Tom Hunter in Hackney, London

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Tom Hunter, photographer, talking to OCA graduate students

Tom Hunter is a photographer I have been aware of since seeing his seeing his photograph “Woman Reading a Possession order” which is an overt reference to a painting by Vermeer, part of the Dutch School. The chance to hear him talking seemed too good an opportunity to miss and so early one morning, I left at dawn to catch a train to London. It was surprisingly easy to reach the Bootstrap Gallery, a 3 month old project a short walk away from Dalston Overground station.

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The converted building where the workshop was held

The OCA crowd were already in evidence and Sharon Boothroyd, a tutor from the OCA let me in through the security doors. I needed to visit the Gents and following a sign went up to the top of the building in search of one. At the top was a door which lead onto a landscaped garden rooftop; from another building nearby I heard the whistle of a Mynah bird. This was obviously a wrong turning but it was an interesting spectacle.

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the rooftop of the building in which the exhibition was held

Sharon, OCA tutor for the day, has written the following on her Photoparley blog about Tom Hunter …

Tom Hunter’s photographs permit the viewer an instantaneous and unashamed pleasure in looking.  Then, once we are drawn in, they deliver a punch of meaningful content. These large scale prints are grounded in the eye-opening realities of life in East London but at the same time speak to another world; one of beauty, thought and celebration. It is this blend of documentary and art that is so fascinating.

Not long after I found myself in a studio waiting for Tom Hunter to appear. There were a couple of dozen of OCA students. When Tom Hunter started his talk, he asked if we were “A” level students and it was left for me to pipe up, “No, undergraduates!” though it was difficult to notice many if any people under 40. Three cheers for adult education!

Tom started by saying that as a child, his father had a darkroom in the garden, and it was here he experienced the magic moment of seeing a photograph he had taken of his sister materialise before his eyes. It was however not until he was 23 that he picked up a camera and start taking photographs again. Initially, he took pictures of people coming to his stall in a part of Hackney where he lived; usually, markets are not easy to make photographs in but since he was sitting and snapping people who were coming to him, it worked well and encouraged him to do a course at LCP (London College of Printing).

As he photographed his surroundings, he became interested in local issues at a time when Hackney was a very different place to the one it is now; he found it a warm and welcoming place, a vibrant community. It was considered to be almost a ghetto at the time (with ruins of Second World War bombing) yet for Tom it was a “living” place with a recognisable community even if many people were living in squats. He made a model of his house into which he inserted 5by4 transparency photographs and this was appreciated not just by friends but officially and the piece now belongs to The Museum of London. The area has experienced massive regeneration since those days of the late 80’s and a house that was once offered by the council for £5000 recently went for £2.4 million; Tom does not consider himself as a successful businessman since he might have cashed in on this!

The acceptance of his work lead him to make the career decision to be an artist and he began to photograph his friends and neighbours many of whom were considered at the time to be anti-social elements of society, dispossessed people.

His studies brought him into contact with such work as Dorothy Lange’s “Migrant Mother’, a Madonna and Child image, that speaks of the poverty that existed in the U.S. during the Depression era of the 1930’s. He also came across artists such as Vermeer of the Golden Age of Dutch Painting. At that time, Holland was defending itself from the Spanish and so while the map in one Vermeer painting might appear an interesting but tame reference, at the time such maps were illegal owing to the Spanish influence which claimed Holland as it’s own so this image was actually provocative. Yet what inspired Tom about Vermeer was the way he elevated the status of common and ordinary people. He has been doing the same thing through his own work. A work by Vermeer called The Art of Painting, has been transformed by Tom into a contemporary “The Art of Squatting”.

Another of his recreations has been of John Everett Millias’ “Ophelia” (1852) which is apparently the most popular art print in the UK. His own photograph is made in similar circumstances in Hackney – his Ophelia is a prone figure lying in the water surrounded by weeds while an industrial landscape looms in the background.

Some photographs he made of friends on old industrial estates ended up being exhibited by the MOMA in New York! Mimicking fine art paintings often provides inspiration for this kind of work.

Thomas Hardy has been a source of inspiration and fascination. Hardy’s heart wrenching stories of life in Dorset, the county where he grew up, encouraged him to do as Hardy did and collect local real-life stories from local newspapers. From these he constructed photographs. Tom is quite open about staging photographs in which he seeks to embody the issues of the day. He wants to seduce his audience and change people’s perceptions.

He has faced opposition from gallery owners who find his imaging too real, grotesque even and that it is morally wrong to make beautiful works of art out of a tragedy. Tom points out that they are no worse that many of the scenes portrayed in classic works of art.

One of body work came about when he visited Dublin in Ireland and is based on some lines of Ulysses by James Joyce; he photographed old Victorian bathing stations that were dotted around Dublin Bay. For this he used a specially fashioned 5by4 pinhole camera.

Another of his projects is of places of worship in East London and documents the different kinds of faith that exist in the area.

FIne Art works often help to give a narrative.

Recent work includes making a film of his locality from old people’s stories and memories of the area.

After he has finished speaking, we have a chance to put questions to Tom and I am the first to jump in with a question that concerns me about his work and which is partly provoked by his reference to fine art (often not obvious to the viewer) in a medium that often seeks to go beyond the limitations of the past; he sounds me out almost immediately and makes me aware of the kind of the preconceptions I have started to build up around photography. The following is from an interview with Katy Barron on Photomonitor …

For obvious reasons photography, especially in the 1960s with the advent of the 35mm cameras, tried to distance itself completely from the past. It was like a Communist revolution, stating ‘we don’t belong to the past and we have no relationship with it, and photography must be seen in its own right’. And they tried to sever the link, because photography in the 19th century was very much linked to painting, which they did very successfully. It came to a point in the 1990s when some practitioners became frustrated that photography could only be one way of looking at the world; 35mm hand-held. People began to question this and started looking back and re-interpreting photography so that it became more experimental.

Tom started to reference fine art by happenstance rather than intentionally. He was photographing inside using a large format camera which resulted in long exposures, all of which resulted in softer images and light that were reminiscent of the Dutch School paintings. He considers photography a bit disingenuous in the way it claims to be divorced from art when in fact everything from cave painting to sculpture and painting is part of it’s DNA.

Another point he makes is that if an artist such as Caravaggio was at work today, he would not be painting but more likely to be doing something like video.

Tom is a picture maker. He does not have great technical virtuosity and prefers simple equipment such as a pinhole camera. He thinks that digital photography has robbed photography of much of it’s innocence.

He has to work hard to hold down his job in photography. He finds himself concerned about whether new work will actually be accepted.

Coming from a later generation of photographers than Martin Parr, Tom has rebelled against what he considers to be “smash and grab” photography; he takes his time, communicates with his subjects. He does not answer to the “in your face” photographer stereotype or the techie. Like Art, photography needs to develop from one generation to the next.

It is important to be able to communicate with people if one wants to gain access to places. Need to be direct, straightforward and honest, able to explain oneself and what one is doing. When he gets refused, he sees it as an invitation to a discussion.

Tom Hunter's photographs on show

Tom Hunter’s photographs on show

He wants to involve people, the whole of society, in a debate in issues that are of importance. This has lead to him being dismissed as political (by Saatchi for instance who did however later take him on) as a kind of Billy Bragg of photography.

In fact, he is searching for a voice through photography.

Where many see ugliness, he sees beauty; he is attracted to beauty like the PreRaphaelites were but does not think it has conform to certain conditions.

The relationship between photography and reality fascinates him. As he says in an interview on Photoparley …

I love the way photography is seen as the truth but that truth can be so easily manipulated. Reality and documentary are at the core of my practice as it is in photography but I find more truth in fiction. So it’s getting the balance between reality and truth I find most exciting and illuminating. Too much fiction and the real history and lives are lost, too much dry reality and no one wants to hear their stories. Thomas Hardy got all the facts and wove them together in such a beautiful way, that the life of the peasants in Dorset became alive and the fiction becomes a reality. This is how I strive to work.

After the talk, we went to a cafe next door and chatted awhile. It takes time though for something like this to sink in and it was later in the day that I wrote it up in the cafe of The Photographers Gallery.

downstairs at The Photographers Gallery

downstairs at The Photographers Gallery

OThe OCA blog of the event by Sharon is here while the pre-event blog is here

Other students blogs are by Shelley Holland John Umney

Light from the Middle East – new photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum

LIGHT FROM THE MIDDLE EAST

“You are always on these OCA days!” another student tells me as we wait at the V+A for the OCA visit to start. I certainly find it helpful to meet with other students and in particular tutors – it helps to give perspective on what one is doing and distance learning can leave one feeling isolated. For some people, attending an OCA day has kept them on track; they have been about to drop a course and attended an OCA day as a last ditch attempt and it has worked.

I share a coffee downstairs in the V+A cafe with a few other students. One complains about his tutor and enthuses about his camera; I wonder if the two are not connected – the OCA photography course is not about the best equipment or about how to use it as this knowledge can be freely obtained elsewhere rather it is concerned with understanding the medium and learning how to use it as an expressive tool.

Gareth Dent addresses the multitude

Gareth Dent addresses the multitude; to his right, tutors Robert Enoch and Simon Barber

As with most OCA days, it starts with a tutor, in this case Gareth Dent the CEO of the OCA, telling us what the day is about. One is to gain a personal perspective of the work on show (I try to pepper my personal perspective with as many other views as I can) and seeing photography in the gallery, a completely different experience to seeing it on screen or in a book. Gareth also asks us to question what is going on in the exhibition such as the way it has been hung and where images have been placed in relation to each other; he considers the three fold segmentation of the work into sections called “Recording, Reframing, Resisting” as somewhat arbitrary pointing out for instance, that Abbas does not merely record he also reframes. Certainly the work of Abbas, a Magnum photographer, is very skilled producing technically proficient images that print well but also creating compositions that both interest and inform the viewer. The images on show are about the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Mullahs and come from the end of the 1970’s when the Shah was overthrown and sent into exile. I am familiar with Abbas from his images of Islam and one can see he is getting closer enough to his subjects to make the pictures worthwhile; the grim spectacle of four generals in the morgue not only allowed Abbas to make a great document, it also probably helped the ruling party to show the populace that the generals were really dead.

What I like about this exhibition is that it is concerned with photography rather than attempting to make an artistic statement through the use of photography although the latter is present. The catalogue published by Steidl, currently one of the very best publishers of photographic books, also contains a helpful introductory essay by Marta Weiss, curator of photographs at The Victoria and Albert Museum, in which she mentions all the images on show and gives a brief description of what they are about that does enable one to understand photographs that might easily be discussed. She also makes pertinent remarks about photography in general. For instance, she starts by saying … “The immediacy, universality and accessibility of photography makes it an ideal choice for artists confronting the social challenges and political upheavals of the contemporary Middle East” which nicely contextualises the subject of the exhibition; she continues … “For many of them, photography is not just a documentary tool. Rather, it is a ubiquitous yet powerful creative medium to be exploited and interrogated.

She also has more general statements to make about the medium of photography saying “A photograph may be regarded as simply a window onto the world, as a picture of something. A photograph however, is not just an image, but an object, and the choice of how photographs use the medium and its techniques can be as important as what they choose to picture.” Weiss even suggests ways to look at the photographs with the following questions … “How has the maker exploited or challenged the medium? What is expressed by using photography in a particular way? Why was photography the medium of choice? To what extent does the work acknowledge pre-existing photographs that relate to the Middle-East?

Of course, Gareth is right to challenge Weiss’ decision to compartmentalise the work. Of the first section, Weiss writes that “the photographers … exploit and explore the camera’s capacity to record” a statement which can surely be applied to photographs from other parts of the exhibition. Yet one can hardly deny her statement that “photography is a powerful tool for documenting people, places and events. A photograph can serve a commemorative purpose or bear witness to historic moments” while she goes on to qualify this by stating “Despite their apparent authority, photographs can be ambiguous and difficult to decipher; they can trick or disorient. Their meaning can shift according to context, cropping or captioning.

If one wants a detailed account of this exhibition, one might read Weiss’s introduction. Here, I am just going to note down images that evoked a response from me at the time of viewing. For instance, Abbas Kowsari has made an interesting close up of a soldier”s tea shirt showing a Western male below which are the weapons he carries. Black and white photographs made over the course of 10 years showing a Sufi festival are striking since they show the practice of people gorging knives into themselves although this does seem rather sensationalist coverage. Another photograph of a bridge cracked and covered in graffiti does need an explanation since as an image it tends to say little – the bridge had collapsed sometime earlier to the photograph being made killing many people and so the photographer had made it into a monument.

The image of a square magnet surrounded by upraised iron filings might be read as a satirical comment on worshippers at the Qaaba in Mecca of which it is an obvious reference; however, one might also see it as an insight into the cosmic dimensions of this particular Isalmic practice suggesting that there is something deeply natural to the practice. The image used by the OCA to announce this study day visit is of a woman, one sees only her eyes and forehead since she holds a small blackboard over the lower part of her face as if it were a Burkha covering her; the woman is in fact a lecturer in English Literature at a university.

How honest a picture of the Middle East does this exhibition present? There is a political edge to it that might be expected in documentary photography yet is this representative of photography as a whole in the Middle East? Might not the exhibition be a response to our preconceptions of the Middle East? I do not know enough to answer these questions and yet there is another photographic book, Arab Photography Now that might – it seems highly unlikely that all the photographers reprinted here would be found in the other book and vice the versa? In fact, a review of this other book states … “All the leading arab photographers are ignored. Where is Walid Raad, Fouad El Khoury, Hrair Sirkassian, Adel Abidin, Ziad Antar, Akram Zaatari, Zineb Sedira, Meriem Bouberdala, … ?

Another image that I found meaningful was a large panorama by Mitra Tabrizian in which a couple of Mullah’s gaze down from a billboard onto a group of people; these people are staged models and their poises look strained. I can not help but see here the powerful control that religion has over people in Middle Eastern countries.

A pile of bricks in a characterless modern housing estate by Yto Barrada is the kind of photograph that makes one scratch one’s head a little. How to see beyond the banality of an apparently meaningless image? There is much to discuss though in terms of the shapes within the image, the slightly squewered verticals, the lack of people and of any character to the place etc

A video installation in a separate room had an eerie feel to it. The sound of American voices at one point could not stop the feeling that one was perhaps seeing some kind of military construction while the whistling wind further enhanced feelings of bleakness and alienation. The image was from the desert where the low sun of dusk and dawn may reveal what is not normally visible.

In the reframing section the artists “look to the photographs of the past for inspiration and as a point of reference … they research, copy and interrogate past pictorial traditions and photographic imagery.

One image that sparks quite a bit of discussion is Raeda Saadeh’s “Who will make me real?” She can hardly be called a Page 3 girl yet perhaps she is satirising this. For Gareth, there is an obvious reference to Manet’s Olympia although Marta Weiss makes the reference to a photograph of a Mohammed woman by Comtesse de Croix-Mesnil; Gareth also writes that “The title: ‘Who will make me real?’ could be a reference to the John Berger’s assertion in Ways of Seeing, that “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves…she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight”. Is it the looking at Saadeh that makes her real? Or is it a reference to her status as an Arab with Israeli citizenship – a status frequently ignored in the football team approach to considering and reporting the Palestinian situation ...”

It is really the gaze here that is important and this is similar to the Olympia of Manet.

Tutor Robert Enoch writes … “The reference to Manet’s Olympia is resonant because that is a painting of a prostitute. Saadeh is at the same time appropriating/using as she experiences being used/appropriated. It is a strange act of defiance. It also brings up the question of ‘who creates identity/history/reality?’ The newspapers over her body suggests more than oppression, but a sort of pressure from outside that both conceals and shapes the perception of self.

There seem to be different layers of meaning to this image; I question the assertion that “Any sensuality implied by her pose is disrupted by the harsh realities reported in the newspaper.” I can’t read the newspaper because I don’t know Arabic so this statement sounds a bit over the top. The newspaper prevents us from see her nudity just as often newspapers stop us from seeing the facts and the truth they suggest because of a particular slant that the newspaper adopts. Furthermore, the newspaper prevents us from seeing her sensuality by it’s physical nature not it’s content!

Another photograph from this section, a group of photographs in fact that were modelled on the style of the Becher’s project of photographing disappearing industrial buildings, was Taysir Batnaji’s Watchtowers, West Bank / Palestine (2008). I found this one of the more powerful pieces. The fact that the artist had to get someone else to make the photographs is a reminder of the ominousness of these buildings which loom out at one with much more drama than those of the Bechers. Batniji to whom these photos are attributed, is a Gaza-born Palestinian and therefore not able to travel to the West Bank. Should a Palestinian who wants to make an artistic statement about Israel be denied doing so? Tutor Peter Haveland commented … “I really don’t see why contracting out the taking of the images makes any difference to the work. This is an art work not a photography course exercise after all and the reference to the Bechers work brings a sense of irony and a historic reference to the piece. Much work is being made with found images, Mishka Henner for example, under the broad umbrella of ‘photography’ and no one is concerned if an image is printed by someone else and so often the shutter is pressed by an assistant anyway, so where is the difference?

Batniji comments on the photographs that …  “They are out of focus, clumsily framed, and imperfectly lit. In this territory one can not install the heavy equipment of the Bechers or take time to frame the perfect position, let alone afford to wait for the ideal conditions.”

There are a group of sepia coloured photographs by Shadi Ghadirian which look very much like antique prints until one sees reminders of modernity such as a bicycle, a pair of sunglasses and other contemporary objects in them. We jokingly wonder if she would pass the first assignment of the OCA module, The Art of Photography; the contrasts in this work do not relate to form however but to concept.

The final section is called Resisting where the photographers “resist the authority of the photograph: scratching out or digitally removing faces, inserting figures into new back-grounds, even burning the print itself.

Abiq Rahim for instance, has resorted to old technology in his making of small soft focus black and white prints of his native Kabul which he returned to after 18 years away. Joana Hadjithomas and Khali Joreige have used old postcards of Beirut which have been damaged to illustrate the way the city itself has suffered since the original photographs were made. There is also an interesting work by Sukran Moral in which a group of men sit in a boat (a black and white photograph) while on their shoulders sit brightly coloured birds (colour photographs) – the image is called “Despair”(2003) and refers to the fate of those who have to migrate.

Other images worth mentioning (actually they all are!) are those by Nermine Hammam whose dreamlike images of soldiers from a series called Upekkha references the Buddhist attitude of seeing the world with equanimity.

There was so much to see in this exhibition and consider and this blog only touches on it.

Exhibition Road entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum

Exhibition Road entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum

jogging across Hyde Park

jogging across Hyde Park

 

A SECOND VISIT

I like to visit an exhibition more than once since if it is a good exhibition, one is bound to deepen one’s perspective of it. Immediately, I think of the photographs that I liked first time that I did not spend time discussing because it seemed almost politically incorrect to do so since beauty was the mainstay of their appeal although there is much more to them than this – these are sepia toned images of a Arabian woman in traditional clothing yet what appear to be classical images are punctured by objects from the contemporary world … such as a soft drink can or a bicycle. The artist-photographer’s name is Shadi Ghadirian.

Much has been written on beauty over the centuries so it is not easy to define – my own perception of it here is certainly in part that of the male gaze! Recently, the OCA discussed the matter of beauty quoting from Elaine Scarry’s “On Beauty and Being Just” … this deserves a blog of it’s own!

 

 

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.

Daniel Meadows

The Ffotogallery Gallery, Turner House, Penarth, near Cardiff, Wales

I arrive before the talk at Ffotogallery near Cardiff to have a brief look at the “Daniel Meadows: Early Years” exhibition.

Downstairs, there is an audio-visual room, which is showing short movies about Daniel Meadows and his work. As a student, he hired a studio for several weeks and photographed local people at his own expense while later on, he bought a bus and went around the country photographing people while using the bus as a darkroom, allowing him to photograph people one day and present them with a print soon after. The Arts Council supported him in this.

upstairs at the Ffotogallery

While there are some photographs from Mosside in the 1970’s, upstairs there is a much larger group of photographs largely of people from ordinary walks of life.

coloured photos of Butlins

One section is about Butlins and in colour prints of the time when colour photography was beginning to gain respectability as a form of photographic expression although it’s initial tackiness is perhaps being used by Meadows (also Parr) to comment on a perceived tacky nature of Butlins. Most of the photographs however, are in black and white and made in a straightforward documentary style.

An interesting aspect to this work is the way Daniel Meadows has gone back and found the people he photographed almost a quarter of a century ago; rephotographing them and then putting the old and new photographs side by side does create a fascinating insight into the way people age and the way British society has changed over that period.

I have a booked seat but arrive early since there are people who have come without bookings! Before the talk begins, I go to the toilet but someone pushes past and enters before me; as I wait the photographer Paul Reas (have a copy of his book Can I help?) comes up also wanting the loo and I wonder if I should let him go before me. We say “hello!” and both wait; I decide not to let him go in front as that might be psychophantic!

Val Williams, the curator of the exhibition, is not here tonight; she has however, been very influential in putting it together, choosing the photographs herself. She has a special interest in 1970’s British photography (apart from her book on Meadows, she has also done one on his friend, Martin Parr). Birmingham City?? Gallery are also an interested party. Meadows himself does not understand the “art” gallery world. There was an extensive search to find photographs for this exhibition such as inquiries being made to now defunct regional arts bodies.

Raul Reas and Daniel Meadows (right) seated

Paul Reas interviews and introduces Daniel Meadows; he is himself a documentary photographer but of the next generation to Meadows. Reas has a retrospective in Bradford next year, the town in which he grew up. He cites Meadows as an early influence and studied under him at Newport; he has known him for about 30 years. Along with contemporaries such as Anna Fox, Paul Graham and Paul Seawright, he not only learnt from Meadows but also challenged his approach.

The late photographer and teacher Bill Jay cited Daniel Meadows in his book Photographers Photographed, describing him as a peripatetic photographer; Meadows had bought his own bus, converted it into a studio and gone around England photographing ordinary people. He is regarded as being part of the development of 1970’s photography in Britain.

Daniel Meadows was sent away to boarding school at the age of 8, a place he hated. The school did once allow the boys to see TV, the programme being the funeral of WInston Churchill. He was aware that the 1960’s was happening outside the confines of his school where cruel treatment was commonplace particularly from other boys. Art was only a possible option when you had failed at everything else. It was on an art trip from school to the Hayward Gallery in London where there was a Bill Brandt exhibition on that Meadows, aged 18, experienced the possibilities of photography as a viable medium. Bill Brandt impressed him by his ability to move through the class system, from workng miners to old boys at their club in London. Women took their clothes off for him, another source of inspiration for an 18 year old!

memorablia from Meadows career posted on a wall of the gallery

A lot of the portraits and following prints Daniel Meadows made in his early days, were given as gifts to the sitters; in turn, they would invite him into their homes and to events that he was happy to photograph. His book “Living Like This” from this era sold as many as 17,000 copies. He deliberately tried to copy the approach of not only Brandt but also Tony Ray Jones and Benjamin Stone. These days photographers are not encouraged to copy but to be more original and different.

He saw much of his personal work, work that came from him rather than work he was paid to do, as not being serious; now it is the more important. There was a time when he had to photograph Margaret Thatcher who was busy with the Lockerbie disaster and so turned up late. While waiting, he asked permission to do a few test exposures and security eventually said that he could; it was not until sometime later that he received a call congratulating him on photographing Mrs.Thatcher’s handbag, something no one else had managed. Photography is full of coincidences.

He started out working with Martin Parr, his contemporary, who has gone on to radically alter the general perspective of photography; Meadows however, has taken a different route and one quality of his documentary style photographs is that they show what people featured are like. He is a story-teller and also used a tape recorder to record audio-diaries.

When he bought his bus and set out to photograph what people were really like, he expected them to be “rotten” but was surprised to find them “fantastic”. His documents are of time and place, slightly melancholic. Meadows himself often felt nervous, seldom had much cash (it took him a year and a half to raise the money for the trip). People sometimes tried to break into his bus and were surprised to find there was someone inside.

Politics does not feature much in Meadow’s work. He has always hated mainstream politics and has a similar disdain for popular TV although he did work for Granada TV for two years – he saw the culture as rubbishy.

It took him a long time to realise he was making his own photographs. Early work in Moss Side, a part of Manchester, was a conscious attempt to record a place that was being destroyed. Some of the photographs made in people’s front rooms could take him and Martin Parr up to 3 months to arrange.

Meadows had to take maths “O” level 6 times before he passed; hence he did not fit in the hold of the photographer who trained to be a professional.

Most photographs that are taken will never be seen yet those that are can have a big effect.

Meadow’s approach is humanitarian; there is greater engagement by the photographer with the subject. Meadows was inspired by Ivan Illich‘s 1973 book, “Tools for conviviality”. We are surrounded by tools and we need to choose and use them carefully.

One of his subjects was Stanley who he met as the man operating Britain’s last steam driven cotton mill. Meadows developed a close relationship that continues to this day. There are 2 videos about Stanley in the audio-visual room accompanying the exhibition.

Meadows spent the second part of his photographic like trying to understand the first part!

His photographs carry stories although these are not made clear in the exhibition. He went back after about a quarter of a century to rephotograph them and this makes a fascinating document part of which is visible on a digital screen at one end of the gallery. Talking to the people he had photographed before bought up interesting memories of the time that are not evident or only hinted at from the images.

Although Meadows has experienced disillusionment, his photographic explorations has helped him discover humanity.

The quality of his work was not always of a professional standard but that did not detract from what he was photographing. He would have liked to have the kind of equipment that exists these days that can make almost anyone into a maker of photographs. His equipment was quite basic in his early years and yet it did the job.

Meadows has had good feedback about his work from people who have gone to see it being able to access views from the internet notably Twitter. There are this who wonder what the wall paper must have looked like in his earlier black and white photos to those who found the images brought back memories of former times for those who had lived through them. Some details found in the images are interesting because of the way things have changed – hence, particular types of jeans or shoes common or fashionable then now are no longer made.

Apart from teaching, Daniel Meadows has worked with the BBC, helping to create digital stories, enableng people to make their own stories. The role of the photographer seems to have changed over the years.

Daniel Meadows signs books after his talk

WHen the talk is over, Daniel Meadows signs books downstairs and I buy one and queue to have him sign it. We do not exchange many words. I might have said how I also suffered years of incarceration in boarding schools while the sixties was raging and furthermore also experienced some kind of release on being taken to The Hayward Gallery though I can not remember what I saw there (it certainly was not photography!). He did sign my book and I left feeling that here was a man who had a sense of humanity and joy which shines through his photographs that appear remarkably ordinary and yet have been staged quite brilliantly.

A few weeks later I am back with a group from the OCA and we are met by Helen Warburton of Ffotogallery who gives us a talk about the exhibition and Daniel Meadows as a whole. Much of this can be found in my record of the evening with Daniel Meadows above.

Helen Warburton from The Ffotogallery

One of the striking things about Daniel Meadows is his ability to engage with his subjects; there is a genuine relationship between photographer and sitter. This was not the case when I photographed him signing books at the end of his talk and yet, as Jesse points out, there is a case for keeping a certain distance. There is discussion about Meadows and his old friend Martin Parr, about their differences rather than their similarities; Meadows laughs with while a more satirical Parr laughs at !? I wonder if Meadows really is a more humanistic photographer though since Parr is often misjudged and misunderstood, apparently possessed of a different kind of humanistic outlook.

visitors to the gallery looking at The Free Photographic Omnibus Revisited

One interesting project of Meadows is his re-engagement with earlier work in “The Free Photographic Omnibus Revisited” in which he sought out and found people he had photographed about a quarter of a century before. A video presentation shows what these people were like in the past and what they look like now; there is also text about them while before they were nameless. The bus that Meadows used in his travels was later bought as an antique and restored at expense to it’s former condition so what might have proved to have been an even more priceless antique has been lost!

Meadow’s colour negative photographs of Butlins from the early 1970’s

Meadows and Parr spent time together at a Butlins holiday camp. Apart from doing their required photographic work, they also found time to make their own photographs of the place with Parr later going on to make a book called The Last Resort of this kind of touristic culture. Meadows photographs show much of the kind of life that went on at a Butlins. Colour photography at this time was new and only just starting to take off.

layout of Butlins colour negative prints

One of the remarkable things about this exhibition and Meadows too, is the way his archive has been preserved along with a wealth of information relating to it. This is largely thanks to Val Williams who has curated the exhibition which was first shown at Bradford; it was Val Williams who  decided exactly what went into the exhibition which is unusual since it is the photographer who usually does this. However, it is thanks to Val Williams that this valuable archive exists.

 

Rephotographing Bruce Davidson : an OCA student exhibits in Sheffield

The College had another study day arranged for photographers; a visit to an exhibition of photographs in Sheffield which have been made by an OCA student living in New York. In the end, I found myself unable to attend so here is a link to an excellent account of the day by fellow student Eileen Rafferty ..

http://www.eileen-rafferty.com/2012/06/tanya-in-sheffield.html

An image from Tanya Ahmed’s East 100’th Street

We are treated to a video interview with the photographer, Tanya Ahmed, a British sounding woman who has been living in New York and rephotographing East 100’th Street 40 years after Bruce Davidson was there. In his time, it was a very run down area, a ghetto for drug takers and no-hopers; although the buildings remain and the similar kinds of people? live there, the area is no longer run down. Tanya’s images attempt to capture the place as it is today beyond the popular preceptions of gentrification. More images can be seen here …

http://East100street.com/E_100_St/East_100th_Street_HOME/Entries/2012/6/15_Slideshow_-_I_call_this_place_home.html

According to Ahmed, the area is now inhabited by regular folk living in a rehabilitated area. She lives there and set out to give an up to date view of the place in which people are pictured in their own homes. Her neighbours did not know much if anything about the history of the street or the photographer Bruce Davidson. Ahmed wanted to photograph the present day community, “us”, and explained to them her motive as a student of the OCA. She was not only interested in portraying the place but also the people who inhabit it; her exhibition is composed entirely of interior views! Ahmed has been in touch with Bruce Davidson who has been supportive of her work and interested too. He did return to 100’th Street but has not visited for sometime. Ahmed has been a working photographer for sometime and enjoyed the collaboration with others while making this body of work. Her comment on the OCA website was … “This whole experience has been amazing and it has been wonderful to meet everyone involved, they have all done a brilliant job and been exceptionally nice. Thank you also to all the students taking the time to follow and comment on the various posts of my work, I feel like I have a new set of best friends”

My own comment of the website ruuns thus … “What interests me about re-photography is the contrasts that exist between the two times pictured. There seems to be no deliberate attempt on Tanya’s part to emphasise this by, for instance, rephotographing the same places from the same point of view, rather it is about the general atmosphere of the place which appears to have changed for the better.”

To see some of the photos by Bruce Daidson …

http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=bruce+davidson+east+100th+street&hl=en&client=safari&rls=en&prmd=imvnso&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=4L3ZT46nM4SQ0AXWuIWmCg&ved=0CHoQsAQ&biw=1280&bih=821

For a peek at the book …

http://www.magnumphotos.com/c.aspx?VP=XSpecific_MAG.BookDetail_VPage&pid=2K7O3R182828

He was interviewed by The Guardian about this body of work …

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/apr/24/bruce-davidson-interview-sean-ohagan

Another interesting read is …

http://www.moma.org/docs/press_archives/4518/releases/MOMA_1970_July-December_0037_97.pdf?2010

Ahmed’s approach is not as different as might at first appear to be the case. Her photographs are setup, arranged beforehand, while Davidson’s photographs that appear to rely on the spontaneity of the moment were often made with a tripod mounted camera. Davidson however, was working with a political brief, showing the way people there were suffering from poor living conditions. Ahmed on the other hand sets out to present the place as it is today, a place she is happy to live in; there is no stigma to what she is doing.

Ahmed has also had her work commented on by Maggy Milner, an OCA tutor, who was struck by the quality of her photographs. She describes them as extraordinary, well made prints, with thorough attention to detail. Ahmed does not give much mention of technique rather the concept behind the photographs and her research. She lets the families choose where they want to be photographed unlike Davidson who approached as a photojournalist yet worked on the project for a couple of years and ended up getting to know his subjects. Her submission to the OCA was not just the prints but also her comments on images via post-cards.

One student, Dewald who lives in China, comments “There is constant discussions going on everywhere, OCA, Flickr and on here, where students are told NOT to produce material specifically for the approval of the assessors.” This makes good sense since I do not think I shall be making the kind of work that the assessors want to see. For instance, photos of the outskirts of Delhi with quotes from the Bhagavad Gita; the assessors won’t know the place and probably find the quotes incomprehensible.

Dewald also says, “This work of Tanya seems to be a combination of an immense amount of research into a photographer and work that has a connection to where she herself is right at this time, not only as a person, but as an artist. The fact that she then went out and got involved with people who live around her, and built that kinds of relationships with them, is admirable in an age where I think very few people bother to even acknowledge other people living in the same building.”

Tanya comments on her submission … “I don’t want to speak for the assessors, but IMHO I think it is more than just the final collection of images that they considered. Obviously they had much more information than just the images about the concept and the way I progressed through the project. The basic premise of which was that I wanted to see if being an insider made a difference to the images produced. I used Davidson’s book as a stepping stone and considered his images against mine to see if what I was doing was different and why. On the face of things we were doing the same thing but in reality we were not. Each time I found something different I looked into it- One example I analyzed how people were looking at his camera, how they looked at mine, with some book suggestions from my tutor I looked back through history at portraits and justified the approach I used. Obviously you and any other audience will only have the final images to judge. The question is will you see the behind the scenes work in the images? Will you see a thread or an approach tying them together? Will you notice a different mood or different focus than in Davidson’s work and is there a difference in the work of an insider compared to an outsider? I hope this little bit of explanation is helpful.”

Tanya emphasises the collaboration that took place between her and her subjects.

Interestingly, a MOMA press release made at the time of Davidson’s exhibition, states …”The antithesis of candid photography, these pictures are the product of a conscious collaboration between photographer and subject”.

John Szarowski who was at that time the Director of MOMA photography said, “he (Davidson) has shown us true and specific people, photographed in those private moments of suspended action in which the complexity and ambiguity of individual lives triumphs over abstraction.”

For me, the parallels between the two photographers approach is striking. The most obvious of these is the use of black and white.

There is more comment on We Are OCA;  I write …

“As someone just beginning the PWDP module and hence occupied with photographing his locality, a rural street, I found this video helpful as well as being a good introduction for tomorrow’s visit.

What interests me about re-photography is the contrasts that exist between the two times pictured. There seems to be no deliberate attempt on Tanya’s part to emphasise this by, for instance by rephotographing the same places from the same point of view, rather it is about the general atmosphere of the place which appears to have changed for the better.”

Tanya Ahmed replies …

“I wrote about rephotography for my level 3 essay. I did take one photo, a street view, that later I realized was in Davidson’s foot steps, it gave me a thrill when I realized it. However, I really didn’t want to go round looking for Davidson’s footprints, I was more interested in my own. I wanted to see whether time and my insider status made a difference to the subject matter and the resulting photographs despite being in a very tiny geographical area. If I had limited myself to trying to restage Davidson’s images I might have got a superb lesson in understanding his subject and technical choices and yes we would have seen easily observable changes but I don’t think my voice would have been there at all. The way I did it was to try to understand his work through comparison with my own. For example, how and in what numbers were children portrayed by both of us- this is one of the biggest differences between us and relates to both our gender, our age and experience in the street. I hope you are enjoying photographically discovering your street”

I then commented again …

“Perhaps re-photography is not the right word to use for describing your work. I can understand you not wanting to “follow” Bruce Davidson since although it might be a learning experience, it could easily result in something second hand.”

In the end, I do not make it to the exhibition and OCA day as the cost of my train fare has more than doubled but am grateful for Tanya Ahmed in responding to my comments.

For her books see …

 http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/hometownimagepress

Roger Ballen exhibition

Am due to see this exhibition and although it is only mid-April, have already started considering it.

There is the notification of the OCA study day with discussion …

http://www.weareoca.com/photography/puppy-between-feet/

There has also been an OCA report from “Marmalade” who attended a masterclass with Ballen … http://www.weareoca.com/photography/putting-yourself-on-the-line/

I read the article about him in the BJP. It is quite revealing about Ballen as a photographer and what he is doing but surely no substitute for the exhibition in spite of some well reproduced photographs. He describes himself as someone who plummets the depths of the unconscious and brings out stuff to share with others.

I listen to a radio programme about Ballen who is an American photographer based in South Africa. It mentions the “shocking” images that came out of South Africa which were not necessarily documentary rather portraits from an area known as Platteland, an area of dirt poor white people; they included a strange photograph of two white twins, deformed and drooling. Ballen found them quite unique, transforming the situation of meeting them into a great photograph which many people look at and question. Why do they focus on that particular image? Ballen continues to work in black and white and has turned the camera inward in his latest series of photographs that focus on both animals and humans; it is called Animal Abstraction. Ballen does not see himself as socio-political rather psychological in his approach, obsessed with the human condition and the image. The photographs come from his mind and his stomach, his identity. Worked in isolation for a number of years before showing his work. Admits to being an obsessive photographer, obsessed with his own condition; photographs are a way he can find out about himself. All his photographs are portraits of himself.

A photograph is made up of thousands of pieces that need putting together; it is like a painting. Transforming the world around one internally to present an external vision of the world.

What is Animal Abstraction about. One has seen such images before since they are in one’s mind. Ballen does not try to figure out the meaning of his work; the images are about the realm of the senses, of the mind. He says he is trying to take a photograph of the inside of his mind; turn your eyeballs backward and what do you see?

Seeing a video he has made attracts me to the group performing it as well as the photographer; some of the dance moves are pretty incredible and one wonders how much was Ballen and how much the group …

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Uee_mcxvrw

The lyrics are violent but the imagery is quite striking; I find it a bit macabre and wonder whether I want to go and see this photographer’s work. Since Peter Haveland will be present, I think there will be a worthwhile discussion afterwards so I shall go.

Another comment which emphasises the need to focus on the work rather than the artist, a view that I like to endorse yet which is stated somewhat forcefully in this context, can be found here …

http://manchesterphotography.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/why-sean-ohagan-is-big-smelly-fart.html?tm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+blogspot/ECjp+

from here one can access Sean O”Hagan’s review in The Guardian

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/apr/06/roger-ballen-photographer

A fellow OCA student has been and his blog makes a good read; Stan is from the OCASA …

http://stansocapwdp.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/roger-ballen.html

Some valid points are made in the OCA Flickr forum …

http://www.flickr.com/groups/ocarts/discuss/72157629714344151/

Anned writes, possibly a quote from elsewhere … “They’re all self portraits of the inside of his mind.”

John Umsworth qualifies this by saying …

“Mind you he says that we, as viewers, recognise his images because they are also portraits of our minds.”

Anned says … “I think that’s how all art works, I don’t think its mental though, more feelings, thoughts, ideas mixed all up together in a muddle, or maybe that’s just me.”

John replies … ” I saw his work in Manchester; at once compelling and yet repellant. His photographs aren’t muddled, they are very, very carefully constructed as inward views.”

Tutor Clive White quips in … “Well it doesn’t have to be about hidden demons it can be about hidden fairies too! Hahahaha!!”

The conversation then turns to considering the link between the camera shutter and the subconscious.

I decide to listen to another interview (http://www.lensculture.com/ballen_interview.html

Here Ballen talks about finding his voice while photographing in South Africa and started going into people’s houses to photograph,discovering as he did, certain motifs such as cracks on walls, marks on walls, wires, stuffed animals, sheets and pillow cases as well as a certain kind of person that reflected the human condition (this work continued between 1985 to 2001). From this came the book Dorps then Platteland where Ballen focused on a group of whites who were suffering mentally. This was followed by Outland in which Ballen started to interact with his subjects, a significant development for he felt himself becoming an artist rather than just a photographer; pictures became a matter of essence rather than documentary content. In the morning Ballen works at administration and also his other job as geologist until midday when he turns to his photographic work. He does not pre-plan his images such as by making a drawing of what he is going to photograph or thinking about the image beforehand, does not see that photography works this way, it is more instantaneous. One can set things up but photography is about freezing time and time is always changing. Works with a troupe of people hence some faces reappear; more interested in the interior than the exterior. The general misunderstanding people have about photography is that it is merely an objective tool when it is also very subjective, the photographer responding in his/her own way. Ballen never studied photography studying instead psychology and geology as well as economics but he did come from a photographic background, knowing “great photographers”such as Cartier Bresson and Kertesz; looked and listened a lot. Once he started taking photos he was hooked. Did not sell photographs until he was about 50 after 30 and more years of plodding along. Self motivated and had another career for commerce. Never thought about an audience, more of a hobbyist. Only in the last 15 to 20years has photography become so popular as an art form. His success was surprising; his work proved controversial and he got death threats and this proved a shock to his system. Working as a geologist is about going beneath the surface and his photographic work aims to do the same, to penetrate beneath the veneer of everyday life. What about a sense of place in his work? For Ballen,this is incidental, it is about one’s interiority although as a photographer one still has to deal with the external world. He could do these photographs elsewhere yet his photographs do reflect the place he is in and are influenced by it. Ballen still uses flash; this is often used as a hard light to create a better depth of field and a more focused image. This kind of light reflects the violence of South Africa. We are violent and have suppressed that; wars still going on around the world. His work is a  metaphor of the human condition! Contemporary art reflects the alienation and loss of contact with the natural world; his work is about reconnecting us. I find myself accepting much of what Ballen is saying ;he makes some good points.

In an attempt to better understand the work of Roger Ballen, I acquire a book called “Roger Ballen: Photographs from 1969 to 2009” It has a couple of learned essays at the beginning.

Ballen has a background in photography since his mother was an early member of theMagnum Photo Agency while he knew Kertesz as a child. He did not however “make it” as a photographer in his native New York or America although he did become a photographer there, but moved to South Africa where he became a geologist enabling him to make enough money to support himself. It was also here that his photographic work flourished with images of the poor whites of South Africa, a class of people seldom considered by media as a whole since the exploitation of blacks by whites takes up much of the South African narrative.

There are two essays and both seem to be explaining Ballen to the reader. Do we really need an explanation of Ballen’s work!? I find it fairly straightforward since the images are quite powerful yet this does not mean I like it. If I understand it more then perhaps I will like it more.

Ulrich Pohlmann starts by putting Ballen into a nutshell. His work has gone through many transformations and he is now considered one of “the most unusual and exciting developments in contemporary photography.”

Zarina Bhimji

Another OCA day! However, I find myself wondering about the nature of this exhibition since it by someone who appears to be an artist rather than a photographer, someone who uses photography as one of a number of media. Although I more interested in "pure" photographers this does not put me off attending although I am not encouraged by the review that the OCA encourages us to read. Entitled, "History in Context", it is well written but there is the notion from it's very complexity that if one needs to understand photographic work at such a level then it is becoming elitist and the democratic nature of photography, a form of creative expression that can communicate with anyone who has eyes, is being undermined. This objection might be raised at the OCA discussion that usually takes place after the viewing of the exhibition; I can not see it being a very popular topic though as the role of photographer as artist tends to be an assumption these days, a position that has been fought for and won. However, I might be questioning the role of art which is a wider topic beyond the subject of today's visit.

Her website is worth a look … http://www.zarinabhimji.com/

There is also a Flickr group about her approach to landscape (she says she has been influenced by a number of landscape painters such as Constable and others).

I arrived half an hour early at the gallery and was met by OCA tutor Clive White and his wife, Daniella. It is really the presence of a tutor such as Clive that makes days such as this worthwhile for they are able to give feedback and comment. As we enjoyed the warm sunshine on an otherwise bitterly cold day, Clive told me of a project from his student days in which he photographed people and places in the Oxfordshire village in which he was born; he later went back and photographed the same by which time many of the original inhabitants had become marginalized by the arrival of a more middle class group of people who had turned the village into their idea of what an English village should be. This interested me because in the hamlet where I live, the village ceased to exist about 100 years ago and became a residential area in which there is little communication between neighbours who no longer have a sense of community after the village lost it’s public house and shops. Recently though, the sale of the old telephone box has encouraged people to come together and there are plans for a Jubilee celebration;a worthy subject for photography perhaps and one that starts with the Somerset Records Office which brings me back to Zarina Bhimji, a photographer who does a lot of research before committing with the camera.

Soon other students start to arrive such as Stephanie from Bath as well as David Beveridge from Somerset. Keith Greenough is a student from London who I met on a workshop last year with Alex Webb, the Magnum photographer. There is talk of the art of making photo-books and the possibility of it being included in the OCA curriculum. Gareth Dent, the CEO of the OCA arrives, and now the day starts to assume some definite form as students are checked in. There are 21 in all and as the day progresses I recognise more faces!

COPIES OF THE EXHIBITION CATALOGUE

We group at the entrance to the gallery and as I make a shot of the bookstore, a member of staff tells me that no photography at all is allowed in the gallery. I obey but make photos of our group in the cafeteria later on as some record of the day is required. What exactly is the reason for the banning of photography? I might have asked but accepted the fact that the gallery is a private space while the images showing in it are copyrighted. Unfortunate though, as it makes study of such work harder and prevents the use of images in this blog except via links which often expire.

At the entrance to the exhibition were some words by Zarina Bhimji about the intent behind her work …
“My work is not about the actual facts but about the echo they create …”
and elsewhere …
“My work is not an idea of fact or scraps of evidence to support the assertion of history. The process is something about traces as symptoms of strange structural links between history, memory and fantasy.”

I realize that my interest in this exhibition is partly informed by colonialism which as a frequent visitor to India is something I have been obliged to consider; the book by E.M.Forster “A Passage to India” which I am presently reading throws much light on this subject but through a different medium. The first group of photos we see are from the film Yellow Patch and were made in India of places her family inhabited before leaving for East Africa.

Bhimji’s work also asks one to consider colonialism as it existed in East Africa and although Indians were involved here, it had a different character if only because of African nationalism and Idi Amin who threw all Asians out of Uganda. Although Bhimji’s work is not directly autobiographical, she was forced to leave East Africa as an 11 year old child in 1974. Her images are documentary in approach, made possible by her own in-depth research into her subject, and yet her presentation is not factual relying more on the viewer’s imagination which is guided by the content of her photographs.

One of the first photographs we look at together is called “Frightened by goats”; there is no sign of any goats in the image and after awhile, it becomes apparent that the scene is of a graveyard, a graveyard for Indians, a fact that only becomes truly apparent in the film from which they are taken. One might reflect on the fact that these graves are no longer tended by the descendants of those who made them for these people emigrated.
The first two photographs one sees one entering the exhibition are black and white images, possibly infrared, of the beach; there is a deliberate intention to get away from the generic travel photograph of the beach as there is of travel photography as a whole in this exhibition. Bhimji revisits places not as a tourist but as a family researcher and artist.

OCA STAFF IN DISCUSSION

Another colour image that catches the eye, is of a group of guns lined up against a wall; this image is entitled “Illegal sleep” another reminder of the intuitive use of caption that challenge one’s understanding of the image rather than complementing it.

I can’t help though, noticing the somewhat tacky approach of the photographer in regards to both exposure and composition; presumably this is an intended part of the effect rather than negligence since professionally executed images of the scenes depicted here might appear rather insensitive and out of harmony with the atmosphere of decay that forms much of the pictorial content. There is a photograph of boats in the twilight called “Breathless Love” where one feels that some kind of post-processing might have been employed to counter the tyranny of the photograph yet this might have easily destroyed the mood that the image invokes.

The exhibition does not contain only images since there is material that reminds one of the considerable research Bhimji conducts for the making of her photographs. Hence we see colour polaroids (apparently used as a storyboard) and xeroxes of illustrations she has collected while there are three shirt tops with maps printed on them encased in a glass covered frame.

While much of her work appears to be self-initiated, she works with different organisations and was commissioned to do a series of images around Harewood House, the original owners of which were involved in the slave trade. Colonisation is a theme if not the theme behind Bhimji’s work and here she touches on the more savage aspects of it. There is a beautiful photograph of a finely designed chair on which sunlight falls while there are also mirrors on which text has been engraved, text that relates to the use of people from the colonies as servants if not slaves.

In another room is an installation called “She loved to breathe – pure silence” that relates to the scandalous “virginity testing” of Asian immigrants by the 1970’s by British Customs before it was declared illegal. Red and yellow powder (chilli and turmeric) is strewn over the floor above which are suspended back to back photographs in plexiglass as well as a pair of latex gloves that were used in the practice of “virginity testing”. The installation is apparently owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum yet the used of coloured spice on the floor will obviously vary from exhibition to exhibition. Much of Bhimji’s work is emotionally charged and while that might be art, I can not help but reflect on the whole “virginity testing” matter; although this was done by the British authorities, there must have been considerable influence from the Asian community to make this happen since virginity is prized by some religious communities and not much by British communities. There is a political message behind this exhibition which makes me feel a little uncomfortable not entirely because I am as a British white male and hence in the firing line but also because there are two sides to everything and the purity of race is something that matters more to many Asians than it does British people.

We see the film made by Bhimji called “Out of the Blue” (2002) which uses imagery, much of it of architectural interiors as well as exteriors, that along with sound give a feeling of the intense suffering that must have gone on around this event. There is an atmosphere of fear and although the film ends on a positive note, that of a airfield runway and the enveloping blue sky, one is left with a haunting feeling of an experience that has not been resolved. A period of intense suffering has ended but its’ enduring negative affect still lingers.

STUDENT DISCUSSION : VALID PART OF AN OCA STUDY DAY

We break for a drink and a bite to eat before reassembling to see “Yellow Patch” another of Bhimji’s films; she is a photographer who has moved into film making but does not use the cinema as a way to entertain the masses rather as a medium to convey the evidence of a forced migration in a metaphorical way. Although informed by evidence, we are not presented with facts merely the detritus of a piece of history that has largely been ignored or simply forgotten except by those who endured it. There are wider themes than the mere suffering of individuals and the words colonialism, migration, Britain and Africa in their more sinister aspects come to mind.

Overall, I find Bhimji’s work slightly oppressive; I am ready to see and understand the suffering she wishes to record and relate yet I also want to see beyond that because this seems to me to be a function of art.

Clive White, the OCA photographic tutor accompanying us, provides some kind of explanation of questions that have come up for me and obviously other students during the day. For instance, the tackiness of some of the presentation (I find the exhibition catalogue to have been poorly printed and hence fails to convey Bhimji’s concern with light and composition) highlights a divide between truly professional photography where subjects are accurately portrayed and a more artistic approach in which accuracy is considered irrelevant since the end result is art and answers only to itself and the photographers intention.
Clive also talks about how colour theory can be misleading to photographic students who try to exactly stick to the suggestions given; in real life, the photographer cannot choose the colours he is confronted with and has to make do with what is there. My own understanding of colour theory is that it makes one more aware of colour in a photograph and that is important, conforming to certain art based conventions is not.

Further student debate revolves around the role personal vision might play in photography. Many of us start photographing because we like to take photographs but will we ever learn to make photographs? It is possible to make a personal statement through the medium of photography and this is what Bhimji is doing and something we all have the potential to do even if we have to photograph consumer goods to make a living.

I did buy the exhibition catalogue as there seemed to be a lot more that I might learn and understand about the exhibition; it also helped to correct misunderstandings that had arisen during the visit. For instance, the second film we saw Yellow Patch was shot in Gujarat, India (not East Africa) in a place that I happened to have visited. Kutch is an area good for wildlife yet one is also aware of the culture with ruined palaces and forts not being uncommon. Interesting to learn that there was an exodus from this part of India to E.Africa.

technofetishism

Technofetishism is a term used to describe an obsessive interest with the technical side of photography. In the early days of photography there was a great deal of concern over technique which is understandable since the medium was more reliant on the technical ability of photographers. These days, photography has become more aestheticised with much thought centring around different ways of understanding the photography.

However, one can not completely ignore the technical side of photography which still progresses, the advent of digital being an advance that has revolutionised photography. Cameras are much more complex than before and to be used properly they need to be examined.

The point is that the camera does not take the photograph alone, it needs the photographer to handle it and the photographer needs not only to know which button to push but also which direction to point the camera in. It may sound a rather a basic operation and it is yet to make photographs that convey something rather than merely represent what happens to be in front of the camera.