Flogging A Dead Horse – Paul Reas

This book was suggested to me by OCA tutor Jose Navarro. I had come across another book by Reas called “I can help” which had struck me as deeply ironical and so I wondered what this book might be about. With a postscript by Val Williams I felt I would be able to keep a detached and informed view.

The book was published in the early 1990’s with help from the Arts Council of Great Britain; it is a comment on the growing heritage industry which tends to glamourise the past as it makes old coal mines and the like available to a fee paying public armed with cameras. There is an absence of grime and the apparent authenticity is rather deceiving.

The photographs could be described as post-modernist in approach. For instance, many images are tilted. It is not obvious as to why this has been done yet it adds to the sense of confusion these images seem to be portraying.

There is also text by Stuart Cosgrove which outlines his experience of looking at the photographs and what some of the images mean to him. Its’ not easy to determine what the individual images are concerned with and this text along with the captions at the back help. The text itself is creatively placed on the page with some of it being enlarged and almost floating. A reminder of the way text and image can work together.

There are many images one could comment on but one that stands out is of a “black” man wearing a union jack tea shirt stands at the back of a bus; the photographer looks from the outside past the heads of two white people. There is an obvious conflict here of different kinds of heritage. One can not help but recall an image by Martin Parr in which a “black man” stands talking to an elderly British couple at a party.

The cover image of the book is of a cobbled street from a bygone age in which a cart is placed; a man with a video recorder is seen photographing the scene. It all appears rather unreal and on reflection not at all like any street that actually existed in a previous century although the elements of such a scene are apparent.

Val Williams’s commentary is at the back; she is describes as a photo-historian and writer about photography. Her prose helps one to see deeper into the images and understand the photographer’s intentions.

I like this book not as a document to be enjoyed for pretty photographs but as an insight into the culture we create around us; even when it is meant to be there to inform us, it is more likely to mislead in an attempt to entertain us.

Often one’s feeling towards photographs is personal. One photograph that sticks out for me is of a tour guide with bowler hat and brolly raised talking to a group of smiling tourists of different nationalities. I remember seeing these guides when I visited The Tower of London some years ago; they were very amusing with their theatrical approach and did actually give a valid insight into the place even if an exaggerated one.

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