Desert Island Photographs – Stephen Bull interviews Sean O’Hagan

Sean O'Hagan (left) with Stephen Bull (right)

Sean O’Hagan (left) with Stephen Bull (right)

After lunch, I make my way to the Marlborough Theatre, a small theatre space with room for about 50 people, where Professor Stephen Bull from (who I had seen on my first night in Brighton) was interviewing the Guardian journalist Sean O’Hagan about his eight most favourite photographs. The interview is based on the Radio 4 programme, Desert Island Discs, although of course this is a visual experience (Desert Island Discs is an auditory one). Sean O’Hagan has won an RPS award for photography criticism and I have read some of his articles which tend to be quite frank; he used to write for the New Musical Express.

At first, talk turns to The Taylor Wessing Prize since Sean was one of the judge’s this year and the results are about to be announced. Sean regards the subject matter of the exhibition as a bit repetitive, is surprised at the poor standard of some entries, the conservative nature of the award and pressure from NPG staff to favour a classical approach. His choice of winner did not win! Although the competition does get a few thousand entries every year, they are not coming from the kind of photographers that might produce cutting edge work.

Sean O’Hagan found it very difficult to narrow down his Desert Island choice of photographs to eight; he admits the ones he has chosen are of a personal nature and not “the best” photographs in the world.

The first image is a very etchy black and white photograph that appeared on the front of an Irish newspaper in 1971; it shows a wild demonstration taking place and Sean admits that he could have been in the photograph because around that time he was himself a young rebel who was not afraid to throw stones until he got a direct warning from the British army. The caption reads “Salute the Young Hooligans!” and it is interesting to see a newspaper supporting such activity since many would condemnn it. The photograph is anonymous and around that time the British Army used photography to help identify people who were involved in the rioting although such photographs were not admissable as evidence against rioters who were sometimes sent to prison. Talking about this photograph, Sean not only lays bare his “misspent youth” (his words) but he also gives an insight into the “troubles” that inflicted Ireland for so long and are still not entirely over.

Sean’s second choice is a well known photograph by Joseph Koudelka from his series called “Gypsies”. It shows a manacled man who has, we are told, just been arrested for murdering his wife; it was assumed that he would be executed for the act but Koudelka was surprised when sometime later the man in the photo turned up after serving a ten year sentence for the crime. What is the appeal of this photograph? It is perhaps the look on the man’s face that makes this image so intriguing yet for Sean the story behind this photo probably has something to do with it’s appeal – the theme of Crime and Puishment that he had witnessed in Ireland.

Sean’s next photograph is of his brother walking towards a public house with a pretty girlfriend by his side. He remembers the girlfriend and also his brother who died in his late 30’s, apparently the result of a hedonistic life style. For Sean it is a poignant memory of a loved one while for us it is a moment in time, an unusual photograph in that the two persons pictured are walking with their backs to us but turn to look back at the moment the photograph is made. As with all photographs, it relates to a certain point in time and the background couldf be dated by a social historian along with the kinds of clothes that are being worn. Sean mentions the power of the snapshot!

The next photograph shows Sean sitting in a pub with a couple of colleagues. This is from Sean’s days as a journalist for the New Musical Express and it is the only image he chooses that includes himself.

The next photograph is of Robert Fank which was made by Sean himself when he went to interview him; Frank’s book The Americans is considered the bible of photographic books and the one one would automatically take to a Desert Island, The technical quality of Sean’s image is poor yet one can sense the presence of Frank as he plays with a camera that the official photographer for the interview, Steve Pyke, has brought along with him. Sean’s photo is made from behind, it is sneaky and yet effective. Frank, although a doyenne of photography and one who many photographers look to, gave up making still photographs because he wanted to photograph what he felt rather than what he saw and this aspiration proved impossible.

The next photograph is from a book called “Love on the left bank” by Ed van der Elsken and shows a young woman pouting while looking into a mirror; hence, we see her from the side but also from the front as her face is reflected. Yet this image is not really about a clever juxtaposition, it is about a young woman who is not easy to describe. She is certainly striking but whether she might be described as beautiful, sexy, glamorous, vulgar is probably going to depend on the viewer. I suspect that this is Sean’s pin up photo and the obviously Bohemian subject an object of attraction.

The next photograph is by Richard Billingham who is also an artist and considered by Robert Frank to be one of the best photographers; he certainly treats image making with a degree of eccentricity similar to that of Frank. An important fact about Billingham is that he makes photographs of things that he cares about and wants to paint; he is not trying to shock the viewer who is used to a more formal approach to photography that operates within an accepted framework. The photo Sean has chosen is of his father sitting in a chair while along the top of the frame, a cat is suspended in mid air. This is presumably comic to many but personally, I find it suggestive of animal cruelty and hence do not like the image at all. Billingham comes from a poor background and there is the suggestion of that in this famous image which I want to like but can not.

There is some talk about photography in general at this point. Sean mentions the fact that photography tends to be seen as a lesser art in the UK. The new exhibition by The National Gallery called “Seduced by Art” is the first time this gallery have staged a photography exhibition; the view it puts forth however is very old fashioned in Sean’s view.

And so to Sean O’Hagan’s last photograph which is one of his own and reveals a corner of his late father’s shed; on the walls are a variety of images while there are also objects such as a shoulder bag that hangs from the wall and a plastic duck. The assembly of artefacts have been made over sometime and are perhaps a valuable insight into the mind of Sean’s father, something which Sean might like to contemplate on his desert island. Like so much photography that one glosses over, it could well repay longer viewing. Things that appealed in some way to Sean’s father might have special meaning for his son as the visual often carries coded meanings that can not be immediately unravelled.

20121104-Brighton-_MG_1682-Stephen Bull and Sean O'Hagan finale

After the interview, I take a few snapshots of Sean O’Hagan and Stephen Bull as they pose briefly and jovially on stage.

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