Category Archives: B&W Pieces

Time and Evolution of Photography – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 200

Time and Evolution of Photography
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 200, March 2017

The photographs I am showing this month are from a growing body of work on the way we interact with culture. I think these images are pertinent to the article because they show people engaging with artworks and monuments that span time. It is the exchange of energy here that excites me – how can the work of a human hand millennia in the past still speak so clearly to people of today?

Have you ever wondered about strange anomalies of time? I was born 24 years after the end of the second world war and a mere 50 years after the (official) end of the First World War. The distance between the end of World War II and my birth is the equivalent to the time between 1991 and now. To me this seems a conceptually much shorter space of time than the distance between World War II and man landing on the Moon.

If you look at the photographs of Nan Goldin, in particular Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC (1991) you will see a picture that features the faces and attitudes of people you might know and see now. The marginal visible details may be a little dated but, essentially, the vernacular of this image speaks of the modern era. You may feel a slight sense of nostalgia but one feels that the picture more or less represents the time we live in.

Now go to Google and type “photographs in 1945”. The top search return is ‘Berlin pictures show the red Army rampaging through German capital’. This is a fascinating juxtaposition of images taken in 1945 set against pictures taken today in exactly the same locations showing starkly contrasting scenes; the one side is war and mayhem , the other shows contemporary, mundane modernity. The contrast between these pictures underlines the juddering temporal contradictions only photography can provide.

Look at any of the photographs from 1945 listed on Google and it feels like looking into another universe. It is not just that the pictures are black and white and grainy – it is as if there was an entirely different attitude at play in the capture of them. For example look at the famous Eisenstaedt shot of the sailor ’embracing’ a nurse. Examine, not the couple, but all that is going on around them. The people at the edge of the frame are dressed in either the military uniform of the era or ‘civvies’ each manifesting the uniformity of style that we associate with the age. There seems, to our 21st century eyes, an ‘unknowingness’ in the relationship between the photograph and the people featured in it. The relationship of this photograph to that which it depicts has a perceptible simplicity – a sense that the condition of ‘the photograph’ was still what it had been since 1826 when the oldest known camera photographic print, Niepcé’s ‘the View from the Window at Le Gras’ was taken. That is to say that each photograph is nothing more or less than the simple record of an event.

The existential conditions of a photograph in the pre-digital age allowed it to be seen as a statement of fact, or, evidence of a truth. This ‘relationship’ with photography, did not seek meaning beyond the borders. Perhaps another way of looking at this is to imagine holding a print in your hands. To a pre-modernist the total value of the image is found within the borders and in the scene or events shown. There is also an acceptance of the truth of the image. By contrast a post-modernist will hold that same print and will wonder at what happened beyond the frame – a necessary response in order to make full, contextual sense of the scene as depicted in the ‘live image area’. This more deconstructive approach might be called the ‘evolution of photographic consciousness’. Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, John Berger, even Warhol, have all played very important roles as commenters on the photographic image leading to to the more ‘granular’ way in which we now read photographic imagery.

Because lens based photography was introduced to us by wealthy white men in Western Europe the photograph automatically had the weight of truth and reliability about it. Well-off men gave the world a reflection of itself and the world accepted this new mechanical vision as the truth. Where all other representations of life were made by the interpretive human hand and eye here was a device that couldn’t but tell the truth. Since the explosion of digital photography and the ensuing democracy of camera-phones we have unconsciously adjusted our relationship with the photographic image. We do not take for granted that it is immutably honest. Photography is now so much part of us and so it reflects the way we relate to the world. We tacitly understand that the sense of our ability to truthfully understand the world is just as unreliable as that of a photographic image purports to show.

We know that ‘truth’ cannot be taken for granted. This is a great change from our relationship in 1945 with the medium. And this is not because photography has been shown to lie (although it has) but because we don’t need to trust in our own judgement as we used to. We are more comfortable in the knowledge that we cannot know what is empirically true and apply this new understanding, tacitly, to photography.

It is as if the photograph is now a contingent thing existing and serving only as a clue to another less settled truth. To lament the evolution of photographic consciousness is simply irrelevant. Photography and humanity are enjoying a symbiotic development – the one informs the other – indeed the one must live for the other. Photography is adapting to the most fundamental areas of human experience. Photography is now in the neurones and in the interstices of our brains. The photographic image is now our true sixth sense.

When I look at Nan Goldin’s 1991 picture of two tired people in the back of a taxi I’m aware of the different status of the photographic image only 25 years ago. It was the beginning of a transitional phase for photography; from artefact to ‘universal clue’. Twenty five years ago the photograph was a fact – an avatar for a reality otherwise unknowable. Today the photographic image is so intrinsically part of us that it’s implicit truth is as mutable as the reliability of our own subjective view of the world. There is one aspect, however, that time cannot change; as we gaze into the eyes of people staring out at us who are now long dead, the photograph provides an instant connection that brings the past and the future together – a photograph of the past is a photograph of the future, is a photograph of the present.

Next month I will be looking at the pros and cons of being an invisible collector of souls or the work of the unseen documentary photographer and the ethical questions this kind of photography poses.

On Street Photography – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 199

On Street Photography
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 199, February 2017

We simply must talk about street photography. This subject has been bothering me for a long time. It has taken me a while to figure why but I think am now approaching a conclusion: street photography as concept and genre should cease to exist – from this day forward the concept of street photography ought to be consigned to the footnotes of Wikipedia.

I’ll put this antipathy to a popular form of photography in context; first I should explain what I mean by ‘street photography’. This genre is defined by location – the street – and its haphazard nature. One could argue that the nature of street photography is simple and easy to define because its only concern is the interaction between a photographer and the people and events found in the urban environment. You could also say that street photographs are characterised by chance and the depiction of the interplay between humanity and the built environment. This form of photography is attractive, perhaps in concept, but not always worthy of the attention it receives in practice and I hope I can prove to you why we need to move beyond the empty concept that is street photography.

Now, here’s a bit of a non-sequitur but please follow me… the greatest English engraver of the 19th century was Samuel Palmer (often cited by British documentary photographers as a key influence). His Blake-inspired engravings established all the key objectives of street photography decades before photography. There may even be an argument to make that Samuel Palmer was the father of the documentary movement but that’s for another time. Although his work was decidedly bucolic his focus was ordinary working people in their natural habitat. He would show his very ‘human’ subjects in a dynamically depicted environment. Street photography owes a debt to him because his intricate engravings elevated the mundane – the everyday occurrences that the art (of the time) was not concerned with. Palmer died in 1881 as photography was making the recording of everyday life more accessible.

A mere 16 years after Palmer’s death Eugene Atget would start his ‘Old Paris’ series of street inspired photography which he would pursue for the next 30 years until his death in 1927. Atget wanted to capture all of Paris life before it gave way to the onslaught of modernity. Contemporary artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Derain and Man Ray where all drawn to Atget’s photographs of Paris life because they detected a surrealism in the imagery which reflected their own artistic concerns at that time. Unfortunately for Atget he was not to live long enough to see his work’s success. However, because of the work of this one man and the august crowd it attracted, an entire genre was born; street photography. What endures of Atget’s work is his dedication to document. That his images engaged his viewers and still do to this day is testament to the seriousness of purpose that underlined they’re making. Atget did not consider himself an artist rather a working photographer in the act of documentation. His important depictions of everyday people and life were to inspire generations of great photography.

So let’s name some of the great photographers known for ‘street photography’ who came after Atget. There are too many to list here comprehensively but here are a few; Walker Evans, Berenice Abbot, Cartier Bresson, Gary Winogrand, Harry Gruyeart, Diane Arbus, Alex Webb, Elliot Erwitt and Robert Frank to tag a random few. I pluck these names out of the air and no doubt you too could add many to them. I see no connection in the work of these disciples of Atget to the concept we now understand as street photography. All of these practitioners are serious artists, journalists and social documenters. Their approach is, respectively; particular, questing, intellectual, deep and deeply felt. Their work may contain some of the tropes of what we have come to expect from street photography (such as extraordinary juxtapositions between people and street typography, trompe-l’œil effects and animal/human interactions to name just a few) but these ‘visual gags’ are the by-catch of serious work.

In our age of super-shallow concept-aquisition – where cultural and historical memes are exploited and devoured by a restless, tech obsessed generation (vis Lomography for its commercialisation of the effects of the application of poor optics to film) we extract the visual ‘hooks’ from these great works of documentary and exploit them to the point that they become anti-iconic graphics of which the best that can be said is “cool”. And “cool” is to photography what salt is to slugs.

The current ubiquity of street photography and its acceptance as a valuable artistic exercise speaks so clearly of the ease with which it is partaken and the lack of commitment it requires. After all most of us live in a town or city. We can easily take a couple of hours to shoot the world around us. I have to admit it is an enjoyable way to spend time. Street photography has become a gentle pastime that can be successful by its own standards without delving beneath the surface of things. When street photography goes deeper it stops being street photography and becomes its more noble cousin, ‘documentary photography’.

I have not mentioned the names of any photographers whose work I think epitomise the hollow world of street photography because I only ever wish to write about the things I like. I reserve my ire for the concepts and attitudes I am uncomfortable with. I believe ‘street photography’ is a dead term describing an obsolete practice. In this way it reminds me of Don Quixote running his sword at windmills – a difficult and fruitless occupation.

We each have in us an ability to connect with the side of the world we are presented with in the same way that Palmer and Atget did. As artists and documenters we should attempt to go deeper and dare ourselves to commit to themes, subjects and concepts. We may fail, we may find ourselves inadequate to the task but just trying to delve further into the mire of humanity gives us the only chance of unearthing the odd, unexpected and precious gem. The street is not enough on its own – humanity is the focus and when the street comes first something is lost. As Oscar Wilde said

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

The Final Act of Photography – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 198

The Final Act of Photography
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 198, January 2017

The privileged son of a French industrialist once said that “the final act of photography is the print”. Henri Cartier Bresson was under no illusion as to the rightful place of a photographic work in the artistic canon. As an artist who came to photography via painting and surrealism Cartier Bresson’s instincts would have been towards the final manifestation of art as a physical manifestation rather than confined to the pages of academic books.

That the rightful place of photography is on paper is often blindly accepted by the majority and will not surprise many but the adage regarding the final resting place of an image as being properly physical is increasingly questionable at a time when many more images are consumed on screens than any other way. Yet there is something about HCB’s declaration that seems to resonate. Perhaps this is because the idea of there being ‘a final act’ to the photographic process implies a sort of finality in the development of the image as concept and form. That there is a ‘final act’ at all means that the photograph has been rendered through the faculties of the photographer’s mind and experience and has been born and presented as a fixed point ready for the view of others and the latent power that comes with that.

Every single image posted on Instagram or Facebook causes a ripple – a wave that might be imperceptible; diminishing as quickly as it forms. Or another picture will gather momentum as it is passed from person to person, from device to device. Often these photographs are ephemeral – easily swept away by the next image. There is now an easy relationship with the fast decay of an image in so far as these photographs are ‘thumbed-through’ on their way down the screen of a phone or ipad. It is possible that we all share a sense that something is missing in the swipe-to-swipe evaporation of image after image. Perhaps way of engaging is disproportionately degrading to the power of imagery. Should the grace period of a picture be measured by the speed of a thumb?

For some reason magazines are not dying out. The long predicted demise of physical print, which is costly and static (when compared to a screen’s innate transient cheapness) has not happened. On the contrary there is a burgeoning selection of ultra high quality titles (including this one) that make a profit from premium priced magazines. These publications often take great care with picture selections, layout and print quality. They are constructed with sweat, love and risk and consumed by an appreciative readers who sense that by buying the publication they are, in some meaningful way, contributing to the life of the magazine and art.

One of the allures of a photograph printed on paper is that it is incontrovertible. It cannot be altered. It is both statement and fact to be looked at today, studied tomorrow and lived with for as long as you want to have it around. The same cannot be said of screen images. Different monitors and screen technology, not to mention colour balances and varying brightness mean that a photo viewed on a device is a conditional thing. For the purposes of enjoying and examining a photograph a print is more useable because paper is reflective – incidental light bounces off it at easily controllable intensity whereas a screen-viewed image is aggressively back lit – admittedly satisfying for contrast but tiring for extended examination.

A photographic print made well in any of the best methods can be printed small or large as befits the subject whilst a screen dictates the dimensions the image can be viewed at. A print can be hung on the wall and examined as one passes by every single day. For many photographers the act of printing out pictures and sticking them up in constant view is a way of getting know your own work intimately well.

And perhaps the most marked difference is demonstrated by the form of the book. There can be no more satisfying photographic experience than turning the pages on a series of images bound into a single photo book and, in particular, books which have been printed meticulously by expert printers whose knowledge of paper and ink can make photographs resonate on every page.

A photograph needs to be fixed in the physical world to allow for the enduring lover’s gaze. A screen-lit image seems brittle and transient by comparison. To commit an image to paper is to honour poetry and the time-resisting dynamics of art. The final act of photography is, indeed, a print.

Next month – what is the point of street photography?

 

On the Decisive Moment – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE

On the Decisive Moment
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 197, Winter 2016

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The dynamic of Henri Cartier Bresson’s photographs who’s innate poise and composition conferred an almost ethereally perfect quality was called the ‘Decisive Moment’ after Cardinal Retz was quoted in the preface to Cartier Bresson’s seminal and first book in 1952 – “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment”.

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However, the power of this phrase may have been amplified inaccurately by a slight miss translation of this epoch making book which was first titled in French as ‘Images a la Sauvette’ which maybe better read as ‘images on the sly’ or ‘images on the run’. I believe these alternative translations are closer to the intentions of the original French publishers than its English translation implies. Nevertheless Cartier Bresson was convinced that there is a moment that captures the essence of a situation better than any other where dynamics, emotion and composition can be seen to be in perfect balance in a single image. The coincidence of emotional and compositional quality is what Cartier Bresson meant by the ‘Decisive Moment’.

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The French philosopher and writer, Roland Barthes, defined a point in an image around which the emotional sense, dynamic and composition hangs as the ‘punctum’ or ‘point’ if you prefer. It should be noted that only the concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’ refers to the value of a picture. The ‘punctum’ is a descriptive term aiding an ontological discussion about a photograph. Either way both Cartier Bresson and Roland Barthes have identified an empirical way to evaluate an image. It is very interesting that both these concepts became popular at around about the same time, mid 20th century, when photography was looking for a home in the museums and galleries of the world rather than its natural environment of magazines and newspapers.

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The ‘Decisive Moment’  – it’s tenets of timing, spontaneity and geometry has both inspired and crushed photographers ever since ‘Images a la Sauvette’ was published. So many have been inspired to become photographers by the work of Cartier Bresson and his adherence to the ‘Decisive Moment’. But anyone standing at the precipice of a lifetime to be spent photographing, ready to dive in because he or she has fallen in love with the ‘Decisive Moment’ is about to jump with a large and unwieldy weight attached to their legs.

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The presence of this analogical weight means that, most likely, they will tumble without grace or form into the depths instead of beautifully gliding swallow like into the limpid blue as they would have dreamed. This is because the notional weight of the ‘Decisive Moment’ will mean a fruitless struggle with a concept that impedes the best motives of photography.

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Compare the work of, say, Gary Winogrand with that of Cartier Bresson. Unquestionably the style of both relies on the ‘Decisive Moment’. Cartier Bresson’s images are more conventionally beautiful and frequently show his geometric signature whereas Winogrand’s images rely on tensions and dynamics of his very human subjects. But a more important difference is their respective intentions; Cartier Bresson’s version of the ‘Decisive Moment’ is architectural, graphically dynamic and perfectly poised where as Winogrand tells us about ourselves. It could be said of Winogrand’s work that the concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’ serves only as a ‘hook’ to draw the viewer closer to a more pressing and vital clue to the human condition manifest in his images, that is to say, Winogrand’s photographs give us a glimpse of where we have been and where we are heading.

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Cartier Bresson said “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression.”  This is as close to the source of the concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’ as we can get. It describes the qualities of a unique image taken in isolation to the wider context and relevance to the time in which it was taken – in other words a picture’s manifestation of the ‘Decisive Moment’ relates only to itself and excludes any other appraisal or criticism. But how can a medium as adaptable as photography be confined to a qualification that references only itself and does not relate the image to the world in a wider context?

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For many, Cartier Bresson is the ‘photographer master’ and his development of the concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’ is the sine qua non of artistic possibility. I confess a deep affection for his images and I am addicted to his portraits but the ‘dynamic’ or ‘form’ of his photographs should only constitute the ‘point of entry’ to the world on display rather than the beginning, middle and end of the story.

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The ‘Decisive Moment’ is justly one of the greatest visual developments, discovered, named and mastered by one of the 20th century’s greatest artists but photography has a much grander, more powerful role to perform in the service of the human story. Photographers like Atget (of whom Cartier Bresson was a fan), Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Josef Koudelka, Nan Goldin, Stephen Shore and so many others have eschewed the tyranny of the ‘Decisive Moment’ in favour of powerful visual story telling that says so much by ignoring the moment and speaking of (and allowing for) eternities of understanding and truth. The ‘Decisive Moment’ has had its time and yet will be with us forever. To chase that moment of perfection in denial of greater more important ambitions for photography is much like chasing rainbows; sometimes fun, often exhausting but always futile.

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Next month I will be writing about the “final act of photography” (as HCB called it) – or the making of the photographic image into a print.

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On something out of nothing – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE

This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 196, December 2016

“And then there was light” – apparently. Either way the line is a good one and it provides a solid basis for this month’s ‘lesson’ because it is one of the greatest mysteries –  how we happen to be here at all. And most disturbingly, how did the universe form? Where was it before it was the universe? If the universe is expanding what is it expanding in to? In other words, how was it that something came from nothing? We may have some answers to these questions before long but a new understanding of our cosmic origins will not alter the fact that the definition of creation is the act of bringing something into being where before there was nothing. This creative ground on which existence is based is at the heart of the human quest for and appreciation of the condition of existence.l1025718l1025726

Each and everyone of us is the product of the union of previously distinct genealogy. In other words progeny is the act of bringing together elements which should never have been joined at all – probably. But here we are, all of us, the products of something from nothing. But we all know that nothing comes from nothing – this is the paradox at the heart of human consciousness. If nothing then what?

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Arguably all art is a form of wrestling with the supermassive question if nothing then what? It is a question that, as far as we know, only we can ask. If nothing then what? The search for an answer to this question is the fuel that powers art. For me the magic of photography, whether mine or someone else’s, is found by gazing at the picture and wondering at the frozen sliver of time that is made visible by the medium. Just like us that frozen moment need never have existed except that someone pushed the button at a certain moment – nor does that moment have to be decisive (see next month’s On Photography for more on this). The exposure could be made at random but it is the human gaze which gives meaning and life to that moment in time. This is something out of nothing made manifest. Which qualifications, criticism, or values we give to that exposure later are merely human constructs. The important thing is that the exposure exists at all. This is photography at a primordial, pre-verbal level of understanding and a level from which understanding and emotional development as well as ideas of story and semantic meaning can bloom.

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In this way exposure (which is the ‘genesis’ of all photography) is the moment of wonder. What occurs to it later is all about humanity and shared understanding – without the first click there could only be nothing.

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As it is possible to live your entire life without understanding the mechanisms of brain function so can a photographer live in ignorance of the fundamental philosophy of photography but I have often settled on this idea of art (of something out of nothing) when wondering at my own love of photography and art in general. It was not until I put pen(cil) to paper to write this piece that I understood this sense I have for the medium and was able to put it in concrete terms that I could understand and hang on to. So just by writing this piece I have created, at least for myself, something out of nothing.

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The photographer exploits all the physical dimensions of existence more than any other artist. The speed of light and location of the camera in time and space are inevitable factors in the creation of a photograph. It is in the coincidence of these vectors that an exposure is made. The particular incidence of light reflecting from the subject in relation to the angle and focal length of the lens (if any) and the amount of time that that arrangement is exposed to the receiving medium is all that is required to make a photograph.

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Understanding the philosophical building blocks of photography gives us agency over our medium. It means we can define our work according to our own light rather than having to accept the ‘contract of art’ according to the terms of someone else.

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As a documentary photographer I may make a series of such exposures and give emotional narrative shape to them by entitling the various ‘coincidences’ with meaningful words and committing them to the service of a concept or subject. In exactly this way I have been researching a new project on the people of the Borders region between England and Scotland. This article is accompanied by some images I have shot as part of the ground work for this new series. In this way I am throwing my own light on a subject of my own definition – a subject which I conjured out of thin air. Or in other words, a new and eternal something created by a human out of the void and mystery of nothingness.

Next month I will be discussing the fallibility of the concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’.

On the Loss of Freedom – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE

This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 195, November 2016

– A response to increased insularity and populist politics as seen through the prism of the art world.

We are under attack.

Let me break that down for you. By ‘we’ I mean those who’s work can only exist in an environment of democratically guaranteed freedom. And by ‘attack’ I mean the gathering storms of politically motivated violence and querulous rhetoric that is breaking out around the world.

 

Like the names we give to storms; Paris, Nice, Ankara, Brussels and Baghdad are now shorthand for atrocities rather than the cultural and economic centres of their respective countries. And please don’t assume that, because the atrocities committed in these cities were carried out by criminal fascist organisations such as ISIS, they exist in isolation from the increasingly outlandish utterances of democratic politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farrage or even Boris Johnson.

The words of these political leaders and the actions of Daesh are not connected at source but a sense of their ‘sayability’ or ‘doability’ is increasingly permissible in an age of gross violence and indiscreet political utterances some of which strike a chord with people who feel themselves disenfranchised from what they see as the elite political classes.

It is not for this magazine to lecture its readers on geopolitics but the forces listed above will soon impact on artists everywhere and, in particular, the work of documentary photographers or any artist or journalist who’s work concerns itself with challenging the status quo. Many of the jaw-dropping utterances on immigration, protectionism, ‘no platforming’ and fear of the ‘other’ were unthinkable a few years ago. More alarming is that these grotesquely intolerant statements are going unchallenged by many and even accepted by some of us.

Now cut to a bucolic village nestled in the wolds of Gloucestershire. Birds sing, leaves rustle as a gentle breeze touches the trees with the softest of kisses. Amidst all the glorious summer wonder I am visiting this village because it is the home of the Whittington Press. Owned and run by father and son, John and Patrick Randall, the press is situated in a rambling and very old barn on the edges of the eponymous village and specialises in the finest hand printing and typesetting. The equipment of the press is purely mechanical and most of it dates from the first half of the 20th century and requires the attention of dedicated printers with immense knowledge of the properties of ink, paper and engineering. The press also has three original Monotype machines – magically complicated contraptions which cast individual letters into blocks of text directly from molten lead.

The Whittington Press produces small runs of ‘Livres d’Artistes’, books of contemporary engravings as well as specialist posters, leaflets and printed artworks. The quality of their work is exquisite. I visited the press because they are printing a ‘letterpress’ version of my photobook ‘Want More’ which is a critique of consumerist culture and published last year by Art/Books. John, Patrick and I spent the morning discussing binding, paper and typography – it was wonderful and I felt very privileged.

On leaving I had the clear impression that here was an example of the pinnacle of craft/art expression and one that would be the first to go should the political tide edge further towards the polarised fringes of intolerance and even restrictive fascism. Art is the last refuge of the sane. In troubled times we turn to creating things to affirm our lives*. Institutions of free expression must be protected and preserved and we creators of new shapes, words and images have an obligation to keep on creating them. Free artistic expression is the antithesis of fascism and we must see our role in the fight as mandatory – not voluntary.

What a gem of free speech the Whittington Press is! Tucked away with its ancient Heidelberg presses and Monotype machines that can be turned to whatever task the owners of the press desire. On a whim they could write, print and distribute a pamphlet criticising the government’s policy on, well, anything. For my purposes here the Whittington Press is the inspirational and, as yet, very much alive ‘canary in the coal mine’. But is the canary picking up the first signs of an unpleasant odour? For all of us this press represents an exquisitely ephemeral level of democracy and freedom that can only exist in the most finely balanced legal conditions. I think we take this state of hard won democratically guaranteed grace completely for granted. It is now a time for taking stock. Photographers, artists and self expressionists of every hue must become conscious of what we have and how it may be lost.

We must recognise the gathering storm at our fringes; with Turkey, a democracy on Europe’s eastern border dissolving into dictatorship under Erdogan’s increasing despotism and Donald Trump, in the west, speaking the previously unutterably repulsive words of fear and racism we can now clearly detect the rhetoric of intolerance in our own ‘democratic’ politicians. We see restraints against the freedom of speech in Russia, Brazil and China. This is a trend – a tide of fear that will wash the shores of our rarified democracies before long. So it begins. Art is salvation.

*The pictures that accompany this piece were taken during the time of writing (late July 2016). I was staying near Lulworth Cove. For three days I ‘washed my eyes’ by taking a trip to the Cove and taking some pictures. If nothing else the action of doing so was grounding and gave a sense of ‘reality’ in uncertain times.

On Perfection – Essay from BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE

This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 194, October 2016

There is nothing so dull, so exclusive, so cold as apparent perfection. Photography, being a largely technical medium, has always had a tendency towards perfectionism. Enslavement to a technical cause is distracting us from the the real purpose of photography; to communicate the inner life of the human experience, albeit through mechanical means.

Perfection is often found where ideas are not. It is much easier to invest in equipment and create technically perfect images than to take an instinctive leap into the unknown. Perfectionism rules out instinct. And it is this quality when joined with learning and experience that provides the foundation for new ways of seeing.

Online discussions about photography are mostly technical and centred on camera bodies and lenses with various properties that can be compared the one against the other. Which lens has the greatest accutance at f2? Which body starts to exhibit noise at just 6400 which when compared with X brand which can get the same effects at 12800! The discussions go on and on and all of them are, without question, stupefying and completely miss the point of what it means to own and use a camera.

Absent from these message boards are discussions about ideas and abstract concepts which these sophisticated optical machines were created to capture. It could be said that this technical obsession is a displacement activity from the hard work of coming up with good work. We are all challenged by the existence of good cameras; indeed by owning one these machines and expressing an interest in photography we are putting it about that we are artists.

But the work of an artist is hard and sometimes we know that our own work falls short of the standard set (or so we believe) by the greats whose work we admire so we spend time and concentration on what really doesn’t matter i.e. technical perfection. Of course, this thesis is a generalism but it is broadly true that technical perfection becomes ever easier at a rate that is independent of and outstrips the creation of new visual languages that only photography can give birth to. This last point represents the true work of artists – the drive to depict the world in new ways.

‘Wabi-sabi’ is a Japanese term with which you are no doubt familiar. If you are new to it it means the aesthetic acceptance of transient imperfection. It is said that “if an object or expression can bring about within us a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi.” Another good way to look at this condition “is to acknowledge that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect.” One aspect of wabi-sabi that pertains to photography is the acceptance of imperfection due to the limitations of the medium. Looked at another way it could be said that in order to love something or to fully engage with it there must be imperfection for us to gain tenure on that object. I prefer to think of wabi-sabi as being the way we can see our own imperfect selves in objects of art and in this way contemplate our own existence.

Already photographers are building imperfection back into their images by using filters and software like SilverFX. These programs emulate the vagaries and imperfections of film with all their strange reciprocities and colour biases. Other photographers use Polaroid, Holgas and Lomos to harness the wabi-sabi that comes with film and all its practical challenges. This approach could be considered as a pastiche of photography as it tries to emulate the perceived ‘warmth’ and approachability of ‘wet’ methods of photographic reproduction in an increasingly digitally ‘perfect’ age.

We photographers are like Odysseus sailing passed the Sirens (the Sirens here are played by mechanical perfectionism). We must strap ourselves to the mast and sail on by ignoring the seductive promises of optical perfection. If we heed the Sirens’ call they will enslave us and exploit us for their own banal purposes. Like Odysseus we will find that truth and beauty lie not in how others would have us view the world but in the knowledge of our own hearts and living according to our own creative light.

There has to be a balance; on the one hand we cannot take a reactionary, Luddite stand against the benefits of developing technology, nor can we place all our trust in the latest technical gems in the hope that these will help us create automatic ‘wonder’. Perfectionism is the voice in your head that can speak only of quantities and parameters. New languages and ways of communicating the language of existence can only be found in human experience that resists perfection. Artists must reach out with their hearts and leave perfection to those who would rather count than feel.

NOTES ON THE PICTURES ACCOMPANYING THIS ARTICLE

These pictures were shot on 13th April 2012 on a flight to New York. The plane passed over Newfoundland on a crystal clear day. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I watched the frozen wastes pass below. Such beauty! Such loneliness. Unimaginable to a born and bred and very much city bound Londoner. My cameras were in the hold but I had my phone so I just took some pictures for fun. I had had a vodka and tonic and, for some reason, the combination of flight and alcohol always gives me the urge to make something; sometimes I write, sometimes I take pictures. With time on my hands I reduced the images to almost pure tones of black and white. I haven’t looked at them since. I probably can’t even find the originals. I never take ‘selfies’ but I must have wanted to record the moment for some reason – can’t remember, will never know why but I quite like it now that I’m looking at it again. These pictures are very much a record of my reaction to a memorable experience and resplendent in their lack of so-called perfection.

On Purpose – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE

This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine

For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the ecstasy.
For each beloved hour
Sharp pittances of years,
Bitter contested farthings
And coffers heaped with tears.

Emily Dickinson

Green Lanes, Haringey, North London 2014
Green Lanes, Haringey, North London 2014

Poetry, it could be said, is the highest form of art, one to which all other forms aspire. Perhaps this is because of the way our human minds have developed in the shade of language and how words and their sounds, their ebb and flow can cut to the centre of the human condition. Whilst often hard to glean and difficult to read poems are written with great care with each syllable and word balanced so the whole makes a new kind of sense. Purpose is not always evident but it is always present in poetry. It could be argued that this purpose, this commitment to a direction is not present in much of the photography we can readily access today.

The best photography can occasionally achieve the elusive and untouchable quality of great poetry. But what quality do we ascribe to the work which is exhibited and shared which never achieves that status? Dross? Pap? Experiment? There is an unaccounted cost to observers of these images without purpose. Vital energy and spirit are expended in the engagement and then realisation that much of this work, whilst superficially interesting, leads us only into cul-de-sacs of estrangement and tedium.

For the purposes of this column documentary photography and other prosaic forms of photography have to be put to one side. Photographers like Rinko Kawachi, Josef Sudek, Man Ray, Paul Kooiker, Mathew Pillsbury and Saul Leiter to name a few ‘photo-poets’ have made their names by showing us, not what matters in the external world, but rather by manifesting the internal discourse of the human spirit. These photographers are poetic artists who use photography as their medium.

Arguably the work by these photographers is often marked by its seeming lack of purpose. Their pictures just ‘are’ and when we see them in a book, online or in a gallery we are invited to take them for what they are just because they are there for us to see. The power of these works comes, in part, from their uselessness as much as it does from their aesthetic form. But in the background there is always a purpose to their work – not, perhaps, the kind that builds skyscrapers or empires but a deep, quiet and subconscious sense of purpose.

Purpose has no relationship with usefulness. And uselessness is not at all the same as pointlessness! Purpose is often lost in the mistaken belief that a veneer of something other-worldly or indecipherable is all that is required to give validity to an image. How many times do you inwardly sigh as you scan the images posted online or in some magazines, books or exhibitions and realise that the only quality you can detect in these photographs is the pointlessness they appear to revel in? The amount of work shown that can ONLY have relevance to the progenitor is staggering. We read blurbs that firmly place the work in a historical context, that make an observer feel dumb for not feeling anything. Pointlessness is endemic in a medium made easy to create and disseminate by technology. But is it possible that in many cases even those same creators of this work are themselves baffled and unconvinced by it too?

There is, however, a cure for the ennui here described. If a point is missing it must be found. The jumping off point for a series or a single image should be a considered point; nailed down, staked out and pinned up, considered, considered again from the point of view of experience and then kicked around to the point of destruction. Placing intellect, experience and instinct at the centre of the creative drive pulls the creative dynamic into shape leading to better, clearer thinking and imagery with greater complexity, intelligence and deeper intellectual values.

There is a corollary to this encomium; purposeful work requires bravery on the part of the photographer. If work has a purpose then it risks failing to address or even establish the point it is trying to make. In other words by aiming to achieve something work may fail simply because it aims to have a purpose. But what is the alternative?

So much work is allowed into the public domain which has no point that even the artist that created it can determine. This speaks to a post modern, deconstructed view of the art world according to the mantra that the experience of art and any meaning derived from it is firmly in the domain of the beholder. This requires nothing of the artist and places all the responsibility for deriving value or meaning on the part of the observer.

Artworks which seek only to preach or are dogmatic or didactic are often boring and grandiose but the alternative, work which has no meaning to which an artist will pin his or her intellect and reputation is a waste of time because it can never teach us anything. A return to intellect and bravery, a sense of purpose, a chance of failure are what makes art exciting. Where these qualities are absent so is art and so is the poetic dance off light which, when when shone in the right direction, can illuminate all our lives.

Alex Schneideman
London May 31st 2016

On Context – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE

This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine

context

ˈkɒntɛkst/
noun
the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.

To give your work context is to give it meaning to the wider world. Without context our work may seem irrelevant. With context our images connect to the intricate dynamic of human experience enabling people to form a bond with it. The purpose of this piece is to focus on a consideration that we all know to be true, is not often discussed and can have a great impact on our photographic legacy.

In my last article I spoke of the creation of art as being the act of bringing attention to the abstract. This is a good way to start looking at the concept of context; in observing something and making an exposure you have effectively placed your subject in its own context – one that has meaning for you. This initial personal contextualisation gives the impetus required for the photographer to capture the image and give him or her the reason to commit to it. Let’s say this is called ‘primary context’. At this stage all sorts of nuances, details and fluctuations of meaning are either consciously or subconsciously known by its originator.

Now a selection of images is made perhaps for an exhibition, a book or entering into a competition. At this stage ‘secondary contextualisation’ is required. As your images transfer from the private world of their inception and selection to the public world of arbitrary engagement those qualities and ideas in your work will be lost unless you can elicit some control over how they are viewed.

The viewing public do not have the visual acuity, time or inclination to engage with your images as you would wish so you must help them by controlling the environment in which your work is seen. The key here is to concentrate the viewer’s gaze on your work without distraction. This needs to be done both practically and conceptually. A frame is a ‘practical’ conxtextualising tool. Here the border allows the elements of the image to live in their own world – a world defined and delineated as something different but the wooden surround. A secondary or ‘conceptual’ context can be described by imagining the power of a solo show at the Tate versus the display of some work in a village hall. The same pictures may be exhibited but to different effect by leveraging gravity by association.

These suggestions are all vital aspects of placing your work in the right ‘light’, perspective or context. This is a report from the front line of working with photographers over many years but it is not exhaustive. The craft of placing your work in the right context might come to you instinctively or not. It doesn’t matter – context is essential when it comes to generating the most effect from showing your work. Context is relevance. It can’t be put simpler than that. Ignore it at your peril.

Here are some observations made during my time printing for photographers all over the world. I’ve had a chance to examine success and failure at close hand and these notes reflect some of the lessons I’ve learned.

ONLINE
It is too easy to show your images to many people. Flickr, Facebook, Instagram and the like all make the exposition of your work almost automatic. But, unless your pictures are connected to an event or cause, these media are disastrous for preserving the gap between the metaphysic truth of your images and the prosaic mess of the world around them. Your work needs space – space to make its own case. It is much better to use these media to bring people to your own website.

WEBSITES
Picture editors and curators have told my so many times that websites need to fulfill only two functions; clear visibility of images and ease of navigation. That’s it. A website does not need to be pretty – simply functional allowing the work to ‘speak’.

GROUP VERSUS SOLO SHOWS
When showing prints avoid group shows – they do nobody’s work any favours. Instead commit to your images and find a space where they can be shown on their own. Group exhibitions have the benefit of bringing more people in to view your work and they can be effective for people starting out but they are messy, prone to compromise and have the effect of degrading the power of your work especially when your work is adjacent to a weaker display. The aforementioned ‘village hall’ is a better environment to display your work than risking contamination by acquaintance with poor images.

PRESENTATION
Framing is over considered. You cannot reinvent photography with a stunning frame. Keep it simple and make all your pictures the same size so that the viewer can ‘tune out’ the ancillary details and concentrate on the actual images.

iPads are great for casually showing your work but we automatically devalue the work on show because screen images are so pervasive in our visual lives.

Hanging pictures is crucial to their impact. Poor hanging will reduce the power of your exhibition by a huge amount. Make sure that frames are neat and clean and hung so that they are dead straight. Failure to do this makes you look like an amateur (I mean this in the pejorative sense!). Neat hanging is more important than correct exposure for the purposes of connecting with viewers.

PORTFOLIOS
A set of prints in a clamshell portfolio box is endures as a good way to show your work. Allow wide borders (go up a paper size to incorporate this) and you get the double benefit of being able to handle prints (matte paper cleans up very well – direct message me and I’ll tell you how) and the separation from the environment that every good shot deserves.

CURATING A SELECTION
Loose a third. Some of my clients refer to the process of selection as ‘drowning your babies’ – a horrific term but one that sums up the process well. Your final selection should hurt. There will be loved pictures left behind because they weaken the ‘whole’.

Agree or disagree? Let me know at @schneideman331 or email me at alex@asprinting.net

On Sharpness – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE

This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine

Sharpness is an intellectual and artistic ‘dead-end’. There is only one small part of our retina which is capable of hugely detailed vision. The fovea is 0.3mm across – the size of the tip of a fine pen. Indeed half of all nerve cells in the eye are directed at the fovea but radiating out from this central ‘pit’ is the macular which offers less distinct vision and then the retina which allows us to see in the dark and gives us a sense of what is around us but no acuity at all – our brains have to sort through this visual sloop to make sense of it. By contrast a camera is all fovea. There isn’t a gradual dissemination of acuity its just 100% sharp from edge to edge. I am going to argue here that our addiction to sharpness and resolution is a distraction from the most important aspect of seeing and that it is ‘sensation’ or the engagement of our subconscious mind with what we see rather than evenly spread high acutance vision which provides us with the best route to artistic expression.

What we ‘see’ is nothing more than a very clever portrayal of reality constructed by our brain from various stimuli. This visual construction, which relies on our conscious and subconscious minds, seems perfect to us but in reality, when tested, is nothing more than a very sophisticated story telling mechanism. Because the brain has surprisingly little information to go on the processes that make sense of the world visually rely on many parts of the brain invoking deep levels of thought and personality and which we access when creating or are faced with works of art. In other words it is the story telling part of our brain which helps us see, helps us think and helps us derive meaning from abstraction.

When we look at a photograph (on screen or print) what we see is a mechanical reproduction of a physical scenario reproduced according to the capabilities of mechanical means. This degree of ‘reproductive perfection’ did not exist before photography was born. The photograph depicts life but not in human terms. What we see when looking at a photograph is a machine’s eye view – never the vision of a human. In other words concepts of sharpness and dynamic range are machine concepts and not to be compared with our own aquatically evolved, hyper contextualized and multilayered sense of vision.

Since photography’s inception its uses as a medium of record and its adoption by the art world has driven camera makers to produce ever better optics and mechanics so that photographs are easier to make and imperfections increasingly excluded. If technical brilliance continues to dominate the direction the medium takes then our humanity will be subsumed within the increasingly perfectionist mechanism. It is true that there are certain fields of photography which benefit from an increase in technical capability; photojournalists can throw focus from front to back so that present and future generations will gain so much evidential detail from their images and, optically inversely, sports photography can benefit from advanced onboard computing that places a fast moving object in pin sharp focus removing the subject from the background so that we can feel the thrill of frozen action.

But the ever increasing power of technology can be a hindrance to substance. As a professional printer of photography I often find myself talking about such arcane subjects as DPI, colour gamut and Dmax for example. Whilst these and many other technical considerations are all relevant subjects to the technical aspect of ‘best practice’ in photography they can easily distract us from more important discussions about the nature of an image and its relevance to the story a photographer is trying to tell. It is of little importance that a camera is noise-free at 6400 iso if the shots in question are derivative and offer us nothing new, nothing to excite or overwhelm us. Furthermore, in my experience, the more accomplished the photographer the less critical they are of the technical aspect of their work preferring, instead, to concentrate on a print’s ability to convey their ideas as powerfully as possible. Technical excellence is a given and mastery of the medium a must – this is no peon to the shambolic or unskilled – but beyond a certain point we need to take technical excellence for granted and spend our energy on shooting, editing and selecting the best shots.

Much of this obsession with sharpness can be traced back to the legendary ‘Group f64’. Formed in 1931 in San Francisco these photographers including Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham set themselves against Alfred Steiglitz’s antiquated New York school of ‘pictorialism’ and dedicated themselves to ‘the qualities of clearness and definition of the photographic image’. They reveled in new optics, films and techniques and in doing so set a very high bar for technical competence. However our collective way of seeing has moved on from those deliberately sharp images. Though still revered the f64 ‘dogma’ belongs in the past. We have mastered the technical aspect of photography. Technological advances have decoupled our cameras from the restraints of the medium. It is no longer fettered to the earth by chains and we need pay no heed to earthly considerations such as light intensity and focus. Lets recognize the greatness of our forefathers but we must move on leaving their obsession with clarity and focus behind.

As Henri Cartier Bresson said so magnificently, “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”. Perhaps we can adapt HCB’s famous sentence by saying that sharpness is a small part of the whole story – we shouldn’t allow it or its lack to become a distraction from the innate human truth of representation by photographic means. Sharpness is a commodity easily sold and easily achieved but which rarely adds substance on its own. For photographs to live in all parts of our minds they must reflect what is relevant to their viewers. It will always be hard to warm to cold, mechanical perfection. Photographers must reflect real life for what it is; occasionally sharp but more often a mess of blurs, half-truths and fallibilities.

Alex Schneideman, May 2016, London

My thanks to Mr Nabeel Malik MBBS FRCOphth FRCSEd (Ophth)
Consultant Ophthalmologist
Chelsea & Westminster Hospital

PICTURE NOTES
The photographs shown here work despite their lack of focus or sharpness. Despite these ‘defects’ they are still photographs, doing the work of a photograph by bringing our attention to a new experience.