Another London – photography exhibition at Tate Britain

ANOTHER LONDON : exhibition at Tate Britain

“Another London” is an exhibition of 100 photographs taken by photographers from abroad. It coincided with the Olympics last held in London over 60 years ago.

I decided to buy the book of the exhibition since not only does it contain the images from the exhibition, it also contains an essay called “Overseas photographers view the city at mid-century” by Ben Gidley and Mick Gidley. It may help to deepen my insight into this group of photographers and the subject they have chosen, namely London. Photography has this power to inform even educate and it is surely a mistake to ignore that potential of the medium. There is a certain amount of political history in this exhibition as records of racial tension, for instance, in the 1960’s feature. Yet photography does not just document, it also has the power to be of universal significance and one sees this perhaps in a photograph by Bill Brandt of a woman placidly scrubbing her doorstep. As the Gidleys write, ” … the photographs in the collection represent a range of visual strategies and approaches, but taken together say something important about the time and place of their making.”

The photographs were all made in the middle of the twentieth century, from 1930 to 1980, and during this time London faced considerable growth with building projects actually devised during the war and executed afterwards. There is a lot of nostalgia about a London that no longer is which some of these photographs recall yet there is also detail that reveal that this past London was not idyllic. There is a vast array of subject matter within the exhibition; Bill Brandt is recorded as saying that what Henry James, the American novelist, called “multitudinous life,” was “something too complex to be caught” wondering “if anyone would ever succeed in photographing London.” Of course, there are certain symbols of London such as the red buses and Big Ben much of what constitutes London comes from outside, in the form of immigrants and the role of London as a hub of Empire although this was of course dwindling during this period. Street photographers are often looking to catch some kind of juxtaposition to make their photographs meaningful yet a lot of photographs in this exhibition rely on their ability to record different types of people such as hippies or char women among many others.

The exhibition features a variety of photographers. Some are well-known such as Henri-Cartier Bresson who has provided a source of inspiration for many others. A lesser known photographer is Sergio Larrain who was not afraid to make much looser compositions, more post-modern than the modernist conventions of the 1950’s. Some of the photographers featured were sent on commission to photograph London by different kinds of magazines who were looking for certain sorts of images while other photographers came independently. There were those, most notably Brandt, who became naturalised British subjects with Dorothy Bohm going on to found the Photographer’s Gallery.

These photographers from abroad brought their own vision and experiences, such as Leonard Freed who was fascinated by both Jewishness and the police, and hence the exhibition title, Another London, and yet the place they photographed is still recognisable as London.

The exhibition was made possible by The Eric and Louise Franck London Collection as Tate curator Simon Baker points out in a short, one page introduction. The photographs were collected over a period of 20 years and form a small part of a collection of other 1,000 images.

David Campany has written at length about this exhibition and his essay is available on the Tate Britain website.

My own visit came with a few days of the exhibition closing. I had been thinking about it for quite sometime, wondering why the college ignore these kind of exhibitions (presumably because they are not contemporary) and suggesting to others that they might like to accompany or meet me there. Finally, I found the time to make the visit, slightly daunted by the sheer size of the exhibition which encourage one to sweep past images that given more time, might have opened up their secrets. A little study beforehand perhaps can help avoid this but one does not want to go just to see Henri Cartier-Bresson, for instance; there is a lot of other work that deserves attention. I guess I shall glide past in the time allotted and soak up what I can without being too overwhelmed.

The gallery is crowded when I arrive in the afternoon yet there is still room to move around and see the photographs; to see them as prints rather than as images in a book makes a difference yet the book is well printed. Beside very photograph is a short biography of the photographer; these can be interesting (I was unaware that the photographer Dorothy Bohm had started The Photographer’s Gallery in London) yet it would take too long to read them all and there is barely time to see all the photographs before one starts to feel exhaustion. Some of these photographs would be considered as having questionable quality these days since the shadows are often dense to the point of obscuring detail and yet their aesthetic charm helped by excellent composition often pleases the eye of the viewer. It was during this period that Ansel Adams was developing his techniques of black and white film development; it seems he never photographed London because if he had,

I noted certain images that had an immediate impression on me; the following group of impressions is not meant to be exhaustive of the excellent work on show. Rene Groebli’s “Tram on Westminster Bridge, 1949) is a bold and striking composition; the uncomplicated arrangement of objects is quite different from many other photos that contain a wealth of fascinating detail. Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s photo “Bibi in London, 1926″is near the very beginning of the exhibition which is put together on a loosely chronological basis, a completely different order to the book where “Bibi in London, 1926” appears as the first photograph and is certainly the oldest, falling on a date that contradicts the title of photographs made between 1930 and 1980. Although this image is technically amateurish, it is nonetheless evocative; the dark shadows add to the atmosphere surrounding Bibi.

Looking at a display of photos by Bill Brandt

Ivan Shagin has photographed a street artist, busy at work on a pavement, while a young woman glances back at him. There are a number of photographs by Bill Brandt who came to London before the war and stayed; he photographed London extensively, producing two books on the place. Norah Wilson commented of his work that his “pictures of London people are not portraits; they are generalisations.” I am also attracted to the work of E.O.Hoppe whose photograph of a seagull “Calmly sitting on the parapets of her mighty bridges, 1932′ is an amusing study of a sub-adult gull while another Hoppe, “London Stock Exchange, a typical young businessman, 1937” is a much more austere reminder of life in Britain. Auerbach’s “London, 1936” is a view down on a London cross-roads (we are not told exactly where) with a group of iconic London buses passing by.

I am diverted from my “tour” for a few minutes by what sounds like an alteration between a photographer and a couple of security guards; the photographer has a V+A badge giving her permission to photograph but the guards appear to be question her motives; I hear the photographer saying that she is not interested in photographing individuals rather in photographing people looking at photographs. This is exactly how I feel about photographing in this situation although for the purposes of this blog, I am also photographing groups of photographs to show to some extent the way in which the exhibition is laid out. SOme people actually photograph individual photographs – this strikes me as copyright infringement but as long as one does not publish such images, there seems to be no harm done. When the women eventually move away to their continue their discussion elsewhere, I look into the cabinet they have been standing around; inside is a book called London by Alvin Langdon Coburn which was published in 1909; an open page shows the imposing lower part of Nelson’s Column reflected in nearby water.

Henri-Cartier Bresson’s photographs are of course excellent. It is not only the symmetry of his compositions but also their subject matter; here there is technical ability too, allowing one to stare into the shadows and find things there that might have otherwise been blotted out. One photograph strikes me – taken during the Coronation of a man who has apparently fallen off his place on a wall and now lies sleeping contentedly on a newspaper strewn pavement. This photograph is not illustrated in the book. Another Cartier-Bresson photograph of a London Ball is quite different in approach – low light conditions have prevented detail in some areas and the resolution of the photograph is also quite soft as couples dance in swirling forms.

A well made photograph (even though the blacks are solid!) is Felix H Mann’s “The lights go up in London, 1945” which is a view of London at night in which Big Ben is highlighted; this print is made on ferrotype paper.

Robert Frank’s “City of London. 1951” is like Hoppe’s photograph of the London Stock Exchange; the street draws one in yet a striking character in a bowler hat, the only person facing the camera, makes one stop to sense the awe inspiring character of the place. There is a photograph by Ernst Haas of a preacher at Speaker’s Corner, “Hyde Park, London 1953”; the composition mirrors the “Pillar of Fire Society” lectern from which a woman is speaking in no uncertain terms. This is one of a number of photographs of imposing women to be seen in the exhibition. There is for instance, Bruce Davidson’s “Bus conductor woman with ticket machine, 1960” in which the photographer is getting a very stern if not disapproving look from his subject. Jeanloup Sieff has photographed an “English Nanny” in 1936 who looks down at him, impassionately from the top of the frame. However, some photographers have a more compassionate view of London’s women such as Eve Arnold who photographed “One of four women who share a flat in Knightsbridge, 1961” having a bath while Dorothy Bohm has made eye contact with more fashionable women walking the streets of London. There is a portrait photograph by James Barnor of a black woman, “Eva, London c1956” in which the woman is shown as she is, without artifice.

Marc Riboud has made a telling image of London boys playing Cowboys and Indians; one of the boys is carrying a toy gun. Behind the street is almost deserted with just a vehicle or two parked in the road. Life on London streets is very different these days with boys more likely to be carrying real guns or knives than toy ones while most children are not able to play on the streets instead more likely to be found playing inside with electronic gadgets. Another of Riboud’s images is of a gentleman eyeing a sculptured horse’s head in “The British Museum, 1954”

On the whole, the typological approach of some photographers is not very interesting. Two prints by Irving Penn which are taken in studio conditions are rather poorly rendered although the subjects are of interest; more British women, this time a jovial couple of cleaners in “Cleaning Women, 1950” In the case of Martin Franck, it is a sensitive woman who is photographing rendering her subjects as they are such as in the young girl wearing a top hat with a Union Jack marinated upon it in “Greenwich, London, 1977.”

Another London exhibition – 12 photo display of Al Vandenburg

Towards the end of the exhibition, there is a display of Al Vandenburg’s black and white photographs. These are relatively small prints with large white borders and the subject matter is often of interest such as the 1975 image of a young woman standing while holding a cassette player, a popular device of the time, from his series “On a good day”. Vandenburg had studied with the well known photographer, Avedon.

The exhibition features only black and white photographs. By the 1980’s, colour was becoming much more acceptable and if there was to be an exhibition of the decades following 1980, it would more likely consist of colour images with just a few black and whites from those who like to specialise in the medium.

Having seen the exhibition, I reread David Campany’s “On the hoof and shooting from the hip.” He mentions the difficulty in defining London, Paris is apparently easy, and references the work of the American Walker Evans who wandered out photographing things of apparently little consequence such as doorbells, quiet corners and masonry; he was not the only one to photograph an apparently deserted London. However, most of the photographs do contain people going about their daily working lives. There appears to have been more variety at this time for nowadays many suburbs with their brand name shops and restaurants look much the same.

Campany, who has written extensively about Art and Photography, writes that “Photography appeals because it escapes narrative and wrongfoots the easy explanations it can seduce us into making. Like the visitor with fresh eyes, the camera takes in everything. It sees without hierarchy or intention, with no knowledge of the before or after. In fact, it sees more than any human can, recording surfaces and objects with unimaginable realism. Its voracity and its veracity are inseparable.” His comments seem apt as does the following, “In the final print the smallest things may become insistent signs, calling inexplicable attention to themselves across time.”

Tate Britain – visitor reading

What of the many details recorded here that have now vanished or become obscured? Photography can easily undermine artistic ambitions because all photographs end up as documents; this is what has happened here as inviting vignettes have become interesting records of a London that no longer exists in quite the same way. This period and kind of photography was made possible by the development of lighter cameras such as the handheld Leica and film that did not require such long exposures as before.

Since these photographs were made, photography has ceased to be documentary based and developed to be more artistic in it’s aspirations. However, says Campany, Another London is not just a group of nostalgic photographs, it is exemplary of a shift in photography marked in part by a renaissance of street photography, an attempt to get back to showing the nitty gritty of life rather than it’s synthesised equivalent.

One last point. The cover of “Another London” is of a black man just like the cover of the exhibition catalogue of “How We Are”, the first major Tate Britain photographic exhibition. Political correctness? It seems there is still the need to make up for the under-representation of black people in the past. How much of this exhibition is about photography and how much is concerned with other considerations?

A visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum

Main Entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum has a lot of work on show; I had gone however just to see an exhibition of photographs called “Island Stories” yet also visited another couple of rooms upstairs where the Recording Britain exhibition was being held.

Entrance to the Exhibition

I have some trouble finding the “Island Stories” exhibition. I assume I know which room in the V+A it is being staged but decide to check with the Information Desk. The man behind the counter informs me that there is no exhibition on but I see a likely brochure on the desk in front of him and find a reference to the display (it does not have the higher status of “exhibition” it seems); someone else is able to inform me that it is indeed in the gallery I had assumed it would be in. In the exhibition, there is a woman seated at one end to look after the place; I ask her a question about the exhibition and after bluffing for awhile, she admits to not knowing anything since it is her first day. Later in the day, when I want to find out the location of another “display”, I approach three people behind the information desk who look as though they might know but they are engaged in conversation and so do not see me; around the other side of the desk though, a young Scotsman is able to tell me exactly where to go and hands me a map to help me on my way.

Island Stories is a “display” (not sure what would make it an exhibition) of photographs from post-war Britain that are being shown in conjunction with a large exhibition of British Design. It focues on individual projects undertaken by the photographers which may centre around a particular place or be more widespread in the UK. The names of the photographers are well-known and most of them I have heard of before.

One of the photographers who is new to me is also one of my favourites in this exhibition. Grace Robertson was one of the few female photographers of her time; she contributed to Picture Post, a major photographic publication that has since ceased being printed. One of these photographs shows a group of women, about two dozen strong, standing and sitting outside a pub; almost all are smiling, not the forced smiles so often conjured up for the photographer, but obvious signs of exuberance from people who are enjoying themselves. Another note of humour is struck by the face of an elderly man peering out through the darkened glass of the pub behind them. One thinks of the heightened spirits of those who had lived through the war and rationing and were now starting to be able to enjoy life. The photograph is from a series made in 1954 called Mother’s Day Off and there are other images revealing the women at play; in one, a woman lifts her dress to reveal her bloomers.

Entrance to the “Island Stories” exhibition

On entering the gallery ( can one call it that or should it be referred to as the “display space” or even simply “room” !?), one is confronted by the photograph of a Union Jack which has been painted on to the wall of a house. The photograph balances this in it’s composition that includes surrounding buildings. This striking photograph, very much a document, has been made by Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane and is part of their “Folk Archive: Contemporary Popular Art from the UK”. On the other side of this wall that stands directly opposite the entrance, is another of their photographs, this time of a crop circle. Their work is also included in an accompanying display called “Recording Britain” which I visit later upstairs.

Peter Fraser has three photographs from 2002. These are strongly coloured prints made inside the lab of a university physics department, minute vistas blown up to fascinate.

Mark Edwards has two of the largest photographs in the exhibition. Made with a large format 10 by 8 camera, they are barely distinguishable from each other and show a motorway verge with a bank and line of trees. The photographer notes that after The Forestry Commission, The Highways Agency are one of the biggest planters of trees. An interesting fact but the photos themselves look dull and one asks what one is being asked to consider here. The images are from a series called Stories Yet to be Told and were made in 2005.

Inside the Island Stories exhibition

Raymond Moore (1920 to 1987) is a photographer about whose work, the captions that accompanying this display of 70 photographs, comments “beneath the surface appearances there might be something going on”. The black and white photographs seen here are dark and brooding to my mind although they are images of ordinary scenes from the United Kingdom; details are however used to give them depth. In one, a painted car stands alone with “sex” written in large letters on it’s side. The car park in which it is situated is otherwise empty but for the strong white lines that mark out the individual parking places which are in turn mirrored by the lines drawn on adjoining tennis courts. A large arrow on the tarmac is painted near the entrance and nearby the word “in” can be seen; the arrow points to an individual who stands with his back to the camera, holding a cap in the hand of an outstretched arm. Is this some kind of comment on the sexual condition? There seems to be no clear meaning. Moore himself spoke of “the uncommonness of the common place”.

The next group of photographs are by Don Mac Cullin, a personal project he made of coal workers in the 1960’s that was made to show hardship.

Roger Mayne has photographs from his Southam Street series (1956 to 1961) one of which is very well known, ambiguously showing a young woman, standing but not posing, who looks like she might be dirty yet still has beauty. The other photographs are of children playing in the street, something they are seldom able to do nowadays.

Another photographer featured that I had not heard of is Elizabeth Juda who used to contribute to The Ambassador magazine. She studied under the Bauhaus artist Lucie Moholy and her work reveals a distinctly modernist approach.

I have not heard of the photographer Maurice Broomfield either. He has perhaps the largest collection of images in this show; they are of industry, not from a detached point of view but often revealing wonderful designs within the various scenes of industrial instruments that he has photographed. His work echoes that of Peter Fraser whose work is in another corner of the room, diagonally opposite.

a group of photos by Bill Brandt

There are 6 of Bill Brandts photographs; all are nudes but in some landscape is visible in the background. These are highly imaginative works in which the body itself becomes like a landscape with the contours of a human form seen close up.

At the same time as the Island Stories display, there was another upstairs called “Recording Britain” that was a mixture of paintings and photographs. I bought the catalogue, out of interest and as a way to support the museum; it is also interesting to see the combination of painting and photographs hung together. The following is taken from an essay in the catalogue entitled “Facts and Emotion : a photographic survey” by Martin Barnes.

John Piper, an artist of the time which was during the 2’nd World War, wrote that although photography is an excellent cataloguer, it has a “dead-eye” for “It can suggest and illustrate; it can never describe”. The idea that photography can only convey the factual and never the spirit or feeling of landscape was prevalent at that time and is still a view upheld by a few. However, Barnes asks whether this might be the result of an inability of the painter to accept the ambiguity of a medium that merges both the mechanical and the human. The painter is likely to be unaware that photography necessitates viewing point, framing, type of photographic process, an intelligent eye behind the lens; nowadays, the “inherent blurring of illustration and emotion, embracing the creative intersection between fact and fiction”.

Early photographers made interesting comments. The following is from Frederick Evans, a nineteenth century architectural photographer, who wrote … “Try for the record of an emotion rather than a piece of typography. Wait until the building makes you feel intensely, in some special part of it or other; then try and analyse what gives you that feeling … and then see what your camera can do towards reproducing that effect.” He mentions technical correctness yet also delight in detail, tasteful framing, tonal awareness, an understanding of the effect of light on form, ability to capture a moment of time; one might also consider not just the photograph but a body of photographs working as a sequence. A good photograph can transform the way we see something.

Photography contains a certain nostalgia since whatever it records will pass!

paintings and photographs from the “Recording Britain” exhibition

Barnes’ essay continues to document the various photographers that have recorded Britain. There have been a number and they have worked independently without government support and yet often patriotic, more interested in the historical than the contemporary. Among these photographers were Benjamin Brecknell Turner (1815-94) who photographed many of the subjects that painters covered and followed the dictum of “feeling through the eye” yet also provided “detail, texture, qualities of light”. Brecknell recorded scenes of rural life that were soon to become history yet he turned a blind eye to developments such as that of the railways that were being built at this time.

A number of photographers including Roger Fenton contributed to a book called Ruined Abbeys and Castles of Great Britain (1862), the introduction of which saw photography starting to assert itself in relation to painters; “The reader is no longer left to suppose himself at the mercy of the imaginations, the caprices or deficiencies of artists, but to have before him the genuine presentiment of the object under consideration.” Glass plate negatives further enhanced detail.

Francis Frith (1822-98) was a photographer who photographed many places around the UK as all as a few abroad such as the pyramids in Egypt; he tended to picture scenes that were tourist destinations as this is what made him money. Henry Dixon (1820-1930) was another photographer who worked for The Society of Photographing Relics of Old London (SPROL); he “combined technical ability, historical knowledge and sensitivity to the rapidly changing face of the urban landscape”. Long exposures necessary to record these images tend not to show many people and the images have been described as melancholic since “the quietude of the place exercises a most depressing feeling”. Personally, I experience these photos as having a more sublime quality since they are expressive of timelessness.

The National Photographic Record Association (NPRA) was a project managed between 1897 and 1910 by Benjamin Stone, a Birmingham MP, who encouraged a photographic survey whose “typical subjects included parish churches, civic buildings and curiosities of local architecture, country lanes, schools, mills, prisons, village stocks, market places, age-old customs and locations noted for their associations with historical events or literary mention”. Stone is best remembered for his photographs of old customs such as the Corby Pole Fair among many others. The NPRA collection is now lodged with the V+A in boxes relating to counties; there are some 5000 prints in the collection.

Although photography tended to be scorned as the artist “was being ousted by a man with a little black box – the photographer” as Herbert Read wrote in The Listener, there were those who recognised it’s accuracy as a recording device and that photography involved much more than pressing a button. There were furthermore, photographers such as Bill Brandt who managed to make accurate records while also making an artistic statement, combining social realism with Surreal overtones.

Photograph recording the Britain of the past are unique as objects that reveal an entirely different way of working such as in prints produced by different chemical means yet they also contain a wealth of fascinating detail. As Barnes writes, “we may benefit from an understanding of the photographically mediated social and historical evidence the images contain”.

Open College of the Arts week-end seminar at Leeds

If it apprehension I feel about this week-end, it is because it could turn out to be rather academic if not institutional rather than focusing on photography which is surely what we, about 20 students and a small group of tutors, are coming for. The underlying theme may be art rather than photography; of course, one can assume that photography is an art form and question whether there is a difference yet as Barthes writes at the very end of Camera Lucida, art threatens to undermine photography.

The guest speaker is Mishka Henner. He works largely by appropriating the work of others rather than making his own images. Looking at his website is not inspiring yet perhaps his talk might be. Landscape views from Google Earth with photographs of alluring women inserted is an interesting combination of subject matter. Les Americains is a book based on Frank’s The Americans; the original images have been largely erased. What is this new version about? I do not wish to dismiss it but am unable to see what has lead Henner to make this work. Perhaps I shall find out at the conference.

Another work by Henner, Photography Is, is a collection of over 3,000 quotes about photography. Many of these do not seem very insightful and jumbled together in a somewhat meaningless manner; Henner is apparently making some kind of comment if not on the incessant questioning about photography certainly the assumptions that people have about the medium. What I do not like about this book of which I have read a fair amount is that it seems to be suggesting that nothing worthwhile has been written or that what has been written is largely nonsense. For many it seems, Barthes is boring yet for some, he is not so much academic rather poetic.

Mishka Henner is described as an artist; I wonder therefore why he has been chosen as the guest speaker at a photographic seminar. The answer seems to be because there is this assumption that photography is art. Henner seems to be a very clever man; I wonder if I will be able to understand him!

Winning Mentality” is easier to understand. In this 2010 book, prefaced by a quote from Van Gogh, “Winning isn’t everything … it’s the only thing.”, this book shows lots of winners with the same face imposed upon each photograph. Where is the creativity here? The photographs are all appropriated yet well reproduced. Perhaps art is something we don’t need to create; it is already there. A comment about the book is that it “subverts the conventional gestures expected of winners and hints at a deeper malaise in the culture itself.”

I have emailed the other attendees to say I expect to be photographing during the event and will share photos if they want. Jesse Alexander does not want me to do it during the lectures as this would distract people while at the same time appreciating the value of such work! One student also replies to say she does not want photography during the “sessions”. I wonder if there is any point to making photographs since the social occasion is not what it is about. Perhaps a few photographs of the “sessions” might be allowed as long as I do not go on for too long. Perhaps now is the time to purchase a camera without a mirror as this allows almost silent operation but the Canon M is software based in operation rather than physical with knobs so I am not keen to purchase one; I shall stick with my compact.

outside the New Ellington Hotel, Leeds

The hotel have not answered my email about car parking! I get the feeling that it is going to be one of those places where image is more important than actuality as with many business enterprises. It takes two phone calls before the hotel call back to let me know about car parking. On arrival, I am directed towards the hotel car park; it is £14 per night but a secure one! There is some problem with one of the knobs in the bathroom – yet this is fixed.

First meeting with Eileen, Gilly and a Scottish sounding woman whom I have met before. What about the new modules that are being rewritten – are they not a little condescending !? OCA banter begins. Over dinner, I sit opposite “Shaun from Munich” who is on his second Level 2 module; he works for Hewlett Packard. Not surprisingly, he has been influenced by German photographers from the Becher school such as Gurksy and Struth. His work is worth looking at if only because it is one I might be doing; the photographs have been made in Germany and Shaun has been using Canon TSE lenses.

The enthusiatic effort of many tutors is mentioned; they are not paid a lot but they still work hard for us. It seems my role as “pet paparazzi” is more or less established and I make a few images with a compact, an attempt to be more discrete although there are times I like to be a little upfront. In fact, I do not do a lot of photography during the week-end but make a number of key photos and there have been requests fro students to use them on their blogs as well for more formal usage such as with OCASA.

Informal Group Photograph of OCA students at the beginnng of the week-end

The first session is about Open College of the Arts photographic courses and what to expect from them. Before this gets going, there are introductions, something I had suggested which at first was resisted yet Jesse Alexander was one tutor who was up for it. everyone stood up and briefly introduced themselves; standing before the assembled group of 20 students including myself, I made the above photograph and introduced myself as “a carer” and a “photographer” attempting to juggle the two; I might have said more, something about myself being a sannyasin and a Swami, but doubted anyone would be interested.

The two tutors then proceeded to give an overview of what was expected from OCA students; Peter Haveland introduced himself as head of the curricula, a title that seems to mean nothing, and a fine artist while Jesse Alexander is a working photographer who also teaches. Peter Haveland observes that all the cameras are in the hands of the students and that this is a fact worth reflecting upon; in fact, this is not entirely true as Mark Lomas is photographing from the back of the room on behalf of the OCA of whom he is a staff member. I wonder what Peter was hinting at.

Some students complain later that the week-end has not given them much to go on in regard to progressing to Levels 2 and 3; it seems to me that quite a bit of information is given out but many are still at Level 1 and not ready to progress yet having at least one more Level 1 module to do. Level 1 is more about acquiring basic knowledge, maintaining good habits, developing technical ability; this may be boring although I have not found it to be so. Exploring concepts such as The Bauhaus Contrasts is quite fascinating and exemplary of what made me want to do a degree in photography; others apparently do not see it this way yet for me, learning is about understanding the knowledge one acquires rather than merely the pursuit of knowledge.

Level 2 is about engaging with one’s work critically, putting it into context. The portfolio review later does this for me very well. Feedback from assessments can contradict what the tutor might have said and be hard to understand as I have experienced over the suggestion that I need to be more innovative although what innovation might mean in photography escapes me and no tutor can define it for me either. The assessment might not reflect expectations that are based on tutor’s comments. At Level 2, there is more engagement with the tutor. One needs to engage more with the local art community. Failure is to be welcomed since it is an important part of the learning process.

OCA tutor Peter Haveland

During the following coffee break, I chat with Peter Haveland who, as usual, has something of value to say. We discuss “knowing what one knows”, the acquisition of more books than one can store and the European fascination with Japanese art including photography. For a lot of people, this week-end is going to be about gaining encouragement towards further study; as Yiann, a student, says “I have lost my Mojo and I want my Mojo back!” I feel like popping out to the car to get my guitar and play her the “Mojo boogie” but am not sure I know very much of it. Inspiration can come from radio, films and reading.

Mishka Henner

I have already written a bit about Mishka Henner. Hearing him talk gave one a greater insight into his work which Eileen Rafferty, one of the organisers of the week-end event, described as “inspirational, challenging and thoughtful”. I managed to make a few grab shots of Mishka before being asked not to photograph; it seems that Mishka is going through a transitory period and does not want to go down on record as stating a particular point of view at present. Can not see how this would be effected by a few still photographs but he was not to know that I was not doing video. However, the request did seem a bit incongruous in the light of what Mishka does, the lifting of photographs from Google Earth rather than the making of them. Of course, the criticism he receives for this and the accompanying threats only encourage one to like his work which is brilliantly conceived and executed. Laudits have come from photographers such as Jim Goldberg and Martin Parr which is encouraging yet has done little if anything to promote sales of his books. Conceptual art is not to everyone’s taste and often people miss the point.

To view Mishka Henner’s work, one can view a lot at his website and it is really only for me to make certain points to avoid the reader missing the essence of these works. Work he discussed included his “Photography is” which is certainly worth a look at if you happen to be interested in what people are or have written about photography, a medium that seems to avoid definition. This book is certainly a fascinating resource albeit a rather muddled, incomprehensible one; a review by Joachim Schmid discusses the book in greater detail.

51 U.S. Military Outposts coincided with the Wikileaks revelations and further enlarges upon US military presence around the world. As elsewhere, Mishka has appropriated images from Google Earth and enhanced them to produce an aesthetic record that is both visually appealing and informative as people were largely unaware of these military institutions existing in the countries cited.

Dutch Landcapes is a similar work but centred on Holland which has a carefully controlled landscape since much would disappear under the sea if it was not. Here, very obvious filters have been stuck over sensitive areas which draws attention to the sites rather than obscuring them; these filters have since disappeared.

The question that Mishka’s work raises is one of authorship even ownership; these are questions that have been around for sometime as can be evidenced in the writing of Roland Barthes. Google Earth Pro does make high resolution photographs possible and it is these that Mishka has used to illustrate his work. However, one does wonder at what Mishka is doing since there are restrictions imposed by Google; presumably Mishka has got the necessary permission but he did not discuss this.

No Man’s Land is Google Earth photos made at places where sex workers were or are known to operate; amazingly the Google Earth car has captured the sex workers along with the landscapes. There were enough images to do a second book. There is a certain irony here for though “the pleasure of the gaze” is often discussed in this case the gaze is a purely mechanical one.

While projects can be inspiring, they do take up a lot of energy and considerable time especially when his books sell in small quantities and he makes no money in spite of a lot of interest in his work. He has received death threats and a lot of irrational criticism. There are a lot of issues surrounding copyright with Google since they use one’s images with any copyright being granted. His new work, Feedback Loupe, contains work that deals with some of the vitriolic feedback he has received!

Another book that Mishka has done is called Astronomical which is a clever scaled map of the solar system.

Another book, Less Americains, is a skinned down copy of Robert Frank’s The Americans; this is quite an interesting analysis of the book yet there is also a satirical edge as with 50 years since the book was first published, there has been a lot of attention paid to this book with publications such as Looking in: Robert’ Frank’s “The Americans” This work has received an apoplectic response from photographers with some treating him as if he has urinated on the bible such being the status of The Americans by Robert Frank. I can’t help but think Henners’ book provides an insight into the original book but certainly I am in the minority here.

There has been serious consideration of Mishka Henners’ work by writers such as Sean O’Hagan.

The afternoon talk is by OCA tutor, Jesse Alexander, on the subject of Photobooks. The book has a certain uniqueness, it is almost a sacred object. One can mention various things about photobooks …

_ presence or authority
_ a narrative; beginning, middle and end
_ good way to juxtapose photographs (and text if necessary)
_ an intimate experience

There are different kinds of photobooks …

_ monographs (Jesse cites Michael Bodiam’s book on a deserted London department store) Often these are not intended for wide scale publication.
_ exhibition catalogues (Oil by Burtynsky)
_ surveys (Susan Bright – Art Photography Now)

There are also books that are full of photographs but are not really photobooks; this might include my bird books or something more like an encyclopaedia with lots of photographs in to illustrate passages.

Jesse shows us some of the bird books he has done. He works with a professional book binder in Bristol called Bristol Bound to whom he presents prints which, after some discussion, are then bound. Martin Parr has worked with these publishers.

Jesse shows us some of the books he has done. Book designing does require skills and so they are best not used at Level 1 and Level 2 since they might detract from the portfolio. Photobooks are more than just a colllection of photos – they involve highly complex editing skills.

Photobooks do not conform to any particular format (companies like Blurb might give this impression) and they can take many different forms – Auto-portrait by Martin Parr is an example being a small, post card sized book with a soft cover. Photobooks can sometimes be published in collaboration with galleries such as Ffotogallery in Cardiff.

When considering a photobook, one might think of the following …
_ genesis of book
_ the design, typeface, paper used, quality of printing etc
_ how does the book present itself
_ is it self-explanatory?
_ additional material; does it contribute positively?
_ narrative of the book if there is one.

We look at a number of photobooks in small groups and discuss them in detail; some students would have liked more time for this.

I find myself wondering at the end of the day as to what creative photography might be – not sure that conceptual photography is really creative in spite of being ingenious.

Photographs contain a sense of nothingness; there is often no clear meaning or message (“a message without a code” as Barthes has written) other than the image itself.

skylight in the bar at The New Ellington Hotel

My closing thoughts at the end of the first day seem taken up by the first talk on the second day which is given by Peter Haveland. However, this is extremely complex and my notes, such as they are, rather too disjointed to write up. Peter does recommend a text “The Rhetoric of the Image” by Roland Barthes about the way we extract meaning from photographs as well as other art forms. A subtitle for this talk was “Neither Levi-Strauss nor Levi-Strauss”, the reference being to the anthropologist Levi-Strauss rather than the make of jeans although jeans also did feature in the talk. I am not going to dwell too long on this talk partly because of the paucity of my notes but also because I question the relevance of semiotics to the understanding of the photograph, a questioning shared by others as the discussion in Photography Theory clearly reveals. I am however reading “The Rhetoric of the Image” in an attempt to better understand the subject! Other Barthes work one might consider is Mythologies and the Death of the Author

Structuralism is about the way we see things. Saussure was a major exponent with his dyadic, two part model, which considered both the “signifier” and the “signified”, the form of the sign and the concept it represents; this can be referred to as “signification”.

Peter analyses a photograph of a group of men wearing jeans. He also mentions the semiotician C.S.Pierce

Other references given are Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners

A book on Visual Culture by Howells and Negreiros is also advised.

The next talk is by Jesse Alexander and about developing a major project. He talks about how he came to do his M.A. being inspired by the photographer Thomas Demand and information in the news about underground bunkers. He drew inspiration from a writer called Rosalind Williams who has written about such human imaginings. Another source of literary inspiration was Robert Ryan

Jesse’s portfolio consisted of photographs made in dark places such as underground where exposure in one case was a week long !! He used large format quite a bit as technically, digital DSLRs were not up to the job. He networked with people who aware of dark places that might be photographed.

After a coffee break, we had a talk from Peter Rudge, a visiting speaker from duckrabbit He talked about making photo-films which make great use of still photographs, converting them into a film-like sequence. The emphasis is on digital story telling.

The symbol of Duckrabbit is interesting because it could be either a duck or a rabbit – my first impression was of a duck but when prompted, the rabbit also came into view. This symbol was made more widely known by the philosopher Wittgenstein who commented on it. Duckrabbit want to reach people which is encouraging since OCA “artists” seem to be the kind of people who would put down a photographer like Martin Parr because he is successful ad makes money; real artists don’t care about money one is told. This is of course a Marxist view operating in a capitalist environment.

There is an expanding market for digital video but it does not really interest me as a still photographer though I can see that a video of one’s own work might be good. Peter talks quite a bit about the use of still photographs which he sees as representative of the way the mind works. There is a need though for a strong sense of narrative. In a film, every second counts. One needs to start with an opening that is interesting as well as an interesting title. Short, straight introduction to the story, not deviating from the theme – there is no need for a formal introduction.

portfolio review with Peter Haveleand

The week-end finishes with portfolio reviews. We are given guidelines for presenting our work at the OCA …
_ not glossy prints or matt: best is something between the two e.g. Pearlt
_ protective sleeves whether just plastic or archival
_ need for margins around print (A4+ on A3 about right) but not digital frames
_ framing: no need to make the image fir the paper
_ prints often need to be presented in a particular order i.e. sequenced
_ theme to work
_ photos can fit together in regard to their design
_ for assessment, one can show the way one has thought about the work
_ print quality needs to be good; a reliable street store can suffice
_ might have to leave a choice photo out because it does not fit in with the others
_ black and white work needs to be well printed with a good range of tones!
_ might have to cater for the ego’s of those assessing one’s work
_ if one does go beyond established boundaries, one needs to explain
_ (John Tagg – The Burden of Representation
_ need to edit work possibly ruthlessly
_ it can be comforting to the viewer of an abstract image if they know something about it
_ chocolate box images !? need to go beyond them
_ dealing with matters that artists have dealt with
_ low-contrast, dark images OK as set but not individually
_ sequencing can bring a collection of images with no apparent meaning into something with definite content
_ visual consistency within portfolio

Eventually, the group attention is turned towards the portfolio of images I have brought along;

Robert and David Crow gardening outside Ford House

The feedback I get from my work is different from most of what I have had before perhaps because it is largely in terms of visual culture. Rather than direct comment on my work perhaps because it is proficient enough in photographic terms. It is the use of saturated colour and choclately boxey look presumably that leads to mention of Martin Parr and <a href=”_ (John Tagg – The Burden of Representation” target=”_blank”>Peter Dench although my sense of composition does owe quite a bit to Martin Parr. The subject of my images is not chocolate-boxey; the images are very ordinary but there is something beyond the banality. Although they look like home snaps they are much better composed. Images of domesticity and family. A bok is mentioned, Family Snaps by Jo Spence and Pat Holland.

Tessa with her dog Jesse

Although the images might appear banal they are not in fact banal.(One student who does black and white work insists that the images are 90% banal apparently unable to take in what the tutor is saying) I am given encouragement to do a book or make an exhibition by expanding on the number of people and place photos; this is possible but not really the way I think my OCA assignment needs to go. Juxtaposition of style and content is another comment.

The Fox family at The Bungalow

The week-end is finally over. I am not in a hurry to leave but don’t want to reach my next destination too late. Many have left by the time I drive off saying goodbye to the few remaining students. My feelings are mixed about the week-end. My apprehensions about the week-end were not really mistaken but I did not let them get the better of me. I enjoyed some socialising and meeting one or two people such as Penny Watson and Rob with whom I had come into contact via the forums; new student Tim whom I had met in Manchester and Stan, the OCASA chief. I could mention others of course but these are the ones that spring to mind at present.

The week-end has perhaps been a good introduction to Level 2 but it has also made me think about the visual culture bias of the OCA photography course in which photography seems almost compromised.