Archive for November, 2014

Class War and Poor Doors

Sunday, November 30th, 2014

As I write this post at the end of November, Class War has just suspended its series of protests about separate doors for the rich and poor residents of One Commercial St.  They have in the last week declared a ‘truce’ as the new owners of the  building have expressed a desire to resolve the situation, with a meeting of the interested parties which hopefully will result in all residents being able to enter on the main street, rather than those on the ‘poor’ side having to go down the side alley.

People often tell me that it isn’t worth protesting, that protests never acheive anything, but that simply isn’t true. Of course not all protests are successful, but many do make a difference. If it had not been for the protests over a ‘third runway’ at Heathrow, we would now be fighting against plans for a fourth runway and Terminal 6 or 7; if it hadn’t been for the protests of UK Uncut, tax avoidance would not have become an issue. Protests seldom manage to wave a magic wand, but they often do effect changes in the ways that issues are seen and debated, cultural changes that alter  the course of events.

One Commercial St isn’t in itself that important. One block of many similar blocks springing up across the UK, and of course particularly in London. An exemplar of the trend towards social segregation which is accompanying the increasing financial gulf between rich and poor in this (and many other) countries. Class War’s stand here is one of principle rather than about the particular, and whatever the final outcome in this building, it has put the issue firmly on the political and media agenda.

Housing has become a major issue, and it has largely done so not because of the obvious and often desperate problems many face, not through the dedicated lobbying of charities and the research of academics, certainly not by the largely spineless approach of Her Majesty’s opposition (who through some Labour dominated councils are very much a part of the problem) but because of the work of grass roots activists such as Class War, Focus E15, New Era and others.

At first these kind of activities are only reported in social media and by alternative news media. Posts on Facebook and Twitter, articles in blogs and on campaigning web sites. Gradually they begin to surface in more major media outlets. I’m not a great fan of Russell Brand, but I was pleased to see a few weeks after the events in these pictures to meet John Rogers (who I met some years back when we both featured in the London International Documentary Festival)  filming at a later Poor Doors protest for Russell Brand’s Trews Reports (which have also recently covered  Focus E15 and New Era.   If you have any interest at all in London you will find some fascinating videos on his YouTube page – I particularly recommend his full length documentary The London Perambulator, a full-length documentary film.)

Back to September 24th, and Class War Occupy Rich Door, a night that marked a hotting up in the battle between protesters and the Redrow staff of the building over the rich door. Before there had been tussles with the protesters attempting to  hold the door open  when residents entered or left during the protests, but this week something different happened.

Perhaps it was the presence of Marina Pepper, Class War’s candidate to stand against Iain Duncan Smith in his Chingford Constituency, at the protests for the first time and posing above in the always locked revolving door that led the building manager to simply walk away when a protest put his foot in the door to hold it open. But whatever the reason, the open door seemed an invitation to walk inside, and the protesters, after a few moments shock at seeing it made so easy, simply walked in and made themselves at home.

The building manager called the police, but for the moment the protesters were in the foyer and Ian Bone is holding up a framed notice from the desk with details of the 24 hour phone lines to the Concierge in the building – and comparing that with the broken entry system on the poor door in the dimly lit alley. In front of him is the walking stick he now relies on, and behind him on the desk a vase of flowers. As often, while speaking, he was flourishing his stick, sometimes rather wildly.

At some point in the next few minutes, walking stick and vase connected, either by accident or design, and that vase crashed to the floor and shattered. The noise startled me, and it seemed to startle Bone too.

It took eleven minutes for the police to arrive, and they came in and one chatted with the protesters while another went with the building manager into his office. Soon more police arrived, and after I’d gone outside to photograph them at the rich door, prevented me going back inside again. Eventually the police got the building manager to tell the protesters to leave and then the police threatened to arrest them for aggravated trespass if they didn’t go, and after being inside for 20 minutes they left in a jubilant mood.

The protest then continued as usual on the pavement outside, with one rather odd incident when a man began to shout loudly that no one was prepared to answer his question, which he had apparently asked some of those holding one of the banners. He continued to shout this loudly for some minutes, while refusing to tell everyone who was asking him what his question was. Police tried to get him stop shouting and leave, but without success, and he ended up arguing with a small group of protesters. It was only at the following week’s protest that I talked to them and found that he felt that people should be protesting about rights for men.

His intervention prolonged the protest for a few minutes, during which more police arrived including a van. As Ian Bone turned to leave, a police officer stood in his path, and soon he was surrounded by others and after a short argument he was told he was going to be arrested for breaking the vase and taken to be searched by the back of the police van before being driven away. The following week he said the vase had cost him seventy quid.

Photographically the light inside the building was a little on the low side, and I had some problems with depth of field and blurring due to subject movement, even working at ISO 2000 and a little above, with typical exposures around 1/80 f4.  In the few minutes I was able to move freely in and out of the building I didn’t always have time or remember to change the settings to cope with the very different lighting. In situations like this, where I’m conscious that at any moment I could be asked to leave, I tend to take too many pictures and not think enough about them.

I wasn’t asked by the building manager to stop photographing, though had I been I would probably have told him that I thought it was in the public interest and continued.  But I do tend not to use flash, as that does remind security people that I am taking pictures, and I didn’t do so. The pictures were almost certainly better for it.

At the end of the protest, when Bone was being stopped and arrested, it was beginning to get dark. But it wasn’t too dark – the image above at ISO2000 was taken at 1/60 f9. I needed to stop down for the depth of field even at 18mm (27mm equiv) on the 18-105mm. The main problem as always in such situations was getting to the right place, with both so many other protesters and also the police getting in my way. My thanks to Constable Merrick on the right of the picture for not interfering with me or trying to stop me getting a picture – too often police officers seem to think it part of their job to prevent photographers working.

More at Class War Occupy Rich Door.

Dora Maar (1909-1997)

Thursday, November 27th, 2014

Dora Maar certainly merited a page in the book by Rosalind Krauss, Jane Livingston and Dawn Ades published for the Corcoran Gallery’s 1985 show, L’amour Fou: Photography & Surrealism, a thoroughgoing examination of the role of photography in the Surrealist movement, which I saw the following year in London’s Hayward Gallery.

But the page – a brief biography, ends with the statement “(Dora Maar has declined permission to reproduce her photographs in this book.)” Maar was then 76, and the reasons for her refusal are not known, though she had given up photography over 40 years earlier and turned to painting. She does appear in the book’s pictures, but only as the subject for a well-known solarised portrait by Man Ray.

Should one want to speculate on Maar’s reasons, the biography by Mary Ann Caws, Dora Maar With And Without Picasso: A Biography, published in 2000, three years after Maar’s death aged 89 might offer clues. I’ve not read it, but there is an interesting edited extract online from The Guardian.

Maar’s work undoubtedly would have been a valuable addition to that book and show, certainly rather more central to it than some that was included. You can judge for yourself on the web in Venice : Dora Maar Despite Picasso, and  Dora Maar – Photographer and Muse. There is also a page from Wikipedia worth reading (and states she returned to photography in the 1980s) which has some further links, including to A World History of Art.

The video from the Cleveland Museum of Art,  Artist Spotlight: Dora Maar || Forbidden Games: Surrealist and Modernist Photography which prompted this post is in some respects curious and perhaps unfortunately shows rather little of her work and rather too much of “art collector and filmmaker David Raymond, whose once-beloved photograph are now owned and on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art as part of the exhibition, Forbidden Games: Surrealist and Modernist Photography, “, on view there until 11 Jan 2015,  entry free.

My thanks to Peggy Sue Amison for posting a link to this video on Facebook.

Druids and Viewpoint

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

Twice a year I get an invitation from The Druid Order through the post inviting me to their Equinox celebrations, and although I’ve now seen them a number of times both at Tower Hill in Spring and on Primrose Hill in Autumn, I still like to go. Its an interesting spectacle to watch and still presents a challenge to photograph, even more of a challenge to try and produce different photographs of. I’m not sure I succeeded in that second aspect this time.

D700, 16-35mm at 16mm, f9 1/320 ISO 640

Primrose Hill is certainly the more spectacular of the two locations, with the green grass a better surface and the distant view of London. Tower Hill has its historical associations, but the Tower is a little distant and the closer buildings uninspiring. In some past years they used to process some distance through city streets which had some visual possibilities, lessened now as they emerge from the church hall next door.

I also have my suspicions that the ancient druid rites may well have been very different to these rather dry and solemn occasions. Probably a much more bloody and drunken orgy than these carefully scripted routines following the book. But the ceremonies doubtless satisfy those who take part in them and surely encapsulate some truths about the relationship between us and the planet we live on that are essential to the future of the species. We have to respect the earth, not desecrate it, and to be aware of our relationships with nature.

D700, 16-35mm at 16mm, f9 1/320 ISO 640

This is one of the very few occasions on which I screw anything into the tripod socket on any of my cameras. I hate tripods. I’ve never found one that really suited me – either too heavy to carry any distance or too flimsy and short to be of much use. If I could afford an assistant to carry the tripod (and much more usefully in London, the umbrella) I might think differently, but probably not. Tripods get in the way and slow you down. I’d rather lose the imperceptible scintilla of sharpness in the odd image than use one. Most of my images are at least sharp enough.

D800E, 18-105 at 25mm (37mm equiv)  f14 1/800 ISO 800

I had to use one when I photographed the multiple image panoramas for the ‘Secret Gardens of St John’s Wood’ as it was essential to get the lens nodal point in virtually the same place for all of the exposures. Though I messed up the only ones I screwed the camera in place for, and generally worked just by resting my hand supporting the lens at the correct place on the tripod plate. I used one – a solid Manfrotto – for some of my film panoramics too, particularly with the expensive Widelux which had no viewfinder or spirit level, but soon abandoned it with relief once I was working with the cheap Horizon that came with both.

But for this occasion, what I took to Primrose Hill was a monopod. It’s relatively light but still won’t fit into my camera bag, which is a pain. I put it across the top of the contents and close the cover and it stays there until I open the bag to get something out and forget it’s there, and then it isn’t any more. Fortunately I’ve yet to drop it anywhere completely unretrievable.

Also in my camera bag is a long cable release, an electronic thing that fits into the fancy socket on the front left of the camera. I did experiment with a cable-less release, with a little box in the hotshoe plugged into the same socket and another with an aerial in my hand, but it seemed more fuss for this job.

The monopod screws into the tripod socket on the base of the camera, or rather it should, but I have a strap that screws in there, with its socket that I always forget and screw the monopod into instead. What I should do is unscrew the strap – and then use the quick release built into the strap to remove it from the camera – before screwing in the monopod.

In use it makes no difference, but when you come to remove the monopod, it comes off the camera with the strap, leaving the camera hanging from the other end of the strap only, and it takes a mole wrench to separate the monopod from the other end of the strap. Unless your assistant carries a mole wrench (if you have either) your only recourse is to screw the monopod back in and keep working with one attached to you camera. Which I did.

D800E 16mm fisheye, f16 1/1000 ISO 800

The purpose of this is to photograph the circle from a high viewpoint, particularly with the fisheye 16mm lens. But holding the camera high above your head you can’t see through the viewfinder. Live view puts the image on the rear screen, but it’s almost invisible from below with the sky reflected in the glass. The Nikons have a ‘virtual horizon’ feature which is a little more visible and I sometimes try to use, looking for a green line. But it still isn’t easy to see

It really is a problem trying to keep the camera level – and necessary unless you want a curved horizon. What I mean to take with me but always forget is a plumb line which ought to solve that problem. Until I do so I will just have to rely on guess work and taking quite a few exposures in the hope that some will be ok.

It isn’t too easy either to keep the camera pointing in exactly the correct direction, working very close to the circle even with the very wide angle of the fisheye.

Of course there are high-tech solutions to the problem. With the Fuji cameras I have an app that lets me control the camera and see the viewfinder image on my phone, which I might try another time. But I think I would need a cradle of some sort to fix the phone onto the monopod or to grow a third hand (or that assistant again.)  Perhaps better still would be a drone, though I’m unsure how well that would go down with the druids, especially were I to fly over the druids, and it adds another level of complexity. It would probably need to be used at a greater height, and I think the kind of view I’m getting from monopod level is probably the most interesting.

D800E 16mm fisheye, f16 1/1000 ISO 800

But perhaps I’ve already done enough on these druid ceremonies, and if I wanted to take the work further should look at it in some very different way. Though that – like the drone – is probably something I’ll leave to others.

D800E 18-105 at 42mm (63mm equiv) f13 1/640 ISO800

There are more pictures on My London Diary, in Druids on Primrose Hill and as usual the images, apart from the one on the ‘month’ page with the text are posted there in more or less the order in which they were taken, and are my attempt as usual to try and tell the story mainly through images, though some words of explanation are necessary to go with them. There are a few captions, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do this as well as I would like.  As you may appreciate it  is now less than a month to the winter solstice and I’m only now on this blog writing about the equinox.

I’ve included exposure details, though they don’t have a great deal of meaning. All were probably taken on P setting and with -0.3 stops exposure compensation. All on pattern metering, with probably all on autofocus. Generally the camera does it at least as well as I could, though I occasionally make changes when time allows.

Clients and Pricing

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

I don’t write much about the commercial side of photography, realising my limitations in that sphere. Of course I try to quote sensible rates when asked, usually taking a look at my union’s recommendations, or if I can’t find anything helpful there looking at what others might charge.

Petapixel has an interesting article on pricing by Don Giannatti, When Pricing Your Photography, Focus on the Value of Your Images which seems to contain some good advice over pricing.  Giannatti has written a couple of books about creative and financial success and also two and a blog about lighting.

I’m no longer greatly interested in making money myself, though a bit comes in handy and I’m usually disappointed at the low fees the agencies I submit work to charge (and the low percentage of that which comes to me.) And even more disappointed that one of them seems to have stopped doing the basic business of checking up whether the companies it sends work to actually get around to paying for it. It’s one of the various services they get their 50% or more for, and certainly in their interest to do so as well as in mine.

But in a situation where fees are generally dropping to uneconomic levels for photographers it’s important to try and hold them up for my colleagues and not to undercut them. Occasionally I will work for free, but only for organisations without money and without any paid staff and whose work I admire and support – if organisations can pay people to work for them they can pay me too.

Another recent article on Petapixel is the cautionary tale of a wedding photographer who found himself at the wrong end of a $300,000 lawsuit. Poon vs. Tang (really) is a tale that seems to have finally come to a happy end for the photographer but there are several morals that one should draw. Firstly, never work for lawyers.

But more importantly have a clear understanding of exactly what you are agreeing to provide, preferably in the form of a written contract. I’ve seldom had a formal contract, except those sent me by a few large companies (which I’ve sometimes amended before signing to remove the silly stuff) but perhaps a clearly stated e-mail (or in the old days letter) is as good.

Second, you have to be mad to supply every RAW file you take to a client. Personally I don’t supply RAW files as I don’t rely on anyone else to process my work as I want it done. But not even removing the ones that are out of focus or blurred or where you pressed the shutter accidentally is just ridiculous. I don’t even upload these to my own computer let alone anyone else’s.

If you’ve not already got an application that lets you quickly look at RAW files and select the ones you need to keep – one of the few things Lightroom is hopeless at except with very small groups of files – then I suggest you invest in  Fast Picture Viewer Pro. It claims to be the fastest image viewer ever and certainly knocks spots off of Lightroom. They claim that if you have 1000 raw images you can deal with them in around 20 minutes, selecting and copy the 100 you want to keep and importing them into Lightroom, while using Lightroom itself would take around 1 hr 10 minutes. If anything I think they understate the time advantage.

The only small downside is that I could set up Lightroom to import the whole lot, then go and have a leisurely meal while it did so. Now I have to spend around 15 of that 20 minutes before going to eat!

Lewis Baltz 1945-2014

Monday, November 24th, 2014

I met Lewis Baltz when I went to a workshop led by him at Paul Hill’s Photographers’ Place in Derbyshire around 1979, having been greatly impressed by his work in ‘The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California which I had seen in books and magazines from the US. Along with Robert Adams and Stephen Shore his work has had a great influence on my photographic practice.

He brought the page proofs of ‘Park City’ with him to the workshop and we were able to compare them with his original prints, and I rather put my foot it in when I told him I felt that some of the book versions were an improvement on his original prints. He had only just received these and I think would probably have rather spent the time looking through them on his own than with us. I got even more into his bad books when I commented on the tonal problems of using the ultra-slow b/w films he was working with that were not designed for pictorial photography. They were problems that I experienced too. Then he had been using some ultra-slow Kodak recording film, but later he moved to Technical Pan, and that was a beast I spent some years trying to tame to my satisfaction. When it was good it was very, very good, but…

I don’t think he looked at the work of any of us taking part in the workshop – rather unusually, but it was a short workshop, certainly if he did I remember nothing he said about the work I had taken from my Hull project, but he was very generous in showing and talking about the work of the other ‘New Topographics‘, including some who were hardly known in the UK. I think it was him who got me excited about the work of Robert Adams, as well as that of Anthony Hernandez and also Chauncey Hare, with whom I later had a brief correspondence. I’ve not met Baltz to talk with since that workshop, but his death still came as something of a shock; someone I’d once spent a few fairly intensive days with and a man a few months younger than me.

I well remember standing in a London bookshop a few months later with Park City in my hand, looking though the images and trying to steel myself to buy it. But here in the UK it was I think £50, roughly a week’s pay for me, and I reluctantly put it back on the shelf.  Perhaps I would have gone without food for a few days, but it would be hard to explain to my wife and two sons. Of course it would have been a good investment.

I still have the signed copy of ‘Nevada’ he sold at the workshop, and I did buy Chauncey Hare‘s Interior America, which was going cheap in a sale at the Photographers’ Gallery shortly afterwards, perhaps I was almost the only photographer here who appreciated his work. I wrote about him and the book perhaps 10 years ago on About Photography, and was pleased when a new and larger book of his work was published in 2009.

Baltz remained very much in the eye of the photographic public and I followed his work in the pages of some of the more expensive photographic magazines and at exhibitions such as Paris Photo, but there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of his later work on line.  George Eastman House  has a largish collection of his very early work and there is more information on American Suburb X. There is an interesting related note at SFMoMA, who also have the best on line collection of his work up until 1979 I’ve found, although only around a quarter of the 81 works listed have images available.

You can also find some quotations from him on the web, including this:

I believed it was necessary to investigate photography, dismantle it, jettison all the non-essential components, and begin again with a stripped down but more powerful idea of what is, or could be “photographic”.


I’ve thought that when people appear in a picture, they automatically are perceived as the subject, irrespective of how they are represented. I wanted the only person in the picture to be the viewer.

Perhaps once you have stripped it down it isn’t too easy to know which way to go. The second quotation was a point of view in my own mind for years, though perhaps I have got over it now, and was perhaps behind my thinking for the photographic show I curated back in 2001, Cities of Walls, Cities of People.

Focus E15

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Jasmine and Sam of Focus E15 Mums hold the pot plants they have been given for moving into the Carpenters Estate flats

Housing is fast becoming a really major issue in the UK, and particularly in London, where property prices and market rents have risen so much that most of those who work there can no longer afford to live there. The current minimum wage is £6.50 per hour,  which works out to roughly £1050 per month for a typical worker without overtime. Those who get the London Living Wage are a little better off at around £1400 a month. Newspapers have recently been reporting on the tenants of the New Era Estate, a fairly typical inner London estate, currently paying rents of around £600 per month who are threatened with a rise to ‘market rents’ of around £2400 per month.

People may qualify for the misnamed Housing Benefit, (it’s really more a benefit for landlords), but the benefits cap introduced by the government (including an overall benefits cap of £500) make this totally inadequate in London. The only viable solution to the problem of keeping London running is a crash programme to build low-rent social housing, but neither of the major political parties is seriously proposing this, and while there is considerable building taking place in London, the vast majority of it is high rent private properties, many of which are being bought by overseas investors. Some simply leave them empty while property values soar, others rent them out to companies for employees here on short-term visits or as holiday lets.

Some Labour councils are among the worst offenders in this process, getting rid of social housing and profiting from sales to developers. Some have even made a mess of this, with Southwark Council reported to have lost millions in the costs of emptying the Heygate estate came to more than the bargain deal the developers made. Of course some individuals – both on the council and the developers – do nicely out of these schemes.

Jasmine and Sam in one of the Carpenters Estate flats while the Focus E15 MumsFirst Birthday Party continues outside

Newham Council, 100% Labour and with an elected Mayor have for ten years been trying to empty out and sell the Carpenters Estate, next to the centre of Stratford with its excellent transport links. It is truly a prime site, but unfortunately an earlier Labour council which had the interests of the people of the area in their heart built a well-planned council estate on it.  One that people liked living in, and despite ten years of harassment, that some are still living in.  In a borough with one of the worst housing shortages – and particularly of social housing – some properties there in excellent condition have been boarded up and empty for ten years.

Newham is also where one of the most vital campaigns over housing has been taking place, led by young mothers from a hostel for which the council decided to cut the funding to the housing association for a little over a year ago. The mothers, with some help from political activists, decided to make a stand together and fight, forming the Focus E15 Mums campaign.  They refused to move away from London to be rehoused in Birmingham or Hastings or elsewhere, away from jobs, family and support systems as the council suggested. They set up a weekly protest stall on the high street every Saturday, protested at the housing association, at the council and elsewhere, and turned the insights they developed from their fight into a more general ‘housing for all’ protest against what they had come to realise was a policy of ‘social cleansing.’

I’m pleased that I’ve been able to photograph some of their protests and help through my pictures in gaining public attention to their fight, though I regret not having done more – but there are so many calls on my time. I was sorry, having been there to take these pictures of their re-occupation of a block of four flats at the centre of the Carpenters Estate, not to have found the time in the following couple of weeks to go back and record some of the events they staged there in what was always intended as a short-term occupation of the properties.

Photographically it was a little tricky in that there was little light inside the flats, and not enough for the pictures I took as I first went inside them, in the hall and on the stairs. Most of the metal grilles were still in place, with a little light coming through the pattern of holds in them, but parts were still very dark.

I’d anticipated this, and together with the knowledge that I’d be in a crowded and confined space had switched to the 16mm f2.8 while waiting to go inside – it was a long wait and I’d had plenty of time to think about it.  One thing I often feel the lack of with my Nikon cameras is fast lenses. Back when I was using film one of my favourite Leica lenses was the 35mm f1.4 (it had cost me about a month’s salary when I bought it second-hand around 1980.)  That aperture makes it 8 times as fast (3 stops) as the 16-35mm f4 Nikon lens.

The two fastest Nikon lenses I own are the 16mm f2.8 fisheye and the 20mm f2.8 – and I’d left the latter at home. For many purposes not having fast glass doesn’t matter – particularly when we can know work at ISOs that were not viable in the days of film. You get the same shutter speed with an f4 lens at ISO 3200 and an f1.4 lens at ISO400.  But this was a time when the f1.4 at ISO 3200 would have been rather better.

It doesn’t matter so much when your subjects are static. Even handheld with wide-angle lenses its quite possible to get sharp results at half a second – just not every time. The 16-35mm has image stabilisation, but I’m unconvinced it is of much significance with wide angles, though it certainly helps on longer lenses.

As we went in it was also quite crowded and the physical size of the 16-35mm can be a problem – the 16mm fisheye is a nicely compact lens.  Once we got into the actual rooms things were easier, and I was able to take pictures with both the 16mm and the 16-35mm, and to lower the ISO, even down to ISO800 for some pictures.

This was one of my favourite interiors, taken with the 16mm fisheye, processed with the Fisheye Hemi plugin to make the vertical and near-verticals more or less straight.  The woman at the left looking into the room is in the darker corridor, but lit be light through the doorway (with a little help from Lightroom.)  Stopped down to f5 makes everything sharp (the near objects at right just slightly less so), and even at ISO 2500 the quality is pretty good. Of course noise reduction, removal of chromatic aberration and fringing in Lightroom help. At 1/100th second there is perhaps just some very slight blurring of parts of the people as they look around, something that I like. On the original it is easy to zoom into the image and read the year 2014 on the calendar on the far wall.

When the protesters moved in they found the flats in good order, and the water was still connected. The council soon turned it off after the occupation began. The picture above shows one of the perils of using the 16mm fisheye – and that large 16-35mm on the camera hanging down from my neck with its lens hood intruding into the image.

September 21st, when I took these pictures, was the second day of the London Open House Weekend (a week later than the rest of this country) so although it hadn’t been listed in the official catalogue, this was of course the Focus E15 Open House Day and there are many more pictures both of the party and the occupation of the flats in My London Diary.


Reflections on Paris Photo

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

I fell a lot better about having missed Paris Photo 2014 since reading 11 Must-See Works at Paris Photo, an editorial in Artsy! If you’ve never heard of this – and it had previously passed me by – it is a New York based site with a mission “to make all the world’s art accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

But unlike Piaf, I do have regrets, and there are certainly things in Lensculture’s mini-feature Paris Mois de la Photo-OFF 2014 that I’m sorry to have missed, and yet more in the full programme of the fringe festival. Its a festival with a buzz that we just don’t get in London, though photomonth does try. And there is also the Mois de la Photo itself.

I’ve still got until February 8 2015 to get over to see “Garry Winogrand” at the Jeu de Paume and I may just make it, though having spent some time studying the book (a really heavywieght 61/2lbs of it) I’m not sure seeing the actual prints would add much.

It is a show that does raise questions, many of which Arthur Lubow explored a few months back in the New York Times Lens blog in relation both to Winogrand and Vivian Maier, about the idea of posthumous production.

You can watch the video on which Winogrand makes the quotation with which Lubow ends his piece on Lensculture. When asked if he didn’t wish to make choices (I think he is talking about whether or not to take a picture rather than about which of his frames to print) he says “That I never do. All I do is say yes.”

The video is rather painful to watch, a question and answer session with students who had expected a lecture. Winogrand often doesn’t really answer their questions, and at times rather plays with them, sometimes seems to be refusing to examine his process or stone-walling, but he does come out with the occasional insight. In some ways it’s rather like his photography.

At one point he says something relevant to the piece I wrote yesterday:

“Is the photograph more dramatic than what was photographed? It has to be.”

 and later :

“I don’t have anything to do with what I’m photographing, ….I’m not running for mayor, I don’t get to know people when I’m photographing.”

Thinking about Winogrand and the show in one of Paris’s finest art galleries reminds me of Flat, soulless and stupid: why photographs don’t work in art galleries, by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian last week, where although to some extent I agree with him I think Jones perhaps seems to miss the point about photographs. Of course they seldom have the presence of great paintings, but to write:

A photograph, however well lit, however cleverly set it up, only has one layer of content. It is all there on the surface. You see it, you’ve got it.

suggests that he fails to understand the essential mystery of the photograph, a different nature of relation to reality than a painting or drawing. Not to mention my conviction that the best photographs – like those of Winogrand – gain their power essentially from not being set up.

Jones is clearly right about those large empty colour images that have covered most of the wall space at Paris Photo in the years I’ve attended and sell for large sums on the art market because they are trying to do something that photography doesn’t do well. He’s right too that photographs are often better seen in books than on the gallery wall (and possibly about iPads, though I think I’d prefer my larger computer screen), but “A photograph in a gallery” is certainly not always “a flat, soulless, superficial substitute for painting.”  Good shows are are good shows, and poor shows are poor shows whether they are made with paint or photography.

Winogrand is I think a photographer whose work is more suited to books or perhaps a box of prints or a portfolio; he wasn’t concerned with the photograph as object, though his work is better if well printed than if badly done. But for me good printing means that when you look at a photograph you don’t notice the printing, only what is depicted.

Where Jones dives to the extreme depths of silliness is in his last paragraph, where he suggests the experiment of looking at the Taylor Wessing Portrait show and then going around and comparing this rather bland photography with the National Gallery’s Rembrandt exhibition. “If“, he writes, “you can really see even a millionth of the vitality of a Rembrandt portrait in any of the NPG’s photos, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.” But that is a test that would also write off the great majority of the art works in the rest of the National Gallery.


Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

The 2014 World Press Photo exhibition is currently showing at the Royal Festival Hall in London until Wednesday 26 November 2014, open every day from 10.00 to 23.00 and free. Perhaps surprisingly it doesn’t get a mention on the front page of their web site, but it isn’t too hard to discover on an inside page. Of course you can also see the entire collection of winning images online at World Press Photo, along with the previous versions.

It’s easy to knock WPP and other similar contests, but in various ways I think this is probably the best of the bunch, and there are some surprising images in the 143 on show, as well as a few others that made me think “oh no, not again.”

Another ‘World’ organisation in a similar area is the WPO, or World Photography Organisation which appears to be largely a Sony marketing exercise, though it does have something to offer to non-Sony users too. I’ve not thought too  highly of their

They have videos on YouTube, some of which are more than disappointing. I watched one, and then saw the second comment on it, “There’s 18 sec of my life I’ll never get back” and could only agree. Except I think it was 21 seconds as there was an advert you had to watch for 3 seconds before you could click to close.

But I did find one that I thought was worth watching (and there may be others), IMPACT: Photographers share the most impactful moments of their photographic careers, though I shudder at the word impactful (see Common Errors in English Usage.) You can find the video here, and it isn’t surprising it is worth watching as the 8 photographers who talk and show pictures are from Panos Pictures,  a “photo agency specialising in global social issues, driven by the vision and commitment of its photographers and staff. Panos is known internationally for its fresh and intelligent approach and respected for its integrity and willingness to pursue stories beyond the contemporary media agenda. ”

It’s all true too, except it should perhaps that second sentence should start “Panos is nothing like as well known internationally as it should be” and that it does a considerably finer job than some of the better-known names in photography. I’m not entirely convinced either that it is a good thing for them to be “proudly partnered with Sony through their new Global Imaging Ambassadors programme” though their participation will undoubtedly raise Sony’s game.  It is actually a very interesting venture and the web site is worth exploring.

EDL and Pictures

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

These two men were posing for a photograph in Trafalgar Square, not posing for me, though I’d photographed the man on the left several times earlier, but for a picture being taken by a man with a phone – I think the elbow seen at the right of image is his. The man in the centre is looking at me and may be aware that I’m taking a photograph, though I’m a short distance away using the 18-105mm at 62mm (93mm equiv). He is wearing an EDL sweatshirt, with its motto ‘No Surrender’ and holding an England flag. He probably isn’t aware of the raised hand salute the man with an arm around his shoulder is making for a photograph. Its something most who come to EDL marches have learnt to avoid, preferring to raise two fingers, as you can see in the image below, taken a second later with the same lens in wide-angle, but there are almost always a few who stick to the old ways.

The EDL have often accused photographers of misrepresenting such gestures, of catching someone waving to his friends. Here I think it is clear that this is not the case. It wasn’t the only such gesture that I saw during the event, but was certainly atypical. And gestures are often easily misinterpreted.

This was one that perhaps left little room for misinterpretation, with one of the EDL stewards holding both palms in front of the lens  of another photographer who like me was attempting to photograph the public rally that came after the short march.  Again taken with the D800E and 28-105mm, at 26mm (39mm eq) and perhaps just cropped a little too tightly in camera. with the top of the speaker’s head cropped at upper left, and the lens hood just not quite pushing far enough into the image.  Perhaps it could also be made a little clearer in post-processing. Like around 99% of the images I use this is the un-cropped frame – I try hard to crop in camera and sometimes perhaps do so too tightly.

I don’t know why the steward felt he wanted to stop one of my fellow journalists photographing the event. There might well have been a good reason for trying to stop anyone recording the speaker, but I suspect the EDL will themselves have put videos of his speech on the web.

The EDL did seem to be making an effort to improve their image. Early in the day I’d heard a steward tell someone to put their can of beer away when he started drinking in the pen opposite Downing St, and there was certainly less drinking than at earlier events. The meeting point for the march wasn’t this time at a pub, but in the traffic island at Trafalgar Square with Charles I on his horse.  And although some groups were drinking, most people were simply standing around and talking. Some posed for photographers and others were happy to be photographed. I had a few polite conversations, including some with people who recognised me from earlier events (and hostile comments on the web) and was able to wander freely without harassment.

Again the man carrying the pink pig was posing for a friend of his to take a picture, being held by the man in the E.D.K. Rotherham Lads shirt and pig’s head mask.  I was a little too far away to get the picture exactly how I would have like, and by the time I had moved closer the picture had gone. Again I perhaps could have framed a little less tightly, but I didn’t have a clear view. I did take some other pictures of the man in the mask a minute or two later, some with a wide-angle, which are graphically stronger, but perhaps this one is a more truthful images of the event.

There are always dilemmas. Does producing strong images glorify the activities of the EDL? Do photographers inevitable sensationalise groups like this? Do we always pick on the atypical but photogenic?

Of course we have to dramatise, to make pictures which will interest the viewer – or else no one is going to look at them event when they do get published. And while I may disagree with the politics of the EDL and other extreme right groups, they do include some visually interesting individuals. But I try hard not just to photograph these people but to show the events in the round, to tell the story through my pictures.

Back in the days when reproducing images was difficult and expensive there was perhaps some justification for the way that newspapers handled images, with those that used photographs (and some of the more serious press didn’t) generally picking a single image. Magazines would perhaps use a few, but even with the ‘illustrated magazines’ they were seen as subservient to the text.

Economics and production have changed, both in print and of course on the web, but the major media still largely stick to the old mould. Where they have embraced images it has largely been as video. Some publications will occasionally add an ‘image gallery’. But I can think of no major publication that has ever seriously engaged with Moholy-Nagy’s 1930s statement ‘The illiterate of the future will be ignorant of the use of the camera and pen alike’.

I’m not sure what the results of taking this seriously would be, though of course there were some attempts in those illustrated magazines, both back in the 1930s and since. Occasionally there are article which effectively mix text with pictures on the web, but not I think that really go far enough.

My own My London Diary for practical reasons largely separates images and text – site design and time constraints don’t allow me to go further in this direction. It’s also not possible for one person to effectively cover almost any event both as a photographer and as a writer; the two require different approaches. Combining videography with writing  is rather easier, as the video provides a continuous stream which records the event, while the still photographer has to concentrate on moments.  And for us the sounds and speeches are often a distraction while for the writer they are essential. A video camera can act as a notebook for the writer (particularly those ignorant of shorthand) in a way a still camera cannot.

Giving journalists a camera and sending them to events to write and photograph is to sideline photography, and some of the results that we have seen show this clearly. But it is also true that the media have seldom managed to use images effectively.  And perhaps photographers have played some part in this, with the willingness to play along with the clichés, often in the name of professionalism, particularly in the UK.

Any publication that tried to do so would of course be accused of ‘dumbing down’ in our logocentric culture, but there is no reason why this should be the case. Images can add to understanding and appreciation of events without in any way compromising the written text, while the current emphasis on getting writers to take photographs will undoubtedly damage their writing.

And were publications to serious use photographs, both online and in print, they might just become more popular, reaching a wider audience. Which would be good news, and even perhaps reverse the current financial bankruptcy of photographers, as repro fees continue to plunge. If the papers used ten of my pictures in place of one to help them tell the story effectively it would just about compensate for the lower rates compared to twenty years ago.

Mitie’s Heathrow Prison

Monday, November 17th, 2014

On September 13th I was back again at Harmondsworth, but things had changed, not for the better.  There was a new sign up in front of the buildings, and a new name, ‘Heathrow Immigration Removal Centre‘, combining what had previously been the Harmondsworth detention centre on the left of the road with the Colnbrook centre, a high security unit to its right under the very dubious ‘Care and Custody’ subsidiary of Mitie, one of the private contracting companies our government uses to distance itself from the shameful neglect and maltreatment that immigrants and asylum seekers are subjected to by our immigration laws.

And, as you can see in the picture, the police were waiting for the protesters, and a couple had come to talk with those who had arrived early to begin the protest, telling them that they would not be allowed onto the site along the road next to those tall fences, where those inside the prisons would be able to see and hear them.

Police blamed the change in policy on the new management, although protesters suspected it was perhaps motivated by the increasing tension inside these and other immigration prisons following the death of Rubel Ahmed eight days earlier in Morton Hall immigration detention centre in Lincolnshire after he was refused medical treatment for chest pains, despite being heard by other prisoners screaming in agony. The prisoners took over the centre in protest and their resistance was brutally suppressed.

When I arrived protesters were arguing about their right to protest around the prison with one of the police officers, and I moved close to photograph this. It was easy to photograph either the police officer or the protesters, but rather harder to get a picture which shows both in a meaningful way, and I think the image above was the closest I came to it – there are a few others of the situation in Close UK Immigration Prisons on My London Diary, so you can make up your own mind.

Photography is very much a matter of making judgements, both when taking images and editing them. I’ve photographed the man below with his rainbow hat at several protests, and obviously he is a pretty colourful subject.  I took quite a few pictures of him, particularly when he was blowing the bright red horn, and again this is the image that I think works best.

Firstly there is the framing of him, cutting that horn neatly at the left edge and the red edge of his hat just at the top edge of the frame. But the background is also important, showing the crowd of people. The two women’s faces at each edge help, but it is particularly the various texts that made me pick this frame. Going around the frame there are words like Justice, Racism, Fight, Shut and the complete placard, just tangential to the red hat band, the well known protest refrain ‘Money for Jobs & education NOT for racist deportations’.

That red band also just touches the man’s right eye (on our left) – had my camera been an inch higher it would have been lost. It’s partly a matter of luck that all these things came together in this frame, but also a matter of working on the subject and feeling for the it until luck happens. What perhaps this picture doesn’t on its own shown is the incredible dynamism of the protest, though I think the colour and composition gives some indication. Again there are other pictures on My London Diary.

The next two images show a former prisoner in the centres talking about the conditions inside, and I was quite please with both of them.

I wanted to photograph him speaking, and was attracted by the similarity of the colour in the flag and that of  the Mitie sign and worked from a low position to combine the two.

Standing up and moving very slightly I could show him speaking with the prison building more clearly behind and the police officer watching him. Despite both having the same man and flag, I think these images have a very different feel to them. I think I prefer the lower one, mainly because of the greater animation of the speaker.

I tried hard and in several ways to show something of the dynamic nature of the protest and am not completely happy with any of my images (not that I ever am, though a few I feel quite please by.) One that does have some appeal, largely because of that wide open mouth and grinning face so close to my wide-angle lens perhaps show something of the energy of the protesters. Many of them have suffered inside these prisons, some still face the agony of reporting and knowing they may be locked up and deported, and others have lost friends or relatives sent back to uncertain or dangerous futures, imprisonment and worse.

I’ve written on previous occasions about the issues involved and the attitudes that lie behind (and too often politicians and others do lie) the shameful treatment this country hands out, particularly to those from countries that we grew rich from in the days of the British Empire, and continue to exploit through multinational companies.  It’s important that people learn more about what is actually happening behind the high fences and locked doors of centres like this and the whole mindset that allows it to go on in what is still claimed to be a civilised and democratic country. And that they are closed down.

More at Close UK Immigration Prisons