Landscapes by Edward Chambre-Hardman

Open Eye Gallery - Liverpool

Open Eye Gallery – Liverpool

After coffee, we went back to the Open Eye gallery to see another exhibition upstairs in the Archive Gallery. this time, another OCA tutor, Keith W Roberts, introduced the work to us since he is presently working on a Ph D about Hardman, focusing not on his landscape work visible in the gallery but the thousands upon thousands of portraits that Hardman made.

Keith gave us a brief introduction to Hardman, a photographer who worked in Liverpool during the middle of the twentieth century, and whose house in Rodney Street is preserved as a working studio by the National Trust; the Trust’s information says … “Explore the contrasting sides of this house: the neat, professional, spacious business rooms and the cluttered, cramped living quarters of the renowned portrait photographer Edward Chambré Hardman and his wife Margaret. They lived and worked here for 40 years, keeping everything and changing nothing. The business focused on professional studio portraits but their real love was for vivid landscape images. Some of their huge collection of photographs is on display in the house, along with the equipment they used to take and develop the iconic images.”

Hardman seems to have been quite an astute individual and was a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society; Keith hands us a copy of a talk delivered by Hardman about obtaining “Exhibition Quality” prints which seems a bit ironic since I am not the only one to find the prints on show as somewhat lacklustre; there are no bright highlights for instance rather a certain dullness pervades. Hardman recognised Alvin Langford Coburn as an influence and there is a similarity in style but at the time Hardman was working the technology of photography had increased in quality allowing Ansel Adams to make prints of much better quality. In his article, Hardman quotes a photographer called Ward Muir who encouraged photographers to “make your photographs sing!” and although the compositions of these images are pleasant, the photographs do not personally inspire me.

photographic prints by E.C.Hardman

photographic prints by E.C.Hardman

In his article, Hardman writes about pictorialism and points out that “Some critics – those belong to the world of journalism – would have you believe that it is almost a crime to produce a pictorial photograph. The highest praise goes to semi-documentary photographs showing life and action – often a very slummy kind of life. One could sum it up as a glorification of the instantaneous moment. Composition, balance, lighting, tone rendering, definition and all the other things which we pictorialists strive after, do not seem to matter in the least. In fact, the photographer’s personality must not intrude. It is subject-interest only which counts.” (from The Photographic Journal, Volume XCV, 1955)

Peter Haveland talks to us about this exhibition. He considers the subject matter as unrepresentative of the age in which the photographs were made. Hardman photographs not what was there rather certain views that he wants to make a picture of. For instance, a hay rick is included as what would appear to be the subject of the photograph yet apparently Hardman made the image because of the cloud formation in the sky behind; there is a similar image of a copse on a hill where clouds engulf the small wood and spiral up into the sky. To emphasise his point, Peter remarks that these images were not made of the 1950’s but of another time, they are not honest representations.

20130209-Liverpool-_MG_8545-Open Eye Gallery Liverpool

Peter addresses OCA students in the archive gallery – Keith, bottom left

At this point, a woman storms through our group towards the exit exclaiming, “You don’t know what you are talking about! I knew Hardman, he was a friend, and I can assure you all his images were made by him in his time!” I call after her, suggesting she might like to join the debate but she replies that she has an appointment. She has misunderstood Peter by taking his remarks literally which is surely a mistake – if I took Peter that seriously, I would no longer be studying at the OCA but would have “exploded” and gone off on my own way. Peter has a reputation for challenging people!

For instance, Peter makes a reference to the Ansel Adams School of Anal Retentiveness which is amusing but not an easy pill to swallow. Personally, I feel I learnt a lot from the basics of the Zone System since it gives a grounding in the understanding of the photograph which many critics of the medium seem to lack. I can’t help that Hardman’s work would be a lot more appealing if he had understood Ansel Adams a bit more. However, we live in an age where the screen is taking over from the print and although the latter is not redundant, most photographs are viewed on screens.

The fact is though that we all photograph things to which we are attracted since photography is a selective process. Hence, the view expressed through our images is bound to be slanted and can never be total.

There is a good review of Hardman’s work to be found on the internet that was published in The Independent while a blog called That’s How the Light Gets In has accounts not just of this exhibition but also other work of Harman such as his book, Life through a lens.

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Beyond Documentary – a lecture by Liz Wells

The first talk to be given at the recently refurbished Photographer’s Gallery in London is by Liz Wells. I have read her encyclopaedic “A Critical Introduction to Photography” in which various authors write about the main genres of photography and have just started her “A Photography Reader” which is a series of essays about photography by modern critics.

Her talk is subtitled “currencies of the post-industrial sublime”, a title which reminds one of the complexity of Liz Well’s writing which does however succeed in making the finer points clearer. Without such critics, one would be less able to understand and read a photograph, finding oneself instead rather lost amongst the myriad of photographic images that we constantly come into contact with. Nevertheless, I found her talk which she read from notes, to be difficult to understand even though I made notes.

Her talk was not directly about the Burtinsky exhibition presently showing at The Photographer’s Gallery but it did relate to it’s theme of contemporary landscape; Liz Well’s most recent book is Land Matters that considers the nature of landscape and it’s relation to photography, culture and identity.

She has recently been involved in editing a book about The Antartic entitled Landscapes of Exploration : the role of contemporary art in Antartica through which a sense of the romantic and the sublime are evident; another body of work she has commented on is A Sense of Place : European Landscape Photography which is being exhibited in Bruxelles this year. She also mentions another book Moments Before the Flood by Carl de Keyzer in which photography is being used to capture the disaster before it happens, examining how well Europe is prepared for a probable rise in the sea level.

While these accomplishments help to establish Liz Wells as more than just a compiler of writings suitable for photography graduates, she also talks about the general drift of such work in which the photographer becomes a researcher of place, looks at transformed land as well as toxic landscapes. The viewer may be lured by the beauty of the images into paying some attention to the message inherent in the work which in the case of Burtinsky, is about the massive effect of oil on contemporary civilisation and various issues surrounding it.

There is a sublimity to work such as this and Liz Wells mentions Edmund Burke’s classic work A Philosphical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful and that the sublime causes delight; passions act for self-preservation. Wells also mention Immanuel Kant and his systematic reasoning; for Kant sublimity implies incomprehension. Descartes sees a seperation between the mind and the senses. Liz Wells says that the “sublime is threatened by the possibility of nothing else happening”.

Al Gore has said of Burtinsky’s work that it is “beautiful, insightful, thought provoking”; he is responsible for a number of photographic projects such as the Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtse River as well as Quarries from around the world. topographic work can be very beautiful and the scale and colour plays an important part. Burtinsky searches for subjects that are rich in detail and scale. He is not a teacher merely an artist.

Liz Wells talks about the work of one of her students, Yan Preston who is Chinese and has been photographing around the Yangtse River.

Landscape photography of the American west corresponded with the expansion into that area; a similar event is happening in the photography of the Antartica.

I have not covered all of what Liz Wells says (there is a little more on my experience of the Burtinsky Oil exhibition) but as Gareth points out, she is careful not to give a personal view. The photographs are stunning but what can the individual do to combat the Oil situation that Burtinsky so graphically covers !?

A video of Liz Wells taking is at …

http://youtu.be/_mqlFxzXOZ8

Photography in London

An easy journey up to London and to New Zealand House, a short walk from Piccadily. The event is organised in conjunction with Globalnet 21 who asked for a fee before the day began which made me look into this event a little closer;  the fee requested was not for the day which was free but for Globalnet 21, an organisation that arranges debate platforms.

The organisation running the day is called Photovoice, a charity that concentrates on the way photography can empower people not just in this country but around the world. Here is their statement …

PhotoVoice’s vision is for a world in which no one is denied the opportunity to speak out and be heard.

PhotoVoice’s mission is to build skills within disadvantaged and marginalised communities using innovative participatory photography and digital storytelling methods so that they have the opportunity to represent themselves and create tools for advocacy and communications to achieve positive social change.

However, there is a political edge to this event that puts me off wanting to become involved. For instance, this day was advertised as celebrating the opening of The Photographer’s Gallery yet there is no mention of the new gallery in the Photovoice space.

The first talk I attend is about Visual Literacy, in particular reading photographs, and is given by Jenny Matthews. More about this on my blog about a digital photography course that I am doing.

There is also a talk about text and photographs; I feel the need to understand photography as a medium as well as be working in it.

In the afternoon, there is a “keynote” panel debate with a few distinguished people such as the photographer Simon Norfolk who I saw last thursday. He however does not appear and there is no apology or explanation given for this; I was also looking forward to seeing the film about Norfolk and Burke but the time of this was changed and so I missed it. Instead, there was a collection of photographs projected called “Imaginario Coletivo” which presumably came from one of the projects arranged through Photovoice.

The keynote discussion is entitled, “What role does truth play in photography for social change!?” I am a little wary of discussions with political intentions but thought it would probably be worth listening to. It might have been but I left near the beginning when one of the speakers started talking, saying that she was in the habit of appropriating other people’s photographs to make her own composites. A photograph was also shown of Tony Blair using a mobile phone to photograph himself in front of fire and billowing smoke; this is an interesting photoshopped image but I think it is incorrect to view Blair as someone who got enjoyment out of sending people to war. Photoshop is being used to enforce a prejudiced point of view rather than truth although there might be some psychological justification for this.

One visitor felt he was mislead and commented, “The quality of the photographs at the various stalls was incredibly amateurish. It doesn’t matter how well meaning or radical you are in your outlook, if the quality of your photos is this bad than it is all meaningless. It was embarrassing. The organizers should hang their heads in shame but somehow I feel that these talentless deluded individuals will regard it as a great success.”

Leaving the Photovoice event early means that I have time to visit The Photographer’s Gallery which is staging it’s opening and what actually attracted me to London on this day. It is not a long walk and I find myself entering the gallery through a new door while in front of me is a digital wall showing large animated GIFFs. A staircase leads downstairs to an excellent bookshop while next to this is the print room.

Taking the new lift upstairs, I visit the present exhibition “Oil” by Burtinsky; more of this later. I look forward to seeing more of the new gallery especially the Camera Obscura room.

Simon Norfolk talk @ Q.E.H Bristol

Simon Norfolk is one of the better known war photographers of the present time. I attended this talk at the suggestion of another OCA student and was glad I made the effort because it did turn out to be an excellent occasion and a welcomed departure from the more academic discussions and events the college arranges for us.

Simon Norfolk studied philosophy and sociology at Bristol University and then became a photographer. His reason for taking a large format camera with him to Afghanistan was simply because it was the cheapest camera he owned; he reckoned that there was a chance his camera might be stolen from him. Working in the capital, Kabul, is possible but far from safe and he is concerned that his guide might suffer reprisals for helping him since threats have already been made towards him.

What was refreshing about this talk was the way Norfolk did not focus on himself or try to sell us anything. He began by referencing his work to the paintings of Claude Lorraine which shows similar motifs of ruined monuments, the marks of civilisations that have risen and fallen. In fact, Norfolk talked about Empire in general terms much of it focusing on the British Empire in the days when it occupied a quarter of the world’s land mass and ruled over a third of it’s people, a remarkable accomplishment for such a small country. Yet Norfolk did not gloss over the days of Empire but also exposed it’s inherent racism evident in the many drawings and paintings as well as photographs that show the white man in positions of domination and superiority over the dark man. A member of the audience later commented that he had not come to the talk expecting a history lesson yet Norfolk reminded us of what an excellent historical tool photography can be as long as the photographs are read with insight rather than being used as the exercises in propaganda they often were.

One particular war photographer from the early days is of interest to Norfolk; his name was John Burke and he operated somewhat off limits by not being the official war photographer during the 2’nd Afghan War of the late 19’th century and as a result capturing many realistic scenes that were made with knowledge of the place and his subjects without the need to represent them formally as glorious men of Empire. In fact, in war there are no winners only losers, a point that Norfolk made not directly but by example.

The evening finished with Norfolk showing us a photograph of a group of people in England in which John Burke is said to be featured; he asked whom we thought was Burke among them.Various ideas and suggestions were put forward but not even Norfolk himself knows which Burke is.

Simon Norfolk talked a little about his way of making a living from photography from the various ways his work is communicated; there are exhibitions, the sale of prints,books,use of his work in publications and of course his website where anyone can see his work particularly in Afghanistan.

It was only after the talk, while writing this blog, that I came to know about the book Norfolk has done about John Burke. I had already heard about Norfolk’s book “For most of it I have no words”, an apt title for a book of war photographs yet also an appropriate title for a book about photography in general; a photographer’s images are there to record what words can not.