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Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Ticking all the Rant Boxes: Airport Terminal Photography


                   (image from Bolshevik Tom)

Julani Palaasmaa wrote about ocular bias in architecture, that's the overemphasis on the purely visual. Tied into this bias is a stripping of other sensory, and so emotional elements from consideration in the architectural process. So rather than being an organic entity which is fully experienced as part of a wider whole, the building is stripped from its environmental, political and economic roots. The story of where it belongs is lost because it doesn't belong anywhere. And so you end up with the absurdity and the horror of airport terminals or fascist-funded arts complexes being held up as wonders of architectural functionality and design.

You get the same in photography, a kind of affectless bias where images are stripped of meaning and then value is assigned to the fact that this meaning is stripped. The fact that images don't have any aesthetic or political or social value, the fact that they float in some kind of miasma of nothingness is what gives them value.

It's airport terminal photography! It's the opposite of ocular bias, it's a kind of cognitive bias where the image is distanced through a range of layerings that make the actual image the secondary or tertiary of point of contact in a work.

This kind of photography is partly due to an aversion to the kind of literal photojournalism and documentary (and I understand fully why people have an aversion to this. It can get really boring and repetitive), but I also think it's due to a fear to confront things head on, it's the fear to have an opinion on something, to show some crack of vulnerability by showing that you care about something. Because if you do have an opinion about something, you're going to upset people and you're going to have to defend yourself. It's not easy.

In that sense I know why people are so scared of having an opinion. We all like to pretend to be progressive and all the rest of it, but it's a bit more difficult when you get down to the knuckle end of stating your case. It's not very nice having to fight your corner. It's far easier to present something abstract or metaphorical, something stripped of emotion and intent than so something that really engages with a subject and drills down hard into its core. And that is what people do.

Another reason for this is the history of photographic criticism that places photography in this kind of hairshirt and millet world of pleasure-aversive photocritics where you really aren't allowed to either make anything beautiful or doing anything with a social intent. I really enjoy reading Allan Sekula for example, but I share Lucy Soutter's misgivings about him as expressed in this interview on 1,000 words.

Allan Sekula was one of the most inspiring intellectuals I ever met, but it bewildered me that he was so uncomfortable with visual pleasure. It was partly because I disagreed so strongly with Allan about aesthetics that I began to suspect that I might have something to contribute to the field, that there might be a position for me.

On the one hand you have this aversion to anything that is beautiful and on the other you have the massive distrust of anything that does have a heart and soul, and all the places (no, most of the places. You don't want to bite the hand that feeds you) where that might be published. Almost all the theoretical reading students do is about how wrong photography is, how wrong it is to show people, how wrong it is to look, and how wrong it is to make something visually compelling.

So you are left with this kind of affectless bias in photography that combines with a race for new ways of showing - here's a graph, here's some data, here's some modelling, here's some blue backlighting, here's an artifact. But where's the story? It's all the frameworks around the image that become the way of showing.

It reminds me of the episode of Black Books (this is a comedy featuring the world's most bad-tempered drunken bookshop owner, Bernard Black) where Bernard and Manny decide to write a children's book.

And so Bernard writes this 1,000 page epic about an academic who survives the Stalinist purges, a lens grinder in Omsk and an investigative journalist who's fallen in love with the academic's daughter. this is Bernard's story.

Bernard: It couldn't be simpler. You've got the academic who survived the Stalinist purges and is now having flashbacks to that time. There's his daughter whose long bitter marriage is falling apart around her and the journalist who's investigating the academic because he suspects he was never in Russia at the time and then he falls obsessively in love with the daughter and sacrifices his career to become a lense grinder in Omsk.


He reads the script to Manny, they make a few adjustments and end up with a story about an elephant who loses his balloon. It goes something like this.

Manny: Well, instead of the? um? academic and the journalist's daughter? um? perhaps it could be about an elephant?
Bernard: An elephant?
Manny: That's right.
Bernard: I see. What's your other suggestion?
Manny: Well? um? instead of the Stalinist purges and the divorce and the investigation, um? it could be about losing a balloon.
Bernard: An elephant who loses his balloon?
Manny: That's it.
Bernard: But, but it would still be my story in essence?
Manny: Oh, yeah.
Bernard: My vision?
Manny: Completely.
Bernard: Yes, all right! Let's do that, then!

Basically a lot of photography is like Bernard Black trying to write a children's story but instead of having someone like Manny to help them out, they've got another Bernard Black helping them out. It's people making stories about lens grinders in Omsk for people who on a metaphorical level want books about elephants losing balloons.

Photography is really a child's game after all, but in a good way. There's nothing quite so sophisticated as communicating clearly to children, or to adults even. Look through something like The Soviet Photobook or go to an exhibition like the New Childhood one on Soviet children's books (or look at this resource of Soviet children's books )and you'll see there's nothing simplistic about communicating effectively and clearly - especially if you get a bit more ambitious that an elephant who's lost his balloon.

Because if you are communicating to children, or people who struggle with literacy, then any short cuts you take will be found out instantly. If your message is obscure or goes the readers's heads they will know about it very quickly and you will know about very quickly in turn. I'm speaking from experience here, oh happy days.

In fact it's far more difficult to do something simple and clear than it is to make a rambling mess of images about something that you don't really have a clue about and hoping that the obtuseness of your images, sequencing and supporting statement (none of which anyone really understands anyway) will blur .

Not that there's anything to criticise, because you're avoiding making a statement and are hiding any kind of commitment in your obtuseness.

Oh my goodness, I saw the picture at the top at the weekend. I think this post is ending up being a number 3, or maybe a number 5. I'd better stop here before I become a number 6. Or is this a number 1. Or a number 2....




Monday, 16 October 2017

Thresholds: Ocular Bias and the Need for the senses





I really enjoyed reading this interview with Juhani Pallasmaa. He's an architect and writer who believes that architecture should engage more fully with the a full sensory spectrum.

Rachel Hurst: For people who don’t know your work, the central theme is that put forward in your book The Eyes of the Skin – that architecture should be a true collaboration of the five senses and, by engaging fully with the sensory world in that way, architecture can foster a deeply ethical and existential experience of life. You argue in that book, numerous essays and most recently in The Thinking Hand that we have increasingly become an ocular-centric society, disembodied from the authentic multi-sensorial perception of architecture, and are dominated by “a rainfall of images” to the detriment of our built world. How has this come about?

Read the whole article here.

The idea of this ocular bias is that if we overfocus on the purely visual in our appreciation of architecture we end up with a world covered by a superficial skin of construction, the kind of facadism that is recognisable in the skylines of most of the world's major cities.

You get the same kind of sentiments in photography, the idea that photography can go beyond the purely visual (and that's what Sound, Word, Landscape was all about). But it can go beyond the purely visual in so many ways.



Matt Collishaw's Thresholds is just one way in which photography goes beyond the ocular; by adding a virtual dimensionality to it, by using motion sensors and skeueomorphism (yep, me neither until two days ago) to reframe the first ever photography exhibition as a Virtual Reality exhibition.

I saw it in Birmingham at the site of the original exhibition, and it's now showing at Lacock Abbey, home of Fox Talbot, the inventor of photography until October 29th.






The basic deal is you enter an empty room with some 3-dimentsional white painted furniture (it doesn't have to be white but it looks better in installation pictures if it's white), you're given a pair of goggles that deal with head movement and visualisation and a backpack for body movement. And then you walk around the room and look at a VR version of the original exhibition.



So you're in this white cube but the above is what you 'see'. The original exhibition was a bit ropey, but it was a landmark and the same goes for Thresholds. It's a slightly shaky VR interpretation of a slightly shaky photography exhibition. So all in all, it's a bit shaky, but actually really good and really important. It's a gimmick but then so was the original! That matters. There's a beautiful symetry in that it mirrors the original 1839 photography exhibition in some ways.

It might not be the future in photography, but this is the future in all sorts of other ways - starting with war and porn and gaming and then keep on going from there. You get about 10 minutes with the goggles but it's definitely, definitely worth going out of your way for.

What's interesting is there is a sense of interactivity inasmuch as you move around and you can 'lift' objects virtually to near your hands. There's a fire as well (which is hot) and a mouse which runs around the floor, as well as Chartist demonstrations going on outside the window.

So it goes beyond the merely ocular in this sense. At the same time it erases the ocular by turning something with physical substance and material dimensions into something virtual, with all the failings that the virtual has. And that's interesting in itself because the ocular isn't simply the ocular, it comes with all kinds of conditions attached. There's a stripping back of the ocular then, a removal of those sensory elements that creep into the periphery and affect what we see.

And all that is considered in the programming that makes up the software/hardware through which we experience Thresholds. Which is extra interesting, because by stripping back the visual, and rebuilding it in virtual form, you really experience the absence of our usual visual experience, by not seeing you see what you take for granted.

Thresholds is on at Lacock Abbey until 29th October. Booking is essential. Don't miss it.





Sunday, 15 October 2017

It's World Photobook Week!



This is the last week for orders of All Quiet on the Home Front at the special price of £100 for the Subscriber's Edition and £33 for the regular edition. 

We go to the printers on October 23rd and after that the Subscriber's Edition will be £140 and the regular edition £40. 

So get your orders in now. The book is looking beautiful and the Subscriber's Edition comes with a limited edition print and a box with a linocut by Isabel. In addition, order this week and you get your name printed in the book; which is the first in a series on family, memory, environment and history. 



Another reason to buy it is it's World Photobook Week! 

Which is also a reason to buy from these fabulous people! See more images of Photographer's Worlds here. 












Monday, 9 October 2017

Refresh-pulling, like-chasing, endorphin-sniffing monkeys




If you lack control over your social media and smartphone habits, Paul Lewis' article on how Our Minds can be hijacked is essential reading.

The article features various social media engineers who have manufactured the apps that help make us the like-chasing, refresh-pulling, attention-seeking endorphin-loving monkeys that we really are.

Justin Rosenstein is the guy who invented the like button on Facebook. He's fully aware of the dangers of social media though and uses apps to limit both his children's and his own use of social media and its associated apps. This is what Lewis says about him;


'He was particularly aware of the allure of Facebook “likes”, which he describes as “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure” that can be as hollow as they are seductive. 

....Rosenstein appears most concerned about the psychological effects on people who, research shows, touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day.

There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off. “Everyone is distracted,” Rosenstein says. “All of the time.”


That 2,617 times is a shocking number but when I started to think about that I wondered if it wasn't also a bit of a target. Maybe there should be an app to count how many refresh pulls you do.

Instagram is especially bad for me for refresh-swiping. I am basically like a monkey scratching an itch on there. But the refreshing thing is pretty much everyone who is active on social media is like a monkey scratching an itch, constantly, repeatedly, except the itch is a phone and not a real itch because if it was real it would be stripped of skin and raw to the touch.

We are all itch-scratching monkeys in other words, chasing likes and employing the politics of the schoolground in who to follow and who to like and what to do on the fecking things. Social media is a democracy then, a democracy of dunces.

One key thing about the article was the Facebook like-notification button was originally going to be blue, low-key blue, but nobody used it. So they changed it to red - and everybody used it.

That's the fundamental level at which our minds work, and social media has tapped into it. In photography, so many people think of themselves as above and beyond these little social manipulations, but really we're not.

We're all itch-scratching algorithm-led monkeys, there's no escaping it. If you have ever pulled down a refresh button or checked a notification ping for no apparent reason, sorry, that's what you are. That's what I am! That's what I've become!

Embedded within that world of apparent positivity that liking and following and checking who likes and who follows is another world; one of infantile competition and envies, of people who follow to get followers, who don't like anything by somebody who doesn't like what they like, of people who live out their cheapness and their insecurities through the like buttons of social media. It's something so many of us do and it really is quite pathetic. But still we do it. I'm trying not to do it, but it's hard!

Anyway, back to my book, All Quiet on the Home Front. We have a date now for the book launch. It's Saturday 11th November at the Tipi stand on the Polycopies Boat at Paris Photo.

All Quiet is available until 23rd October at the pre-order price of £100 for the Subscriber's Edition or £33 for the regular edition. These prices go back to the normal price of £140 and £40 respectively after 23rd October.

Press the button and buy the book below.



Anyway, here are some of the places All Quiet has been featured. The latest is on Thisonthat I answer questions on fatherhood - which was challenging but revealing for me at least because even though All Quiet is about fatherhood, I don't really think of it in that way.  And thanks to Giulia Bianchi for talking about it at MAST Bologna.

Read about All Quiet on the Home Front here:

BJP

Drool - Tony Fouhse

Vogue

Thisonthat

Oh and you can read all the endorsements from some really wonderful people here .

And All Quiet is really fantastic, both as a project and, thanks to Alejandro Acin, as a book. The more I talk about it, the more I read myself talking about it, the more fabulous it becomes. And the more fabulous it becomes, the more fabulous the wider body of work it belongs to becomes - and I mean that sincerely. And the more I believe that and say that, the more others believe it and say it. Which feeds back to me and elevates my self-belief. Which becomes virus like and infects other people - who then spread it on for me. Passion and enthusiasm is contagious. And Love is a bug.

It is really interesting to see how that process works and the extent to which there is an interplay between something of substance (the book in and of itself) and the promotion that works in the land of smoke and mirrors. The whole promotional element is endorphin-based propaganda, part of an imaginary world comparable to the social media feedback loops of likes and refresh pulls, with everything always super positive and happy and successful and self-referential within this strange self-enclosed world.

But, in the same way there is a flip side of infantile behaviour behind the liking buttons of social media (which really define the supposedly positive side of those likes) underneath every book campaign there is the flip side of hatred, insecurity, neurosis, resentment and grudge. Social media pre-order campaigns are like the rock that is all smooth and cultured on the surface. Roll it over and it's a festering lizard-brain world of vengeance and hatred and survival of the fittest.

I wonder if it wouldn't be more interesting focus on that sometime, to lay bare on the page your insecurity, inadequacy, resentment and hate. Because everybody, no matter how accomplished, has those inadequacies, those failings, those limitations, those setbacks that stick in the craw. Talk to anyone in photography and they'll have that dark side where their eyes go black and the voice enters a monotone where those secret lists of enemies, those accusations in others of careerism, arrogance, incompetence, lameness, venality, tightfistedness, cruelty and envy that inundate our darker moments.

It would be like the opposite of the refresh button or the like button. It would be a hate button, and that's why I'm not going to do it here. Because hatred never sells books. And look what hate has done to Twitter. We don't need hate.

So it's love that won, even if it's imaginary. Buy the book here. Or better still, press the red button and buy the book there.





Wednesday, 4 October 2017

"You can carry on being a homosexual and I will expel you today"


The United States joined 12 other countries, including Saudi Arabia and China, in voting against a United Nations resolution condemning the use of the death penalty to punish blasphemy, adultery, and same-sex relations.



And if you think it can't happen in the UK, read the terrible story of Jeremy Atkins here. This happened in the past, it can happen again in the future - and if this can happen, far worse will happen. 



Initially, Gavins simply told the teacher he was in love. But the teacher pressed further – why would that upset him so much? The pupil confessed: “Because he’s called Stephen.”
“Those four words ruined my life,” he says now, matter-of-fact. It is not an exaggeration.
The teacher’s tone changed immediately. “You’ve got a disease,” he told Gavins. “An evil disease.” He sent the boy to the headmaster, Monsignor Sweeney, who, agreeing with the other teacher’s assessment, forbade Gavins from seeing Stephen, and ordered him to report to different teachers every day at different times, so they could ensure he was not fraternising with his loved one.
“They convinced me I was evil, sinful, and had a disease,” he says. Stephen, meanwhile, denied to the head that there was any relationship, freeing himself from punishment.
After three or four weeks of reporting in, Gavins was sent to the headmaster again, who gave him two options. “He said, ‘You can carry on being a homosexual and I will expel you today. You will not do your A-levels. The other choice is we can cure you of your disease. Tell your GP you’re a homosexual and you want to be cured.’”


Tuesday, 3 October 2017

'Fatherhood is a kind of shit-show'



      picture by Timothy Archibald

This blog is 10 years old in a couple of months.

The first post started like this:



Timothy Archibald suggested I start a blog - so here goes. Here is the first image and the last two images in my Sofa Portrait series.



The rest, as they don't say, is a random jumble of stuff and nonsense, some of which makes sense, some of which is utter rubbish, and some of which I'm really proud of. Really proud of! That's why I keep on doing the blog. Carelessly curated indeed.

Anyway, I asked Timothy for an endorsement for my book All Quiet on the Home Front. This is what he very kindly said.

There is a period in parenthood when it feels like it's going to last forever, and sometimes not always in a good way. And there is another period when you wake up and realize that it's actually going to be over: this role and identity you've had for so long is soon coming to an end. 'All Quiet On The Home Front' captures that beauty and anxiety that is the push and pull of parenthood. Grab something and cherish it, but be aware it's also slipping through your fingers as fast as sand.
"All Quiet On The Home Front" has a haunting resonance that asks me more questions every time I engage with it.


I got to know Timothy through his work on his son, Eli, in  Echolilia. This ended up as one of the really great projects on childhood, with images that were inventive, collaborative and bold. They had a massive heart and soul to them and were not always easy to look at or digest. That's part of what made them really great. Great work is always difficult in a sense that goes beyond time-consuming. It teeters on the edge of the table and if you push it the wrong way, it might fall off. It's not bland, it's not neutral, it has an opinion, it goes beyond the image it has a voice, and despite (or maybe because of) its apparent focus on Aspergers it deals with the universal.  It's difficult!

    picture by Timothy Archibald

Echolilia did really well and got lots of exposure and was published in a pragmatic book form (this was the days before Kickstarter and the explosion in small publishers.

So great as far as it goes, but not really utilising the possibilities and never accessible in terms of pricing; the book Echolilia should be hasn't been made yet. In that respect, Echolilia is underachieving. It's one of the very best projects on childhood ever yet it hasn't had the setting to show it.

I can think of people who'd do it proud. Yumi Goto and Reminders Photography Stronghold specialise in turning personal stories into beautiful book form. And with Echolilia going beyond the personal (which let's be honest can get tiresome if you overdo it), the story and the book form with all its myriad paper, folding and insert variations would elevate it to the level it deserves.

The trouble with RPS of course is the ridiculously small editions they have, reaching a low point of 21 for Junpei Ueda's Picture of My Life.

The good thing for photobook buyers is many of the RPS publications are so fantastic that they get reborn in new, larger, cheaper editions by trade publishers, while retaining the features that made them so special. Kazuma Obara's Silent Histories was published by Editorial RM books of Spain with great success, while Yoshikatsu Fujii's Red String got a rebirth from  Ceiba, a publisher which has evolved into a creator of bijou editions that are also incredibly meaningful and very often touch on themes of family and fatherhood.

The latest is Junpei Ueda's book, Picture of My Life and it is beautiful. There is a mix of drawings, paintings,  holiday snaps family photographs, letters and a narrative text that tells the story of the suicide of Ueda's parents one after the other, and the chaos that reigned in the tragic aftermath; the guilt of being absent when his parents committed suicide, an apartment that is spiritually absent, an empty to recover the past through an old family album, a final letter that brings some kind of closure to the events. So it's a photobook as therapy, the main character of Ueda himself going from a state of ignorance to tragic knowledge to rebirth and redemption.




You can do this kind of personal story too much, and there might be cases where the mix of materials becomes formulaic and tiresome, especially when the story told is not actually that interesting - or is told badly, but this is not one of those. This is a heartbreaking story where the images run parallel to the text, brushing up against them, each illuminating the other.



There are some people who find the detailing RPS and Ceiba model of bookmaking (which is borrowed wholesale from artist's books/children's books etc) tiresome and to an extent I can understand why. It can be messy and fiddly and, in the numerous copycat editions that RPS and Ceiba have inspired, the detailing can be used to disguise the lack of a story. A dropped in post-it note is exactly that if there's nothing to back it up.



What's interesting though is how often people decry the RPS/Ceiba model as a form of defence mechanism. I've heard designers who work with very traditional models and materials decry it. But perhaps they protest too much. I've heard publishers who don't want the expense of making this kind of book, and resent the competition complain about them - though I've seen others meet the challenge head on and develop how they make books. And then there are market-oriented booksellers who resent the oddness of shape and the lack of availability and quick turnover these kinds of books have. It doesn't fit nicely on the shelf so it's bad!

So it goes.

While Picture of My Life is structured around its text, Ceiba's other new publication, I love you I'm leaving by Matt Eich has almost no text. In comparison with Ueda's book, this is a simple book.



Ostensibly it's about fatherhood, but it's really about  much more. It's about parental absence in a way, or even more about the absence of a partner. This is from an Interview Eich gave on the Ceiba website.

Being a full-time freelance photographer trying to balance fatherhood is kind of a shit-show. Most parents will agree, or they are probably lying to you. The only way most creative folks I know sustain a working career and family is by having a really supportive partner, and ideally one who has a normal job with a normal schedule, and salary. I’m hesitant to give advice, considering that I feel like I don’t know what the hell is going on in my own life half the time. My personal realization, which shapes my decision-making, is that a lot of the mundane family stuff is actually more meaningful, and memorable than the highest accolades a career has to offer. How to balance the needs of family and work is a constant struggle that I doubt I will ever fully resolve.



And that's what you get, sequences in which 'the mundance family stuff' is anything but mundane. There is a sadness and a loneliness in here, a sense of absence even when Eich is at his home. All this is created of course by sequences in which images reflect death, travel and then go and conflate the two together. It's low-key but it's not low-key at the same time and that is what makes it work so beautifully. The text may be minimal but there is no sense of letting the pictures tell the story because the sequencing is what tells the story.



A grandfather becomes a surrogate father to Eich's three children, as Eich shows himself getting a haircut or sitting with bowed head on the stoop of his home. He's alone in there and it's not just the title that's telling you this.



Even when his partner and two children are photographed in the bath, Eich is excluded not just by his camera, but also by the looks that are delivered to him. He's quite bereft in there and in a way he's telling a story of a rawness that is not at all unique to him or his family. It's a universal story. It's obvious.  It's funny how people think being obvious is a bad thing. I think it's a fantastic thing, especially when nobody talks about the obvious or photographs the obvious. And that's what makes I love you, I'm leaving so brilliant because it's an obvious story that almost nobody tells. Except for Eich, who does with some poignancy but also some difficulty.

There is text, a poem on the third to last page. It ends like this:

What if 
I could promise
To never get in a car &
Drive away from you, ever agin
Even with the best intentions.

And then we're done. Except for the dedication to Eich's grandfather who died in 2017 and who we see in the final picture. In a coffin, with one of Eich's daughters looking on.

It's a beautiful book that has hidden depths. I'd love to see Ceiba do a version of Echolilia.

Buy Picture of my Life Special Edition (regular edition sold out) here

Buy I love you, I'm leaving here.


Oh yes, and...

Pre-order the Subscriber's Edition of All Quiet on the Home Front Here for £100 (price after 20th October is £140). 

Pre-order the Regular Edition of All Quiet on the Home Front Here for £33 (regular price after 9th November is £40).