Thomas Ruff

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Thomas Ruff memorabilia

Although I buy the catalogue beforehand and look through it, I do not really do my homework which is reading David Company’s essay “Thomas Ruff: Image Ventriloquism and the Visual Primer” as I have trouble accessing it via my phone; in fact it does not seem to be fully accessible via the website but an earlier essay on the aesthetics of the pixel is . I do however manage to see a video of Ruff talking about the exhibition on YouTube which is followed by an interview!

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OCA tutor Jayne

This is an OCA college visit. We meet as a group and chat beforehand. Straight photography from the Düsseldorf School. Makes series of photographs. His work has moved on from large format to found imagery using the internet as a source. From images of friends to images of stellar constellations.

The first series is called “The Emperor”being  of his own  figure draped over a chair; the images are printed quite small (slightly larger than enprint size) and from 1982 when Ruff was awarded a grant to study in Paris.

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“M.n.o.p” series of photographs (2013) from Museum of Non-Objective Painting which have been manipulated not solely for effect but to present a realistic and aesthetic view of a gallery interior. The originals are from 1939. Ruff has done a similar job with an exhibition of Jackson Pollock held at The Whitechapel Gallery in 1958.

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The huge portraits (someone says the series is called Passports but is incorrect) made as if they were passport photographs but for the size reveal a dispassionate view. These were made during the 1980’s and suggest use of a large format camera. The technique is immaculate! Jayne the OCA tutor mentions associations with the state watching the individual as it has been since the development of technology since the 19’th century; these photographs were made in the decade before the wall between what were two Germany’s came down; there is an inference of this but if one did not think about such government surveillance these photographs stand out as wonderful human documents that might be regarded as recalling the work of August Sander.

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Stars is a series of night-sky images taken by the European Southern Observatory and made around 1989 to 1992. These are largely monochromatic although a hint of colour can be seen. Blowing them up to sizes that are about 10 feet high adds to the perception of space as a vast area.

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The Mars photographs come later. They are taken from the NASA mission launched in 2005 and date from 2011, 2012 and 2013.

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These images are full of colour with one requiring special viewing “glasses” that render a 3D effect.

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“Interiors” is a series of interiors as the title suggests. Early work from the 1980’s these images suggest “an atmosphere of melancholy, restraint and even repression” portraying “the material culture of post-war Düsseldorf” and showing no people or mess. There is something of the clean Germanic ideal in these images but am not sure they necessarily contain melancholy!

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JPEG, the title actually appears in lower case as jpeg, is a complete departure from the technically immaculate that is a feature of Ruff’s work as the blown up images show the “jaggies” typical of low resolution imagery. Made in 2004 and 2006, the destruction of the “twin towers” from 2001 features.

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Nights is a series of street scenes from 1992-6 made with a device that mimics low light cameras used by surveillance technology during the Gulf War. These add an eerie feel to ordinary everyday imagery. There are also a couple of large photographs from the mid 1990’s made using the Minolta Montage Unit which Ruff borrowed from the police. These black and white images are much softer than the large colour ones and hence more sensitive portraits.

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Houses from 1988 and 1990 are again realistic photographs yet with no obvious sky other than a blank off white space. There is said to be a Bauhaus influence.

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Substrates is a collection of  2 large multi-coloured photographs apparently made from Japanese pornography. The results contain highly saturated colours with no intimation of their origins.

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Another series from 2000 to 2002 shows more pornographic imagery; taken from the internet these images might be seen as a contemporary manifestation of the human nude as an art historical subject. However the couple tongue licking suggest something less classical and more erotic; the soft focus effect of these photographs helps to make them erotic rather than merely pornographic.

I break for lunch and a meeting with the college, sitting opposite the tutor, Jayne Taylor.

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OCA students discuss over a light lunch

We introduce ourselves to the group and start to discuss. There is a need to stick to the course; study days help. Easy to go off on a tangent. No need to review whole exhibitions, too much to absorb; better to settle on perhaps a couple of images. Choose something that resonates with one or something that one does not understand.

The aura of the work, being in the presence of a work of art yet also better understanding the photographer’s original intention. For instance, size plays an important part in Ruff’s exhibition.

Portraits placed at eye level is effective! Ruff’s subjects appear at ease. The photographer did not direct rather allowed the subject to present themselves. Technically highly proficient though this may not strike many people. Presenting oneself as an individual yet also as subject.

Self-portraits an early project. Called The Emperor! What might the intention be? We cannot know and perhaps there was not one; recalling performance art perhaps.

JPEGs reflect a completely different effect to much of his other work; Ruff is a photographer exploring or interrogating the photographic medium.

Machines no longer machines but objects of art.

Interiors abstract rather than making a social comment. No people included just as when people are included there is no background!

Two images from exhibition that strike one! No need to write about the whole lot! Slow down and take time to look at the work rather than glance.

Düsseldorf at night! Scary imagery yet when looked at closely effect can go beyond the “eerie consistency” effected by green tones and vignetting. Reminiscent of Second World War bombing perhaps.

Is the show about coming to terms with being German in the modern world? Cold certainly detached.

It seems too easy to project associations onto Ruff’s work; Campany writes … “ … viewers can never be so neutral, never as dispassionate as a lens glass. They will also bring interpretations and associations. What is calm, serious and anonymous becomes disarming, suggestive and enigmatic, especially in the space of art.” (catalogue p.190)

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The only portrait in this series to have the subject looking to one side; the photographer Ruff was directing the model.

After the college meeting is over, I walk through the exhibition again, this time noting that one of the portraits that of a coloured woman from the “portraits” series (one student had incorrectly referred to the series as being called “passports”) shows the subject looking to one side rather than directly at the camera. This is certainly an image worth considering.

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Negatives is a series worth considering! Although printed as negatives in the cyanotype style, they are actually made from nineteenth century portraits that were printed originally as straight sepia prints. The reversal effected by Ruff using a computer has an appealing aesthetic that might make one curious about the original subjects that remain mysteriously obscured.

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Machines, work from 2003, is similar in the way old photographs have been digitised and then printed this time as straight black and white prints with incidental evidence of their origins. Some of these have been toned.

Photograms is another series from 2012-4 that emulates the darkroom technique of Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray but here digitised and with colour added. Not my favourite work in the exhibition but one piece used on the cover of some editions of the catalogue.

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Newspaper Photographs from 1990-1991 are newspaper photographs enlarged at a scale of 2:1 with the text removed. Presented out of context these images some of recognisable subjects as in a portrait of Lenin, suggest new meanings.

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Another news oriented series is Press in which large blown up photographs bear the stamps of working methods of the time. Although banal, these pictures interest the viewer through suggested meanings.

I finally get to read the catalogue after the event. The introductory page by curator Iwona Blazwick points out Ruff saying he works with photographs rather than making them. Much of his work is about Düsseldorf where he lives and works and is considered to be part of the Düsseldorf School. Mostly he works from his computer using found images asking us, as the curator suggests, “to stop, experience and evaluate its histories and procedures, one image at a time”.

The catalogue has a series of quotes about photography from a number of notable sources. This reminds one of the strength of this exhibition which is not just about a photographer but photography as a whole. I am struck by some of the comments by non-photographers; some is reminiscent of Baudelaire yet is written over a 100 years later in 1988 by Thomas Bernhard and reflects a view still held by some who see photography as an assault on art rather than a conduit for it; “The photograph reveals only a single grotesque or comic moment.

Campany’s essay in the catalogue is interesting and makes comments that are relevant. For instance, the suggestion that with such an approach from the photographer of wanting to represent clearly and simply as in the series called “Interiors” (198?) …

There is a lot to consider in this exhibition which presents a largely uncomplicated view of the world, accessible to the viewer who is ready to give it time. It also reveals that a photographer need not be bound by genre.





















A Handful of Dust @ The Whitechapel Gallery (2017)


I made two visits to this exhibition.

27th of June 2017

I arrive late morning to see this exhibition and within minutes bump into people I know! The first is Stan Dickinson and his wife who I got to know in Paris a few years ago on a student lead expedition and bumped into again at this very gallery, The Whitechapel Gallery, for the Black Square exhibition so to see them again here is surreal, a wonderful case of synchronicity.  Stan who got a first class honours in his Photography B.A.  received this in a ceremony with the UCA who have now more or less taken over the OCA. Apparently, my name was mentioned at the event  as times past were recalled by the outgoing CEO Gareth Dent. If this coincidence is not enough then Wendy Mc Curdo, a tutor from the OCA also arrives with a friend so for a moment we stand and gossip before Stan makes his apologies as they have a train to catch. Somehow this meeting of OCA (Open College of the Arts) members seems to mirror the message of this exhibition which is about the way a particular work of art has survived almost 100 years in different manifestations and in different contexts as well as influencing other art works (Sophie Ristelhuber’s elevated photograph of the Gulf War for instance); our incidental meeting is like that of the art works in this exhibition!


The central artwork  in this  exhibition is a photograph made of dust by Man Ray in New York while visiting the studio of Marcel Duchamp in 1920. Ray was actually just testing his equipment setup before reluctantly engaging in a commissioned project to photograph other people’s artwork. It is not really known exactly why this photograph was made but it seems Marcel Duchamp had something to do with it and the resulting print, there are a number in existence, was signed both by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. The curator of the exhibition, David Campany, has taken this image as the starting point for the whole exhibition which seems to offer an alternative narrative to modern art, one not centred around Steiglitz’s photograph of a urinal that Duchamp had exhibited, but around a photograph that is not merely reproducing something as in the urinal photograph but manages to make what it represents, here it is dust, into something ambivalent.

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Another presentation of the Handful of Dust image

As a whole, this exhibition does not represent a single artist or photographer, rather it is concerned with an alternative history of photography, a theme based around dust, and so it is really the work of the curator, David Campany. It does however, include a number of photographic artworks by different photographers which are interesting for their own sake.



The first room contains a print of the original dust photograph from 1920, made in 1968. From this there are instances of it being reproduced such as in a contemporary publications like and later publications such as Charles Henry Ford’s Poems for Painters from 1945. Also in this room, are photographs of aerial views taken during wartime which produced effects similar to the original dust photograph.

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The first room of the exhibition

The difference between seeing the exhibition and just reading or looking through the catalogue, is that the information is presented in a less linear fashion with the ability of the onlooker to wander around the rooms at will even though works are presented chronologically. Immediately concepts aired in the book become clearer notably the various names the original underwent such as being called Dust Breeding when Man Ray came to print it later on.

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Is the curator’s alternative history merely a parallel history in which recognised art photographers feature? One example is the work of Walker Evans which although showing rocky desert is not obviously dusty though it might well be described as a place where dust breeds!

Some of the artists are new to me!

Some works from the original exhibition are not here. For instance, Simon Norfolk’s photograph of an abandoned open theatre from Afghanistan. A haunting image that shows the pock marks of warfare along the back of the stage. It is an example of a photograph that has a very definite context.

07-A Handful of Dust screen-6705-20170902I personally like Nik Waplington’s photographs of rubbish dumps and works of art inspired by them that are reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism.

However, in the final gallery, there is also a black and white video of a forest in which the wind slowly picks up so that the trees are shaking wildly by the end. What makes this relevant to the theme of the exhibition, dust, is that the forest of trees when viewed from above is somewhat reminiscent of detailed imagery of dust as in the photograph by Man Ray and Duchamp.

The catalogue includes all the art works as well as some that are not seen here but presumably were in the Paris exhibition. The essay that comes in a detachable booklet of its’ own is also an interesting read and explains in greater depth what this exhibition is actually about.

September 2’nd 2017 (with Open College of the Arts students)

A guide from the Whitechapel Gallery tells us that the gallery has no permanent collection before introducing us to the geography. I ask if there is any recording of the conference held in connection with the exhibition; it is suggested I contact the gallery direct and have a look on YouTube. There is a YouTube video introducing this exhibition which I watch; I immediately start to see the exhibition in a different way as about Dust and the representation of dust rather than a historical trajectory resulting from a Man Ray/Duchamp photograph.

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Although originally shot in black and white, prints are often sepia toned.

The original photograph is interesting because unlike so much work from this period, the contrast is low and not being used to emphasise detail or create contrast. It is more a grey print than a black and white one!

Photographic subjects include aerial map making, other aerial views, dust on Mussolini’s car, gravestones, cave wall paintings, atomic bomb post-Nagasaki, dust off spray, American dust storms both in print and video, deserts, close ups of surfaces like roads and rocks, volcanic explosions, vandalism, sculpture made from flour, dust on Mars, garbage, mud etc

Photographers represented include Man Ray, Shomei Tomatsu, Brassai, Walker Evans, Aaron Siskind, Jeff Wall, Gerhard Richter, Nick Waplington, Sophie Ristelhueber among others.

There are also official photographs taken from private sources such as Holland House Library, Kensington, London.

Good to see prints that are black to white rather than black and white. Printing does effect the way we read an image.

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Sophie Ristelhueber

Interesting to see Sophie Ristelhueber’s artwork at the end of the exhibition; she references the original Duchamp/Man Ray photograph as a source of inspiration in her work. The original photograph made in 1920 has a definite trajectory even if the other photographs in this exhibition were made without knowledge of it.

And of course, photography has a very ambivalent relationship with Dust. It has to be kept away from the camera, but it is extremely photogenic.” David Campany


OCA student discussion

references: Sean O’Hagan review in The Guardian ..

“From the surrealists to the moon landings and on to the 9/11 attacks, A Handful of Dust traced a kind of shadow history of photography through a substance that evokes all manner of ominous suggestion. Curated by David Campany, it ranged from the vernacular (postcards of American dust storms) to the art historical (Man Ray’s Dust Breeding, a photograph of dust-coated glass in Duchamp’s studio). A show of interesting juxtapositions, with dust as the abiding metaphor for time, history, memory – and photography.”

David Campany website for FT review

Gap between knowledge and vision brought out in exhibition.

First room more about historical context, archival process, much lower viewing light while last room was also dark.

Photographing private spaces in return for the owners using those photographs for their own purposes.

Cerebral show more about ideas than imagery. Captions necessary part of understanding the artwork. Tends to be true of modern art as a whole.

What about dust from Icelandic earthquake from a few years ago!? About the 20’th Century rather than contemporary. Anologue era rather than digital!

Prefer to see the dust image rather than the urinal image made by Steiglitz that is seen as the birth of conceptual art.

Dust exhibition not a blockbuster but if it had been in a big gallery like Tate Modern, the response to the exhibition could have been very different. Academic atmosphere to the show.

Study of photography not just about making images also about studying the theory of photography as a whole. Campany a useful teacher to be aware of as is Lucy Soutter.

Their Mortal Remains

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This exhibition about Pink Floyd was held at the V&A Museum in Kensington during the summer of 2017 which was extended into mid-October. I needed to book a couple of weeks in advance to get a ticket! I only took a couple of photographs. Here are some impressions.

An old red telephone kiosk contains a number of contemporary artifacts such as books by Laurie Lee, John Betjemen, Aldous Huxley, R.D.Laing, Rupert Bear … there are a few of these kiosks in the exhibition for different periods.

A photograph of the band’s Bedford van from the early 60’s; it was black but customised by a white stripe

John Peel suggests they could have sat in an audience at one of their own concerts and gone unrecognised; “quite an achievement…”

Some of their initial spacey music a little eerie; rock riffs quite straightforward! Psychedelic projections …

Pushy people in the exhibition … am not really so interested in the narrative rather the artwork both visible and audible!

Audrey Beardsley, 19’th century author and illustrator, an influence. Had a major show at the V&A in 1966 that was much visited by the Underground scene.

LSD was legal in the 1960’s

Howling Wolf an influence among other blues musicians of that ilk …

Recording first album in studio next door to studio where the Beatles were working on Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. More underground with “interstellar overdrive”. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Light shows important

Obvious influence of Surrealism! There is a black and white movie of the band on a beach in West Sussex with a mannequin playing around with the song Arnold Layne as the soundtrack as well as Magritte references.

The demise of Syd Barrett, regarded as the creative genius behind the birth of Pink Floyd.

A Saucerful of Secrets and Set the Controls for the heart of the Sun. Ummagumma; the first album I remember! Grantchester Meadows an acoustic guitar duo; also Astronomy Domine. The album cover photograph is a clever composition worth an extended gaze!

Pink Floyd embraced many aspects of culture

Meddle; echoes!

Live at Pompeii, a film and performance without audience; Floyd were reticent.

Another telephone kiosk of context; Transcedental Meditation, Dad’s Army,?Enoch Powell … Man on the Moon.

Black and white high contrast photographs of the band.

Dark Side of the Moon a unique album; humanitarian empathy. Still sells thousands every week!

Constructed video of prism and ray of coloured light to watch as the album plays.

A room full of instruments and equipment also images with videos and accompanying music along with a chance to alter the sound effects.

Hokusai’s wave on the drum kit

Videos of individual musicians with their instruments such as the latest synthesis er

Animations and much more post-modernist artwork such as flying sheep and inflatable pigs!

Rock and Roll theatre – the Animals tour

After awhile I stop taking notes as three hours is not going to be long enough but I still see most of the artwork and photography on show as well as the videos.

There is a bittersweet quality that leaves me contemplating the vacuous nature of fame and fortune yet in many ways the exhibition is itself a performance, another way the band are able to communicate with an audience. The last room is a concert space in which video recordings of them play on the walls and people sit or stand around apparently entranced.

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The final part of the exhibition was a simulated concert space

In the shop, I buy a CD of The Wall and a book about the Wall by Gerald Scarfe who devised the animation sequences and much of the artwork. Dark Side of the Moon may have been their best album, dealing as it does with questions about modern day living. Wish you were here is another great album while Grantchester Meadows seen her with a video must be one of their best songs.

As is the way with Pink Floyd, the exhibition was innovative in the use of WiFi headsets that played the sounds from the screen one was closest too. A remarkable exhibition in many ways quite unlike the ones I usually visit where images hang silently from walls.




























Levitt France (Arles-2017)

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This exhibition is about a housing project designed by an American that took root in France during the 1960’s offering “ready to move in homes” for single families. A number of these towns were developed over the following years. However, the original company filed for  bankruptcy in 1981.

Bill Levitt started the company in New York State after the war; the idea was prebuilt houses which were easily assembled and affordable. Measures were taken to make the houses look different; shops and recreational areas were included. A house could be constructed in a day! A short documentary film from 1947 is shown.

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There is a song by John Hallyday shown on a video screen; it features a modern housing estate as does the film that follows called A Million Voices (2012)

Five photographers take up this project;

  1. Jean Noviel: concerned with rules required for such a project and sustainability of the architecture and landscape.
  2. Julie Balague: concerned with will to preserve a heritage.
  3. Bruno Fontana: looks at types of houses and their relationship to well being.
  4. Camille Richer: focuses on specifics and borders
  5. Vincent Frillon: examines porousness between public and private spaces.

This work considers the success of such housing estates in regard to self-segregation, Americanism, the past and French modernity.

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Noviel concerned with records about use and memory of place; the norms and regulations. Little has changed during the 40 years of these housing constructions though verandas, skylights and air conditioning have been introduced into “this rigorous management of individual property.”

The colour photographs are printed in large colour at about size A1. Typed captions run along the bottom of the photographs. Most of these demonstrate the restrictions such as “Damaging the lawn, picking the flowers, cutting down trees or carving into tree bark” all being prohibited for residents.

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Balague has been nominated an Arles award for her work; prix de la photo Madame. “Pursuit of Happiness” Series looks at different aspects of the estate focusing on people (none of whom look at the camera) and various scenes such as the reflection of a shed in water. These give some idea of what life on the estate must be like.

Vincent Fillon shows a series of black and white photographs, carefully exposed and printed, that give an impression of the place. In the centre of these six black and whites that feature different kinds of house are colour close ups of artefacts from indoors made in flat lighting which include a door handle, a light fixture etc There is audio of Fillon talking but it is in French and I understand only little.

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Balague has been nominated an Arles award for her work; prix de la photo Madame. “Pursuit of Happiness” Series looks at different aspects of the estate focusing on people (none of whom look at the camera) and various scenes such as the reflection of a shed in water. These give some idea of what life on the estate must be like.

Vincent Fillon shows a series of black and white photographs, carefully exposed and printed, that give an impression of the place. In the centre of these six black and whites that feature different kinds of house are colour close ups of artefacts from indoors made in flat lighting which include a door handle, a light fixture etc There is audio of Fillon talking but it is in French and I understand only little.

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Richer lived in this Mennecy housing project for 15 years. With a degree in photography, she focuses not on the Mennecy estate but the countryside around it; this suggests a desire to be beyond or outside the place!

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The Cardon family share a series of negatives from the late 1970’s that show the building of a house of the “Barbizon” model. 69 negatives show the process from placement of the first block to window installation; these are carefully composed well executed images.

There is a video tribute to Levitt by Noviel; clips from 3 films that show Levitt Mennecy as a background to the action. One suggests a Mrs.Robinson scenario of love between a teenager and a wife!

Another video screen shows a couple of advertisements that use Mennecy as a background; one is for Mac Donald’s the other for Mercedes in which a group of children flock to see a man putting his car in the garage using a remote control.

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There is also an old advertisement poster for buying houses in Levitt a Mennecy with copies of the necessary documentation required to do so and vintage postcards collected by Noviel of Levitt Mennecy.

Another piece of memorabilia is a photograph of a boy who used to play for the Levitt Mennecy football team; although he left, he later returned when he had a family to live there.

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I have spent a lot of time in this exhibition because it relates to a project I have started in relation to a new housing estate being built near to where I live. The photographs here give an idea of what the place is like; the exhibition as a whole presents an in depth view of the place from it’s inception and there seems to be little political narrative trying to prove it beneficial or destructive of individuality. The viewer is free to make up their own mind.

For instance, Fontana in his series of typologies has shown uniformity while Noviel shows a body of work that emphasises the differences.

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Yet this exhibition is confined to a visual examination! What of the lives of those who grew up here or spent their adult lives in the houses. Their voices go unheard except for a boy who was part of the Mennecy football team who chose to return and bring his children up in Levitt Mennecy.

On a more sombre note, the film maker Fischli writes, “mediocrity defines our urbanised landscape much more than the few so-called great achievements of contemporary architecture.”

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Drowning World by Gideon Mendel (Arles-2017)


Drowning World explores the human dimension of climate change by focusing on floods across geographical and cultural boundaries. Rather than the literal depiction of disaster zones, Gideon Mendel focuses on the personal impact of flooding to evoke our shared vulnerability to global warming. Since 2007, Mendel has documented floods in 13 countries. The Submerged Portraits series are intimate portraits of flood victims. Their poses may seem conventional but their context is catastrophe, and their unsettling gazes challenge us deeply. The marks left by floodwater, especially in domestic spaces, are the focus of the Floodlines series, which presents the paradox of order and calm within chaos. The Watermarks series consists of enlargements of flood-damaged personal snapshots, sometimes anonymous flotsam fished from the water or mud, sometimes given by homeowners.

This series of portraits of people in flooded domestic situations is not situated in any one place but across continents; this gives the work extra value. While this exhibition attracts me because of the subject, I found that when I was covering the flooding near my home in Somerset, I was responding to the brief which was the sublime and beautiful in the landscape rather than people personally effected.



United States, India, Brazil, Haiti, United Kingdom, Nigeria, Thailand, Bangladesh, Pakistan … individuals from these countries are all featured in this first row of photographs; location portraits that show people with respect in the horror of their situations.


There is also a collection of photographs found at different locations. These are illustrated in eight large frames while others have been blown up to a much larger size and printed. By focusing on the landscape, I was aware of not infringing on people undergoing hardship yet Mendel has entered the privacy of other people’s lives to show the turmoil and tragedy they are experiencing which is appropriate since the world needs to know of the plight of people who suffer in natural disasters. Said to be the result of climate change, they are going to effect more and more of us and we need to better understand their impact.


 Mendel has also photographed ruined interiors, another reminder of the personal effect such disasters wreak.



There are more portraits of different people looking stoical as they pose in the floodwaters of their homes; there are also blow ups of the details of buildings such as windows reflected in the water.

There is a room showing video chapters, nine in all. One is struck by the silence and the people none of whom smile in any way as is often the case when being photographed. I wonder if there is a deliberate attempt on behalf of the photographer to emphasise the seriousness of the situations these people find themselves in. Might some have had a more optimistic acceptance of what had happened? The fact that there are no smiles at all in the video clips makes me question the photographer’s intent if not influence. Asian people are more accepting of disaster and I think of the Steve Mac Curry smiling tailor photograph showing the man with his sewing machine on his shoulder neck deep in water yet still smiling.

Perhaps humanity is a little more stoical than Mendel wants us to think!?

In regard to my own work, I see how I might have made more twilight images, focused more on details and used some video. I chose to exclude people because of the brief and not wanting to impose myself as a voyeur. Some of the photographs included are of the area I covered in Somerset and tend to be interiors which is interesting; mini-landscapes of domestic interiors meeting the dirty water.



Joel Meyerowitz (Arles-2017)

The American colour photography master Joel Meyerowitz began his career in New York in the 60s. As a street photographer, always out and about in the heart of his city, Meyerowitz slips and dodges through the urban fray, his eyes ever on the alert. His complex compositions toy with the notions of imbalance and deframing, and seem suspended as if by a thread. For the first time in France, the Rencontres d’Arles will exhibit forty original prints by Joel Meyerowitz, with a selection of his first photographs in black and white and in colour.


The first photograph is a black and white of a young couple in Paris from 1967; they are conscious of being photographed. Next is a young guard from Florida, the night before the moon launch of 1969. The two images complement each other as both show young people, none of whom appear to welcome the photographer’s presence.


More black and white photographs follow … from New York and one from Paris. What is this group of images saying? There is no obvious meaning neither is there any great technical virtuosity evident but these scenes are encounters between people.


Next is a family scene from Atlanta in 1971; 5 people in front of a window.


Atlanta is the scene for a couple of other images from 1971. People and place finely observed.


A group of four images and it seems clear that Meyerowitz is playing with composition here; subject is perhaps secondary though these are documentary records of America in the 1960’s.


There is a photograph from Spain (1967) of Circus girls on a tightrope before a car photograph made the following year in America; the possibility of accident and the scene of an accident both images mirror suspense.


As Meyerowitz moves to colour, one of the first professional art photographers to do so, there is an immediate change in the dynamic. Meyerowitz in the mid-1970’s also seems to be changing his subject matter with more spontaneous wider view compositions that capture action. At least, a photograph titled Broadway and 46’th Street, New York City, 1976 answers to this description. There is parallax and detail lost in shadow but this seems to be part of the picture’s overall appeal.


Back to earlier black and white work; more drama in public places. A couple involving dogs, a couple women. What is going on in these scenes? People interact haphazardly as in much of Meyerowitz’s work; we can not draw conclusions without making assumptions.


Another colour photograph, this time two camel-colour coated couples in New York from 1975; they are approaching a mysterious cloud of steam that drifts across the street.


Back to 1960’s black and white work mixed up with colour . The subject is still the street and what is going on in it with a couple centring on the automobile. In one photograph, top left, one of the three colour photographs and made in Paris, someone has lost their hat to the wind and the hat hovers precariously at the top of the elevator while another woman holds tightly on to hers and another woman laughs. People look on. Meyerowitz seldom reveals such obvious meanings in his images!



Back to colour and the late 1970’s with a young dancer standing alone on a street corner with the Empire States Building towering in the background; the light is a soft golden warmth. The figure looks as though she has been posed.


One wall of the gallery shows a giant blow up of a Meyerowitz photograph that shows a couple standing on the edge of a cliff by which a large sign warns them that doing so is “very dangerous”. Is suspense a Meyerowitz theme? There are also six photographs hung over the huge one, small framed images that show residences, secure places in contrast to the danger implicit in the larger photograph, places where people can sleep.


Continuing a beach theme, the next group of photographs are of scantily clad people, colour portraits from the 1970’s. These are tender particularly if they are of strangers which would appear to be the case; people posing for a photographer on the beach. The place is given sometimes the name of the person pictured. “Land, Provincetown, 1976” is a colour photograph of a wayside restaurant with cars and an ornate tower in the background.


The final display of photographs is 12 colour as well as black and white images, from different times ranging from the late 60’s to the early 80’s. They are singular images and do not appear to conform to a whole. They perhaps are personal choices made by Sam Stourdze, the curator of this exhibition and organiser of the festival as a whole.


The final photograph of the exhibition is a small sized image of the one blown up to fill a wall; two women standing with their backs to the photographer and beside a sign that warns them that the cliffs are dangerous.

One aspect of Meyerowitz’s work I like is that it is complex but straightforward, his street scenes are spontaneously caught and his portraits are carefully arranged, he is not hoodwinking us! I also like this body of work because Meyerowitz is a consummate professional, he knows what he is doing. There may not be much rapport with his subjects but he understands them.















Masahisa Fukase (Arles-2017)


“Fukase: The Incurable Egoist is the first retrospective of Masahisa Fukase to take place in Europe, allowing much previously unseen material to leave Japan for the first time. Fukase is widely regarded as one of the most radical and influential photographers of his generation. This presentation considers all aspects of Fukase’s practice from the 1960s onwards, drawing on vintage prints, graphic work, as well as archival magazines and publications, to show the extent of the artist’s working life. Dealing with issues of family, love, friendship, loneliness, mortality and death, activated photographically through performance, self-portraiture, play and comedy, the exhibition establishes Fukase as one of the most innovative and original Japanese artists of the post-war period.”

This is one exhibition I very much want to see at Arles this year. Japanese photography is very different to most of what we see in the West. This exhibition of Fukase’s work is called The Incurable Egoist and is apparently his first European retrospective. Sadly, following an accident, he lived the final part of his life in a vegetative state. The exhibition is curated by Simon Baker of Tate Modern, London.

Just before going in, I chat with an English artist who has seen it but could not make much sense of it. I am aware the work can be challenging and am prepared to take time to understand it. Commentaries are on the walls in some places but I am not sure I agree with them … for instance, spirals are surely uplifting symbols rather than merely endless; one finds them on ancient stones.


The first photograph that grabs my attention on entry is a head and shoulders black and white of Fukase over which he has drawn circles and other jagged lines embuing his image with a sense of presence. His face is partially obscured yet one senses a human presence.


To the right of this are a couple of large Polaroids which combine different images; while one is a self-portrait with coloured pins stuck into his face, the other is of his cat!

I have seen and written about Fukase’s Ravens elsewhere but shall devote more time to this body of work; I recently bought the photobook which has been republished and so available for a reasonable price unlike the original 1986 version. The raven is a symbol that conjures up a mythology which can vary from place to place.


There are 30 prints here and a group of smaller ones placed inside larger frames; these have been drawn over by Fukase and are selected from over 1,000 prints numbering 120. Most are close ups of Ravens, Fukase used a 1,000 mm lens, but some are of other objects such as balloons, helicopters even a turtle dove. The drawings seem to echo the dynamics of the flying objects.


Often referred to as the Solitude of Ravens, this work was made in the aftermath of divorce from his wife, Yoko. The Ravens are not always solitary however and we sometimes see them in large groups. The photographs are not of high technical quality but it is lack of focus or flare and other imperfections that make them appealing. Silhouettes work effectively in conveying a somber mood as does bokeh. Some images are lithographic in quality.


Ravens has been released as a series a number of times. Later editions employed colour and used layered negatives. Ravens: Noctambulant Flight makes use of montage techniques and there are inherent references to Yatagarasu, the three-legged raven of Japanese mythology. Fukase however referred to the “dangerous unrestrainable nature of montages” and decided not to continue working with them. Some of these images are striking such as the kneeling naked woman in the raven’s wing or the raven and the sea. Some of this work appeared in books and magazines, a few of which are visible here.



Cats were another subject Fukase liked to photograph as do millions of people, cat photographs being very popular on the internet. The star was his cat Sasuke; one series focused on his open jaws but he was particularly fond of catching his own reflection in the cat’s eyes. Fukase an incurable egoist or simply narcissist!?



A video screen plays showing a sequence of photographs. His wife featuring naked in a family photograph where other family members are attired is an interesting juxtaposition; other images show a range of subjects.


Homo Ludens focuses on the body particularly that of his first wife pregnant. These are playful images involving distortion and intimacy. Play is in fact the title given to this room of Fukase’s work. Reference is made to the book Homo Ludens (1981).


Fukase also photographed family. One body of work is called Memories of Father who was also a photographer and ran a studio in which his wife worked. Another body of work is called Family; some of these images are original in approach such as the inclusion of a naked woman in an otherwise formal family photograph.


Private Scenes is among the last body of work Fukase produced. These images are stretching the limits in their use of the medium with the use of painted colour on black and white prints.  Many include his self portrait but are not merely self portraits since they include scenes in which he plays a role even if only of witness.


Hibi means cracks or fissures which is what one series deals with. These are intriguing designs yet with a darker meaning attached. They have been made into a book which is available in the foyer of the exhibition; Ravens is elsewhere.


Bukubuku is an alliteration in Japanese for bubbling. In this series Fukase uses an underwater camera to photograph himself in his bath. The work is introspective and humorous, well conceived and photographed; narcissistic perhaps yet unique in self portraiture.


Berobero is about the custom of touching tongues. Fukase photographs himself doing so with a number of people some well known photographers like Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki. With colour brushed over they look a little strange but remain momentos that savour intimate moments. A sign on the gallery wall suggests that if one is inspired by this series one might like to post onto Instagram #berobero And #rencontresarles

On the way out I see a few Polaroids I had missed on the way in; lurid colours suggestive of self-harm like a pin in a tongue. This is unpleasant to look at while most of the work in this exhibition although not necessarily attractive (the family portraits are an exception) does not induce such feelings of discomfort.

Is Fukase really an incurable egoist as the exhibition suggests!? Perhaps Fukase thought the same! I see him as someone exploring himself, trying to understand who he is which in a society like Japan might be considered an honourable trajectory or way to live one’s life while in the west a form of self-indulgence.