Category Archives: Assignment 4

Towards Assignment 4 – Joel Meyerowitz: Aftermath

Joel Meyerowitz’ book Aftermath (collecting his pictures taken at the World Trade Centre site in the months following it’s destruction in September 2001) is in every sense, monumental. My copy was dropped of with one of my neighbour by Amazon logistics, and when I went to get it, she appeared from behind her door with an almost comically large parcel. I staggered up the stairs to my flat startled at how much the package actually weighed. It consists of 350 pages, most of which contain photographs. If it was an exhibition it would easily fill a whole floor of Tate Modern. In this way it mimics the enormity of what happened when two aeroplanes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York on 11th September 2001, but it is also very much a celebration of the way ‘ordinary Americans’ responded to an atrocity carried out upon them.

‘This thing’s gorgeous – absolutely gorgeous. It’s a hard thing to say when you’re dealing with this destruction, but it’s gorgeous’

– Joel Meyerowitz, in Reflections of Ground Zero (Ch4 News, 2004)

In the short (and really rather marvellous) BBC/OU animation Edmund Burke on the Sublime, ‘the sublime’ is defined in opposition to the (merely) beautiful. Beautiful objects are  ‘small, beautiful, delicate, delightful, smooth’ (and you could add, feminine and domestic or interior) while the sublime relates to things that are ‘vast, gloomy, dark and threatening’  (and male and related to the great, romantic, outdoors). ‘Beautiful things produce pleasurable feelings; sublime things overwhelm us.’ The sublime object is ‘terrifying’ but still – paradoxically – is pleasurable.

This is precisely the effect that is produced by Meyorowitz’s book collecting his Ground Zero photographs, Aftermath (2006). I have just weighed it on my kitchen scales and it weighs 3.8 kg (more than half a stone); it measures eleven inches by fourteen; to look at it properly, you really need to put it on a table and concentrate. It is a significant object even before you open it and look at the pictures.

And the pictures are great. The LF negatives produce incredibly detailed pictures (and some fold out to twice the size of the open book – 44″ x 14″. Like Gursky’s massive composites (recently on show at the Hayward Gallery in London) you can pore over a single image for quite some time without ever seeming quite to have exhausted it. All of the pictures seem to be striving for something of the impact of classical history painting and many of them achieve it. It is a marvellous record, but – and this is where I think Campany (writing three years before the publication of the book, of corse) gets off track a bit – of the clear up of the site rather than the destruction of the World Trade Centre itself. Destruction fulfills the role of a noun here, rather than a verbal one; the ruins stand in for the act, which is not itself examined.

(The actual collapse of the twin towers lodges in my head as an amalgam of Richard Drew’s Falling Man, the video footage of the planes hitting the towers and the picture of a group of people sitting and talking by the Brooklyn waterfront, seemingly unaware of what it going on behind them (taken by Thomas Hoepker and reproduced in Richard Salkeld’s Reading Photographs on p.91).)

The Channel 4 documentary describes the pictures that Meyerowitz is shown taking as satisfying ‘the need for remembrance of those who grieve, those traumatised by watching the towers fall, whose jobs collapsed with the towers and those who simply lost a beloved landmark‘ (my emphasis). I would place Meyerowitz firmly in that final category – the documentary references him making a series of pictures of the World Trade Centre from the window of his Manhattan studio; these pictures form a pre-credits sequence in the book – and the act of taking the pictures locates him as part of the heroic efforts of

The portraits – presumably mostly taken with the Leica you can see hanging around Meyerowitz’s neck in the Channel 4 footage  – which are interspersed with the large format panoramas of the destruction and chaos throughout the book bestow upon their subjects a heroic stature. And that, I think is what he pictures are about – it’s there in the title – the aftermath, the clear up, the restoration of some sort of order to New Yorkers’ sense of them selves. And of course, they also are about inserting Meyerowitz himself into that narrative as a participant, reconnecting himself to the city and helping it remember itself and its actions.

You can only accommodate, unmodified, the positive, wartime narrative of ‘London can take it!’ by suppressing the fact that we (and my use of ‘we’ here, cannot be totally innocent, speaking as it does of a degree of identification with my parents’ generation) went on to totally flatten cities the length and breadth of Germany and that the German’s could ‘take it’ as well); likewise Meyerowitz’s pictures cannot be reconciled with the ongoing chaos in Iraq or Afghanistan (the Channel 4 documentary was aired on the day Kabul fell) without creating a much more complicated story about who the ‘we’ in question is (in this case specifically Americans – the parallel British narrative taking in the 7/7 Tube Bombings , a point at which London once again was delighted to be able to ‘take it,’ is different although no less partial).

The BBC animation goes on to state that the idea of the sublime was a powerful influence upon ‘Romanticism – the artistic movement that extolled the untamed power of the natural world.’ By invoking this untamed, natural power, Meyerowitz neatly sidesteps any question of the (human-made) politics of 9/11. The pictures are primarily a celebration of the people who went in clear up ground zero, made heroic by their juxtaposition with the sublime chaos unleashed, not by al qaeda (political) but by the collapse of the twin towers (natural). The dead are a secondary presence here (many of the people captured in the large format pictures are of course searching for body parts among the debris); a possible way the Channel 4 footage is more informative than the stills is there in the released rushes when Snow is warned not to go down ‘there’ (into the pit at the base of one of the towers) without putting on his mask, because it stinks of the decomposing bodies buried beneath the rubble for two months by the time of filming.

When I watched two of Sam Taylor Wood’s videos – the 2001 piece Still Life (a bowl of fruit decaying in a timelapse sequence) referenced in part 5 of the course book and even more so A little death (2002) where a rabbit decays over 4 minutes of film time – I was struck by how unpleasant making these sequences must have been – Christ! the stink!

Aftermath removes any idea of something outside the purely visual; the sound of digging and diggers, the smells and the taste in your mouth, the wobbliness of rubble beneath you feat, the heat that melted the soles of workers’ shoes are all missing. You are left with a pictorial vision of chaos, but one that has been ordered by the lens and the skill of the man taking the pictures into something approaching art and the eternal.


This invocation of the sublime (with its commensurate banishment of both the human causes of this horror and of much of the physicality of what was left behind) is precisely what I do not want to do with Grenfell tower for Assignment 4. While it is useful to have an ‘anti-template’, it is also a good thing to have something that may form a positive model. For that, I turned to Martha Rosler and her 1974 work, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems and her 1981 commentary upon that work (or possibly a work in its own right), In, Around, and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography).


Reference:

Towards Assignment 4 – David Campany and Late Photography

Again, I am coming back to things I have looked at during earlier courses, here with the work I did around the Tate Modern exhibition Conflict-Time-Photography (Nov 2014 – Mar 2015) which fed into my final assignment for The Art of Photography. However, I think my understanding of Campany’s essay has moved on considerably since then.

(At this point I should say Campany writes well and persuasively, choosing his words carefully  and using them to powerful rhetorical effect. You can tell that – at the time of writing in 2003 – he was not a particular fan of late photography…)

What was Campany on about? To start with, I’ll  break his examination of the problems with late photography down into three sections:

1: The TV documentary about Meyorowitz.

Reflections on Ground Zero (Channel 4, 2003) discusses Meyorowitz’s photos which will go on to appear in Aftermath (Phaidon) and be shown online and as part of exhibitions around the world. Campany’s essay starts by highlighting the contrast between television’s ‘state of the art news production’ and Meyerowitz’s ’60 year-old, Deardorff plate camera,’  between events happening live, globally and on TV with the slow ritual nature of large format photography, and between the complexity of the geopolitical situation and the simplicity of both the technology used by Meyerowitz and the message it appeared to be producing..

In the Channel 4 documentary, photographs were being positioned as superior to the television programme in which they were presented, despite containing ‘video images at least as informative as the photographs.’ I have had a look at the video that prompted Campany’s article (it is there, of course, on You Tube) and there is a possible argument to be made, qualifying Campany’s statements about television’s ability to make images ‘at least as informative and descriptive as the photographs’ and so act as a better medium of record than still photography. But of course, the ability of video to capture what someone is saying, rather than simply (?) presenting a static, mute portrait of an individual, opens up all sorts of possibilities for the construction of meaning.

The sanctioned status of the images taken by Meyerowitz (he was granted access to the ground zero site by the city authorities) will determine how they are viewed (and may mean that  they continue to stand out over time). They exemplify stills photography having ‘inherited a major role as undertaker, summariser or accountant [turning] up late, [wandering] through the places where things have happened.’

2: Photographs and Memory; Photographs and Stillness.

Campany describes this as being an approach that was becoming (in 2003) ‘a commonplace use of the medium’ – depicting the aftermath of events – ‘traces of traces, fragments, empty buildings empty streets, damage… static, sombre and straight,’ it is ‘cold not hot,’ ‘it forgoes the presentation of events in progress and cedes them to other media’ Pictures of events have, since the 1970s, been provided by television rather than by the Nikon-toting press cameraman; even the stills used in the press have often been taken from video footage.

And even the concept of ‘stillness’ is different from the way the Victorians perceived images in the days before cinema, Campany argues. Then, all pictures were ‘still’; now ‘still’ (like colour) is a choice and as such has its own meaning, one that is closely linked in the popular imagination to memory, the moment and the significant detail.

The habit of tracking and panning over still images (so prevalent it even was given its own name – the Ken Burns effect  – in iPhoto) is repeated in the original television footage of the documentary; it is very difficult to get a television camera pointed at an object or scene to maintain a static frame for any length of time, whereas with stills in a book or framed on a wall, or in a pile on a table in front of you, you can spend as much time looking as you wish, at whichever part you choose. This is, I think, significant. Confronted by a static image (be it a painting or a photograph) television’s preferred position is to act as a stand-in for the viewer, attempting to simulate the way we (the viewer) might look at a picture, reading it in sections as we move from detail to detail.

3: The late photograph and contemporary art.

While acknowledging and disparaging the existence of ‘ruin porn’ – photographs of crumbling grandeur in Detroit or any number of abandoned asylums, anyone? – in passing, Campany finds interest in work by other photographers working with the ‘traces of traces’. Sophie Ristelheuber’s pictures of the abandoned Iraqi defences from the first Gulf War or Paul Seawright’s series Sectarian Murders (or possibly his photographs taken in Afghanistan, after the campaign to dislodge the Taliban as part of the response to the attack on the twin towers – his picture Valley directly quotes Roger Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death, from his pictures of the Crimean War which are also referenced in Campany’s essay). Generally he can find both ‘a certain modernist reflection on the indexicality of the medium [of photography]’ and also reflection on the idea of photographs as evidence and documentary truth.

The best of these pictures are all authored by someone who has chosen and shaped what it is that they depict. Despite Meyerowitz’s claims that his pictures are the result of his being ‘there as a witness…without trying to put some formal idea of how to photograph it [the destruction]’  the pictures still display evidence of his accumulated ‘photographic skills, honed over several decades.’ The pictures become aesthetic objects and as such – and Campany invokes Allan Sekula here – run the risk of  being decontextualised ‘in order to make it enigmatic or melancholic or merely beautiful.’ In this way, what may appear to be a vehicle for mourning can at the same time ‘foster an indifference and political withdrawal that masquerades as concern.’

Rather than offering mute (unmediatied) witness to the events of the age, the late photograph can ‘leave us in permanent limbo, obliterating even the need [Campany’s emphasis] for analysis and bolstering a kind of liberal melancholy that shuns political explanation like a vampire shuns garlic.’


I will discuss Meyerowitz’s Ground Zero photographs in more detail in the post that follows this, but  – while I acknowledge their imperfection as a memory of the destruction of the twin towers itself –   I must say that it is much easier to track them down in a complete, high quality form (I simply ordered a copy of the book from Amazon) than it is to find the transmission details (or a high resolution copy of the full video) of the Channel 4 documentary. Possibly this means simply that time has moved on again and network television is no longer the primary way we experience (and remember) major events.

The internet has become our repository for the images (still or moving) that we use to make our memories of public (and increasingly of private) events. Instead of the official channels of information (newspapers; television; wedding photographs taken by a ‘proper’ wedding photographer) we use search engines to piece together our own chosen version of the events from fragments stored in a server farm somewhere ‘on the web’ . We may still pick and choose which links we follow according to what we think about the trustworthiness of the information to be found there (I’ll go for the Guardian or the BBC over Fox or the Daily Mail for news) but the idea of a single, official, authoritative source for images about major events like the one created by the city of New York and Meyerowitz seems to be a thing of the past.


Reference:

  • Campany, D (2003) Safety in numbness: some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’ accessed on Campany’s site (http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/) 01-v-18
  • Channel 4 News, London (2001) Reflections of ground zero; accessed (in 3 parts) on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0E496C00306D0177 01/5/18

assignment 4 – words and pictures

I probably woke up at about 7 am on the morning of June 14th 2017; certainly I was listening to the radio (Today on Radio 4) by 8. Gradually, I became aware that something was going on with a fire in a tower block in west London. I remember this.

I remember an interview with someone who had got out of the tower but remained at the scene. He described how residents had been told that if there was a fire, they should remain in their flats as their doors would keep a fire outside for the hour it would take fire fighters to get to them. The man being interviewed had ignored this advice and – as a result – had not been trapped inside. He described people who had stayed and waited shouting out of their windows. Today moved on to other things – Brexit, sport – but kept coming back to live reports and interviews from the fire. After the programme finished at 9, the fire remained the main item in the hourly news bulletins. It was obvious that something very bad had happened – was still happening – in west London.

On the fourteenth of June I didn’t go into my new workplace – on Monday 12th I had started a new job (for the same employer) and moved buildings from central London to Wood Lane further west along the central line – because I was catching a train up to Manchester to attend a conference for all the people associated with my new department. I carried on listening to the radio and did working-at-home-type work and then got the tube to Euston and headed north. It was only when I got back to London that I realised how close to the scene of the fire my new workplace was, but once I’d spotted it on the other side of the tube line to the East of Wood Lane and so, there, in front of me as I left work each day, it was impossible to ignore.

A week after the fire, I took this:

 
At the time, I wasn’t precisely sure why I took it  – I remember thinking that it looks just the same as it does in pictures so, really, what’s the point? – but somehow it seemed a necessary thing to do. Time passed.

And then, another day – a Monday in November – when I was working at home again. Start the Week was on, on Radio 4.  Darren McGarvey (aka Loki) – described as a ‘writer, rapper and hip-hop recording-artist’ – caught my attention as he spoke about his first journey to the West End of Glasgow, emerging from the subway at Hillhead and thinking ‘this is how people dress when they’re not afraid to be stabbed’. I could also have been one of those unafraid people, and I listened on, thinking it would be useful for the insider/outsider stuff I was thinking about for part 3. McGarvey was interesting and – like almost everyone on programmes like this he had a book out. I  looked the book up on Amazon and saw it had a ‘read inside’ tab; I clicked on the tab and almost immediately came across this quote in the introduction:

The materials proposed will provide the building with a fresh appearance that will not be harmful to the area or views around it. Due to its height the tower is visible from the adjacent Avondale Conservation Area to the south and the Ladbroke Conservation Area to the east, The changes to the existing tower will improve its appearance especially when viewed from the surrounding area. Therefore views into and out of the conservation areas will be improved by the proposals.

Planning Application, 2014, for the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, London

Instantly I associated this with my view as I left work in the evening. Almost instantly. I realised that this provided something that I could hang the Words and Pictures assignment on: the gulf between this single stated aim of cladding Grenfell and the actual outcome was immense. I found the two conservation areas on a map and worked out (height tables to work out where the tower would definitely be visible over intervening buildings; a ruler to find likely direct lines of sight) where you would have a view from the surrounding areas. In January I made the first of four walks around the area of the tower; in March I made a second, walking from Ladbroke Grove down towards the tower through Avondale. And then finally, I did brief detours to the north of the tower and to the south in Holland park.

I had the pictures I needed and the words to go with them. It had not been hard to work out what to shoot (and the points where you could see the tower were not that plentiful) and I had a few ideas how to combine them with text, but it never does any harm to contextualise a bit. I decided to look again at two bodies of work (and some of the critical work around them) that could help shape my final presentation of the project: Joel Meyerowitz’s photographs of the clear up of Ground Zero in New York and the earlier (and much more interestingly radical) series of pictures of the Bowery taken by Martha Rosler in the seventies.

Taking the pictures had been easy; working out why I had taken them and what their impact might mean morally and politically might be harder to achieve.  I tried to consolidate all the strands that might feed into the assignment into a mind map (at the top of this post) and set to work re-reading David Campany’s 2003 essay on Late Photography…

 


Reference:

  • Start the Week (BBC Radio 4: 13/11/17) Anger and Deprivationhttps://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09drjb7 (accessed 7/5/18)
  • McGarvey, D (2017) Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass;  Edinburgh, Luath Press Ltd