, at times because he was working for the block maker rather than the wall, knowing that a lower contrast and perhaps rather dull image was more suitable. He was working for the printed page rather than the print.

Later, as he aged, he turned to making much more contrasty prints, sometimes with very little in the mid-tone area. It was an age where the fashion was for high contrast high impact photography, particularly on the magazine page (though its arguable whether Brandt was a follower or helped to create this trend.)

Personally I loved the earlier dark and brooding versions of many of his pictures, far preferring those – for example in the first edition of his ‘Literary Britain’ to the later prints (yes, I do mean I prefer the book reproduction to the photographic prints.)  The first edition is also in most respects preferable to the later publication – though each has its merits and I have both.

But my preference is nothing to do with one being older than the other – vintage as opposed to later. It’s all about the actual quality of the work, and it is a fairly rare occasion where the early work is better. I’ve often been shocked by the poor quality of some high-priced ‘vintage prints’ on dealers stands at shows like Paris Photo – often prints made as proofs or press prints or even apparently rescued from the photographer’s rubbish bin.

Usually later prints are better prints, not least because of the availability of more sophisticated printing methods. For many photographs – and a good example would be the work of Tony Ray Jones – the ability to produce high quality scans and to print from these rather than direct from the negatives has produced superior results, not least by allowing far more precision in the dodging and burning required to get the most out of the images.

And ten years ago we were bemoaning the demise of so many classic high-quality black and white photographic papers, not least the famed Cadmium-rich Agfa Record Rapid, which after its reformulation on health and safety grounds never had quite the same appeal. But now we have papers and inks that can match or outdo virtually everything that was available in the ‘golden age’ of silver printing.

I own several Tony Ray-Jones prints.  One is something relatively rare, an exhibition print made by Ray-Jones  himself (he hated printing and wasn’t good at it, though this is an acceptable attempt), the rest are modern inkjet prints. And they are better prints despite only costing a few pounds.

It was a piece I read a week or so ago by Mike Johnston on The Online Photographer that prompted me to write again about this subject.  He finishes it with his thoughts on the subject that the should be only two things that matter about a photographic print; firstly whether it was made or approved by the photographer and secondly that it is a good print.I think I’d reduce that to one.

Our Green Government

Friday, March 27th, 2009

I’m not sure that I’ll really be observing the World Wildlife Fund  ‘Earth Hour‘ tomorrow evening, although the only light I’ll need will be that from my computer screen as I frantically process the hundreds if not thousands of image files I will have made earlier in the day. Although since their web page wants you to take pictures and videos or write blog posts and tweet during the hour I guess that’s OK with them.

However I don’t think I’ll bother with that 1 hour movie of me struggling with Lightroom, even though it would have far too much action in it for the late Andy Warhol.

But it was mildly amusing to learn from Iain Dales Diary that perhaps to celebrate the event with the Government’s typical concern for Green issues that while they have asked everyone in Parliament to switch off all non-essential internal lights when they leave for the weekend and that non-essential floodlighting will be extinguished for Earth Hour itself, they also  sent round a e-mail to all staff telling them to ensure that every computer in the place is left switched on for the whole weekend.

© 2009 Peter Marshall.
T5 Flashmob at Heathrow

It is rather like saying that Climate Change is the most important issue facing us, then announcing that they are going to build another runway at Heathrow.

AIG fails again

Friday, March 27th, 2009

Stephen Mallon, a New York industrial photographer took some remarkable pictures of the recovery of the US Airways Flight 1549 from the Hudson River for the crane company that lifted it out of the water. It was a great opportunity and he got full co-operation from everyone involved and took 5000 images, which his client was happy to allow him to publish non-commercially on his blog or anywhere else.

On The Online Photographer you can read as I did a story with many long comments about the letter he received from one of the largest rercent business failures, AIG, who apparently have used some of the massive support they are getting from the US taxpayers to get their lawyers to write a letter forcing Mallon to take the pictures off-line.

You can see some posts about this by Mallon on his web site, and the hole were they were is currently filled by a short notice about their removal. Elsewhere on the web you can see many sites with comments about this fine set of pictures, and at the moment there are still some of them on line so you can see it was indeed a pretty remarkable set of work.

On Eric Lunsford‘s blog there are two large images, one of the actual plane body being lifted. This is also on Stellazine, Stella Kramer‘s blog. It’s worth reading what she says, both about this as an attack on free speech and on the pictures themselves: “Stephen Mallon’s photos are a thing of beauty, and show not only the fragility of such large machines, but the truly heroic work done by those who pulled it out of the icy Hudson.” She is after all a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo editor who has worked with publications including The New York Times, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and People magazine.

Doobybrain has another six images, and on PDN, who have also covered the story, you can still see the picture they published as their picture of the day in February. I suspect that the lawyers might well try to get some of these removed also, so don’t wait too long before looking at them. I think all of these sites are based in the USA, and it might be good to see as many of his pictures as possible posted on sites in other countries.

It isn’t at all clear what AIG are trying to do, and why they are using their immense legal clout to try and hide this fine work. But I think all of us involved in photography need to speak up and oppose them.

Bohemian Musings

Friday, March 27th, 2009

One photo blog I don’t think I’ve come across before is ‘Thoughts of a Bohmenian‘ which describes itself as ‘Another Photo Industry blog‘. What led me there was a Twitter post by the writer of a blog I do occasionally read, ‘A Photo Editor‘.

In case you are wondering about the title, Paul Melcher‘s title for his blog came from hearing the comment about photography “This business has too many Surveyors and not enough Bohemians” and deciding to do his bit to redress the balance.He certainly has a nice turn of phrase (if his speed-spelling isn’t up to scratch) in his post  ‘Please, save photography

Like me he saw the pictures on Magnum  in Motion shot from TV by Alex Majoli and was apalled that Getty Images were rewarding him with a $20,000 grant, but I didn’t think to say “Henri Cartier Bresson must be having a tsunami in his grave as I can assure you, that was NOT the reason he created Magnum. Not for that kind of nombrilistic, uber self-absorded, hyper refflective intello photography.”

Photographing a TV isn’t of course a new thing. Last November I rested my feet during a tiring walk around Paris in front of a screen for another Magnum photographers work, Harry Gruyaert’s TV Shots, on show in the Passage du Desir gallery space, and found myself thinking “that I would have found it much more interesting if Gruyeart had gone out and taken his camera with him” rather than sitting home and wasting colour film on a malfunctioning TV.

One photographer who did it back in the ’70s to some effect was Paul Trevor, who while working with ‘Exit‘ on their great documentary project, Survival Programmes, turned around and photographed the very different world that came to him through the TV as ‘A Love Story‘.

And of course, Gruyaert and Majoli do both go out and take pictures. Don’t waste time on Peace TV but do watch Requiem in Samba, also on the Magnum site.

Melcher’s comments came after reading about the ‘Save Photography‘ campaign organised by the French photographic organisations the Union des Photographes Créateurs, FreeLens and the SAIF ( Socièté des auteurs des arts visuels et de l’image fixe.) Their concerns are largely about the falling rates, microstock, orphaned images and so on, as well as some specifically French worries about the legal status of photographs, and as he comments, in typical French style they don’t suggest any solutions but just ask the government to do something about it.

So Melcher’s suggestion is that they should doing something about the quality of photography and get down to saving photography not just by asking the French government to do something but to stop people promoting what he calls “salon photography.”

Paul Graham wins

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

I wrote my thoughts about the four contestants for the Deutsche Börse photography prize at the London Photographers’ Gallery when the show opened.  You can read them here.

I’ve seen it again since then. But I wouldn’t want to change a word.

Here’s a recent interview with Paul Graham on PDN in  which he says some sensible things, particularly about digital and film still having all the important challenges in photography the same, as well as about documentary – with a nice little quote from Walker Evans.

As he said, it was about time the prize went to a UK photographer – even to one who has moved to New York.

More on Pirkle: Plagiarism & Truth

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

The question of what is and isn’t plagiarism has been aired considerably in recent months, particularly over the use made by Shepard Fairey in his posters of Obama.  There’s also a link to Pirkle Jones, whose recent death was the subject of my previous post.

As Mark Vallen  pointed out in his article Obey Plagiarist Shepard Fairey in December 2007, Fairey took an image of an anonymous Black Panther from Jones and RuthMarion Baruch‘s 1960 essay on the Black Panthers, degraded it both tonally and by the addition of a couple of inappropriate graphics and made it into ‘his’ street poster. As Vallen puts it:

Pirkle Jones gave us a compassionate image that served the cause of African-American dignity and liberation, while Fairey gave us a stolen and regurgitated image stripped of all historical meaning and refashioned to serve only one purpose – the advancement of Fairey’s career.

For Jones, taking a photograph was a political act (and we often forget that his mentor Ansel Adams was very much involved in a part of the environmental movement – as well as his more clearly political work on the wartime internment of Japanese-Americans at Manzanar.)

Funnily enough, the first time I recall meeting the unforgettable name of Pirkle Jones was in an essay by a student in which she pointed out a remarkable similarity between one of his images and an earlier picture by another photographer – I think Lewis Hine – showing a worker weilding a hammer. I think this was however not plagiarism but simply two photographers coming to a very similar solution when faced by the same subject matter. It’s something that happens fairly regularly in photography.

Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch’s work also became controversial in another way in 1964, when they exhibited a joint project on the sad decline of the northern Californian town of Walnut Grove. As you can read on Howie’s Home Page, things appear to have been not quite what they seemed.

In fact the truth about Walnut Grove is more complex than this article suggests. You can find out more about it on various web sites including Wikipedia,  a history page from the local Chamber of Commerce and various sites giving local statistics such as City-data. It is interesting to see that the population there now is more or less exactly the same as it was in 1961, though of course its composition may well be very different.  Another article on Jones and Baruch describes it as “a small, racially diverse community that was displaced by a freeway.”

The site about the film of his life, Seven Decades Photographed, as well as the pictures of Walnut Grove linked above, also has pictures on the other pages, for example the ‘Press’ page has pictures of the Black Panthers. There is also a trailer for the film, but since this is a 712Mb Quicktime file very few will have the bandwidth to download it!

Pirkle Jones (1914 – 2009)

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

The New York Times has a nice obituary of Pirkle Jones  who died on March 15, at the age of 95.  From 1947-53 he worked as assistant to Ansel Adams, printing his work.

His best known photographs were from a 1956 collaboration with Dorothea Lange The Death of a Valley, which filled a whole issue of Aperture in 1960, and in 1968 after his wife, the Berlin-born photographer Ruth-Marian Boruch (1922-97) became a friend of Eldridge Cleaver’s wife, the two of them photographed the Black Panthers in California. Their pictures of this controversial group drew crowds to the gallery when shown later that year at a San Francisco museum.

As well as the slide show on the NYT and the Black Panther pictures by Jones and Baruch, you can see 10 pictures including some Adamesque landscapes at Joseph Bellows Gallery, a small selection on Artnet and 22 pictures at SFMoMA.