Suburbia by Bill Owens

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.

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.

Contemporary Japanese Photographic Books (display at The Photographer’s Gallery)

view of Ramillies Street and The Photographers Gallery

Contemporary Japanese Photography Books

My rather vague impression of Japanese photography is of the gritty realism of the snapshot mode, of a subversive approach rather than a traditional one which in Japan has produced much  in the way of fine art, Zen temples being an obvious example. An exponent of this photographic approach can be seen in the writing of Ken Domon who exerted considerable influence over post-war photography in Japan. He advocated the “absolutely unstaged snapshot” which he considered has “a fundamental historical and societal value.” This was accepted as a genre as is landscape, portraiture or still life; a realist approach that challenged the more conservative one. Of course, the upstaged snapshot also embraces these other genres. During the 1950s Domon proposed such views in which there is “a direct connection between the camera and the subject”.

Before the war, the Japanese had made contact with the Bauhaus and Ihei Kimura was known for “snapshot spontaneity.” However, modernist associations were to be dropped and as Shomei Tomatsu put it, “I release the shutter in Tokyo or in the provinces for my benefit only, not for someone or something else.”

Another photographer, Nobuyoshi Araki, writes in his text “Photographic Discourse as Strip Show” that to the photographer, “… you must plainly lay yourself bare. That is your duty to the subject. But even without that intention, the person who takes the photograph is exposed.”

The photo book in Japan has been very important in the development of photography because, until more recently, there have not been other outlets for serious photography. Personally, I find the photo book a stimulating form of expression and an inviting means of outputting my work. Photographs while gaining support from words can so easily be swamped by them.

The Wolfson Gallery during the Japanese photobook exhibition

At the Wolfson Gallery, on the second floor of The Photographer’s Gallery in London, there is an exhibition of contemporary Japanese photo books with perhaps as many as 100 placed around the room for one to peruse; one is asked to put on a pair of white gloves to do so, these being supplied by the gallery.

The first book I pick up is called “Dance” and is by Seiji Shibuya.

There is a book about Mount Fuji by Ishikawa; it is in bright colour with a considerable amount of Japanese text. Visually, the view of the place is highly subjective and includes photographs of wood cuts of the mountain. Another, larger format book by Ishikawa is called The Void; there is a verbal statement “One forest is all forests!” which refers to the interconnectedness of all things, the photographer having studied with a local shaman. The photographs are from the northern island of New Zealand being mostly of forest and often the presence of water. At the end of the book, there are a couple of pages of text written by Ito, a Japanese professor of art, who attempts to explain what the book is about, writing “the apparatus of visual perception – the photograph – does not fully capture the presence … must limit itself to directing people’s attention towards the power’s source.” 

looking at photographic books – white gloves supplied

Another book is called “Children of the Rainbow” and is by Juriji Takasago; this is a series of nature photographs in colour. Most feature animals but there are some good landscapes. 

Taigan by Dodo Arati is a visual account of off-beat travels through Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. The photographs are in colour and have titles; one can find out more about what is happening in the images from information given at the back of the book.

Another photographer is Murakoshi Toshiya;

Here the photographer is using small prints about 6 by 8 ins in black and white with no words. The title of the book “Until and unless” is not easy to deifier but there is a quality of stillness within the photographs.

The exhibition of photographic books presents about 100 to be viewed, too many to be looked at in detail. Most are highly imaginative if not abstract often with the sense of meaning they might convey being implied by titles only. It is not easy to generalise about these books as a whole although they are true photo books in the sense that most are primarily concerned with the visual effect of the photographs and use few if any words. Text is subordinate of as much importance as the framing of the images perhaps less. Often these books can absorb one for quite sometime as one contemplates their meaning in an attempt to understand what they are actually saying; returning to look at the same book after sometime might produce further insights.


Common Sense by Martin Parr

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?


A photobook is basically a book of photographs in which text is evident but relates to the photographs rather than being a source of it’s own. Photobooks might be considered a new form of literature; they are about the confluence of photography and literature rather than that of photography and painting.

Most photography books are not Photobooks since they are using photographs for a particular end rather than in their own right!