Category Archives: Writing

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.”

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.

New Column in B+W Magazine

I’m thrilled to let you know that from May I’ll be writing a monthly column for Black + White Photography magazine over the course of six months and perhaps longer. I’ll write a piece on the nature of photography and the photographic world for each edition. The layout will also feature some of my pictures too.

As the first publication date gets nearer I’ll let you know more details.

Alex

Blind Faith – A Response to Don McCullin

In November 2015 the great photojournalist, Don McCullin, said, “Digital photography is a lying medium”. He was half right. Film is a lying medium too.

Older photographers can often be heard observing the decline in standards that has accompanied the rise of digital photography. They often deplore the speed of the new format and speak warmly of the ‘beneficial limitations’ and immutable honesty of film. To a certain extent I’m one of them. I’m 46 and my training in photography was in film. As a teenager I had a darkroom in my bedroom and in the early 90’s when I became an assistant in various studios around London it was all film. There was no choice. The only ‘digitisation’ at that time was when film was scanned at great cost (or ‘put on the System’ in the parlance of the day) and usually only to correct something that would otherwise render the essential shot unusable. ‘The System’ was used in the last resort. As such digitisation was seen then as a failure rather than an opportunity.

I think it was in 1993 that I went to a presentation in Leicester (why Leicester?) on Photoshop 1. In a room above a shop  we were given a demonstration of how two different pictures could be combined to make another. In this demonstration a picture of a flame was used to replace a coxcomb on the head of a chicken. Result – a chicken with a flame on its head. A novelty perhaps – but also a clue to the way we would treat the mutability of digital technology when it would arrive in force.

Some experienced photographers argue that film is less adaptable than digital and therefore digital cannot be relied on as an instrument of truth. It could be argued that it was the advent of Photoshop in the film era rather than digital photography on its own which has undermined contemporary photography’s reputation for truthful rendition. Digital is no less a truth telling medium than film – its what we do with it afterwards that matters.

At the time of the birth of Adobe’s cornerstone software the great photographer Don McCullin was photographing for the Sunday Times capturing the horror of war and the cost of human conflict using Tri-X – his favourite black and white film. Wind forward over 20 years to November 2015 when he was quoted  in the Guardian as saying that digital photography will never equal film in its ability to reliably communicate the truth of a situation because of its innate mutability as contrasted with the innate immutability (read sanctity) of film and all the reliability that simple fact conveys, i.e. immutable film equals immutable truth. Wrong. I believe this adherence to the ‘sanctity’ of film is misplaced.

There are many reasons why digital deserves its place alongside film – each argument alone enough to vanquish the reactionary instincts of film-addicted photographers.

As John Berger wrote in his 1972 essay, Photographs of Agony, the effect on us of seeing shocking images of war and suffering and the way we cope with them is key to understanding the so called ‘power of truth’ in the media. As Berger argues, the discomfit we feel when confronted with the sundry horrors recorded by photographers in the field as we butter our toast and sip our espressos is a deal we make as consumers of such stories with the media outlets that present them to us. Berger points out that the violence we see in these pictures shock us, not into action, but is more likely to render us immobile because the established structure of western democracy means we feel fatalistically unable to put our repulsion into action. So we swallow hard and push the awful images to the back of our minds and carry on.

News carriers can safely publish unsettling pictures because their establishment-supporting proprietors know (for the most part) we will not be moved to revolt by them. No matter how good these pictures are and on what format they originated there are other very powerful factors in the dissemination of images that render the tired mutable/immutable argument irrelevant. Despite this futility the contract between viewer and publisher remains complex; how much more credibility is placed on a picture shown on the BBC website over the same image printed in the Sunday Sport? How we attribute ‘truth’ to a series of images is as much about how that story is delivered as it is about how much of our own experience we bring to the story and what degree of ‘truth’ we consequently ascribe to it.

In 2012 I wrote a piece about the beauty of organic film called ‘Continuous Change’. There’s not a word I wrote then that I don’t stand by now  but my thinking has developed. Like many people of my age I have an appreciation of both film and digital. This is a bother because I know I can use either so the decision as to which hangs over every new project. I am respectful of some photographers, such as Jocelyn Bain Hogg, who still shoot almost everything on film and love the work of some others (Chris Steele Perkins, Harry Gruyeart and the late, great Saul Leiter amongst many others) who have all have used digital cameras despite having started their careers using film. Aesthetic purpose may have some baring on which technology these photographers choose.  Some may place digital’s ease of use above film’s ‘quality’. But a good photograph is a good photograph whatever the medium. The question of origination is interesting, in aesthetic terms, only as a relative comparator or detail – not as a fundamental arbitrator between validity and invalidity.

Aesthetics are a subplot to the main story. McCullin is concerned with the truth and nothing but the truth and any photograph that can’t be relied on for such purposes is not worth the chip it is stored on he might argue. So we must revisit McCullin’s actual words to understand what is at stake here. He said “digital photography is a lying medium”.  So what he is saying is that of the two media; film and digital, the former is truer (less mutable) than the latter and, therefore, in questions of veracity film must win out over digital. Judgement made. End of story.

But is it?

Is it not, perhaps, just a tiny bit arrogant to say that the means of image production which coincided with your life is the only one worth investing in and caring about? Isn’t it the most incredible coincidence that in the 4.3 billion years of Earth’s history, not to mention the preceding 9+ billion years of the universe and then, say, the last 200,000 years of human development that a period of some 150 years between 1839 and 2000 would take place the ONLY useful period EVER in the production of images through light sensitive reception layers and lenses? And further, does it strike you as arrogant to say that every image captured beyond this infinitesimally tiny gap in space-time will carry less weight and be less beautiful/useful/truthful ad infinitum?  For old photographers to claim that film outweighs digital in matters of integrity and aesthetics is appallingly arrogant.

Is it possible that photography has died with film – that photography equals film and therefore the former cannot exist without the latter? Of course not.

In many ways I think we’ve lost something in digital that we never considered important in film.

The list of the positive attributes of film might include:

  1. Consideration. When you only had 36 exposures on a roll you had to make them count.
  2. Time. Time spent apart from the images you’ve just shot makes for less contrivance (no chimping) and better editing later (the greater perspective of time).
  3. Spontaneity. Because we couldn’t tell what was going on on the film we had just shot we would have to hope for the best. Until the film was developed we would inhabit the world of Schroedinger’s Cat being simultaneously the greatest living photographer and the worst living photographer. This lack of control produced a more dangerous feeling to capturing the moment and produced a more instinctive reaction (perhaps).

The list of things that are good about digi might include:

  1. Consideration. We are able to lose ourselves in the moment of a shoot because we don’t have to worry about changing rolls of film or limited ISO. We can move more fluidly around the subject and the camera becomes even more effective as an extension of our subconscious.
  2. Time. We can work at any speed we choose according to mood, subject or opportunity. There is no physical preparation for a shoot and lighting is often optional. In this way we can shoot with consideration and attention to detail or blast away quickly, sending the images out in real time to clients or appreciative audiences all over the world instantly – or not as we choose.
  3. Spontaneity. My experience, aesthetic sense and curiosity lead me to take pictures.  Physical restrictions such as availability of film and relative darkness no longer apply.

The closest we can get to an ‘objective truth’ in an image is to ensure that what the originator (the photographer) was trying to say when he made the exposure is nurtured thorough all the various editorial processes in a way that reflects and honours the photographer’s original instinct . This ‘tussle’ with truth telling can be limited at the point of capture by factors such as; imagination, technical ability or the photographer’s own ability to read the situation in front of him and perceive where the heart of the story lies. What happens later in Lightroom or the hands of a picture editor can completely subvert the nature and subsequently the intended meaning, if any, of the original image. This is why when it comes to truth telling the only thing we can rely on is the photographer. Again, whether its digital or film makes absolutely no difference.

With this in mind  we should now consider the influence of an editor along the pathway from exposure to print. It is absolutely true that a manipulated image is undesirable when attempting to convey ‘as true’ an act recorded but, in truth, both film and digital are susceptible to the hand of wilful intention vis Stalin’s photographic censorship (NB this is not for us to consider here as it is concerned with political attitudes to ‘the photograph’ and truth has a different role to play here). To argue that one is better than the other is to ignore the fundamental ability of cameras to record the physical nature of a point in space and time. Neither format is impervious or above criticism so any move to claim superiority for either is spurious and wrong headed.

Lets consider the shot of Phan Thi Kim Phuc (aka the Napalm Girl) by Nick Ut. Compare the two images below and you will see both the classic ‘authorised’ version and the full, uncropped frame. The full image reveals a photographer (perhaps Burnett) calmly reloading film into his camera as chaos and suffering surround him. I make no judgement of the photographer but the fact remains that this image has been cropped to tell one story while the full frame tells another.

We have no idea what the conditions were like at the time of exposure and we are all implicated in the lazy acceptance that what is purported to be the truth is, in fact, such. We should ask ourselves at what point the ‘truth’ becomes locked into a picture; at exposure? At printing? In Lightroom? Objective truth does not exist at any stage in the process. A photograph has only the veracity which we, the viewers give it. Despite the simplicity of the alteration of ‘Napalm Girl’ – it is only cropped after all – film is just as mutable as digi. Its only that film has a physical base that leads us to value its inherent truth but in the hands of the master manipulator film and digi have the same plasticity.

47320328396632e1c2d70bf1f42d0122 images

Before continuing it would be good to put another trope to bed – for good. That is to say that film is more truthful because (as alluded to above) it is a physical object and therefore the film grain tells an immutable story. Conversely digital is a conditional array of pixels which can be moved with impunity. It is ‘easier’ (good skills are still required) to move elements around, clone and comp a digital image but the same can be said of film – it just takes a little longer. Beyond that we are still reliant on all the conditions already laid out elsewhere in this essay for the original image to be a faithful representation of an event.

NOTE IF you’d like to see a trite collection of manipulated film images click here.

The semblance of truth of a photograph occurs only when certain qualities or criteria are perceived to align:

  1. source – where did the image originate/who shot it?
  2. means of diffusion – who is claiming it to be a record of the truth?
  3. who is perceiving the image – are they/you reliably experienced to weigh the balance of probabilities and estimate the truthfulness of an image?

These three criteria will apply whether the photograph originated on film or digital and all three are dependant on our own investment  of what we hold to be true much as it is in other areas of our lives where matters of trust require an element of blind faith.

Old habits are said to die hard. In my own attitude to film I find some very persistent inclinations pertaining to its aesthetics but in reality I know, as a printer of many other people’s work, that this reactionary inclination to film as the medium of inalienable beauty is often misplaced. McCullin is suffering from the reactionary inclinations of someone whose love of their medium is built up over half a century. It is a remnant of previous necessity that today looks more like blind faith. It is human to love something so familiar. But change is inevitable and no amount of prevarication and justification will avoid this. At some point we need to grasp the new – not for its ‘newness’ but for the improvements it brings. Writing an essay like this is my way of understanding all the benefits of what went before and what we have to gain from adapting to the ‘new’.

Change is a matter of fact. The second law of Thermodynamics confirms this – change is the key of life. The move away from film to another medium is inevitable – to argue that film should be the sole carrier of the message is Canutian in its futility. Whether shooting on digital or film the only important thing is that sole agency be given to the photographer. This union of human and machine is where beauty and truth are created. Truth watches on, hoping for its moment in the sun, not caring one grain or pixel how its message is carried so long as it eventually arrives intact and intelligently consumed.

Alex Schneideman, December 2015, London

Instagram, Facebook and Twitter Are Bad For Photography

Robert Frank, Valencia
I am a hypocrite.

I sell individual prints and post single, unrelated images on Instagram. I do this partly because other people do it and I am not impervious to what other people do.  I also post to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook because I am vain and want you to ‘like’ my pictures. So you can see that, after reading  what I’ve written below, you will be able to call me a big, fat HYPOCRITE!

I think photographers need to commit to series of images and not splurge the odd ‘good’ shot on to the internet. This produces a never ending stream of second tier photography at best or a bilge of mediocrity at worst.  

The most wonderful work comes only from a commitment to a subject or theme. As I argue in this piece it is the long term development of a subject which produces the best, most captivating and informative photography and photographers should do their best to adhere to this standard because we risk undermining our own love and enthusiasm for the medium we have chosen to call our own.

Ever since we’ve been venerating the ‘decisive moment‘ we have developed a fetish for the one-off great shot. We marvel at the ‘punctum’ and the surrealism or the pathos and the dynamic of composition in a frame and, in this way, we all hope to achieve perfection in one sixtieth of a second. But the achievement of this photographic state of nirvana is a con that we’ve both sold ourselves and been sold by the media.

When the pictures by great photojournalists of the twentieth century such as Cartier Bresson, Weegee, Winogrand and Capa, became famous we commenced on a path towards the ‘divine truth of the individual shot’ but those photographers were not looking for the one great image when they shot what went on to become epoch defining photographs. These photographers were working on assignments and building up great numbers of images destined for newspapers and magazines whose purpose in publishing these pictures was to tell a story. A few of those images became iconic and we (those who are inspired by these shots) were bamboozled into believing that these great images’ true value was in their singularity. But many of those images were never meant to have been taken out of the context in which they were shot.

Indeed the legendary picture agency Magnum was set up by HCB, Robert Capa and George Rodger to mange their image rights in the dawning age of narrative picture gathering.

Many of Cartier Bresson’s most famous pictures were the product of news assignments or long personal journeys – this could not be further from the fantasy of photographers hanging around the street looking for the odd shot. There were photographers like Doisneau who famously staked out street corners in the hope of snapping something interesting and there may be many photographers who are looking to channel the spirit of Doisneau or Brassai or Meyerowitz  but I suspect that many of us have been duped into the idea that great images happen at random – the myth of the photographer who always carries a camera is the dominant creative impetus  in environmental or ‘street’ photography.

In the new digital era (which will last a lot longer than the age of film) we consume photography – one disparate shot after another. We ‘like’ each others photos on a singular basis without demanding a deeper or broader intellectual context almost as if we are popping Maltesers one after an other into our mouths. Ultimately this is unsatisfying and we will move on to other media leaving photography all the poorer for our departure.

I would like you to consider this; photography (especially in the digital era) is a medium by which we can tell a story through the making of still images and the careful editing of them. We are lucky to be alive at this time when the means to make and disseminate images is so cheap and easy. For the first time in history it is only the time and effort required to produce a compelling narrative photo story which is required. Editing and publishing is now effectively free.

We should break with our single shot fetish and embrace the deeper, more satisfying commitment that a photographer must make to the long form series of photographs which tell a story – a series of pictures which have a momentum of their own borne out by the power of the subject matter they portray.

Instagram is great but it renders single images instantly forgettable by the nature of its structure and the way we interface with it. I suggest we slow down and be more considered in both the way we show our work and the way we consume it. I’ll still use Instagram for those one off shots from time to time because its hard to be pure in a digitally toxic world!

But I will remind myself that the best pictures are the ones that bubble up out of the primordial soup of effort and commitment Why should I burden you, the viewer, with anything that is second best?

Alex, London 5/6/15

See below for some famous pictures all of which have been extracted by the media from their original context.

One of the famous images and instantly recognisable images from Cartier Bresson’s study of Russia.
One of the most famous images of all time – Robert Capa’s image of a fallen soldier taken during the Spanish Civil War.
One of Robert Frank’s most famous images from his book ‘Valencia’.
1993-5016_44S_65_14A 002
‘Blackpool’ by Tony Ray Jones. This shot was included in A Day Off which was published by Thames and Hudson inn 1974.

 

Happy Monday; the Art World – I think its eating itself.

Everyday we are assailed by countless images often validated by some kind of celebrity and this perverts our ability to place our own value on an image. This value distortion effects everything – it demotes genuinely great art and promotes the dross.

Here’s a quote I picked almost at random from the website of the Ludwig Museum in Koblenz, Germany about a 2005 group show called Personal Structures. The quote talks of the responsibilities of the participating artists to the exhibition.

…What is crucial here is that they express their intentions of adopting their own minimal language of forms, as well as their tendency towards emotionalizing the work and towards creating installations which define space. This especially applies to instances where painterly or sculptural positions are defined as material- or process-oriented and the boundaries between the genres are critically and experimentally expanded. It becomes very clear here that subjectivity and per­sonality do not necessarily have to manifest themselves in an expressive language of forms and in a rhetoric of gesture, but may rather very subtly unfold, in an interplay between subjective decisions, conceptualizations and the self-dynamics of materials and working processes, putting themselves into question, if necessary.

Ask yourself what the purpose of this explanationation is. The words are little more than a carefully arranged series of vowels, consonants and spaces designed to confuse the uninitiated and appeal to the pretentious who sport lumps of plasticine where their hearts ought to be.

There is a common thread amongst art academics that the public (or unanointed) aren’t able to grasp the concepts of high brow conceptual art, that this art is pertinent only to those in the art world. If that is the case then why is so much money spent on promoting it to the public? The answer to that question lies somewhere in the commoditisation of that art world and the way in which it is a business like any else with curators, artists and gallerists colluding to retain and enhance the value of the product they sell.  In one important way the art world is less honest than banking – banking is regulated and stock brokers will divest themselves of devalued stock whereas gallerists will artificially rig the price.

Damien Hirst’s two day sale at Sotheby’s in 2008, Beautiful Inside my Head Foreverwhich took place on the day Lehman Brothers collapsed was criticised by several arts writers on two grounds: first that many of the artworks were purchased by galleries which already held large stocks of his work and needed to prop up the value even at the expense of their bank accounts and, secondly, that despite the huge sums reported it is not known how many of the transactions were concluded as the banking system was collapsing and many purchases may not have completed. If a stunt like this was pulled in banking then it would be against every FSA rule but in the art world this is permissible.

We are now at the stage where the word ‘value’ when applied to art can mean either its intrinsic artistic worth or its price in the market. The artworld pretends that it places money low down the priorities of what constitutes good art (how many times have you heard the parable about the impoverished artist?) – but in reality the true value of art is how much it is worth in auction.

The addiction of the gallery system to monetary value  has a deadening effect on the photography and art being taught in art schools. The most successful schools will steer their students towards producing work that is relevant to the art market and guide them to their first shows – in each year’s cohort there are some truly remarkable talents but there is an awful lot of mediocrity too. The art market, like any other economic organism, needs to feed demand in order to achieve year on year growth and will mould the less prepossessing work into a form fit for consumption hence the drivel written by academics justifying why we should care about another boring, production line installation.

As Oscar Wilde said,

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

Well, Oscar, you didn’t know how right you were. We’re ALL looking at the stars although many of us are looking at the kind that don’t so much twinkle as sprinkle if you know what I mean. The art business can only survive if its main beneficiaries achieve the kind of sales growth that would impress a property tycoon. Because of this academics are in thrall to the businessmen and the artists are, in turn, in the thrall of the academics. This can make the early twenty first century an uncomfortable place to make art because, in the back of your mind is the constant nagging question, “how relevant is this piece to the art world?”

So what’s the point of this post? Firstly to figure out what I really think and secondly to see if it strikes a chord with you.

I thank you.

Questions
Please let the 450 people who read this blog know what you think.

  1. How do you manage to keep your eyes open to the fresh without venerating all that is new nor honouring all that is old just because it is so?
  2. If you are a photographer/painter/writer etc how does the world feel to you right now and where does your work sit in it? If you enjoy art what is your relationship with it?
  3. Tell me, who’s work makes your heart flutter and your head spin. Which pictures make you cry? Which picture/book/series would you have lost an arm to have shot or written yourself? To own which picture would you sell parents/children/soul?

Please tell me and the other readers about the art you really LOVE. And perhaps a bit about the work you hate.

 

An invitation to unsubscribe…

Hi there, you may have noticed that you have been receiving a few emails from me recently. I am now posting once a day. I am asking you to unsubscribe if you do not want to receive these emails from me so there can be no ill will between us!

Just for the record, I would love it if you did nothing and continued to receive these emails. By doing nothing you will receive emails on new work that I’ve been shooting, photo-books that I like and other subjects strictly related to photography and art.

I will continue to post at the rate of about one email per day but perhaps two if there is something exceptional to report or perhaps none if there is nothing to report.

Thanks very much,

Alex

At London Fashion Week, October 2014, Somerset House

Off the Shelf – PARIS IN MY TIME, MARK STEINMETZ

I have a substantial amount of photo-books. This is a log of the books I most frequently take off the shelf.

Mark Steinmetz is a documenter of people in the urban environment. His eye is quiet by which I mean his pictures welcome contemplation more than reaction.

Paris in my time is the product of 25 years of visits. At first I wasn’t too enamoured by the book (I love his other works) but Lucy Moore at Claire de Rouen books urged me to take it and I have begun to enjoy it now. The pictures are often of people completely involved in their own world. Like his other books there is a quiet to the photographs which I like.

Also interesting to note is that his publishers use their own black ink (Daido black) on uncoated paper. The printing is beautiful with warm highlights. Sometimes the shadow/midtones are pushed a shade too hard.

Here’s a link for more information on the book.

PSYCH PHOTO #8 – KALEED SAAOUDY

#8 in a series on the role of psychology in photography.

KALEED SAAOUDY – Kaleed runs the ‘4+1’ cafe on the corner of Golborne Road and Portobello. He is Moroccan by birth but has lived (and raised children in Norway) – a true cosmopolitan.

1_L1020186_schneideman

 

Kaleed is one of the most generous and personable people I have met for a long time. He is someone I consider to be a ‘citizen of the world’. Someone for whom race, religion and country have little meaning.

There is a sadness in this image too. Its source is unknown to me. The portrait reminds me of a kindly eagle. Kaleed is wary of the camera but his wariness exposes other facets of his character.

These facets maybe made manifest by invoking subconscious reactions. Having a camera pointed at you from close range makes many people feel uncomfortable. Why is this? And what does this say about the subconscious? 

The process of making a portrait seems to be very fluid and perhaps never finished.

FULL SIZE PORTRAIT HERE

Please click on ‘best seen in full’ (bottom left) to view correctly.

PSYCH PHOTO #8 – KALEED SAAOUDY

#8 in a series on the role of psychology in photography.

KALEED SAAOUDY – Kaleed runs the ‘4+1’ cafe on the corner of Golborne Road and Portobello. He is Moroccan by birth but has lived (and raised children in Norway) – a true cosmopolitan.

1_L1020186_schneideman

 

Kaleed is one of the most generous and personable people I have met for a long time. He is someone I consider to be a ‘citizen of the world’. Someone for whom race, religion and country have little meaning.

There is a sadness in this image too. Its source is unknown to me. The portrait reminds me of a kindly eagle. Kaleed is wary of the camera but his wariness exposes other facets of his character.

These facets maybe made manifest by invoking subconscious reactions. Having a camera pointed at you from close range makes many people feel uncomfortable. Why is this? And what does this say about the subconscious? 

 To be continued

The process of making a portrait seems to be very fluid and perhaps never finished.

FULL SIZE PORTRAIT HERE

As the series continues I will expand on this psychological theory of portraiture and how we, the viewers, engage with it.

Please click on ‘best seen in full’ (bottom left) to view correctly.