A book dropped through the letter box today. An updated version of a 1970’s photographic classic, Suburbia by Bill Owens.
At first glance, it seems a rather cynical view of America emerging after the war. Of course, in western philosophy, cynicism is considered to be a kind of wisdom but when one is using the images of unsuspecting people to make the statement, I am not sure this is so. There is an obvious similarity to the work of Martin Parr who came after Owens and did something similar in the UK by parodying the up and coming classes.
One needs to look a little further though to see what this book is really about and the introductory essay by David Halberstam helps set the context of a post-war America that was experiencing a housing boom. Whatever one might make of the images here, they do stand out as a record of a particular time in the social history of the USA and are unique in that case; the attempt to picture extraordinary events with the camera can lead one to overlook the ordinary that won’t be ordinary for long. Many of Owen’s images are dated but still readable; they have moved on beyond their production dates and now speak of history.
However, the theme of the book which is domesticity and all that comes with it is not of course dated and so the subject of the book keeps its relevance. Halberstam is right it seems when he talks of the photographers “empathy” with his subjects; however much the viewer might find the subject distasteful, it is something that many people were happy if not proud to be part of and something that others are experiencing today in other parts of the world.
Bill Owens did not act condescendingly to his subjects as other critics did towards the members of this new movement, he responded with respect and captured an historical era. This is not a view shared by some members of the press such as The New York Times that said “What we have here is a bourgeois hog heaven”, a view that appears on the back of the book.
An interesting addition to the revised book is a small red “stick on” star that one sees on both front and back covers; this is the kind of item one might expect to see in a supermarket advertising a product, a far cry from this book’s message.
Martin Parr has said of his photobook, Common Sense, that it was was one of his finer achievements that had been somewhat overlooked. As an exhibition, it had been shown worldwide simultaneously at a number of venues.
As a book, it is striking in it’s absence of text. There is no introduction or even the usual publishing notes (these are found on the back cover) merely a photograph which appears to be a close up of some kind of sound equipment containing knobs, one of which says volume and the other tempo; this image replaces what might have been a list of chapters headings and invites us to enjoy the book as a sensory experience.
Looking through the pages of images (each photograph is a close-up and occupies its’ page without any border) one may feel overwhelmed by the banality of the image to the point of nausea. However, if one does continue looking through the pages one might find oneself laughing at the ludicrousness of it all.
If one looks through the book more than once and continues to look at it, one might start to see just how well it is constructed and become aware of the way it has been put together. The images are of commonplace objects (as suggested by the title) and there is the use of diptychs, each double paged spread is composed of one photograph playing off against another; this helps to create a dialogue so that the book starts to speak to one through the imagery.
There are some memorable images in this book such as a cup of tea on a red chequered table cloth, a number of images of painted cakes often containing faces, while the cover shows a map of the world on a metal globe in which a rusty slot can be seen for accepting coins; this idea of the planet as some giant money box is one of the stronger images yet similar puns can be read in the rest of the book.
“Common Sense” is a book that can be looked at and looked at again; in fact, it is a book that can be read almost like a book of poetry although it may not inspire one in the way poetry does.
Would it be presumptous to describe this book as a post-modernist book and Parr as a post-modern photographer?
This book was suggested to me by OCA tutor Jose Navarro. I had come across another book by Reas called “I can help” which had struck me as deeply ironical and so I wondered what this book might be about. With a postscript by Val Williams I felt I would be able to keep a detached and informed view.
The book was published in the early 1990’s with help from the Arts Council of Great Britain; it is a comment on the growing heritage industry which tends to glamourise the past as it makes old coal mines and the like available to a fee paying public armed with cameras. There is an absence of grime and the apparent authenticity is rather deceiving.
The photographs could be described as post-modernist in approach. For instance, many images are tilted. It is not obvious as to why this has been done yet it adds to the sense of confusion these images seem to be portraying.
There is also text by Stuart Cosgrove which outlines his experience of looking at the photographs and what some of the images mean to him. Its’ not easy to determine what the individual images are concerned with and this text along with the captions at the back help. The text itself is creatively placed on the page with some of it being enlarged and almost floating. A reminder of the way text and image can work together.
There are many images one could comment on but one that stands out is of a “black” man wearing a union jack tea shirt stands at the back of a bus; the photographer looks from the outside past the heads of two white people. There is an obvious conflict here of different kinds of heritage. One can not help but recall an image by Martin Parr in which a “black man” stands talking to an elderly British couple at a party.
The cover image of the book is of a cobbled street from a bygone age in which a cart is placed; a man with a video recorder is seen photographing the scene. It all appears rather unreal and on reflection not at all like any street that actually existed in a previous century although the elements of such a scene are apparent.
Val Williams’s commentary is at the back; she is describes as a photo-historian and writer about photography. Her prose helps one to see deeper into the images and understand the photographer’s intentions.
I like this book not as a document to be enjoyed for pretty photographs but as an insight into the culture we create around us; even when it is meant to be there to inform us, it is more likely to mislead in an attempt to entertain us.
Often one’s feeling towards photographs is personal. One photograph that sticks out for me is of a tour guide with bowler hat and brolly raised talking to a group of smiling tourists of different nationalities. I remember seeing these guides when I visited The Tower of London some years ago; they were very amusing with their theatrical approach and did actually give a valid insight into the place even if an exaggerated one.
We met in a classroom for 2 hours, a group of 10 people with sexes evenly divided; the tutor Claudia Ascott was the eleventh and swayed the gender of the group towards the feminine. There a range of people including an ecologist probably about my age possibly a bit older who is the “bright” one of the group but seems to have a rather “camera club” mentality and admits to needing to be more creative. There is a young woman in hot pants who arrives late and leaves early. It is always interesting to see quite ordinary people with desk jobs making intelligent comments.
After introducing ourselves, Claudia showed an array of photographs projected onto a screen by a digital projector. Looks like I am about the only person who is familiar with the work of William Eggleston, Martin Parr, Diane Arbus, Ansel Adams does get recognised, Julia Margaret Cameron etc
After looking at the slides, we are then invited to pin a photograph of our choice (we were asked to bring one) to the wall with blue-tack. The group lead by Claudia then goes around the room, looking at the photographs and making comments. Most of these are no bigger than 6 by 4 (post card size) and one needs to get close to them. The most interesting is perhaps a postcard photograph that someone “found” when it dropped out of a library book!
My “Milked maid” photo is recognised as being reminiscent of the Dutch masters in particular Vermeer but no one places it as representative of the Milkmaid by Vermeer. The lighting is attractive to one or more, coming as it does from a single window, while other are interested in individual objects such as the boots, the croissants, objects that prevent it being a true representative of the original; it is in fact, a contemporary view!
Before leaving, we are set an assignment.