Tag Archives: Theory

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

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

Patterns by Alex Schneideman

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

Patterns by Alex Schneideman

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

Patterns by Alex Schneideman

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

Patterns by Alex Schneideman

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

Patterns by Alex Schneideman

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

Patterns by Alex Schneideman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANNOUNCING PHOTOGRAPHICA

Hi, please listen to my new weekly podcast, Photographica.

Each episode is a way of connecting deeper with photography through conversations with leading photographers, curators and others involved in the world of photography as well as audio essays on subjects like the random beauty of film, digital as a medium of truth as well as observations borne out of twenty years as a photographer and printer.

Recent and upcoming podcasts include:

  • A conversation with Michael Woods, the Bohemian king of Soho portraiture.
  • An audio essay on the beauty of darkness in exposure and print.
  • An audio essay on digital truth.
  • An interview with Babycakes Romero on what it was like to watch his series, Death of Conversation, go megaviral leading to a Ted Talk and numerous TV appearances.

WIN AN EXHIBITION’S WORTH OF FREE PRINTING
To celebrate the launch of Photographica (and to encourage subscribers) I am starting a competition to win an exhibition’s worth of free printing. I will be assembling judges and asking for images to be sent in for consideration.

Details and timeframe are yet to be decided. I will be publishing details in the programme notes of the podcast so you’ll need to subscribe to receive the information!

To find Photographica Podcast Click here, on the picture below, or search for Photographica in iTunes.

If you like it please comment and rate it in iTunes – I’d be most grateful!

Thanks very much, 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

A way of approaching photographic equipment

I was thinking about how to shoot Bashir the Bee Keeper (more on him another time) – which camera, lenses etc and then it occurred to me that after all this time taking pictures and thinking about photography etc surely my instinct will dictate what the shots look like no matter what equipment I use.

Certainly there would be differences depending on what camera I select but whichever lens/body surely my instinct rules the day rendering the choice of hardware redundant.

I accept that there could be qualitative differences but assuming a base level of resolution does it matter what camera we use if we allow our instincts to dictate the shoot?

Any thoughts?

A