On Senior Creativity – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 205

On Senior Creativity
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 205, August 2017

Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night in the grip of a shocking yet simple thought? For me I am often haunted by the horrific futility and brutality of US federal executions (these nocturnal ‘awakenings’ have led me to become a regular contributor to the work of Reprieve who campaign against capital punishment). But another frequent ‘night-shock’ comes from the thought of getting older and what will happen to my creative drive and my output as a photographer and printer. A curious mental effect renders these nocturnal disturbances so bleak during the dark hours but, as the sun rises, so often do the solutions to these fears.

However, this latter ‘night shock’ is often on my mind during waking hours – why is age related to a diminution in ambition, creativity and risk taking? Is this what awaits me? I am 47 so, not necessarily that old – yet still old enough to contemplate my creative future. Is there some unwritten contract with the cosmos that age shall make us ‘settle’ for mediocrity? Dillon Thomas wrote about the need to engage with mortality head on – this surely is the only way to deal with it. We have a pervasive culture that speaks of gentle seniority, jovial acceptance of life’s brevity and the ‘creative zenith’ of looking after grandchildren. This image of old age can be deadening. The time when a person benefits from the accretion of wealth, the abundance of time and the wisdom that comes from a life lived, is the time when these advantages should be exploited over the conditions faced by the younger generation who are deskbound, wage slaves and often physically and mentally engaged in the raising of the next generation.

A place where many senior photographers choose to congregate are camera clubs. I am not an expert or even very knowledgable about the work of these organisations but I have heard from many readers that they feel stifled by the attitudes and ‘group think’ of the creative conditions that pervade these valuable institutions. So much of the work that is shown and shared in these clubs is valued in how closely it emulates the work of other photographers, how technically accomplished it is and how it fits within the established aesthetic of one club or other. Any photographic institution should be dedicated to the furthering of photography not the entrenchment of time worn technical and artistic values.

Photographers have a job to do. Having a camera and taking pictures is not enough. Everyone with a camera should use it to interrogate the conditions of their life because life is uniquely lived and universally experienced and precious. Why be satisfied with a picture that pleases other people when you could produce an image that pleases you? When we think about our photographic (or artistic) heroes we can easily take the genesis of their work for granted – assuming that the qualities that we love about it were generated by some god-given talent unachievable by the likes of you and me. But that is simply wrong – the work is always the result of (usually) two things; risk and selection. And perhaps you could add a third – huge quantities of exposures.

Lets break these three attributes down. Risk is the nature of the relationship you have with the conditions in which you make your work. It is not about physical endangerment rather a mental state. For example, if you feel very comfortable taking pictures of people on the street but wouldn’t have a clue about shooting something static and posed then that is a good reason to engage with the thing that makes you feel awkward and unconfident because this is where good work happens. Take a look at Don McCullin’s recent images of the remnants of the Roman Empire (Southern Frontiers). They have a freshness to them that would never be achieved by a photographer who had spent his life shooting rural landscapes.

And now ‘selection’ – this is, for practical reasons a bit harder to nail down but it is essential to persevere. Curating your own images is always hard but it is here that the gems are unearthed and untethered from their duller counterparts. Being one’s own greatest supporter and harshest critic is essential in the drive to make (and show) better work. If the picture is duff chuck it – do not make excuses for it. Reduce the number of images that make the final cut. As fledgling photographers in New York, Joel Meyerowitz and Tony Ray Jones would meet in Meyerowitz’s apartment to go through their latest attempts. They would criticise each others work meticulously and through this process of critical selection they took essential steps towards becoming serious photographers.

And lastly the question of quantity or volume. Matt Stuart (who is a Magnum nominee) shoots hundreds of thousands of photographs a year. Gary Winogrand died leaving 300,000 unedited images. The ICP in New York houses some 20,000 of Winogrand’s fine and work prints, 100,000 negatives and 30,500 colour slides of his work. This shows that greatness is achieved by determination.

So much art made by young people is not worth the paper it is printed on because there is no wisdom – only attitude. People with a few years under their belts know the difference between a pose struck and the real thing. But why is this innate sensibility not often reflected in the creative output of our world-wise cohort? Everyone has a unique view. To own a camera, to possess the time to take pictures and to possess the wisdom gained over years of living means that we owe it to our younger selves to try to do something better than ‘good enough’. Rage, rage against the dying of the light!

NOTE ON ACCOMPANYING PHOTOGRAPHS

This article is illustrated by photographs I made of the photographer, Paddy Summerfield and his partner Patricia Baker-Cassidy in July 2015. Paddy has lived in the same house since early childhood and his book, Mother and Father (Dewi Lewis, 2014) is a classic work of documentary photography. The book is a “chronicle of loss and abiding love” and is a searingly honest and brave study of his own parents as they grew older and declined.

On the Link Between Money and Art – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 203

On the Link Between Money and Art
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 203, June 2017

We are gripped by the idea that art should be resistant to the pernicious and anti-cultural influence of money. We inherently mistrust the unholy union of art (and photography by ineluctable extension) and money but the reality is that art needs money like Gilbert needs George and we should welcome it with open arms.

Lets start with an ancient trope; that of the struggling artist. From pre-mercantile neanderthals who painted on their cave walls right up to today’s art school graduates, we ascribe virtue to the impoverished artist because to live and work in a reduced economic state speaks of a higher, almost religious ‘calling’. We sense that the artist without material comfort is dedicated to a higher plane and that their art is the singular medium by which they will achieve a dematerialised oneness with their creator.

Certain stories, on the face of it, have given meat to the myth; Van Gogh is often cited as an impoverished artist partly because some of his paintings nourished such notions and partly through the mythology of his life. His painting ‘Bedroom in Arles’ (1888) depicts the simplest of accommodations and underlines the link between the purity of spirit required to create artworks of genius and the purity of spirit from which these visions spring. However, here’s a quote from the website of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam;

“Van Gogh was not poor. From 1882, he received financial support from his brother Theo, who had been appointed manager of the Parisian branch of the Goupil art dealership.

 In the first few years, he received an average of 100 to 150 francs a month. At the time, that was about 50 or 75 guilders, in any case a lot more than the 32 guilders a factory worker received back then to support a family of seven.

But there is no question that Van Gogh struggled and it could be argued that it is ‘the struggle’ that we have misplaced in our estimation of the ground upon which creativity occurs. Van Gogh was well known for the precariousness of his mental state (the link between mental health and art is one to be covered in a future edition of TP) – this was a real struggle, one that, arguably, produced some of the greatest work of the impressionist movement.

Van Gogh died on the 30th March 1890, unrecognised for his genius, a mere 47 months before the birth of a photographic genius who had a very different relationship with money. Jaques Henri Lartigue was born in France into privilege and wealth. It was not until late in life that he was recognised as the man who established that photography could do something that painting or other art forms could not – to freeze time. Lartigue spent a lot of time (and presumably money) attempting to exploit the speed at which a camera can record. Without money this photographer would not have been able to establish a new approach to photography that helped to ensure its recognition as the medium of the 20th century. Lartigue helped the foundation of an appreciation of photography as an art form bound by its own physical limitations and beholden to none other in defining its own dialectic.

Without money art can have meaning but without art money can have no meaning. The wealthy and powerful have understood the power of art for centuries. Much of the greatest work has been created under the patronage of rich men. Take Matisse’s 1909 paintings, ‘Dance’ and ‘Music’ for example. These two paintings were commissioned by the Russian collector Sergei Shchukin. ‘Dance’ is “a key point of (Matisse’s) career and in the development of modern painting” – and these painted for the scion of I.V. Shchukin and Sons Trading Company! Schukin understood that art gave his wealth meaning and so, as he had the means to consume great art, he gave the world another view of itself – a view that only money could buy.

Now to 1930’s America, Roy Stryker of the Information Division of the Farm Securities Administration (FSA) tasked eleven photographers with the job of “introducing America to Americans” by depicting the poverty, hardship and everyday life being lived by so many people in rural areas that were deemed uncultivable – the FSA being in charge of the resettlement of farmers from arid ‘dustbowl’ lands to more fertile regions. Among the photographers hired to document these people were Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange, Carl Mydans and Arthur Rothstein. These photographers were to roam the land freely documenting what they found and all this in the pay of the government. Here a well meaning government project turned into one of the great documentary photography projects of all time. So many great images were created as a result of the inspired collusion between a government department with a budget and some ambitious and talented photographers.

As the UK prepares to leave the European Union and the City of London ponders its long term future we are faced with a strange crisis – the potential loss of a great many bankers and those related to the finance industries. The debt owed by the UK to the richest .5% is shamefully unacknowledged. Money spent throughout the country on contemporary art is, on the one hand international and on the other home-grown, deriving as it does from the activities of the Square Mile. To lose many of these buyers of art will have a negative affect on the ability of people who wish to spend their lives making art. After all it was Oscar Wilde who said, “When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss Money.”

Art which is motivated only by money will be a pastiche of better work at best – there can be no substitute for the raw power of creation for its own sake. The fire created by money spent wisely on art lights many candles; a flickering legion of lights which illuminate, inspire and provoke.

Photos by Alex Schneidemann for Money and Art article

Next month I will be discussing the neurological and philosophical question of whether a photograph brings people you know better to mind than a painting.

Photos by Alex Schneidemann for Money and Art article

On the Selfie – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 207

On the Selfie
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 207, October 2017

Most of us feel that the ‘selfie’ is a telling artefact of our massive self regard, exemplifying the obsession that the universe revolves around our inalienable individuality. But we might be wrong to assume this. Perhaps there is a more constructive, progressive explanation for the greatest cultural mania of recent years.

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

We should get the bad stuff out of the way quickly – there is no denying that an increase in self awareness of the body, especially amongst the young, is producing some toxic results. The ‘naked torso’ shot has (previously insouciant) men obsessively working out and sharing pictures of their ‘six packs’, not just to their friends, but to anyone in the world who cares to look. I should note that I, too, have a six pack – it’s cooling nicely in the fridge. I must remind myself to send a picture of it to my friends.

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

The obsession with objectification of the face and body is reportedly having a negative effect on women and, increasingly, men. The availability of selfie apps which can be used to ‘shop’ yourself into an idealised ‘you’ is corrosive. That self worth can be measured in the resulting ‘likes’ of an Instagram post is indisputably pathological. It seems the selfie can be deluding and diverting from a genuine sense of worth – a ‘worth’ that is normally built on the societal positives of care and interaction and which have provided generations with a bedrock sense of the world and an idea that they are unconditionally part of it.

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

But that said we can’t load the selfie with pure opprobrium. Edward Weston once made some portraits of Tina Modotti, ‘Tina discovered in Edward’s portraits a new scaffolding of her identity. … she fell in love with what she saw of herself in [Weston’s] eyes as much as with the human being before her’. Her reaction to this image of herself is, perhaps, not unique among sitters for portraits who enjoy the image made of them, but what Modotti saw in the image was a construction that she was able to see herself reflected in. This is not the reflection of Narcissus. This is the positively affirming psychological effect of seeing oneself through the apparently objective eyes of another (perhaps a god-like view) that seems to confirm that we are who we think we are.

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

So the contemporary selfie could be an attempt to appropriate the point of view of the ‘perfect viewer’, or perhaps better put as ‘the one who understands all’. This yearning for a third party view of ourselves is not derived from a sense of obsessive self regard or vanity rather it stems from a need to make sense of ourselves in a world where ‘self’ is found in many different aspects of our personas. Where does our ‘self’ live? I have heard psychologists argue that even our notebooks should be considered part of our ‘extended self’. In this way almost everything we do, own, eat, enjoy, hate etc must be considered a part of our self and therefore ought to be taken as evidence of what makes up our greater ‘selves’.

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

I live and work, metaphorically and actually, in the shadow of Grenfell Tower. On the day of the fire I photographed the media and the public gazing at this horrific disaster as it happened. A couple of days later I walked with people paying their respects and coming to terms with the unfathomable awfulness of what had occurred. If you live in the area there is no hiding from the ghastly horror of the hulking, burned out tower that looms over everyone like a monument from Hell to the forgotten and marginalised. And then amongst the mourners (because that is what we were) I started to see people having selfies taken with Grenfell as a backdrop. At first my instinctual ‘sneer’ reflex was triggered. How could they be so callous? I was outraged (and outrage always carries with it a feeling of superiority). A short time passed between the scenes I describe here and the time when I got down to writing this article. In that time my ‘outrage’ at the Grenfell ‘selfi-ists’ had mellowed to a new comprehension of what was going on.

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

We are so attuned to the image as a way of relating the world. By placing ourselves in the image that frames the object of our interest (or at least that to which we wish to be associated – however grisly) the shooting of selfies is a way of describing to others our experience of life. This is no more offensive than someone writing a letter in which they describe in detail their experiences; good or bad. Either missive; selfie or letter, is full of implied associations and attitudes that the creator hopes will be seen to reflect well on them by a third party onlooker – again, this idea of the ‘perfectly observed self’.

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

For some years I have been compiling ‘evidence’ for a book I wanted to call ‘Turning our Backs on Culture’. The title reflects the way people always stand with their backs to the thing of interest whilst taking a selfie so that they can be seen in the same frame and therefore bathe in the reflected glory of the view/painting/gig etc. In recent months I have been forced to face up to the fact that my original thesis – that people are narcissistic and can only relate to an experience if they can see themselves in it – has been entirely trashed as being snobbish and lacking in understanding of the cultural phenomenon of our time. My work continues on the same theme but with the broader remit of recording how we consume culture, how we interact with it and why we are so drawn to it. My view is now more anthropological rather than political.

The selfie is the cultural phenomenon of our times. To many the selfie is an expression of our inward looking, self centred, narcissistic tendency which, in turn, speaks of our inability to relate to the world without placing ourselves centre frame. But to some, perhaps, there is a new understanding that places the selfie in the same canon as all forms of artistic expression; a tendency that dates back to the early stages of civilisation, that is, a very human desire to make sense of the scale of the world by using our own physical form to measure it and show it to others. Nothing more, nothing less.

Next month I’ll be thinking about truth in photography – we are told the camera never lies but what about all that is left out of the frame? The camera may not deceive but it rarely tells the whole story.