Category Archives: Thoughts on Photography

What value does black and white photography have in a world of colour?- ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 210

What value does black and white photography have in a world of colour?
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 210, Winter 2017

We are now in the third photographic century. What is the continued relevance of black and white photography in a colour filled world? Or, in other words, what is the argument for monochrome representations of a polychromatic world. I don’t want to teach you to suck eggs but it might be beneficial to this topic if we remind ourselves of the history that has led us out of the dark age of non-photography to where we are now; an age that may be described, by the sociologists of many millennia hence, as the beginning of the ‘Photograscene’ era – the era which will not exist without photography.

All early emulsions were only able to record one of the primary colours. The first emulsions were made purely of silver halide which is only sensitive to blue and UV light (hence the astonishing white-blue eyes of portraits of the era) and insensitive to the other two primary colours; red and green. Then, in 1873, a German mineralogist called Hermann Vogel, discovered that by adding a dye to the emulsion he could extend the sensitivity to larger areas of the spectrum. So now film became ‘Orthochromatic’; sensitive to green and blue, but still red did not register. Red tones still registered as dark areas in an image.

An ‘all-seeing’ emulsion was the result of Vogel’s continued work adding dyes and altering emulsion base colour which resulted in the first panchromatic film; a film that could see red, green and blue. Through a process known as additive colour it became possible to render a full colour moving image by combining three black and white (panchromatic) images with different colour filters. Known as Kinemacolor or Prizma Color this process gained popularity in the UK and US and several colour movies were made this way in the early years of the 20th century. Unfortunately it was very expensive and there was some industrial squabbling between the inventors of the respective processes which critically slowed the early advance of colour film making.

However, the failure of the movie industry to adopt the new panchromatic film meant that this new monochrome emulsion, responsive to all areas of the spectrum was of massive benefit to photographers and still camera manufacturers such as Leica who adapted the 35mm wide film stock to the purposes of taking brilliant quality ‘panchromatic’ black and white images.

By 1935 Kodak Eastman had created the ‘Tripack’ film that became known as ‘Kodachrome’. And then in 1941 they introduced a way of making prints from the transparencies so now photographers had a way of reproducing and disseminating visions of the world in something like a natural colour spectrum. But what was added in the way of colour was deemed by many to ‘take something away’ from the power of a monochrome photographic image. This paradox pertains today and perhaps nowhere more than in the pages of this highly regarded publication, dedicated as it is to monochrome photography.

What is it that still draws people to a representation of the world without colour? As I write this I am on a train travelling from London to Crewkerne in Dorset. The view through the windows is gorgeous, with that peculiar (to southern England) mix of bright greens and purple blue that are the fields and sky on this early Autumn day. I’ve taken a picture out of the train window and I’m looking at it in colour and black and white in an attempt to understand the value of each. Here goes my explanation…

The colour version is informative in a literal sense. And, once I’ve removed myself from the scene, and I take a look at this picture in a few weeks when the weather turns bad, perhaps I’ll derive a pleasure from the combination of colour and tone as well as the bucolic scene it represents. Turning to the black and white version I am confronted with an interpretation of the scene. It records the terrain as faithfully as the colour version and it is clear that the sun is shining in a cloudless sky but here the meaning of the two images bifurcates. The reduction in optical data offered by the monochrome image requires greater engagement and subconscious insertion of ourselves into the image than the colour image requires. In the case of the latter our brains are tricked into thinking that all the information available is there which has a deadening effect on our imaginations rendering the image more a depiction rather than a human interpretation of a scene.

There is also an effect of simplification that is afforded by monochrome images that lends them better to the job of telling a story in one shot. A photograph’s essential elements can be manifested or hidden making the monochrome image a much more graphic pictorial representation of the world. In this way a black and white picture is more a myth than a fact; a quality to which we humans are perennially drawn. Colour photography (without post-enhancement) is necessary for photojournalism as colours are part of truth telling but ‘beautiful’ colour is often, as mentioned above, appreciated as a deviation from ‘the natural’. Digital raw files are so devoid of deviation that they need to be deviated through process to make them attractive to the human eye.

Lastly, a monochrome representation of a scene will always be a man-made interpretation. Nature is colour; man’s imagination can encompass black and white only through the complex combination of the neural system and psychology peculiar to human beings. Only we humans choose to reduce the values of nature to shades of grey to better represent the externalised manifestation of our innermost vision.

Black and white photography has long been a choice rather than a necessity. As we travel further and further away from the monochrome-only era some artists will always choose to tell their visual stories through monochrome images because of, and not despite, their deviation from nature.

On the Nature of Location – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 209

On the Nature of Location
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 209, December 2017

 

Location of Self photos by Alex Schneideman

If I were to take a walk down your street and take some pictures would the resulting images owe more to the physical nature your street or to me? Perhaps you might also walk with me and take some pictures simultaneously – would your photographs of the world you know so well be qualitatively different from mine? Or does the person behind the camera provide the viewer with the ‘real’ location – with the actual topology and events recorded merely playing a part in the creation of the image? In other words, should we consider that a photographer might become ‘a location’ in their own right through the medium of photography.

 

Thank you for bearing with me during that tortuous opening paragraph. In Geoff Dyer’s book, The Ongoing Moment (2005) in which he suggests a narrative for the history of photography, he considers that some photographers may be considered as ‘locations’ in their own right. Dyer argues that some photographers’ engagement with the world they inhabit is so complete and inextricably linked and borne out over time that no matter what (or where) they photograph their images accrue a certain immutable sense of the photographer regardless of the subject matter.

Dyer offers the work of James Nachtwey as an example of a photographer who’s work bends location to his imagery. For those acquainted with Nachtwey’s work then you will know that he may be considered Capa’s rightful heir. Nachtwey has travelled the globe (and continues to do so) for over thirty years. His pictures of war, depravation and disenfranchisement have illustrated the dark side of humanity. But in every image there is the sense of the man himself. A man who has made himself a conduit for all that is terrifying and humane. In Nachtwey’s work is an ‘everyman’ view of the world – should ‘everyman’ have the courage and creative drive of James Nachtwey. Nachtwey is the photographer of all that is left behind; from the bloody handprints left on a living room wall in Pec, (August 1999) to the faces of Albanian Kosovan women and children fleeing war in a truck (Kosovo August, 1999). The hand prints and faces tell the same story and it is this living history that has become the ‘location’ of Nachtwey’s work. Even ghosts need their story to be told and many have chosen Nachtwey as their bard.

But not every photographer will inhabit the world as Nachtwey. Yet perhaps it is the ‘holy grail’ of photography – to achieve the unalloyed ‘voice’ that speaks of the world that we individually inhabit and record. A world that, in other words, is less dependant on physical location than the fact it is recorded by the individual photographer. Although physical location can’t be denied in a photograph it can be seen as of lesser importance if you consider that the same scene could be photographed by two photographers and the resulting images would almost certainly be different. Different aspects of the same scene may be examined simultaneously and to what would we adduce the difference in resulting images? Any variation in vision would come directly from the particular psychology of each photographer and from what each determined as being most salutary or captivating. A reading of the photographic process, in this case, finds that the photographer becomes primary to the location and the location provides a canvas on to which the photographer must project their own sensitivities and proclivities.

What hasn’t been touched on yet is the question of prolificacy. We cannot claim to exist photographically in a notional ‘location’ without making many, many images. A photographer who occasionally and with little conviction presses the shutter on his iPhone is much less likely to create a world for others to inhabit through scarce imagery. There is no body of evidence or road map for the way this photographer inhabits the world. And so the body of work created by photographers who make images with a consistent effort of will and attention will develop a location that only that photographer may inhabit.

FOOTNOTE

As Dyer says, towards the end of The Ongoing Moment, “Nachtwey’s photographs are a kind of destiny for the medium as a whole, a place where photography has always had the potential to end up.” Those last three words are interesting – “to end up”. They imply that, in some way, all of photography has culminated in the work of one man. At the time of writing this book perhaps it could have been said that Nachtwey’s work was the apotheosis of photography but twelve years have passed since then and, of course, new photographers with new visions have appeared. It is high time that Dyer’s brilliant book was updated. Much has happened in the interim and new themes have emerged in photography that deserve Dyer’s particular consideration.

Who are the gatekeepers of the Truth? – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 208

Who are the gatekeepers of the Truth?
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 208, November 2017

There is always a version of the truth that is nothing more than a story. Why burden photographers with the sole responsibility for veracity?

You know the adage, the one about lies and cameras and the negative correlation between the two. Its stuck because its true. A camera can’t tell lies anymore than a banana or a bottle of Campari can but, then again, I have never sought the truth from a banana or a Campari (soda with a slice of orange and a few lumps of ice, although… come to think of it…). The growth of critical thought around photography led to the enshrining of one of its great strengths in the public consciousness – that because a camera is a mechanical light recorder with no brain of its own it cannot possibly tell an untruth or record anything other than the pristine truth.

In an act of magical cultural development some of the glimmer of irreducible truth transferred itself from the capabilities of the camera to the eventual prints that were made from its compulsive ‘blinks’. Even today, we ascribe to the photograph the quality of ‘fact’. A photograph is an artefact which, at its irreducible base, is a statement that something took place and was recorded the way it is shown here today by virtue of it being ‘a photograph’. Today we are used to questioning the veracity of images – first ‘the System’, then Photoshop and now countless apps – have eroded to the point of zero the reliability of the ‘fact’ of a photograph but for the purposes of this article we are not concerned with the wholesale ‘Shopping’ of images rather the image itself as defined by the frame or its eventual crop.

I have written before about Nick Ut’s famous Napalm Girl (1972) photograph shot in the midst of the Vietnam war.. A young girl runs down a road away from the most hideous experience imaginable. She has been napalmed by a US airforce attack and her nakedness adds to the horror of the scene. For me the anguish on the face of the boy on the left the picture is as affecting but we have all come to the know this picture as Napalm Girl. For a long time after the picture was first printed in newspapers the soldier/journalist seen casually reloading his camera on the right of the frame was cropped out, perhaps because it reduced the anti-US/anti-war power of the image. The role of the (seemingly) oblivious ‘man on the right’ confused the story and took the emotional power away from the heavy drama the rest of the image depicts.

Many people questioned the veracity of this image. Not because of any questions arising from the crop but from a disbelief of the scene it portrayed and a suspicion that it was merely anti-Vietnam war propaganda. President Nixon questioned the truth of the image but it wasn’t until Nick Ut (corroborated by ITN) described the circumstances in which the image was made that the truth of the image was ‘established’. This image is an excellent example of how one picture can represent various ‘truths’ because it shows how, depending on the sensibilities of the viewer, belief in an image regardless of its provenance, is subjective.

We are all well aware of the skill of a film editor who cuts together a documentary and how subjective that process can be. We take it for granted that the truth as revealed to us in a TV ‘doc’ needs to be appreciated through the filtered awareness of how programs are made and the experience of living in a media world saturated by partisan ownership and the powerful demands of the market or politics. But for some reason the simple still photograph carries an air of truth that is not accorded to other media. There is a myth about the photographer that is not granted to other documenters or artists. This myth goes right to the heart of how photography has been popularised by illuminating talents – brave talents like Robert Capa.

In his account of the 2nd World War, Slightly of of Focus (the most exciting and entertaining photographic account I’ve read) Capa describes his war. Needless to say it is riveting – just the opening chapters about how he managed to arrive at the theatre of conflict from New York are worth the cover price. Capa lived to take pictures and by the age of 25 was already being described as the greatest war photographer in the world. But that doesn’t mean he was always telling the truth. Capa has been criticised for his image of a ‘Falling Soldier (Spanish Civil War, 1938) – it can’t have been photographed in the way that the 22 year old Capa described – but that photograph is famous not because of its truthfulness but because it was understood to encapsulate a moment of truth. The picture is still Capa’s most famous despite its ragged history.

It is part of the human condition to discern between fact and fiction. At the very least we must accept that truth is a subjective concept. As Gary Winogrand said, ‘There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described…’. Photography is a storytelling medium which intersects occasionally with the truth. How and when this happens is up to us each to decide.

NOTE Whilst researching this article I came across the Time website which still features the cropped version… And to add to the mystery I also discovered that it may not have been the US who dropped the napalm that day that burned the little girl. It is authoritatively claimed that it was the South Vietnamese Airforce who napalmed their own villages in support of their ground forces. In other words, this time the Americans had nothing to do with it. Truth, especially when it comes to a single image, is a slippery beast…

Thinking Photography: On Focal Length – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 206

Thinking Photography – On Focal Length
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 206, September 2017

Each prime focal length carries with it a unique metaphysical world view that the viewer absorbs subconsciously. For the purposes of this article I hope you will allow me the conceit of reducing the wide variety of primes to just four; 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 90mm being as they are very commonly used and have been since the inception of 35mm film. By the way please take it that in all cases I am basing this on a full frame sensor.

The angle of view in any particular photograph may not be consciously remarked upon by the view but, at some level, it is taken into account as the mind appraises an image. From the wide splayed distortion to the compacting effect of telephoto the field of view is an important element in the story of each still image.

In order to illustrate this text (alongside my own examples) I have listed a couple of Google search terms; a photographer and an artist. The photographer is self explanatory and many will be familiar with my selections but I thought I’d add an artist who’s work seems to embody one field of view or another. Whilst this is fanciful at best I think it is illustrative of the hidden, or perhaps explicit, intention of a photographer or artist adopting a certain ‘optic’ in their work.

28MM

Gary Winogrand was the king of the 28mm lens. I have, until recently, struggled with this focal length, being much more comfortable with the 35mm or 50mm view point. Everything seems so far away at 28mm and, as a relatively tall photographer, at 6ft I am often looking down on my subject which blows out the perspective lines, indeed 50’s or 35’s are much easier from this perspective. But the truth is the 28mm field of view (FOV) is a gem – its strength is that it describes relationships between things in a way that no other FOV can. For landscape use it is a teller of big stories but where it becomes really interesting is when working close because it can be used to include so many various elements and capture the unseen links between the animate and inanimate – in other words it is the true story telling lens. Take a look at Winogrand’s work and you will see how he manages to establish connections between elements that are seemingly independent. The 28mm makes us confront the reality that everything on Earth is connected.

An artist who’s work resembles a 28mm lens – LS LOWRY “Going To The Match”

Photographer who exemplified a 28mm – Gary Winogrand

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35MM

Why is the 35mm lens the favourite of so many photographers? I believe it is because it allows for a sense of intimacy between the photographer and his or her subject. It isn’t just because it is the ‘Goldilocks’ FOV (not too near nor too far) but it allows for something like the natural view of the human eye. The real FOV of the eye is equivalent to something like 22mm but that doesn’t take in to account the mind’s role in vision which through attention can narrow our FOV to a pin head so a reasonable estimation would be that, as we are casually observing the world our FOV would lie somewhere between 28mm and 40mm. A 35mm lens allows for that odd effect of being close to a subject but retaining it in our normal purview at the same time. The effect of this lens is ‘touchable’, i.e. we feel we are in touch with the subject in a human sense, and whilst it may not be the best lens for portraiture (for some) it is the most ‘human’ of focal lengths and this may explain its popularity amongst documentary photographers.

An artist who’s work resembles a 35mm lens – William Hogarth – ‘’Beer Street and Gin Lane’’

Photographer who exemplified a 35mm – Bruce Davidson

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50MM

The ‘Standard Lens’ is how we came to know the 50mm. It was/is the lens bundled with a body and when I got my first Nikon FG20 it seemed natural that it should come with a 50mm although

I’m not sure why. Cartier Bresson claimed only to use the 50mm (this has been questioned) because of its natural properties. It is said of the 50mm that is it is not too wide and not to close and that makes it the contender for best all round lens. I think of the 50mm as having a ‘graphic’ quality. It flattens slightly (because of its mild telephoto effect) and it can be used to render an image into shapes and tones. If you think of many of Cartier Bresson’s images they are characterised by a marriage of subject matter and structure. The 50mm is ideal for this and implies a certain imposition of composition on the part of the photographer – a well composed 50mm shot is not often accidental – a presence of mind and intention often reveal themselves in the resulting images.

An artist who’s work resembles the view of a 50mm lens – Vincent Van Gogh – ‘The Siesta – 1889-90’

Photographer who exemplified a 50mm – Henri Cartier Bresson

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90MM

A 90mm lens is expressive and flattering and, where the 50mm implies some imposition of structure the 90mm is all about composition. The 90mm lens is like a compositional paint brush – it is all about intention, heightened awareness and concentration. It is the least naturally improvisational of the lenses in discussion. In addition the narrowness of view compels the photographer and the viewer to eschew a larger part of the surrounding ‘world’ and therefore it is an ‘editing’ tool. Once you are in the realm of the 90mm telephoto you are shining a spotlight rather that floodlighting your subject and its surrounding environment.

An artist who’s work resembles a 90mm lens – Piet Mondrian ‘L’Arbre Gris, Huile Sur Toile,’

Photographer who exemplified a telephoto lens (amongst others) – Don McCullin

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As with any ‘thought piece’ the intention is just that – to provide some kind of perspective on a subject rather than to be definitive. You will no doubt want to take issue with the examples I’ve given. As the scope of words and the way a poet forges them together forms a poem, it is my contention that the field of view of a lens provides a conscious foundation for a kind of visual poetry on to which a photographer ‘paints’ his subject.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTE ON ACCOMPANYING PHOTOGRAPHS

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

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

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

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

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

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

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

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

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

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

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

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

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

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

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

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

Selfies by Alex Schneideman

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

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

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

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.