Saturday, 28 March 2015

Tools of the Trade

Another peek into the artist's studio - this time looking at the various tools of the trade: brushes and palette knives, paints and palettes, canvases and paper, books and magazines, plus a surprising number of feathers! Not sure if they're just for decoration or whether they actually get used. The brushes come in a wide range of sizes and shapes and each will have its own defined specialist use.

Having looked at quite a number of  pictures of artists' studios, they seem to fall into two camps - the super-tidy and the messy. This one is a very tidy one and reflects the owner's character. Each item has its place, brushes are meticulously cleaned after use, processes and experiments are all noted down. A feeling of order and calm pervades the space, even in the midst of the creative process.....

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Human Rights Human Wrongs

Birmingham, Alabama on 3 May 1963. Photograph: Charles Moore

Human Rights Human Wrongs currently showing at the Photographers’ Gallery is a hard-hitting, and ultimately very sobering look at the story of human rights in the second half of the twentieth century – a catalogue of wars, demonstrations, uprisings, famine, political struggle and violence. Taking the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a starting point, and in particular Article 6 which states ‘Everybody has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law’, it is curated by Mark Sealy, director of Autograph ABP, using photographs from the archive of the Black Star agency, an organisation founded in 1935 by three German Jews who fled Nazi persecution. Key events from the American Civil Rights movement are depicted alongside African independence struggles, the Vietnam War, uprisings in Central America, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, student riots worldwide, the Biafran famine, together with a number of portraits of Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Most of the photographers are not household names, but the images they portray are familiar from newsreels and newspapers of the time, and there are a few famous photographs - a gun-toting Patty Hearst, a Biafran child with outstretched hand, civil rights campaigners such as Martin Luther King. The photographs themselves are all black and white, working press prints complete with marks and creases.  The curator has opted not to display the work in strict chronological or geographical order but instead juxtaposes images from struggles in different parts of the world - a picture of the Chicago riots sits next to one of a conflict in Mozambique, student demonstrations in Paris are shown alongside similar protests in Mexico and Berkeley, California. The effect serves to emphasise the common experiences and shared grievances worldwide.  Dotted throughout the exhibition are a number of small series – police dogs being set on the Birmingham marchers, a Vietnam War chaplain ministering to American soldiers – showing the viewer that the decisive moment and the iconic image are only a small part of the whole.

One of the stated aims of the curator is to make people consider the role of the photojournalist and Western media organisations and the fact that most of these events are mediated through the eyes of an outsider within ‘a very particular tradition of Eurocentric concerns’. Does the representation of repeated images of conflict and suffering dehumanise or objectify the people depicted? Does the audience become desensitised over time? What is the cultural meaning assigned to these photographs? These are important questions which the exhibition raises and upon which the viewer is encouraged to reflect.  The densely packed exhibition on two floors is full of shocking, graphic images of suffering and grief, racism and oppression, the casualties and aftermath of war, social unrest and instances of brutality and at times is rather an overwhelming experience.  But the fact that events such as those depicted in the photographs are still happening all over the world is a compelling reason to visit this important exhibition.

Czechoslovakia Invasion, Prague, on 21 August 1968. Photograph: Hilmar Pabel

  Martin Luther King in Birmingham, Alabama, December 1965. Photograph: Bob Fitch

 The Republic of Biafra, c 1968. Photograph: Carlo Bavagnoli

Young man steals the sword of King Baudouin I, during procession with newly appointed President Kasavubu, Leopoldville, Republic of the Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), 30 June 1960. Photograph: Robert Lebeck

All Photographs from The Black Star Collection/Ryerson Image 

Human Rights Human Wrongs at The Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies St, London W1F 7LW Until 6 April 2015 Free

This review is published in the Spring edition of fLIP, the magazine of London Independent Photography

Monday, 16 March 2015

The Changing Skyline

At intervals along the Thames and on the bridges crossing the river there are a number of plaques showing the key buildings and monuments spread out in the vista before you. The stupefying rate of new building and developments taking place in the City of London in recent years means that these plaques are already out of date - there's the Gherkin but no sign of the Cheesegrater or the Walkie Talkie (spectacularly ugly when viewed from afar but dizzyingly impressive when standing directly underneath and looking upwards). A forest of cranes is sprouting up on this stretch of the Thames so no doubt shortly there will be many more of these giants, dwarfing both the ugly 70s and 80s buildings fronting the river as well as the classic proportions of the old city churches, Fishmongers' Hall and on the other side of London Bridge, Old Billingsgate Market and the Custom House. It saddens me to see the churches in particular with their spires almost struggling to reach the light, hemmed in on all sides by these monoliths - like delicate wild flowers being bullied by rampant weeds! It makes you wonder when this will all stop and what sort of City we are going to bequeath to future generations.

Turning away from the river and looking to the sky on this south bank, you can see the top of the Shard trying to mimic the turret of Southwark Cathedral - I like to think of it as an homage, a little piece of visual inspiration. The path soon deviates away from the river and takes you past the Clink prison and the old ruined Winchester Palace, the replica Golden Hind and the rather depressing array of fast food restaurants and tourist haunts, before emerging again in a quiet little spot to rest and look upon the passing river whilst contemplating Sir Walter Raleigh's words:
There are two things scarce matched in the universe - the sun in heaven and the Thames on earth......

Monday, 9 March 2015

Pinhole landscapes

After a gap of nearly a year, I took my pinhole camera out again last week. Of course, I had to go back to square one and re-familiarise myself with the instructions though being a very simple camera, it didn't take long! I used different film this time - a roll of Ilford HP5 about 15 years past its use-by date. This is not a film I use very often - I tend to prefer Kodak Tri-X - but it seemed to have suffered no ill effects and actually the results were pretty good. So far I've been using up whatever film I have to hand and most of it is out of date, so this is hardly a controlled experiment.

Looking back at my previous pinhole efforts, I noticed that a lot of the negatives were over-exposed and had to be heavily corrected in Photoshop. This time I cut the exposure right down and the resulting negatives are better. I've been using an app on the phone called Pinhole Assist to calculate exposure times. This seems to work really well and has built-in reciprocity curves for the longer exposures required for the pinhole, saving on having to work it out for yourself! I also took more care with the composition - the best results seem to be when there is something in the foreground close to the camera. I do really like the sense of depth in the images - you feel like you are being sucked into the photograph towards the vanishing point.

Some of the same scenes feature in a previous post where I used the Hipstamatic app on my iPhone. You can see them here and compare the effect - obviously quite different as the phone ones are very dark and dramatic whereas these are lighter and more ethereal, especially No 3 below which is actually a double exposure by mistake where I forgot to wind the film on. I will persevere with my efforts - the sense of satisfaction from using film, the concentration and mindfulness required, the feeling of being totally wrapped up in the moment can't be matched by the ease and instant results of digital!

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Drive By

Often when I'm driving along I get the urge to stop the car, leap out and take a photo. Obviously this is only practical if you are on your own! On numerous occasions I've been frustrated as I've been the passenger or else I have a passenger with me, or else I'm in a hurry or on a mission. I may return later only to find that the moment has passed, the light has changed or even that the subject has disappeared - the spontaneity of the moment has gone. Sometimes I may pass by a place regularly and not see its potential - then one day the play of light suddenly reveals its hidden beauty or spectacular clouds transform an everyday landscape. On go the brakes, out comes the camera....

Being inside the car is a bit like looking through a camera viewfinder - something about looking out of the windscreen, rear view or wing mirror and seeing the world ready framed. In his series America by Car, Lee Friedlander uses the car windows as a deliberate compositional device, the mirrors reflecting odd, unexpected fragments of the passing scenes. 

From America by Car by Lee Friedlander

Todd Hido's photographs of lonely rainswept American roads are similarly shot through the car windscreen, the rain blurring and veiling the sombre landscapes.

 From A Road Divided by Todd Hido

In the introduction to American Surfaces, Stephen Shore likens the effect of being in a car on a road trip to that of an 'explorer travelling in a bubble of familiarity'. Driving for extended periods puts him in 'a very clear and focused state of mind'. My journeys to the shops or visits to my father can hardly be compared to a road trip - we're not talking Robert Frank's The Americans here! But even on these short trips I find that driving is conducive to creativity - perhaps because there are few other distractions and the mind is fully engaged on the visual, or maybe it's just having the opportunity for some breathing space where the brain can empty itself of daily concerns.

From American Surfaces by Stephen Shore
The other day I found myself doing a U turn on a steep hill in the pouring rain just to take a photograph of a pair of roadside mirrors sitting incongruously on the edge of a wood! There is actually an assignment in the Photographer's Playbook by Steve Young which advocates doing just that:
U-Turn Rule
'Whenever you are driving, and pass something that makes you want to grab your camera, you must immediately pull a U-ey, go back, and shoot it. If you don't, you'll spend the next ten miles thinking about it, and then you'll have to add twenty miles to your trip.'
Here are some recent photographs all taken while driving within a 15 mile radius of home.....