Archive for September, 2019

Mothers’ Day March

Monday, September 23rd, 2019

Apparently according to Mothers Rise Up, 95 countries celebrate Mothers’ Day on 12 May, (although in the UK we traditionally celebrate our mothers on Mothering Sunday in March, on the 4th Sunday in Lent, a rather more low key event.)

Or rather people celebrate Mother’s Day, as Anna Jarvis trademarked the event in 1912 saying it should “be a singular possessive, for each family to honor its own mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world.”

Jarvis had begun campaigning for a day to honour mothers after the death of her own mother in 1905. Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis (1832 1905) had been a community activist and had established Mother’s Day Work Clubs in several West Virginia towns to assist and educate people to improve sanitation and reduce infant mortality and disease. During the US Civil War she had controversially insisted these clubs provide food, clothing and nursing to soldiers in need on both sides.

Mother’s Day in the USA rapidly developed, much against Anna Jarvis’s wishes into a commercial jamboree; she organised boycotts against sending mass-produced cards and gifts, urging people instead to mark the day and honour their mothers by writing them letters expressing their love and gratitude.

According to Wikipedia, Jarvis protested against the commercialisation of the event at a “candy makers’ convention” in Philadelphia in 1923, and at a meeting of the American War Mothers in 1925. The War Mothers were selling white carnations for Mother’s Day to raise funds, and this so enraged Jarvis that she protested and “was pulled away screaming and arrested for disturbing the peace.”

So it was very appropriate that Mothers Rise Up had chosen Mother’s Day to protest and “stand in solidarity with the #youthclimatestrikes” emphasising the urgent action needed to avoid disastrous climate breakdown, with scientists telling us we have only a few years to act. Perhaps as long as 11 years to take really decisive measures, although it may already be to late to prevent global human extinction. Already as they pointed out, people in parts of the Global South “are already suffering and dying as a result of climate chaos.”

Their call out for the protest began:

We will come together and rise as a maternal force to be reckoned with. With pushchairs and song, we will march from Hyde Park Corner to Parliament Square and demand that our government take immediate, drastic action for a just transition to a sustainable way of life.

I hope my pictures capture something of this “maternal force”, though the giant pushchairs did present something of a problem photographically. For once I walked with the protest the whole distance to Parliament Square (stopping off briefly to photograph another protest at Downing St) and stayed for a part of the rally.

One of the speakers there was the leading international climate lawyer and diplomat Farhana Yamin; I had arrived too late a few weeks earlier to photograph her arrest when protesting with Extinction Rebellion at Shell’s London HQ in April.

More pictures from the march: XR International Mothers’ Day March

March for Choice

Sunday, September 22nd, 2019

I missed the rally at the end of the demonstration in solidarity with Palestine in order to photograph the feminist rally in Parliament square for reproductive rights and the decriminalisation of abortion.

I felt by the time I left the Palestinian march I had enough pictures, particularly because I had managed to get what I thought was a decent picture of Ahed Tamimi who was to speak at the rally. Most of the other speakers were probably people I had photographed previously at other events.

I sometimes criticise news photographers who come to an event, take a few pictures (often setting up rather static group pictures) and then leave. I aim to tell the story of the event, and usually hang on for long enough to do so, while they want to get a single picture and send it (or more often a selection of single pictures) to the agency or newsroom before anyone else. In terms of making a living I’m sure they are right; what gets published is generally not the best picture but the one that arrives first.

And protests are rather like buses; you can wait for ages when nothing happens and then several come along at once. I think the most I’ve covered in a single day is seven, though there have been times when I’ve had double figures for the same date in the diary I make of protests I know about.

Of course they can even be in quite different places, though I very seldom leave London it can still involve a lot of travelling, and often I have to select not just on time but also on location, though my priority is always on the issues which the event is about. Though my definition of newsworthiness is often at odds with that of the mainstream media editors.

Abortion isn’t something to be encouraged or taken lightly, and I don’t believe that many women do, but the right of women to make choices about their bodies is a basic and important one. While at some point the rights of the unborn child also need to be considered, that time is most certainly not at conception but perhaps when that child becomes capable of an independent existence.

The 1967 Abortion Act was a great advance in clarifying law in this country, though unfortunately not in Northern Ireland and remains in force with the normal limit on abortion having been reduced from 28 weeks to 24 in 1990. It was a great advance as before 1967 the major cause of maternal deaths – around 60 -70 per year was unsafe abortions. And many children who might otherwise have been aborted because their mothers took thalidomide were born with severe or even fatal disabilities.

Apparently now 1 in 3 women in this country will at some time have a legal termination. Abortion outside the provisions of the Act (or in Northern Ireland under almost all circumstances) is still a crime – and can carry a sentence for both women and those who carry it out of life imprisonment.

The ‘March for Choice’ was not really a march, but a rally followed by a short walk to a static protest in opposition to the anti-abortion March for Life UK, a largely Catholic event based on extreme right protests in the USA. March for Choice say it is made up of extreme anti-women, anti-choice, evangelical groups which regularly harass women outside abortion clinics, and has links to homophobic, fascist and far-right organisations. As well as abortion, it opposes contraception, sex education and IVF treatment.

More pictures from both groups:

March for Choice defends women’s rights
Anti-Abortion ‘March for Life UK’


My London Diary : London Photos : Hull : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated, are taken by and copyright of Peter Marshall, and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.

There are no adverts on this site and it receives no sponsorship, and I like to keep it that way. But it does take a considerable amount of my time and thought, and if you enjoy reading it, a small donation – perhaps the cost of a beer – would be appreciated.


Solidarity with Palestine

Saturday, September 21st, 2019

As someone born as World War II was finishing it isn’t surprising that I grew up with with a great deal of sympathy and support for the young state of Israel, which had won its freedom from the British mandate by a number of terrorist attacks, most notably the King David Hotel Bombing, a massacre which killed 91 people and left around 50 badly wounded.

I was too young to know anything about it at the time of the attack, but in later years the Zionist underground organization the Irgun  was the first which I heard some call terrorists and others freedom fighters. Around 15 years later when I started a real interest in politics and free cigarettes at the local young socialist meetings in the Co-op Hallit was certainly the latter view that prevailed, not least because many of those in the Labour movement were Jewish.

Then we believed the lies that were told about Israel occupying a largely empty land and making the deserts bloom. Since then we have become aware of the properties and land stolen from the Palestinians, many of whom were forced out as refugees, and of the shrinking map of Palestine and the attacks on Gaza. The Zionist Israeli government has become increasing right-wing, violating the human rights of the Palestinians and international law over the years, setting up an apartheid system in Israel, making it impossible now not to support the Palestinian cause.

The protest on 11th May came at the start of the week remembering the Nakba and called for an end to Israeli oppression and the siege of Gaza and for a just peace that recognises Palestinian rights including the right of return. It urged everyone to boycott and divest from Israel and donate to medical aid for Palestine. Many of those on the march carried keys, some those of properties they had been forced to leave back in 1948, others simply as a reminder of the dispossession.

Among those marching was Palestinian teenage activist Ahed Tamimi, arrested after slapping an Israeli soldier in December 2017 after soldiers had entered her home and severely injured her 15-year-old cousin Mohammed. It wasn’t easy to photograph her on the march as stewards kept photographers outside the area in front of where she was marching holding the banner at the head of the march.

I wasn’t able to get close to her, but had to photograph with a long lens from a distance. With the 14-150mm lens on the Olympus E-M5 Mk II I managed to get a decent image with her filling much of the frame. The lens is equivalent to a 28-300mm, and for this picture I was using it at its extreme and at f5.6 and 1/250th at ISO 1250.

I think the result is rather better than I would have expected using a Nikon, thanks to the stabilisation of the OM body. And I would probably only have been carrying a lens with a maximum focal length of 200mm, so would have had to crop to get a similar image, thus losing some of the advantage of the larger sensor. I think the autofocus is almost as good as the Nikon, close enough to show no real difference in speed, and face detection is sometimes a help. And as a final point, despite weighing half as much, the Olympus lens is I think a better performer.

As well as the Olympus, my second camera was a Fuji X-T1, with a 10-24mm lens (15-36 equiv) that is also a fine performer. It doesn’t have quite the advantage in size and weight over Nikon that the Olympus has, and the camera somehow feels a little less responsive. I bought it when I was hoping that a Fuji system could replace my Nikons, but now I’m more likely to move to Olympus, keeping a Nikon only for the larger file size when used with bellows and a macro lens for digitising negatives and slides.

As with most events showing solidarity with Palestine it was joined by several Jewish groups, including the ultra-orthodox Neturei Karta  and also opposed by a small group of Zionists. You can see pictures of both on My London Diary, along with coverage of the rally close to the BBC before the march. I left and went home before the rally at the end.

More pictures at National Demonstration for Palestine.

Guardian Lies on Venezuela

Friday, September 20th, 2019

Back to looking back at my own work from a few months ago, and a protest outside the offices of The Guardian, a canal-side block on York Way to the north of Kings Cross, part of King’s Place. It’s a place I’ve visited a few time as in the ground floor entrance they have regular exhibitions of photographs, but on this occasion they were not letting people in to see them, with security staff at the door.

The protest was organised by the Revolutionary Communist Group, a name that might put some people off, but who I think are one of the friendliest and most sensible groups in left politics, and while I may not always agree with their views, they have been very active in campaigning on some of the our pressing social issues – including housing, universal credit and other benefits and disability, working together with other groups without trying to take things over. Often they are the people who bring a PA system to protests and make it available as an ‘open mike’ for others as well as them to speak.

They have a newspaper too, ‘Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism’ and it runs readable and well-researched articles on many subjects, and it includes much coverage of events in South America, informed by people who have lived and worked and have good contacts there.

Of course they view the situation from a particular political perspective, supporting the left-wing popular movements in the continent, and in the case of Venezuela, the government under President Nicolas Maduro. Of course not everything is rosy in the country which has suffered greatly from US sanctions, low oil prices and other economic pressures, but they are very aware of these pressures and the problems they have led to.

The stringences in Venezuela have particularly affected the middle-classes, while the Bolivarian revolution begun under Hugo Chavez meant great gains for the peasants and indigenous peoples, even though there has been deterioration in recent years.

The Guardians coverage of events in Venezuela have been almost entirely from the point of view of the middle classes who their correspendent clearly is at home with, and have largely ignored the popular support still enjoyed by Maduro. While the support of most of our press owned by billionaires as well as the establishment BBC for the US-backed efforts to mount a coup in the country against the democratically elected leadership is hardly surprising, many on the left are surprise that The Guardian should so one-sidedly support it.

The protesters held up posters listing some of the successes of the Venezuelan government under Chavez and Maduro with the Bolivarian revolution building socialism and transforming the lives of the poor which have led to the crippling US sanctions and the US-backed coup and called on The Guardian to stop publising lies and to report the facts and both sides of the argument in Venezuela rather than simply parrot the views of the US-backed opposition.

Towards the end of the protest a small deputation attempted to deliver a letter to The Guardian but were not allowed to enter the building. Instead the security man at the door accepted their letter and promised that it would be delivered.

More pictures at Guardian lies about Venezuela.


My London Diary : London Photos : Hull : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated, are taken by and copyright of Peter Marshall, and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.

There are no adverts on this site and it receives no sponsorship, and I like to keep it that way. But it does take a considerable amount of my time and thought, and if you enjoy reading it, a small donation – perhaps the cost of a beer – would be appreciated.


Not Window Dressing

Thursday, September 19th, 2019

I’ve never worked in the United States (or as they call it, America) or at least only digitally, having been on contract serially with three major US companies over a period of around 7 years. It started well, but ended sadly, at least in part because I wasn’t from the States.

During those years I sometimes had to write about the USA as if I was located there, taking a lively interest in exhibitions at US museums, reporting on some US events and US institutions, and about the US photography culture in general (and more difficult, on Thanksgiving and Independence Day.) In later years I even had to use ‘American English’, though I made no secret of being British and continued to try adopt an international approach, introducing my readers to photography around the world.

There were many ways in which photographers working in the USA had things rather better than us in the British Isles, and perhaps the basis of all these was a culture that took photography much more seriously than here, something that was perhaps most apparent in the number of museums and galleries and in the US press.

And generally books, magazines and papers were happy to pay usage rates that were considerably above those in the UK. I remember getting one request from a left magazine with a profuse apology for what little they could offer me for a picture which was at least twice what a more mainstream British publication would have paid, and was annoyed a few years later when a UK agency sold a picture for text book use at just under a third of the payment I had negotiated directly with the publisher for a previous edition (and then took 50% of that meagre fee for their efforts on my behalf!)

One of the reasons for these differences is the presence of strong organisations representing photographers, one of which is the National Press Photographers Association, NPPA. Of course we have organisations here, but good as some are, none has the same clout.

Newspapers across the USA are now suffering with competition from the web (and some have very fine web sites themselves) and many have made drastic cuts in staffing, with many photographers being ‘let go’, leaving many, particularly the smaller regional and local papers that are much more important in the US than here, without staff photographers and with very limited budgets for pictures. As of course we’ve seen in the UK.

It’s a situation that led Jaymie Baxley , a reporter working for The Pilot in Southern Pines, North Carolina to take pity on his fellow journalists and help them by “creating a resource for reporters in small newsrooms that no longer have visual journalists“, setting up a website offering his own editorial photographs for free.

As you can read on the NPPA web site in a post by Sue Morrow,
Pictures are not window dressing. In fact, pictures are the window, this did not go down well with other photographers. And the NPPA got on the case, explaining their position to Baxley, who quickly took down the website.

Under Morrow’s article is a post by NPPA President Michael P King which makes a great case for professional photography, starting from the premise ‘Photography is valuable‘ and giving some reasons why.

It’s a statement I think is worth reading and which makes a great case for using professional photography – by staff or freelance photographers. As he says it’s a matter of trust and legality and of retaining credibility for news organisations.

Robert Frank: The Americans

Tuesday, September 17th, 2019

The final part of my essay on Robert Frank, written 20 years ago and published on the web in 2000 looks at his iconic book ‘The Americans’ which changed photography after its publication in 1958/9.

The discussion of the pictures and their sequencing owes a great deal to other photographers, including two whose workshops I attended in the 1990s, Charles Harbutt and Leonard Freed and many others, but I think I added a little of my own. I’ve come across parts of it on various web sites since it was put on the web, and I’m told it was widely plagiarised in student essays, at least in the years following its publication.


The Americans

The Americans‘ was turned down by New York publishers, but Frank took it to Delpire in France. There, Robert Delpire only persuaded the company to publish in 1958 by threatening to leave the family firm if they didn’t. The French edition was not entirely successful as a book, including texts by a number of well-known writers which had the effect of making the photographs seem like illustrations rather than a coherent work in their own right. The following year it was published by the Grove Press in America, in a form that respected Frank’s vision and which has been followed with minor revisions in later editions. Sales were poor and the reviews were vituperative, but the book has been republished in many editions and has I think been continuously in print.

The Grove Press edition had an introduction by Jack Kerouac, who Frank had recently met: ‘That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he traveled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car (on Guggenheim Fellowship)…’ Kerouac continued for five pages, showing a clear knowledge of Frank’s work and an understanding of what he was trying to do, concluding with some short sentiments which have been often been quoted, among them ‘Anybody doesn’t like these pitchers dont like potry. See?’ and his description ‘Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.’

The work starts with a picture of the front of a building, an American flag draped across its front and two windows, in each a person. Both are apparently female, though both are obscured. Taken during a parade at Hoboken, the bottom edge of the flag visually cuts off the head of the figure at the right, preventing us and her from seeing. On the next page, the City Fathers line up, probably for the same event, on a stand behind a rail with a flag pinned to it. Soberly dressed old men, hats and coats against the cold, the man at the back stands with eyes closed, apparently totally elsewhere in his thoughts as his lips pucker into a kiss.

Next on a balcony in Chicago, a demagogue raises both fists, arms outstretched, above a very bored looking sculptured head in a frieze below. Cut to a car park in a field in South Carolina, black men attending a black funeral, heads titled, hands to cheeks, lost in thought probably during an address. One man clearly has his eye on Frank, wondering what this white stranger is doing. Next to a rodeo in Detroit, a white man in a cowboy hat, in profile, smoking a cigar, hand also up to his face, behind him two women apparently subservient; we turn the page and a uniformed man is dragging a woman on his arm (probably his wife, though it almost looks like an arrest) along the street in Savannah. The uniform leads us to the doorway of a Navy Recruiting office, though which we see the flag on the wall and the end of a desk with two feet resting on it.

Already we begin to see some of the ways Frank is building a story, using montage – the recurring element of the flag, the orator followed by the listeners. A couple of other motifs have also been presented – the car and the American Dream, but have yet to reappear. Frank concentrates on the ordinary, the things you see on the road and along its edges, but he also deals with real issues, whether of race, as in the pictures of the black nurse with the white doll-like baby in Charleston, South Carolina or the trolley in New Orleans with whites at the front and blacks at the back, or spiritual emptiness in the ‘Merry Christmas’ signs at the fast food Ranch Market in Hollywood or the plastic crosses, ‘Remember your loved ones’ on sale for 69 cents. A petrol station forecourt, the pumps like figures in a religious procession, carrying a tall banner that says S A V E in heavy capitals. It takes a second look to see the lightly written G A S in the gaps.

Perhaps the two most famous of the pictures using the flag are from a Fourth of July celebration in New York, where the giant hanging flag is shown to be patched, torn and threadbare, and a of a man playing a tuba at a political rally, rendered anonymous, the bell of the instrument replacing his head, and growing out from this a pole with the flag spreading out. These pictures are used to start the second and third loose sections of Frank’s book – the first also starting with the flag.

We think back to the rodeo picture when we come to another vision of the Wild West, a bar in Gallup, New Mexico, taken from a low viewpoint, perhaps even shot appropriately from the hip. The picture is at an angle and slightly blurred, half obscured by the looming back of a man close to the camera. Across the bar a man stands alone and desperate, hands perhaps just in pockets or on his hips, but giving the suggestion of a gunfight that is ready to start. Later we see an immaculately dressed cowboy on the streets of New York, seated not on a horse but on the edge of a litter bin.

Another of the motifs, or in this case perhaps more of an icon, is the jukebox. It glows weirdly like an alien visitation in a New York bar, leers obscenely among apparently drugged kids in a Candy store. An ornate model dominates a wooden shack bar in Beaufort, South Carolina, with bare tables and chairs and a small black baby escaping from his mattress on the floor.

At Long Beach, California, Frank came across a car covered with a white cocoon in front of a low plain building with two palm trees. Here the car is clearly an altar, the trees forming the columns and roof tracings of a church dedicated to the Holy Motor Spirit; next we have the site of a car accident; a blanket covering some bodies at the edge of Route 66, four people in a line looking at the and a row of buildings back form the road; next a road in New Mexico stretching into the distance, its centre line absolutely vertical.

A woman needs on the banks of the Mississippi at dusk, her white robes contrasting with her black face; kneeling she holds a white cross. The next picture is captioned ‘St Francis, gas station and City Hall – Los Angeles, and St Francis is silhouetted in the foreground holding up a cross. Next come three crosses marking the site of a highway accident, lit by a shaft of sun from a cloudy sky. We get an assembly line at a car factory, followed by a political assembly line at a Chicago convention, a fine row of urinals and a black man cleaning the shoes of a white businessman in a men’s room…

I’m conscious of how much I’m not pointing out in these pictures; this is a book every photographer or anyone who wants to be a photographer should own. All eighty three of them are worth close study, although they work together to produce something much greater than their sum. Despite the mauling it received on publication – it showed a personal view of America and one that was distant and uncongenial to comfortable middle-class America who were, by and large, both the major cultural producers and consumers – and poor sales at the time, it has become a classic. It marked a new vision in photography, a shift in the paradigm, and, as often happens it took some getting used to. To modern eyes it is difficult to see how critics could fail to see the good points in Frank’s work – the irony, the capturing of the essence of the small towns on the road, and even the humour of some of his work. Students of photographic history will certainly also be amused by his deliberate introduction of references to other photographers, with at least one carefully taken ‘decisive moment’ and a couple of pictures that are pure FSA.

Of course the clearest stylistic reference is, as Tod Papageorge pointed out, in his ground-breaking ‘Walker Evans and Robert Frank – An essay on influence‘ to the work of his mentor, Walker Evans. The debt is at its strongest to Evans’s own work with a 35mm camera, particularly to his pictures of people on the streets, where there are many pictures which could well have been taken by Evans. As Papageorge points out, various aspects of the design of ‘The Americans’, not least its title, also clearly derive from Evan’s masterpiece, ‘American Photographs’.

Later Work

After ‘The Americans’, Frank turned most of his attention to film, although continuing to take some still pictures, despite stating later that in 1960 he decided to put his camera ‘in a closet‘. His first film in 1979 was the only film which allowed the beats to present themselves on screen, ‘Pull My Daisy’, starring poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, artist Larry Rivers and musician David Amram. Kerouac contributed an act of his never completed play ‘The Beat Generation‘ as the screenplay and also appeared as a narrator. Better known is his controversial ‘Cocksucker Blues‘ about the Rolling Stones, though this was never commercially released, and probably more known about than actually viewed (there is a poor digital copy on YouTube.) Altogether he directed around twenty films, as well as acting in some, and being an editor and writer.

Frank’s photographic output was increasingly linked to the problems of his family, including the death of his daughter, Andrea, in a 1974 plane crash in Guatemala and his son Pablo’s mental illness. Increasingly his pictures were carefully constructed but also captioned with texts, often crudely scrawled or scratched on the images. There is a raw emotionalism and outpouring of grief that is sometimes hard to bear in such texts as ‘She was 21 years old and she lived in this house and I think of Andrea every day.

More recently he worked on a series of photographs of common tools and objects, referring back to the series produced by Walker Evans for ‘Fortune’ magazine when Frank was working as his assistant.


When I wrote this the only other widely available book of Frank’s photographs was The Lines of my Hand published in 1972 which included a range of his work but lacked the coherence of The Americans. In 2003 came London/Wales, and in 2008 a revised edition of The Americans with most images uncropped and some variants. In 2009 Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, gave us scholarly essays with a great deal more information (and more pictures) about Frank and his work. From 2010 on Steidl published a series of half a dozen ‘Visual Diaries’ with photos from his early career together with the later more personal images. But despite all this, The Americans in its earlier editions stands out as the essential Robert Frank and the book that changed photography.

Frank continued (part 2)

Monday, September 16th, 2019

Here is the second of three parts of my longish essay about Robert Frank, certainly the greatest influence on other photographers including myself in the years that followed publication of his book ‘The Americans’ in 1958/9. The final and I think most interesting part, in which I take a look at that book in some detail will follow shortly.


New York and Travel

As soon as he possibly could, in 1947, Frank left Switzerland and moved to New York. Art director Alexey Brodovitch encouraged Frank to photograph for Harper’s Bazaar and other fashion magazines. Frank soon found fashion restricting and also contributed to “Life”, “Look”, “Fortune”, “McCall’s”, and “The New York Times”.

Frank also began to travel, coming back to Europe in 1951, where he photographed in mining villages in Wales and in London, as well as photographing in South America for a book including work by Swiss photographer Werner Bischof and the French photographer Pierre Verger who devoted more than half of his life to the study, promotion, and practice of Afro-Brazilian culture.

In Wales he took a powerful if slightly predictable close view of a miner coming back from the pit, blackened by coal. It is a powerful portrait, the cheery face beneath a cloth cap heightened by contrast with the broader out of focus miner in the left of the frame. His picture of children playing on the slag heap, and of a miner at home scrubbing himself in a zinc bath while his wife sits at the table reading the newspaper are vibrant reminders of vanished times, and were surely informed by pictures from the 1930s of similar scenes taken by Bill Brandt.

In London too he was drawn to the stereotype, but rendered it in a personal and interesting fashion; men in bowlers and top hats stroll through the fog of city streets, carrying umbrellas. There are also some odd moments and places – a dog in a foggy street, an angel peering over a wall, mothers (or nannies) struggling with giant wrapped babies and prams in the park, bombsites and hearses.

Back in New York in 1953, Frank began to work with Edward Steichen in selecting work for an exhibition on ‘Post-War European Photographers’ at the Museum of Modern Art, and later on ‘The Family of Man’, although as Frank says, he did not share the ‘Captain’s’ sentimental vision behind this. Frank took Steichen to visit the studio of Jacob Tuggener among other photographers, and his work was included in the exhibition.

American Influences

Meanwhile, Frank had discovered another of the elements that was to influence him greatly, Walker Evan’s seminal book ‘American Photographs‘. Again this was a carefully and subtly sequenced work, with picture linking visually to picture and recurring themes. Evans possibly drew his ideas about sequencing more from literary than film sources. Frank took his work to show Evans, who was impressed; it was Evans who was the major support behind Frank when he successfully applied for a Guggenheim Grant to make a journey across America taking photographs.

A further influence on Frank was also largely literary (although at that time derided by the literary establishment.) This was the ‘beat generation’ – writers and poets such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Kerouac had written ‘On the Road‘, his second book, using a single long roll of paper in his typewriter so he could let his stream of thought flow out through its keys to paper without interruption, without pausing to think or editing. The book is based around a series of four largely pointless journeys by Kerouac (Sal Paradise), driving across America with or to visit his friend ‘Dean Moriaty’, whose wild behaviour and unreliability are legendary.

Written in 1950, Kerouac’s publisher turned it down, and it did not appear until 1957. Frank was probably not familiar with the detailed text, but certainly was aware of the movement and had met some of the principals including Ginsberg in the early fifties before his own road trip around America, and in his attitudes and view of America he echoed those of the beats.

On the Road

Frank’s journeys across America were however rather less frenetic than Kerouac’s and fuelled more by his experiences than drugs. Much of the the time he was accompanied by his wife and son who both appear in the final image of the finished book. Throughout 1955/6 he crossed America, driving a second-hand car given him by Peggy Guggenheim, shooting around 500 rolls of film, photographing on the streets and in post offices, Woolworth stores, cafés, small hotels, bus stations.

He started work early in the mornings and usually continued all day. He seldom talked to people and usually tried not to be noticed while he was photographing, though his subjects in some pictures are clearly reacting to his camera – and not always positively. After his travels he edited the roughly 18,000 images down to the 83 which appear in his book, on average around one from every six films.

The journeys were not without problems, particularly when he was arrested and held in jail for 3 days in Little Rock, Arkansas. A police officer saw a Ford with New York plates being driven by a badly dressed and dishevelled Frank; he stopped the car and spoke to him and discovered not only did he have a strongly foreign accent, but saw that there were several cameras and other boxes and bags in the car. Clearly this was a spy, and that he had a piece of paper with something about Guggenheim on it (another foreign name) made circumstances even more suspicious.

So Frank was arrested and left in jail for around seven hours before being subjected to a series of interrogations for another four hours. This was at the height of the cold war and McCarthyism, and the police were totally unable to understand what Frank was trying to do. Why was anyone photographing America other than to supply information to a foreign power? Every possible point in his papers and his attempted explanations was fuel to their paranoia –the name Brodovitch – one of his Guggenheim sponsors – was clearly Russian, one of his children was called Pablo – a foreign name, he had marked routes on his maps and so on.

Fortunately Frank was able to persuade them not to have any of his films developed locally as they had threatened to. When they asked him if he knew anyone in politics or the police or similar, he told them he knew Steichen, and that his wife’s uncle was a close friend of Mayor Wagner of New York.

What concerned Frank most after he had been released was that his fingerprints had been taken and sent to the FBI; he was worried that this might prejudice his application for American citizenship.


The final piece of this essay, first published on the web in 2000, will appear shortly and looks at the content of ‘The Americans’ and then concludes with a very brief section on his later work.

Me, Kerouac and Frank

Sunday, September 15th, 2019

I can no longer remember what led me to the work of Jack Kerouac as a 15 or 16 year-old in an outer London suburb around 1960, though I think it was linked in some way with my addiction to jazz, and modern jazz in particular.

The old-fashioned Grammar School that I attended had a weekly lunchtime jazz record session for older pupils led by one of the younger staff and I became an avid fan, though it was a little later that I began to attend live music. But for several years the only record that I owned (and was very occasionally allowed to play on big sister’s record player) was the 1956 Esquire 7″ 45 rpm ‘The Mastery of Miles’, featuring The New Miles Davis Quintet, with Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Jo Jones. I still have it.

I can remember the look of disgust on my Headmaster’s face as he presented my prize for distinction in academic work for the year 1961/2 (we were allowed to choose books to a certain value), the Grove Press edition of Jack Kerouac’s ‘Dr Sax‘. It was a look repeated the following year when he handed over ‘Big Sur‘, with in an Andre Deutsch edition, its cover image of a man clutching a wine bottle lying on a mattress taken looking between the soles of his footwear.

It was of course Kerouac who wrote the introduction to Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ (the first draft is here) although only after Frank had been disatisfied with an earlier introduction by Walker Evans – and Delpire rejected both for the initial French edition, including instead texts by various authors which perhaps seemed to relegate the pictures to illustrations.

It was around ten years later that I came across ‘The Americans‘, possibly at Leicester University where I took a short and basic course in photography as a part of a teacher training year. A year or so later I managed to borrow a copy on inter-Library loan and later still I bought my own copy, probably from the ‘Creative Camera’ book room.

I still have that copy of the 1978 Aperture edition, possibly the best of many, but also the huge 2009 volume of essays edited by Sarah Greenough, ‘Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans: Expanded Edition’, a book too heavy to read but which includes much previously unpublished material as well as the 83 pictures in the original.

Frank took almost 28,000 pictures during his travels across America, and in 1978 sold his archive to pay for making films and living expenses. You can see a few in a New York Times feature, and at the Danziger Gallery, which also includes some earlier and later work. Although in 1976 Frank wrote in his volume in the Aperture History of Photography series:

1960. Decide to put my camera in a closet. Enoug of observing and hunting and capturing (sometimes) the essence of what is black or what is good and where is God.
I make films. Now I have to talk to the people who move across my viewfinder. It isn’t easy nor particularly successful.”

and continues in the entry for 1969, “Camera still in closet”, this doesn’t appear to have been strictly true. But I think for most of us what really matters about his work, and what remains his huge contribution to photography are those 83.


I’ll continue with some of my old essay on Robert Frank shortly – unless like today my mind gets diverted!

Women in photojournalism

Saturday, September 14th, 2019

When I taught photography – which I did, mainly at beginner level to students between 18-20, though my oldest student was in his eighties – for around 30 years – the great majority of my best students were female. Partly this was because generally they worked harder and met the deadlines more often, and perhaps they listened more carefully in my lessons and made better notes, but I think there were also some differences in thinking, perhaps because of peer pressure which made boys reluctant to show sensitivity lest they be thought feminine.

Because many of my students were women I tried hard to show examples of work by women when I could – despite at one time teaching a syllabus with a number of named photographers in the history of photography in which the only woman was Julia Margaret Cameron. And when I wrote a popular photography web site I made sure it featured the work of women who I thought had been neglected in both the history of our medium and in current practice.

I’ve also known many good women photographers and although there are fewer women than men among the photographers I’ve known (and in most areas of the profession) I have the impression that a higher proportion of the women are photographers whose work I particularly admire.

Many women have shown they can do as well as men even in the more hazardous areas of photography including German photographer Anja Niedringhaus who was the only woman on the team of AP photographers awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for their coverage of the Iraq War. That year she also won the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism award. On the web site ‘Menschen im Krieg: Das Lebenswerk der Anja Niedringhaus‘ buttons link to her work from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Gaza, Iraq and Bosnia. Her career had begun with a move from a local paper after covering the fall of the Berlin Wall and other events she covered included the aftermath of 9/11 in New York.

Niedringhaus died age 48 in Afghanistan on 4th April 2014, shot by an Afghan policeman while sitting in a car at a checkpoint near Khost while covering the presidential election. The officer walked up to their car, shouted “Allahu Akbar!” and shot killing her and severely injuring a woman journalist sitting beside her. He gave himself up and was later sentenced to death for wounding, murder and treason. The International Women’s Media Foundation founded the Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award in her honour with the aid of a $1 million gift from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and it is given out every year to a female photojournalist whose work “follows in the footsteps of Anja Niedringhaus.

A feature in The Week’s ‘Captured’ photo blog shows the work of Niedringhaus together more stunning photography from this year’s winner Heidi Levine, Rebecca Blackwell (honorable mention) and Anastasia Vlasova (first runner up). All of their work is worth exploring.

Robert Frank – the Early Years

Friday, September 13th, 2019

My essay on Robert Frank started as my rather briefer teaching notes which I used with A Level and BTEC students in the 1980s and 90s which I later extended for publication in a photographer’s newsletter and then for a photography web site. Behind the first part of the essay was an attempt to show something of the sources of Frank’s inspiration in his photographic apprenticeship in Switzerland.

It amused me somewhat that many, particularly Americans seemed to treat Frank as an essentially American photographer, while to me it seemed to me that the strength of his vision came from the fact that he saw the country as a foreigner. Even though he had had longed to escape his native Switzerlandto find a new home in the States, his thinking was still from a European tradition – if one of which most Americans were unaware. So I began with an introduction about his early years and some of the influences on him.


Robert Frank was born in 1924 in Zurich, Switzerland; his parents were Jewish. He was part of a European generation most of whom fought in the Second World War, but Switzerland remained neutral; it was also a time when Jews across the border were being killed by the million. Although the German-speaking area of Switzerland was dominated by Nazis, freedom of speech and the freedom to create remained.

Frank learnt photography from a photographer who lived in the same block of flats as his family, Hermann Segesser. In 1942, at the age of 18, he was apprenticed to Hermann Eidenbenz and later worked for Michael Wolgensinger in Zurich. Wolgensinger (1913-90) had learnt photography from Johannes Meiner in Zurich before attending Hans Finsler’s classes at the Zurich School of Commercial Art and becoming Finsler’s assistant from 1935-7. Both taught Frank to use large format cameras and controlled lighting in the studio. Following this, Frank worked for a short time for a film company in Zurich, Gloria Films. Wolgensinger later also worked with experimental and commercial film – including ‘Metamorphose ‘ – and colour installations.

The young Frank was impressed by Paul Senn’s pictures of Spanish refugees, as well as by the resolutely Swiss pictures of Jacob Tuggener. Although Tuggener was right wing and conservative in his views, the ‘beatnik’ bohemian Frank admired both his work and his artistic intransigence. He compares Tuggener to the famous Swiss national hero, William Tell – Tuggener’s work was Switzerland seen totally without sentimentality. Frank was also impressed by the way he used his photographs in sequences – particularly in his book of factory photographs, ‘Fabrik‘, creating something like a film.

Montage was a term and technique developed particularly by the great early Russian film directors, Eisenstein – in ‘Strike’, ‘The General Line’ and ‘The Battleship Potemkin’ – and Pudovkin in ‘The End of St Petersburg’ and elsewhere. Pudovkin tried to analyse its use in his book ‘Film Technique’ where he states that montage is the foundation of film art. He set out five techniques of montage:

  • contrast – where for example the plight of a starving man is heightened by following it with a scene of a feast;
  • parallelism – which extends contrast by inter-cutting the scenes;
  • similarity – which makes use of similar content – as when Eisenstein cuts from strikers being shot to an ox being slaughtered in an abbatoir in the finale of ‘Strike’;
  • synchronism – which involves cutting between events happening at the same time – will the hero rescue the helpless female from the track before she is hit by the fast–approaching locomotive;
  • recurrent theme (Leitmotiv) – a recurring image or scene.

Although this schema was extended greatly by Timoshenko and usefully extended and clarified by Rudolf Arnheim in his ‘Film as Art‘ – still a useful resource for both the study of film and for photographers – it has the merit of simplicity.

Tuggener was not of course the first to sequence photographs with some care. One of the strengths of the great editors of the illustrated magazines of the 1920s and 30s such as Stefan Lorant was their skill in photographic layout. However in general this was largely a matter of linking photographs to a narrative line, often corresponding to a temporal sequence. Lorant also often worked with pairs of pictures as a contrast, often humorous, seen at its most obvious in the magazine ‘Liliput‘. Bill Brandt, the great British photographer of the 1930s-50s, was also adept at sequencing, for example in his book ‘A Night in London‘ (1938), where a temporal structure is used.

Tuggener’s approach in ‘Fabrik’ and other projects was more radical in its use of montage, making use in particular of contrast, similarity and leitmotiv. It represented a decisive move away from viewing the single photograph as the photographic work to seeing it in terms of the whole series of pictures.

By 1946, Frank was photographing on the streets of Zurich with a 35mm rangefinder camera, developing his own style. He was learning to use the camera in a fluid and intuitive manner, trying to capture his impressions spontaneously rather than to calculate and impose a composition on them.


More of my essay on Frank in a later post.