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



(3) Exhibition catalogue


  1. Hmmm, interesting and soul searching is always a great feeling when you return from an exhibition feeling slightly 'altered' and reflective. The two pieces you have pulled out are so very different but I can see how you draw out their similarities. I have come across Winship's work before and agree it is eerily beautiful...but Weber's is new to me, I shall have another look at his work, quite depressing at first glance.

  2. A very eloquent post John. I haven't seen the Exhibition and the websites only showed a fraction of the work. Such different approaches - one of haunting beauty and the other of cruelty; one of pride and the other of misery. The interview with Weber bothered me and I know this question of photographers' ethics repeats endlessly (as it should). Whatever words Weber uses it doesn't alter the fact that he was a witness to brutality. The camera may be 'objective' but the person behind it makes choices.
    thank you for being thought-provoking.

  3. Catherine, I thought about Weber's photographs a lot and ethically I am sure that his work is valid, and for this reason: Weber has provided us, the viewers, with a window to witness these scene. He is at pains to point out he is trying to be non-judgemental and in that I think he succeeds. Without his testament we would be blissfully unaware. His strategy of ingratiation reduced the effect of the camera's artifice, though one can never say without any effect at all. These photographs are poles apart from the prurience, for example, of the Abu Ghraib (another reference I heard on the day) images for example, those being staged by pumped up young men (and women) as trophies of war. But as you say, thought provoking.

  4. Thanks Penny, I would love to able to share an example of her work.