Category Archives: B&W Pieces

A Photograph Shows us the Patterns of Existence – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 202

A Photograph Shows us the Patterns of Existences
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 202, May 2017

Patterns by Alex Schneideman

The dispassionate gaze of the camera reveals evidence of the unseen dynamic forces that shape our lives.

Patterns by Alex Schneideman

There is a photograph. It depicts a man alighting at Waterloo. It is 7.34 in the morning. He steps down from the train joining the mass of people all heading towards the ticket barrier. It is a Monday morning. The acute observer would notice a slight heaviness in his stride and a hint of resignation on his freshly shaved face. The observer might also note his age, about 59, and his dress; a suit that looks like it is one of a number such items; smart enough to get through a day unnoticed in an office. The suit is worn with a familiarity that does not approach what the observer may consider ‘style’. The suit is a uniform bought without enthusiasm and worn in the same vein.

Patterns by Alex Schneideman

The acute observer has little more to go on… The man is greying, white, with the pale rough complexion of many such British men of a certain age. The observer does not know where he has come from or where he is going but he can make some informed speculation as to the condition of this human being and the forces that shape his life.

Patterns by Alex Schneideman

Lets say that the ‘observer’ is a photographer. A photographer who is depicting the human condition in the 21st century and in particular the conditions that pertain to the plight of the salaried worker. It is the camera that allows us, the observers, to gaze on the patterns of life and all the marks left behind by time. Through the lens of a camera and the still, everlasting image it is possible for us to discover the eddies and dynamics of life lived.

Patterns by Alex Schneideman

It is precisely because the photograph has the limitation of being a single still image that can be scrutinised continuously that patterns are revealed at almost every level of perception. What is meant by a pattern? There are three definitions of the word; there is the definition which describes the repeating graphic shapes such that you might find in the rings of a cross-section of a tree. There is the kind that relates to an order or system – perhaps this kind is the one which we can relate most closely to our man in Waterloo. And finally there is the definition that describes a pattern as being a model or paradigm that depicts a mode of thinking or behaviour over time.

Patterns by Alex Schneideman

The analogy of the photograph taken at 7.34 of a man starting his week touches on all of the definitions of the word ‘pattern’. The first as outlined above places the man in the physical state that we find him. There is an easily observable pattern to all the people shown in the photograph; they all look the same because the conditions of their lives mean they must all conform to time and place and dress in broadly the same way. Although they look the same we know that hidden in each of those grey suits rushing for the exit is a beating, human heart that is full of fear, loneliness, anticipation, sexual longeur, regret, hope, pride and so on. The photograph is the only way we can glimpse the pain and hope we share with each other.

The second definition is the one that describes a dynamic system or order. We observe the image and wonder at what kind of primal force could put this scene together. All these people, at this instant, brought together and engaged in exactly the same activity. All moving with the same purpose, day after day, week after week, month after month. The photograph can slice through time and show us the monumental repetition or dynamic and physical pattern of a human life. If a painter were to replicate this scene it would be just that – a replication. A painting would require the artist to engage with the scene on a personal level and the result would always be an ‘assimilation’. The photographer can be dispassionate, recording the scene without personal engagement much as an anthropologist does. The value of this detachment is that the viewer can project themselves onto the photograph bringing all their experience to bear rather than having to see the image as depicted through the experience and aesthetic sense of another human.

The final definition, that of the model or rule-set, describes the imposition or unseen hand that controls events. To what purpose are we organised in the way we are? Who benefits from the order or disorder that surrounds us. What (or who) shapes our lives? These questions are relevant whether you take part in the daily, orderly migration from suburban home to urban office or if your tribal village has seen the horrors wrought by sectarian violence and the destruction of the patterns or laws that are required for orderly life.

The patterns easily observed in nature such as the spiral of a snail’s shell, the ridges of a fossilised ammonite, the layers of sediment in a cliff face, all speak of the forces of nature and evolution. These forces work over periods of time that we cannot comprehend but can understand through their accumulated physical form. A pattern is a visible manifestation of an invisible force. Only a photograph can reveal these forms and the story of their origination in a way that renders them poetic and human.

Next month I will be discussing the controversial yet crucial link between money and art.

Why the British Don’t Like Photography – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 204

Why the British Don’t Like Photography
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 204, July 2017

Why the British Don't Like Photography Photos by Alex Schneideman

We British people do not like photography. Writing this in a magazine read by people who evidently love photography is deliberately provocative. However the truth is that the culture of Britain is antithetic to photography on the whole and this reluctance to embrace photographic art is the reason we lag so far behind other countries where photography is a widely respected art form.

Why the British Don't Like Photography Photos by Alex Schneideman

There are three main reasons for this nationwide reluctance to engage in the art form that defined the 20th century and looks to continue its tenure well into the 21st. Firstly the historic reason; it started so well – we didn’t invent photography but we did more (and earlier) to popularise it than France or the United States. Henry Fox Talbot saw the artistic potential in being able to ‘draw’ with the Pencil of Nature (the first photographic book to be commercially published) in 1846.

Why the British Don't Like Photography Photos by Alex Schneideman Why the British Don't Like Photography Photos by Alex Schneideman

Fox Talbot’s accomplishments were legion; he commercialised the production of photographic materials, he developed a way of ‘fixing’ a print, through his ‘calotype’ process he drastically reduced the time required to make an exposure and with this same process he enabled the production of a negative that could reproduced an image countless times. We owe much to the industry of this man. And as we will see it is the industry of certain men that makes such a difference.

Why the British Don't Like Photography Photos by Alex Schneideman

In 1853 the mainstream art world and photography were coalescing nicely. The English painter, William John Newton, said that the camera could produce artistic results if the photographer would keep an image “slightly out of focus” (oddly this is also the title that Capa gave to his riveting account of World War 2). The inevitable adoption of photography by artists as an aid to painting meant that the division between photography and painting was blurring.

Why the British Don't Like Photography Photos by Alex Schneideman Why the British Don't Like Photography Photos by Alex Schneideman

By 1892 the ‘Brotherhood of the Linked Ring’ was formed to “propose and defend that photography was just as much an art as it was a science…” This was the formal birth of the Pictorialist movement in England to which such luminaries as Julia Margaret Cameron, John Ruskin and Henry Peach Robinson would belong. In short we ‘owned’ photographic art. Our mercantile nature led us to commercialise the materials and our inquisitive tendency engaged with the medium.

Why the British Don't Like Photography Photos by Alex Schneideman Why the British Don't Like Photography Photos by Alex Schneideman

And then along came the New Yorker, Alfred Stieglitz. He was the first American to be elected to the ‘Brotherhood’ and he saw what was happening and was inspired. There were two photographic societies in New York; the Society of Amateur Photographers and the New York Camera Club. in 1896 Stieglitz amalgamated these to form The Camera Club of New York and took complete control of the new institution in a bid to make its photographers key contributors to the contemporary art scene in the United States. It is at this point that the history of photography begins to be directed away from British and European shores and winds its way across the wide Atlantic ocean to the ‘New World’.

Why the British Don't Like Photography Photos by Alex Schneideman

Stieglitz’s incredible energy led to the creation of the Photo-Secessionists movement that sought to secede from the established (old fashioned) idea of what a photograph was. So with the creation of the ‘Little Gallery of Photo-Secessionists” in New York and an exhibition that Stieglitz timed to coincide with the watershed Armory show (the first International Exhibition of Modern Art) in New York, he established a new pathway for photography and its inclusion in the mainstream of American contemporary art and culture. There isn’t enough space here to outline what happened next but let me finish this part of the essay by saying that there was no British Stieglitz and there was no grand movement until perhaps the Vorticists in the 1930’s to rehabilitate photography with contemporary art. At a crucial moment in the development of photography the mainstream British art scene did not adopt photography as one of its own.

Why the British Don't Like Photography Photos by Alex Schneideman Why the British Don't Like Photography Photos by Alex Schneideman

Next we have problem of mechanics. Britain gave the world the industrial revolution. From the 18th century onwards we ruled the waves ,and the fields, and the looms etc, etc. Great fortunes were made by clever men with funny accents. The élites, who were constituted of a virtually unreconstructed, feudalistic hierarchy and who dominated culture and politics, were very happy to harness the power of new technology but were mistrustful of it at the same time. Think of the art of the time; Constable, Stubbs, Millais (not Turner) and you will see an obsession with the bucolic, pastural ‘naturalness’ of the motherland. It took Turner to inculcate motifs of new technology and the dawning of a new machine driven era into his paintings. But this is what marks him as exceptional rather than indicative.

Why the British Don't Like Photography Photos by Alex Schneideman Why the British Don't Like Photography Photos by Alex Schneideman

As has been noted above, the progenitors of photography in Britain were mainly well todo amateur enthusiasts – in other words practitioners of an arcane method that was never more than a gentleman’s hobby. The British didn’t love machinery or see the romance or beauty in it as did our German and French counterparts. To the British élite, machinery was an extension of their pragmatism – tools to make money with – just listen to Blake’s condemning words in the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ to hear the sound of mistrust and warnings of exploitation in the newly mechanised Britain. To conclude, the second reason we don’t ‘do’ photography is because we like machines in all their practical application but we either mistrust them as cultural anomalies or disregard them as artistic tools because we have never had a Stieglitz to converge our love of traditional arts with the new possibilities of mechanical capture. We do not trust that a machine such as a camera is capable of making fine art.

Why the British Don't Like Photography Photos by Alex Schneideman

My third point is that the British have not been forced to accept photography as a cultural totem on a par with painting, sculpture, literature or even theatre. Take France and Germany for example. Both of these countries have been extensively invaded and occupied in the last 150 years. At the same time American culture had been fomenting. If you compare, as a proportion of the time of the US Republic’s existence with that of the existence of photography you can see that photography has defined American culture from the civil war onwards. At the same time both France and Germany (and arguably Spain and Italy, too) have been occupied and destroyed forcing on them a new relationship with technology and an optimism about its practical and cultural purpose. This has lead to photography being seen as more central and enabling of culture than it ever has in Britain where, apart form some ugly bombing, we have not been forced to readdress our cultural and emotional relationship with technology. This has left a very old and deeply engrained suspicion of the cultural value of photography largely intact.

Why the British Don't Like Photography Photos by Alex Schneideman

Finally it is worth mentioning that the British (as a culture and people) are ambivalent at best to photography perhaps due to nothing more complicated than the fact we are a literate rather than visual nation. Count up the number of great writers we have produced versus the number of great painters. And then do the same for France. Culture is deep and hard to change but perhaps all we need is our own Stieglitz. A man who could teach the British how to look at and love photography.

Please note that the pictures that accompany this article were shot by me of my ‘uncle’ Peter Layton, Britain’s foremost glass blower. Peter is 80 this year and has been redefining glass art since the ’70’s. I have illustrated the article with these pictures because they show a tangible art form that is, arguably, more readily accessible to British tastes, broadly speaking, than photography.

Photographing Strangers – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 201

The Ethics of Photographing Strangers
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 201, April 2017

Walker Evans hid a camera in the lapels of his coat as he rode the New York City subway between 1936 and 1941. As he travelled he took pictures at an intimate distance of those unsuspecting people he shared a carriage with. These pictures were published under the title ‘Many are Called’ and it has become a classic of urban social documentary. To our (21st century) eyes the pictures of people dressed in hats and the standard elegant formality of another era purveys a soulful, somewhat sad image of another time. But was it justifiable for Evans to travel amongst his fellow men and women stealing souls as he went? Is there a balance between such an invasion and the artistic and documentary values of the project?

Your own answer to these questions will depend on your attitude to what is or what is not in permissible or decent. But this column is not concerned with the ethics pertaining to the exposure of the rich and famous and what protection they are due from the prying eyes of the ‘red tops’. Here we are concerned with the ethics regarding the relationship between the photographer and those innocents caught in the viewfinder of so many photographers working on so many projects.

The law in the UK and US is clear – if you find yourself in a public space you are fair game for any passing photographer. French law (ironically France being the birthplace of so many great photographers of humanity) has decided to stringently restrict the photography of strangers in public spaces. Indeed Brassaï himself would now be a criminal should he still haunt the cafes and alleys of Montmatre.

But despite the enlightened protection that photographers have in the UK an insidious de facto self-regulation is creeping in. For the first time there is a sense of ‘acceptance’ that we photographers should no longer enjoy total impunity. The days of shooting who we like, where we like and when we like are over. And, strangely, it is we who have made that judgement against ourselves. This new tendency to self-restrict started in the 1990’s with the paedophile witch hunts that did so much to damage the trust we placed in the relationships between adults and children. Not long after this came the enhanced threat of terror where anyone looking suspicious or curious was labeled as a potential terrorist. And then came the great ‘phone hacking’ trials of recent years in which the entire nature of privacy has been examined in the light of gross invasions of privacy perpetrated against many people from all walks of life. No wonder there is a new self consciousness amongst photographers.

As a result of all these massive public upheavals we photographers have learned to be ‘discrete’. We are now sensitive about our relationship with the public and we have taken on board many of the criticisms that were justly aimed at guilty practitioners as if we are all somehow complicit in the same crime. We have collectively learned a lesson we should never have been taught yet we are acting as if we bare some responsibility for the actions of others. We don’t. The law is on our side and we should exercise our artistic freedom in accordance with the law and the confidence that, as social documenters and artists we are performing a highly valuable service to our fellow citizens who read our books and visit our exhibitions and to future historians who will find the details and attitudes displayed in our photographs fascinating and valuable.

A photographer who is working to tell a story – or even a photographer in search of a story – is not a criminal yet so many who I speak to tell me about the restrictions they place on their own work. Often I hear that this new, self-hampered approach is not borne out of anything so contentious as a brush with the law or an uncomfortable encounter with a member of the public but is imposed incase such situations might occur. Speaking personally I have resisted becoming attuned to the heightened sensitivity of the public to photographers and often felt my shoulder tapped by the police or a ‘concerned’ person worried that I might be infringing on some belief of our sanctified right to privacy. I go about my work with the confidence that comes from doing ‘work’ and protect myself with charm and a press card. The rights of the serious photographer do not need to be balanced against the rights of the public – it is not a ‘zero sum game’. If the prevailing mood results in less social documenting we all loose out. Nobody wins.

Walt Whitman wrote “I do not doubt but the majesty and beauty of the world are latent in any iota of the world.” As photographers we have to ask ourselves if we are merely objectifying the world around us rather than discovering and helping in the manifestation of the world’s ‘latent majesty and beauty’ or in showing its worst excesses and prosecutions. We must not self-police ourselves according to the ignorant prejudice of others rather we must work in accordance with our own ethical code. Whether Walker Evans had a right to photograph his fellow subway commuters depends on how well the glass of his hidden lens reflected a sense of humanity that we can still see ourselves in.

Next issue I will be discussing Sontag’s maxim that ‘you need a camera to show patterns.’

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.