Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Last post

I am transferring to People and Place. I may come back to this blog and tidy things up but if anyone is interested to follow my progress then please follow the link to http://johnumney.blogspot.com/.
I have appreciated all the comments and feedback I have received so far.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.

We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know. Former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in February 2002

Rumsfeld was concerned by what he didn’t know, by what might be lurking in the corners, hidden by the shadow of ignorance, veiled in dogma he had no hope of understanding either it’s genesis or its direction. Safe in the bunker of rhetoric, he and the combined forces of pious truth and righteousness were sure of their mission.

I am more concerned with what I know, not what I don't know and how shallow that depth of knowledge is. I know what I don’t know, I know what I need to learn, and the vastness in the sea of my uncertainty is a landscape of beauty that draws me in.

 I have thought for some time that knowledge is a transient perception that is and will continue to be modified by incident, by experience, by the simple fact of life. What I knew as an absolute as an adolescent I now know was a perception untainted by a life more ordinary. The world, which we are informed is becoming more and more digital, is an anologue. The pictures we view, the music we plug in to, the information we gather are being deconstructed and reconstructed for our ease and benefit, synthesized for us in order that we might appreciate them all the more and all the more conveniently. The digital world is black and white, a one or a zero, a high or a low, right or wrong, truth or fiction. And it’s not the fiction that concerns me; it’s the truth that provides me with sleeplessness. Fiction, when not malicious, is the conveyor of narrative, it moves us from point A to point B; it has the propensity to guide us from the dim peripheries of ignorance to enlightenment. Fiction informs in a way that truth cannot. Truth provides the skeleton of dogma. Truth is an absolute. Truth lives in the digital world and is a pernicious currency that deprives us of the beauty of question, that delight in a journey of discovery that brings experience and informs our creativity.

As I started the course there were things that I thought I knew and what I knew I didn’t know was where I wanted to get to; it was travel but in what direction I wasn’t sure – I am still very unsure. In what may be my last blog entry I can now see that those truths have been to a greater or lesser extent challenged. I now know that what I knew has been moved by new experiences, by new considerations. In other words my knowledge has developed – which is of course a good thing. My concerns though have not reduced in depth, they have just changed course. When I made these pictures I knew what they meant. I knew for example what the framing suggested, the interaction between the subject and its surrounding had a meaning. Having appropriated a broader set of adjectives into my vernacular hasn’t changed the meaning of what these photographs had or have. Can the context and narrative of a photograph move with time? Isn’t the fix of image onto the print or screen a defining moment, the decisive moment in determining the meaning of the image for time immemorial? If I receive wisdom that suggests that suggest, for example, that the loss of focus on certain people in a crowd scene emphasizes division, isolation, and that concurs with what I had originally constructed then all is well. But what if I learn that the opposite is “true”? What if I learn that the constructional components that I’ve used determine a different or opposite narrative? Is it just that I speak a foreign language?

I have some thinking to do, decisions about the how and the why, if nothing else these last few months have been worthwhile in opening my mind to a new range of possibilities and ambitions for my photography. 

The photographs that have I included in this entry are personal  - some deeply so, they speak to my vernacular, my syntax. Some have been edited (and maybe constructionaly corrected), some are raw, some are just raw with emotion. When I pressed the shutter I exposed not only the film or sensor I exposed a part of me. I knew then what I still know about these photographs, but, as Mr. Dylan said, I was a lot older then.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Further thoughts from Hereford

Further thoughts from Hereford

George Georgiou – Shadow of The Bear, 2009-10

“Georgiou” had featured at the entrance of the exhibition via Winship's series (they are life partners) and whilst she felt the need to mention his name, the reverse wasn’t offered. The festival catalogue noted “dozens” of  photographs in three series of sequential images, separated by two large prints, which, overall create a link between two countries – Ukraine and Georgia – as they “..come to terms with the future and build a better future.”
So, something like seventy or so photographs. The technical observations I think are worth noting, very few camera positions – about six, maybe seven a wide angle and an aperture that is as closed in as possible, which taking  it all into consideration probably  means a tripod as well. These facets of the imagery allowed the compositional constructs that, to this viewer at any rate,  were important to Georgiou.
The wide angle brought a similar importance to the surroundings as to the people in the shot - the surroundings being as sharply rendered as the people. The people were going about their daily business, shopping, going to work, socializing, courting – just the normal hum drum of life. The settings though gave them a placement – the shot with a banner of a football team, a local shop, a bus stop, an apartment block – all of these are particular references that are important otherwise why place them inside the focal limit. People leave the frame and people enter the frame, but the references remain constant. My initial impression was that this series is about identity – either struggling to hold on to it, or to (re)create one.
I was also interested on the print quality and presentation. I thought that the images were the poorest quality on display, I notice that another student has also commented on that… Anned “… I think its to do with the quality of the photographic finish, that some of the other works seemed so very polished/finished/technically done..” (Anned) found this set the most thought provoking.
I think a lot of work had been undertaken on this set. The colour toning was very consistent across the series and several seemed to be a little “oversharpened” which tended to suggest that he felt a need to keep all the image (and all the images)  “sharp” – in “focus”, equally important. Seeing all the people in the photographs going about their life brought Parr’s exhibition to mind and I wrote the note “Martin Parr it isn’t”. I think Georgiou’s use of a single, probably “tripodded” position, allowed him to melt into the landscape and become more of an observer – not an accusation that Mr Parr would have had leveled at him too many times I think.

Manuel Vasquez – Traces

A very dramatic set of images. My notes verbatim from my notebook:
“comment of social aberration post apocalyptic events such as the Madrid bombing – how people/society patches and mends to accommodate the  previous inconceivable ructions in their daily life.”
The festival catalogue notes “.. revealing the spectacle as spectacular, albeit a dystopian spectacular of the present.”

Two comments: The use of the word spectacular. This word has a very strong resonance in the terrorist vernacular. The provisional IRA appropriated the word to mean an event like the Brighton hotel bombing during the Conservative party conference, the Birmingham pub bombings, and it’s resonant peal was heard again and again during the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocity in New York. The use of it here, in this context, seems entirely appropriate.
The second point regarding dystopia is that we – in the targeted west, continue to accept the dystopia as the new utopia. Post 9/11 we accept the security checks at airports, the continued increased levels of surveillance that greet us at most public events and places.
What I found interesting about Vasqez’s work here was what it didn’t show. The people “in the light” – seemed to acquiesce, look comfortable in the limelight by the lampposts and the contrast was such that it concealed what was in between the lamps. What was lurking? Were these photographs telling us that we cannot illuminate everything, we cannot move our fears completely away. There is no utopia?

Robbie Cooper – Immersion

There has been a lot of comment that I don’t think I can add to. I agree that the people are immersed, I agree that they are isolated. I don’t agree that this is a “new” phenomena – unless in anthropological terms we define as new the history subsequent to the inclusion of the cathode ray tube into the corner (and now wall mounted) of the room. I think if the technology that Cooper uses were available in every decade since the end of the 1940’s he would have seen something similar. Total immersion in the flickering image. Be they watching porn, video games, or Downton Abbey. Watching a screen is a singular occupation for many people – even in sitting rooms and, sometimes in multiplex cinemas. It can be a communal event, but it draws the viewer in. Acorn, Sinclair and Amstrad in the eighties provided onanistic playthings for the ocular senses; which, whilst the graphical content has improved almost beyond recognition the isolationism hasn’t. What might have been interesting would be an image of the simultaneous viewing of a similar screen for comparative purposes.
Note, there were two images of young teenagers  (13 or 14) watching/playing video games that were rated as 18 – which is a completely different study. Good framing and processing though.

Friday, November 18, 2011

People in Hereford

I haven't spent a lifetime making photographs, I have spent a little more than half my life occasionally taking photographs and the older I get, the more I think about the photographs that I have made and want to make more of. I have though, spent a lifetime looking at people. I have lived in a large family house, I have six sisters and a brother, I have worked with teams of people in sport and in my career, and I have also directed people on the stage. I perceive I know something about people. The first photographs that I took were pictures of people, family, friends. These photographs had no pretensions, mostly badly lit (or more correctly, inexpertly exposed), sometimes focussed, sometimes not. The photographs though that haunt my memory, those that have lasting emotional content are those that display people. I mean display and not portray. I mean the photographs that reveal something of the person. Karsh's picture of Pablo Casals, Steichen's photograph of George Bernard Shaw, the Bedford schoolboy outside Bedford prison by McCullin, El castigo from the Etiopia 2007 series by Jaime Mota; I could list many more. 

Portraiture isn't without artifice, the photographer interjects a lump of technology into the face of willing or unknowing or uncaring subject and snaps the picture. The quality of the image stems from the photographers knowledge of the subject and the subject is both the object of the lens and the means of recording. To get these images, images that describe the subject in 125th @ f8, that can reveal even the merest hint of the soul of the subject is the grail that portraitists might seek to set them apart from the daily grind of formal portraiture

I had never been to Hereford nor, consequently, the photography festival. My knowledge of Hereford is, to say the least, basic. Somewhere in the west and agricultural, something about beef cattle and dairy products might come to mind. I didn't expect, when I started to drive to the festival to be shocked, to have my eyes challenged and my emotions stirred as they were - and still are. As I write and check my notes, the feelings that were generated then are still as raw.

Two sets of prints stood out for me and they were those by Vanessa Winship, Geogia 2009 - 2010 and Donald Weber's Interrogations: Big Zone, Small Zone.

Reproduction by kind permission of the artist, Vanessa Winship

Winship's set of monochrome portraits are absolutely beautiful. Finely crafted prints, with fine technique, any one of which I could gladly have hung on my walls at home, yes, even the one of the young post-operative boy. The images were taken from the Georgia in Progress set and can be seen here  . Georgia is one of those ex-soviet satellites that rejoiced the freedom after the collapse of the Soviet empire, followed by the Rose revolution. The enmity that lies between the Russian state and the Georgian state is almost as old as the ground these people walk on. I remember a radio interview where a Georgian described how some Russians had come over the border and raped and murdered their people and how the kinfolk of the victims sought to avenge the crimes against them. When the interviewer asked when this happened and had they informed the police, could anyone describe the perpetrators, the correspondent said that would be a little difficult as it had happened somewhere in the 12th century. Yet it was told as if it were yesterday. These people who Winship describes as .."And Yet There Is A Kind Of Melancholia, An Underbelly That Almost Inevitably Sets Itself Against Such Exuberance. It Is A Place Literally Crumbling From The Weight Of Such Unsustainable Romance. On My Return In 2008, After A Summer At War With It’s Powerful Neighbour. " (1). The people live the past as if it were the present, I think this is the romanticism that Winship refers to, holding on to a past where the romanticised view of their predecessors are held close to their hearts. No mention was made in the accompanying text to say what instruction Winship gave to her subjects, whether to come "dressed" for the occasion for example national costume, it would be interesting to hear if there were any instructions. I know that for portraiture it is one of the first questions that are asked of the photographer, so I would guess that the subject was covered at some stage. Whilst viewing I heard the name Arbus mentioned in whispered tones, and yes I can see that, but I would be wary not to have the Arbus strap-line of freaks applied to these subjects.

The photographs do contain a certain melancholia, in the way the eyes appear in the close in shots and the way the subjects stand for the full length photographs. It appears they are "straight" shots, no apparent post processing, close to the gossamer of "truth" in both the subject and mood.

I have had a (short) conversation with Vanessa which has resulted in the ability to reproduce the image above and also answered a couple of my questions, these don't alter either my view of her work nor how I understood how she approached her work. Vanessa explained that she asked her subjects to simply look into the lens (which she sometimes pointed out to them) after explaining what it was she was doing and, perhaps in particular the effect of seeing things upside down on the ground glass. Vanessa only made one exposure per subject, she appreciated that it took time to stand still especially as  ".. I would explain that I was going to be a bit slow because the camera is a bit fiddly, and also that I was a bit slow." I asked about the effect of the camera on the subject and Vanessa replied..."In terms of the camera making a difference then I would say more than likely yes, although I think the whole occasion made a difference....I am a stranger, it's an unusual event within the school day, it's not a usual occurrence to have a formal portrait made,( by that I mean to stand momentarily in front of a camera set on a tripod), and yes it's not a telephone camera, nor is it a digital camera." 

On a completely different plane was the work by Donald Weber, where Winship's set was full of peace and beauty, Weber's exquisite beauty stems from capturing a moment and a moment that shook me and moved me. The portraits are of "The Underclass and its Bosses: Crime and Punishment in Ukraine,...". There are many literary connections to this body of work, Weber himself talks of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, which I haven't read in over thirty years, saying "Solzhenitsyn talked about the moment of recognition, he always wondered during his execution what he would look at, would he look up at the sky and look for a bird, or would he look down at the ground, head bowed? It's about a moment of recognition, once that flicker of acceptance occurs, things undoubtedly change. So I was looking for these moments, that passage from knowing what was once will never be again." (2) We can see these interrogatees looking, maybe not for a bird, but surely for divine intervention.

What I also remember about the book is how Solzhenitsyn likened the proletariat to rabbits - and not in the likeable fluffy version. These are portraits of human rabbits staring at the lights of a brutal power in the manner of supplicants. In every shot where the subjects hands are visible, all but one are in a pose of prayer. These will be Orthodox Christians, they are praying for mercy. Weber states that they aren't in a religious confession.. "but there is that idea of purity of confession, that one fleeting glimpse of honesty. That's the moment I found so interesting. It's the closest any of us get to God, and the moment at which everything changes..."(3) Let me be clear, I have no God, I subscribe to the "Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster" by Bobby Henderson - no less serious, despite it's title. Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment, he was Ukrainian, maybe that is why Weber chose those words, most people fail to make the distinction between Russia and Ukraine (unless you are Russian or Ukrainian that is). Dostoyevsky wrote about the failings of the human condition, about nihilism versus religiosity and in particular of course the Russian Orthodox church. It (religion and the process of confession) is used as a metaphor in the book. I wonder if Weber is referring to this in how he has edited the series. And the final literary reference is to "The Kolyma Tales" by Shalamov that describes life in the notorious labour camps of Siberia and is equally shocking as Weber's photographs, not least because the graphic imagery comes from the readers imagination. I don't think this set panders to the prurient (though it may do that as well), nor do I think that these images or similar shouldn't be shown, just because they shock, they certainly did that for me. I think it is important that images that offer a truth, and here I go back to Weber's words, to the .."fleeting glimpse of honesty.." should be shown. Weber, in this series has given the viewer a real truth in the very pained, clutched and desperate - but who wouldn't be with, what looks like a Tokarev, anointing your temple? And truth, real unexpurgated truth, is a rare commodity in any medium, let alone and perhaps least of all, photography.

These two photographers allow the viewer to grasp a sense of honesty, all be they framed in critically disparate circumstances, one confident that their past informs their present and their future in equal measure and from generation to generation, the other that the past has informed on them and that there may be no future as a result. Both sets edited to draw, at least from this viewer, an emotive response that I am sure will last long in the memory. The one printed to deliver a haunting beauty, the other with a concealed spectre of a wholly different kind

(1) http://www.vanessawinship.com/gallery.php?ProjectID=175

(2) http://colinpantall.blogspot.com/2010/11/donald-webers-interrogations.html

(3) Exhibition catalogue

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Into the light

A few days to go before the exhibition opens, most of the preparations are complete, we will shortly only be in need of people, the baying public.

It is a curious thing to exhibit one's work, the mix of feelings that come, I suspect, to all practitioners notionally in the visual arts; the need for recognition, the fear of failure, will anyone come and if they do will they buy anything?

I suppose school was the likely conditioning that has allowed me to expose myself; the photo of me, on stage at the age of - I'm guessing - 7 or 8 in a (now non-pc) variety Christmas show is the first record I have  of being in front of an audience, I sang and danced solo and enjoyed every minute. My first exhibition of photographs was suggested to me by the proprietor of the camera shop in Banbury where I bought my film and paper from Blinkhorns ."Thomas Blinkhorn established Blinkhorns in 1883. He was a renowned portrait photographer with a busy studio at our current premises. The business has passed from father to son through 4 generations and has become the leading independent retailer of audio visual home entertainment in North Oxfordshire..." Martin Blinkhorn, now deceased, was, apart from being the then proprietor a photographer with the RAF during the war and subsequently a lecturer in art and photography at Banbury college, the same college that Michael Kenna studied at, I wonder... Their premises are quite long and have space in the rear of the shop to listen to hi-fi and I was encouraged to hang my prints there and through the body of the shop. I sold about seven prints, I was amazed, up until then I would have given them to anyone who might have hung them. The shop is now run by Tom, the son of Martin and I thoroughly recommend them to anyone who might want good advice about audio visual. Plug over.

I have been selected for several "Salons" where my prints have been exhibited and have been published in several books and the B&W magazine selected some prints a few years ago, but other people are involved in the management of these events or publications so it wasn't until I had to work out how to "put a show on" that I realised the effort, cost and exposure that is involved. It is, though, exposure that is key here and this comes down to selection, what to expose myself with? What and who do I think my audience will be? What do I want the people who come to the exhibition to take away (apart from the stock that is!). I am now a regular participant in Oxford Artweeks which is a completely different project to the upcoming event and I am sharing the space with three other artists, a watercolourist, a textile worker and a jewellery designer in a hotel that has advertised the event in it's blog. Dealing with the hotel has been an altogether different experience in that they expect me/us to contribute to the "marketing" of the event. A banner out side the hotel, media that they can use in their mail-shots and blog entries. Internal signage to point the public the right way. Most of these have been relatively stress free, but dealing with printers for my own work - I decided to get some calendars and cards of my work produced has been more unsettling. I have no recommendations there I'm afraid, but this may be down to naivety.

Which leaves print selection. We have two spaces in the hotel and I have decided to split my work into local "The Dorn Valley" and "other". I published a photo book via Blurb called The Dorn Valley, which is selling (albeit slowly). The downselect process, there is a current weareoca blog about editing that is in the back of my mind, but I don't think for this event I need concern myself too much on that score. It is commercial success that this is about, I'm down nearly £400 so I need to sell! For the course I have been focussing on imagery in the area where I live, Middle Barton is in the Dorn Valley, so I have some new photographs to show as well as "firm favourites"
This (left) is definitely in the latter section, I've sold this a few times at A2 and hope to again (it'll make a nice dent into the debt - I now know how the Greek finance minister feels). It is of Dovedale, for those that know it, directly to the side of the "stepping stones" for those that don't, never mind.
The image (right) is from the core of our village and again it has been sold quite a few times and it resides on the walls of a few people in and out of the village - I've only ever printed this at A3+, but it is an image of part of the village that hasn't changed in a century or more. The twin "letter box" images below, have come from recent forays into the village surrounds - both are on the Fleming estate to east of the village, highly stylised, but then most of the work I have done in and around the village suffers from that accusation, they being monochrome works.
There isn't space or need to show all the images that will be on display, there is a set on "snow in the Barton's" taken over a few winters and boosted by last years "dump" and quite a few others.
The interaction with printers has been a revelation. The banner couldn't have been easier, I generated a pdf, sent it off they printed it and at 4 mtrs X 1 mtr it seems to do the job. It's been situated outside the 

hotel at a busy junction for people who are coming to or going from the villages in the area, so hopefully it will attract, we put it up two weeks before the event. The calendar was another matter; they two asked for pdf's, which a duly supplied, they very quickly sent me proofs - which a rejected, due to a magenta cast across the all the images and a very unflattering cast to the cover shot. they reproofed and after some time and a few phone calls resent the proofs, still no good. I then sent a set of tiff files, which they rejected and asked for CMYK files. More proofing and finally the calendars were printed and delivered - not as good as I had hoped for. The cards - a sub-set of the "snow in the Bartons" set were really quite badly printed, but as they explained their printer can't do any better - only lighter or darker, they will clearly not be printing anymore of my stuff in the future. I need to seriously reconfigure how I work with professional printers. I suspect they consider me Joe public and as such give me that level of service, but I need better printing.

The whole process has been very different to the previous experience. For Oxford Artweeks the promotion and management is largely done by the organisation. As artists we need to find a venue and then pay the entrance fee to Artweeks and that's about it. Organising and promoting my own event has been a different matter. I do like exposing myself - yes I am aware of the connotations - but I feel this is the process of exhibiting. The thought of parading your work for scrutiny can be an excoriating experience, but the act has been a much more rewarding experience. People are generally pleasant, so it unlikely that there will be any blatantly obnoxious remarks, but the validation will come about with sales - people will need to want these photographs on their walls at home - or donated to other homes and that is the judge of success at an event like this. Another really difficult test is when someone starts to ask you about the work, this exposes the artist - certainly it has done to me - in a way that demands that you try and communicate what the reasons behind the photograph, why monochrome, why there, why then. All difficult questions, but it is the most beneficial part of the process, the part that I look forward to most, to allow the photographs to expose me, my motivations and face my demons.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Martin Parr at the MSHED

Visiting somewhere for the first time has its ups and downs, finding your way around, navigating the one way systems, the traffic calming, and having to collect rather recollect landmarks, in case you see them again on the virgin trip that you may retrace your steps, they are all part of the visual landscape; all whilst listening to the dulcet tones of Sat' nag.

The visit to the MSHED venue in Bristol http://mshed.org/ which is a lovely museum and art gallery in what was the traditional heart of the city was to view, with the "South West" OCA students group (for which I am a peripheral member), "Bristol and West", an exhibition of photographs by Martin Parr. The exhibits were curated jointly by Parr and the Museum to depict life in and around the Bristol area. The curator gave a talk and was keen to point out that, as the title portrays, the boundaries for selection was Bristol and it's close surroundings. 

"Did we - as viewers of Parr's work - see Parr as from another planet?" The now infamous accusation levelled at Parr by Cartier-Bresson that he was "from another planet" was posed as a question and delivered in a way that suggested that CB was an admirer of Parr's work - I'm not sure that he was admired by CB, from what I understand on the subject and the fact that it took the best part of a decade from when Parr applied to join Magnum to when he succeeded, and then only accepted by a single vote, suggests otherwise. I think that Parr was far removed from the "humanist" vision of CB. But it was a conundrum we were invited to consider as we viewed the images. Another parochial poser from our host was whether we saw any single photograph that picked out a distinct image of Bristol, an archetypal view of this old city that was summed up in a single image? We were also invited to select and vote for our favourite image in the hall. I certainly appreciated the talk - I had visited the exhibition before the talk and knew many of the photographs before coming to MSHED - as it was an opportunity to listen and be engaged by the man who worked with Parr to pull the series together.

There were several sections and the selection from "Cost of Living", "Chew Stoke, A Year in the Life of an English Village", "Clevedon Swimming Club" and others. 

The photography of Parr dwells on the intimate - he has an unnerving capability to move in close to his subjects, to highlight, often with the use of flash in full daylight, those moments which display what he leads the viewer to believe is a revealed truth (so many photographers trade in the word truth, it seems to me that they do protest too much). The curator was at pains to remind us that Parr wants us to believe these verisimilitudes delivered by his lens, these tiny moments extracted from, as he freely admits, thousands upon thousands of images - the original down-select was 600 from which the exhibition displayed 60, are indeed reflections of us as society members. I shall return.

It is impossible for me to divorce politics from his imagery - once described as Thatcher's favourite photographer and yet commissioned by the Guardian to depict the "Cost of Living"1989, the wreckage of post Thatcherite English society, a set that itself has been charged with "photo-rape" (1) by the apparent middle class "victims" of Parr's lens. Yet he undertook the commission to depict "A Year in the Life of an English Village" from the Telegraph - Thatcher's most ardent supporter and still looking for her mantle bearer to shine forth. Cynicism is another on the charge sheet for Parr, certainly opportunism and commercial at that, ipso facto the need for recognition via Magnum.

Parr's photography comes with baggage. It is difficult to decouple the image from what made it. Parr knows that by using a ring flash in the middle of summer (even an English Summer) it cannot go unnoticed, neither then can his subjects. It is stretching credulity to imagine his technique, however refined, will leave his subjects and their environs unfettered and untouched. He therefore interjects an artifice in both presence and by his process which will deliver greater levels of colour saturation, which HE decides to leave in; it is his conscious decision to leave his subjects and their surroundings bathing in a stretched gamma. These decisions and actions must predicate an stylism that means to take the viewer on a journey.

The apparent reflectionist quality of Parr's work positively craves the viewer to offer a critique on each image, whether it is the apparent "sniffiness" of the portrayed "Middle Aged, Middle Class" white couple disdainfully engaging with the dark skinned person in "Royal Commonwealth Society function for a summer evening"  - part of the "Cost of Living" series or, the "Bristol 2000" photograph of the bowls player stretching his back during a game in a bucolic vision of "typical English village life" - an idea that I would refute from a personal perspective, but that is a separate and distinctly different issue. Our invitations to construct narrative imbue every photograph selected, down-selected and final edited for the viewer - an editing journey with its own narrative to begin with.

I needed to listen to the unnerving tones of the nag to navigate my way home, This artificial construct of technology that recognises where I am and where I want to go delivers messages that direct me to an agreed point. As I travelled I started to think more about this exhibition, the photography and MSHED. I think Bristol is lucky to have this venue and I look forward to returning, to recollect my journey, it's landmarks and maybe stay a while longer to breathe in the traditions of this interesting city. The exhibition was curated to pose a Bristolian view of Parr's work, I have to say that in this respect, for me, it failed. Parr's imagery is pan western 3rd world; apart from one street sign there were no direct references for me that this was pinned to Bristol - even the directive titles didn't move the print to a recognisable gps reference that my nag could have brought up in "interesting local sights". Parr is an emigre to Bristol, born on the chalk hills of the Downs, his adopted home, one of many, perhaps shows his peripatetic photographic traits, equally at home in New Brighton as in St Pauls; as one of my colleagues at the exhibition said "I've been here (Bristol) for over 30 years now, but it's still too early to call it home.

As with my nag, the photography of Parr is predicated on artifice. It is an interjection of technology and technique that, whilst certainly not unique, delivers to the viewer a highly edited view of Parr's dystopian world view. We are at times invited to sneer at both people and environment and at times to regret the passing of an idyll that is delivered on a (deep red) rose tinted glass. Both will lead us to predetermined destinations and whilst that is the strength of my fellow traveller it is, for me, the only weakness for Parr.

1 Bristol Evening Post, (Bristol, England), Thursday, November 16, 1989, p-7

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Blues and the Abstract Truth

Oliver Nelson one of the great composers and arrangers of the sixties and early seventies contemporary jazz music scene shot to fame with his seminal album, titled above. The luminaries that he collected for this album, including Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, Bill Evans and others place this album amongst the great recordings of modern jazz. Recorded in 1961, Nelson’s career last only until 1975 when he died of a heart attack. It is one of the “coolest albums” of the genre and recommended, not least because it contains some images by Chuck Stewart .

Digressions aside – the most famous track on the recording, which opens the album, has become a standard in the jazz repertoire, the composition that established Nelson’s name in the genre is in a melancholic C minor key, namely “Stolen Moments”. Nelson writes “As a player, I became aware of some of the things that I knew existed, but I was afraid to see them as they really were.” cover notes from the aforementioned album sleeve.

In photography the “decisive moment” is illusory, there is no moment; there may be a variable period when a recording takes place that smudges across time. The myth of the revealed truth in any frame at any stage was surely debunked a century or more ago. Similarly the concept of analogue photography versus digital, when all along, and today still, there is only digital photography, not just that process is initiated by the digit, but the shutter is closed, then opened, then closed. The recording, however, is every bit as analogue today with the latest of sensors as it was when Fox Talbot made his first exposures. The differences today with the “digital” camera and the “analogue” camera are the levels of remove between the eye (the mind and imagination) and the end image.  The frames of moment/time and of the encapsulated visage through the lens are the twin determinants that the artist can provide some control over; these twin choices are both in the gift of the photographer, both are conscious decisions in the process of capturing the slough of moments that will end up on the exhibition wall or, more likely, the "back up" recycle bin.  The momentary and impermanent nature of the image through the viewfinder provides the photographer with the greatest level of control over the final image; it is only these two devices, which have been ever-present since the development of the captured image, that can link the camera operator with any vestigial claim on truth associated with the end print.

Staying with today’s technology and the transience of space and time; the abstraction that divides the photographer from any final image displayed on screen, wall or the round filing cabinet are now so prodigiously wide that some photographers spend more time interpreting the physical limitations of the processes of image development more than image creation itself. To compound the lack of control, in this erstwhile manual process, is the relinquishment of the governance of truth, of the embryonic image, to the levels of abstraction, layered and blended in ways by which no single man alive can fully determine or deconstruct. The initial abstraction that removes the taker from the “reality” starts with the technology of sensor construct, the algorithms of cell composition, digital signal processing, the formulaic colour management, focus and sharpening before the finishes via, whatever "post processing" the artist feels is required, to an eventual image re - production via excursions of software, printer hardware and their concomitant profiles, ink recipes, which again the photographer may, or may not, make an attempt at craft control.

If Nelson was "aware of things that existed, but was afraid to see them for they really are" then what do we as photographers, as recordists, for recording is what we can do best, respond when we see things and attempt to portray them as they really are? For us, as photographers, the truth is an ephemeral concept, it is abstracted away from us the moment the shutter release is allowed to instigate the process of recording and every event in the subsequent in the chain of command further decouples us away from reality.
I have for a long time particularly enjoyed Nelson's signature composition "Stolen Moments", it's soulful development of the 16 bar piece is both lyrical and contemplative. It's title though now excites another lever to consider when looking for any "moment" to record. Just where does the truth lie?