In Mike Nichol’s 1989 film Working Girl, Melanie Griffiths wears a pair of almost luminously white, box-fresh trainers as she catches the subway in from the ‘burbs to her work as a receptionist in New York; only when she is sat at her desk does she force her feet into the pair of formal, heeled shoes demanded by her station. The rest of the film (as I remember it from a single viewing, more than thirty years ago) revolves around the differences encoded in her public/private working/off-duty footwear and her socially-hobbled and her mobile selves.
Already, only a month or so after these pictures were taken, they start to offer up information about the great heatwave of July 2018 and how people behaved during it. As more time passes, other details will surface and become important: that pair of trainers was only available for three months in Spring 2018; the lino on the central line stopped being dark grey when new carriages were introduced in 2021; I had that exact colour of nail varnish; we thought the summer was so hot back then, before global warming really kicked in…
Men and women wear different types of shoes, although this – like so many other things – has become less starkly binary over the course of my life. There are social codes – which may be falling into abeyance – around shoes: ‘no brown in town’ for workers in the city; ‘no stilettos’ or ‘no trainers’ in nightclubs; some stubborn people may still wear socks with sandals, even if I didn’t spot any.
Then: how comfortable is someone with the limited space they have to occupy? Have they taken care of their feet? Adorned them even? Which normally-hidden tattoos will surface now that it is summer? Can you tell what is being piped into their ears by their phone by looking at their feet?
You can tell a lot about people from looking their feet. Or at any rate that’s the theory. I once got a place on a training scheme because my docs were sticking out at the bottom of my Oxfam suit trousers while I answered the three-person panel’s questions with my feet stretched out in front of me.
I was told later that my success at the interview in part was down to those black Doctor Martens’ Airwear boots signalling that I wasn’t the sort of person who normally wore a suit and that they had liked that subtly conveyed message. I hope I confessed (now it was too late to offer my place to someone else) that I only was wearing a pair of hastily shined-up boots because the heel had come off my good shoes that morning. Knowing me, I probably did.
Encoding and decoding meaning based on someone’s dress can be fraught with all sorts of danger, as both Harrison Ford and Melanie Griffith found out in 1989 and we can still find out, every time we get dressed and go outside into the world. I turned out not to be the sort of person who wore Docs with suits; perhaps someone who was that person would have made more of the opportunity that I was being offered…
While shooting my pictures of feet, I wrote (and then as things went on, revised) a short set of Roy Stryker-esque rules to keep me on track:
Early on, I gave up on trying to get a serendipitous spectrum (black/red to violet/white) as there were too many brown shoes while no one wearing yellow shoes sat down opposite me and in the end I had between around forty pairs of feet to choose from, with up to four ‘goes’ at getting the picture I wanted.
One of my tutor’s comments on the pictures for assignment 3 (also taken in the tube) had been that I needed to set my camera to use a higher ISO to improve the overall focus of my pictures. I had done this and have noted that – having got rid of my 10 year old D50 – probably don’t need to be so conservative with my sensor sensitivity setting; general tests seem to confirm that both my D610 and Fujifilm X100-s (the camera used for these pictures) are much less noisy at a high ISO setting than my earlier DSLR which only went up to 1600 and wasn’t very happy when you did. Despite this, the tube is not a perfect environment for photography – the movement of the train combined with low lighting, particularly at floor level makes sharp deep focus a tricky thing to achieve. I was able to do a simple, technical first edit to reject anything that was not crisp at the toe-point of at least one shoe and preferably both.
Further early pictures were rejected on the basis of the ‘no rucksacks’ rule; a pity because there were some smashing colour combinations and pairs of shoes worn by people who wedged their rucksacks between their feet. However, the cut off at the top of the frame would not work well in terms of isolating one person’s feet.
All three rucksack pictures have quite interesting arrangements of feet within their un-cropped frame. The fixed lens on the X100 doesn’t isolate a single pair of feet in the frame, so pretty much all of the pictures had other people’s feet to the sides. This was not something I wanted for my eventual typology, however attractive the effect. I began to work with the pictures that remained.
I needed to work out a workable crop. To start with I tried a 5×4 ratio to reference Sanders’ and the Bechers’ use of a view camera to make their pictures.
Unfortunately, this only worked with people whose feet were relatively close together – already here the woman’s feet are beginning to push towards the edges of the frame. I went for the as-shot, 6×4 ratio of the camera I was using, to allow the pictures to breathe a bit more:
This resulted in a more comfortable crop, but I thought I would try one more thing before applying it to all the remaining candidate shots: I went for a portrait format version in both 6×4 and 5×4; the 5×4 looked better:
Again though, it seemed a bit cramped and, because all the pictures had been taken in a conventional landscape format didn’t leave a lot of room for adjusting the vertical position of the feet in the cropped pictures (the 4×6 was even worse in this respect – you had to include the whole height of the image to get in even a relatively narrow spread of feet)
I quite like the effect of this, but for the purposes of the assignment, 6×4 landscape format it was. I also straightened up the horizontal perspective using the junction between the bench seat and the floor of the carriage as the standard.
David Bate – in the chapter on portraits in Photography: the key concepts – has written about how we read pictures of people, using expression, posture, clothing etc. to try to identify (or identify with) the person pictured, almost without thinking about it. This can be applied to partial portraits showing details of someone’s person, as well as to a head shot or a full-length picture.
Looking at the pictures each evening, I had tried to work out how different people would take different things from the pictures: someone interested in footwear would be able to draw one set of conclusions from the style and colour of the shoes – much as Stephen Shore talks of the paints used on the cars in Uncommon Places becoming more and more evocative of the time depicted – while another might read different things about how relaxed people were feeling that morning or evening (and are the people going home, more relaxed than the people commuting at the start of their day?); a historian of the tube would know which line was which by the colour of the flooring and on and on. I took this difference between the dark Central Line and the much lighter, Victoria Line flooring and decided to use it as a further organising device: an even number of dark and light backgrounds could be used to give a chequer-board effect to the overall display of pictures. The Central Line is much dimmer than the Victoria (somewhere between one and two stops) so some of the pictures from the second part of my journey were taken with a longer exposure time , making it harder to get them sharp, unless I waited until we were stationary in a station.
I could have further increased the sensitivity of the sensor, of course, but I didn’t – I’m only beginning to really process Martin Parr’s pronouncement on digital photography: (‘The thing people do not realise with digital is that what you should be constantly adjusting is the iso’) and need to do more systematic tests of how both my main cameras perform. The result of this was that I had a smaller set of Central Line pictures to work with, so an easier task of getting them down to a final candidate list.
At this point, I went to Boots and made 6×4 prints of about 28 pictures (eleven Central line and seventeen Victoria). I tried to arrange them into a grid and realised that the final organising principle (to go with even numbers of men and women and alternating dark and light flooring) could easily be a continuous line running through the set, provided by the junction between the bench seat and the floor – a single silver bar on the Victoria Line and a double gunmetal one on the Central giving a skirting-board effect; I would use the lower of the two central bars to provide a unifying constant, running through all the pictures. Neatening up the position of the line (a third down from the top of the frame) proved impossible to reconcile with the other framing rules. More pictures were eliminated, leaving me eighteen or so to play with.
Another difference between the Central line and the Victoria is that the central block of seats has a two-seat wide recess by the pole at the centre of the carriage. It took me a while to realise that sitting in one of the recessed seats changed the angle so much that pictures taken there didn’t really work with the ones taken over the standard-width aisle elsewhere. Reduced further the number of useable Central Line pictures.
Which meant all I needed to do then was prune down the Victoria Line shots (a subjective process that I have not fully unpacked) to include the ones that I liked while balancing out the genders and to write up the Artist’s Statement.
Towards the end of my assignment four tutorial, I outlined what I thought I would do next: a typology of play-park furniture (slides, swings, climbing frames, things like that) taking Bernd and Hilla Becher’s industrial forms idea and applying it as a way of commenting on my identity as both a parent and a photographer. I would take the pictures (as far as possible) using a medium format film camera; they would be in colour; light conditions would be low-contrast; there would be no foreground figures. I even went so far as to start taking the pictures.
I like both of these, but it wasn’t really working out. To get pictures without kids climbing over the equipment, I’d need to be able to get to the various play parks either early in the morning (for pictures that would work while looking west) or the evening (while looking east); finding the time to zoom off on my bike before or after work wasn’t really practical while I was trying to pack up stuff before moving house. To get the low-contrast pictures I wanted called for days when the weather wasn’t bright and sunny and this summer hasn’t been very good for that.
Reluctantly, I put the idea (and its related sub-set of benches in play parks where I’d wearily sit while Alice or James ran around climbing or sliding or swinging) to one side and cast around for something that would be suitable for the assignment but did not require me to find lumps of non-existent time to complete it.
Then, one day I paused and looked down towards the ground. This is what I saw (or at any rate a photo of a reconstruction of what I saw).
Which did not necessarily conjure up the image of a middle-aged bloke that stares back at me when I catch a glimpse of myself reflected in a shop window or in a picture of me taken by someone else.
I began thinking about shoes and the messages about their wearers encoded in them.
Earlier this year, I attended an event where one of the speakers – as an aside – said that you could tell an awful lot about people from looking at their shoes. It was easily the most interesting thing anyone said that day and I began to think about approaching a range of people at work and seeing if they’d let me take pictures of their empty shoes, lit and presented as still lives. The resulting pictures would then be presented as a set, identified with their job titles and the associated salary band. Again, an interesting project, but one that I haven’t got round to doing anything with yet.
Then, one day shortly after I’d moved house, and shortly after I’d stood staring at my feet, I was sitting on the tube fiddling with the settings of my camera (possibly thinking of Walker Evans or Martin Parr in Japan) when I looked across the aisle and saw this:
I thought of the old joke about the extrovert engineer who stared at your shoes while he (and it always is a he in this joke) talks to you. And then after I had changed at Oxford Circus (the action described in assignment three), I took a second photograph:
And on my way home that evening, I took another couple of pictures; I was off and running. The pictures built up quite quickly.
For the next fortnight (the two weeks running up to our break in Orkney) I took pictures of the shoes worn by everyone who sat opposite me on my journeys to and from work. If I wanted to compile a decent typography, I needed either twelve (three rows of four) or fifteen (five rows of three) subjects to make up a nice grid of variations. I was doing rough edits of the pictures each evening to determine what worked and what I still needed to picture each evening and this fed into the next day’s shooting.
On the 26th of July, I got home from work and emptied my memory card for the final time. Two and a bit weeks later, I got back to Walthamstow from my holiday and began to edit in earnest.
I am happy with the pictures I have made for this assignment. There is a roughness about them – they are not overly aestheticised; the tower tends to be in an awkwardly central, high point in the pictures; the edges of the frame are quite rough, often with ‘stuff’ intruding – and no there is no attempt to overpower the emotions of the viewer. Shot with a long lens (and sometimes cropped to exaggerate this) they are distanced from their subject as I am; they are about the relationship between the things they portray rather than about me and what I feel.
The photographs of the texts have all been created in photoshop: composites of scanned text and a photograph of an A6 record card for the planning quotes and a complete rearrangement of a sentence from the Gary Younge article in the Guardian to isolate the relevant words while still indicating their source. I think it is interesting that – when looking for something that reads as ‘official’ – I still reach for a typewriter font (Courier) and lined record cards. Possibly a look closer to that of a screenshot would have been better.
I did experiment with some other post-production treatments of my west London pictures. Following on from my third assignment examination of Paul Graham’s recent work I tried out the heavily over-exposed look he used in the first of his America shot bodies of work – American Night – trying to find in almost totally white photographs a visual expression of people not wanting to look or to see the squalor and poverty in parts of US society, It was an interesting experiment in trying to make Grenfell Tower disappear even further into the haze above London (and to accentuate the plastic shroud that was being erected as I made my photographic expeditions into Notting Hill, but they added nothing to my project overall.
I also could have made more explicit links back to Rosler’s Bowery pictures: I could have converted the West London pictures back to black and white; I could have created a fake 35mm frame border and superimposed it on all the pictures. I did not, because that would have shifted the balance of the piece away from being about something that has happened and towards being a photographic piece about photography.
I think the 13 pictures (and one black space for punctuation) work well as a sequence. The texts and the related views develop and take on complexity as you work through them.
I have resisted any impulses to try and make this a more complex work – the temptation is always there to add more and more elements – estate agents’ notices for properties in the area; maps; other commentaries from the papers; other words; this would only have the effect of diluting the sequence’s impact without adding any greater understanding.
I have tried it out on a number of people without giving them guidance as to what it is that they’re going to see; as a narrative it takes them through a simple sequence with them taking from it something of my desired meaning while leaving them space to interpret it themselves.
Quakerism (I’m not a Quaker, but never mind that here) includes the concept of being ‘moved to speak.’ This is a useful way to describe how I felt when I stumbled across the words that punctuate this short body of work – they pretty much instantly gave focus and a viewpoint onto something that I was already photographing but without really understanding why until that point.
As such it is fairly atypical of both my work and my normal subject matter; it is neither oblique in its politics nor concerned particularly with my own self-expression. However, I don’t think it is the start of my embracing some sort of neo-social documentary approach, but it has allowed me to make work that is definitely not about me. While I cannot rely on being sufficiently moved to make this a prerequisite of my engagement with a subject for other assignments going forward, it is interesting to see that I can adopt a different and I hope quite powerful stance towards the world around me when the subject matter demands it.
For me, the most interesting thing about the journey I’ve made through this section of the course is just how applicable Martha Rosler’s critique of documentary photography is to images being made now, neatly bypassing the whole development of ‘art photography’ as a galley and auction house phenomenon over the last forty-odd years. Post Modernism may have led to a large number of highly enjoyable art works, but there are times (and subjects) which are not suited to a puckish high-concept approach. Rosler nailed this (and also the tendency of galleries to turn concerned works of the past into art objects) in the early eighties, before Post Modernism won and subjectivity ate everything.
While she did not set out anything approaching a manifesto for a politically committed documentary or even a set of techniques that might be used to develop one, she did provide a model for me to use to examine the relationship between words and pictures, intentions and deeds.
The natural home of documentary photography is not the gallery wall, or displayed boastfully on the walls of big corporations. I have already reflected that Grenfell Tower should not be used as a backdrop for selfies, or as subject matter that says more about the photographer than the thing in front of the camera. Perhaps I should also have stated that pictures of Grenfell probably shouldn’t be made into a limited edition run of enormous prints, designed as investments. Although of course, despite its 1974 premise and her later commentary upon it, a vintage set of the pictures that make up Rosler’s Bowery would presumably be shockingly expensive if it was auctioned today, regardless of the motivation behind it…
At the end of my second walk taking photographs for this assignment (down from Ladbroke Grove and through the Avondale conservation area) I noticed a laminated notice cable-tied to the railings of the western-most spur of maisonettes that fan out south from the base of Grenfell Tower. I bent down and read it.
I hadn’t noticed the laminate during my first walk (around the tower site) and so already had a lot of photographs taken from quite close to the tower’s base with a long lens. They showed damage to the tower in considerable detail. I had also taken pictures which showed how the remaining members of the community were both memorialising the fire and it victims while trying to gain some control over the narrative of the fire in preparation for the upcoming enquiry.
At the end of that first walk, as I was waiting to get the tube at Latimer Road station (one of the stations where the platforms are on the surface) I saw the tower looming over the awning on the other side of the tracks. It was quite a striking image. As I raised my camera and a woman told me sternly: ‘Some people round here don’t like people taking photographs of the tower.’ I stopped and thought. ‘Doesn’t it depend what you do with them’ I said? ‘Just saying’ said the woman, turning away while clearly putting herself in the no photographs group. I didn’t take that picture. But I did make my second walk up over the hill and down from Holland Park, taking photographs of the tower as I went.
At this point I could have (perhaps should have; still not sure) simply shelved the project and found something else to do for this assignment. I didn’t, so why?
This ties in almost too neatly with the opening of section two of Rosler’s In, around and afterthoughts (1981) where she reflects on the reaction by the residents of the Bowery to being photographed (‘you are likely to be met with hostility, for the men on the Bowery are not particularly interested in immortality and stardom, and they’ve had plenty of experience with the Nikon set’) and where the people can reasonably be described as ‘victims of the camera‘. This leads on to her discussion of the fearless documentarian, risking all to bring back their despatches from the edge.
I had no interest in using my camera as a tool to make victims of the people who still live around Grenfell Tower or of seeking out survivors of the fire for inclusion here. They were already well advanced in the process of creating their own narrative(s) and memorials and these activities have fed into the enquiry and the press. They have successfully broken down the monolithic idea of ‘the dead’ into a series of portraits of individuals – real people with lives and hopes and fears. The local community – supported by sections of the press – are doing this without any help from me. They have a voice and they are using it at the enquiry, in the media and on the streets.
While I did not abandon what I was doing, I realised that I certainly needed to be careful in setting its scope. I already knew that what I was doing involved real, serious subject matter. While I could not untake the pictures I had already taken (I could have deleted them from my hard disks of course, but that is something I have great difficulty doing, even in the case of images which are wildly deficient in some way) I could reassess which of them I would use.
I resolved to use only pictures where there was an obvious distance between the tower and my camera. Ideally there would be some sort of object – a leafless tree, some fencing a row of terraced houses – partially occluding the view. There would be no ‘stolen’ pictures of people (going through my contact sheets, there weren’t any of those anyway). There would be no attempt to aestheticise the pictures or to awaken in the viewer their sense of the sublime. The photographs would show what the tower looked like from outside its immediate area. They would only be there to contrast with the statements from the planning documents. They would not draw attention to me, the photographer.
I think the key thing here is not whether you take photographs but rather what sort of pictures you do take and what you do with them afterwards. Don’t take selfies with the tower in the background. Don’t stick the pictures up on Facebook or Instagram as if you had just come back from holiday or had a nice meal. Have a clear idea why you are taking photographs in the first place. Remember that getting involved with real events is a political action before it is an artistic one.
(I am, of course, also aware of the irony that this post is in part ‘about me’ and how – while I did not take physical risks in making this work – I have potentially placed myself in a place of moral and ethical hazard. Such is my bravery. Such is my burning need to show you the truth.)
I don’t think the act of taking photographs is automatically hurtful (or for that matter automatically beneficial either). While I made most of the pictures for this assignment with my D610, I don’t aspire to be part of Rosler’s ‘Nikon set.’
I don’t think my assignment is disrespectful either to the dead or to the living. It expresses a truth, but that of course is only a partial truth. There is plenty in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea planning documents which is not concerned with the visual impact of the refurbished tower. If there is a problem with all this, and my response to it, it can be found somewhere in the certainty with which I seized upon the gap between some words and their visual contradiction as being suitable raw material for what is simply an assignment making up part of a course…
To view the pictures larger, click on fig.1 and then scroll through the rest.
When I started thinking seriously about this assignment in January, I didn’t realise that it would turn out to be as hotly topical as it appears to be now. I did not know that, as I began to write this introduction, the Guardian would be running a week-long series of short biographies of each of the seventy two dead; or that the next issue of the London Review of Books will contain one single article – an investigation into the Grenfell Tower fire and its political aftermath by Andrew O’Hagan. I did not know that the Grenfell enquiry would be finishing its second week as I prepared the pictures for printing. And I did not realise that the fire, its horror and its possible causes would be all over the media once again.
There are a lot of words and a lot of pictures out there at the moment; can mine possibly add anything to them that hasn’t been said or shown elsewhere, better? Possibly not.
But then, most of the media coverage has been aimed straight at the public’s emotions, maybe with the aim of disarming them. We are all angry and we are all looking for individuals to blame. Perhaps we are – once again – being misdirected.
This series should perhaps be seen as structured around a simple rhetorical figure. Each diptych panel comprises an oxymoron – a direct statement of opposites. The texts and the photographs do not easily occupy the same space (or at any rate they should not); in the gulf that separates them, it is to be hoped that the viewer – who, like me, is more likely to be the sort of person who has benefitted from housing policy over the last forty odd years – will find space to consider how the stated goal of an action could fall so short of its mark and of the way the people who actually lived there were never truly at the heart of the rationale for the tower block’s renovation.
The pictures here are mine but – like Martha Rosler’s 1974 photographs of the Bronx – ‘they are not ‘reality newly viewed.’ There are only a limited number of places that you can get a recogniseable view of Grenfell and in researching this, I have seen minor variations on almost every picture I have taken as I circled the tower and the scaffolding, watching the grey shroud creep up floor by floor and week by week.
The words quoted from the Kensington and Chelsea Planning documents in the first four diptychs shown here are certainly not mine either; while they more closely match my position, nor are Gary Younge’s in the sixth.
What is mine – what I hope comes across here – is the disbelief I felt when I first read the extracts from the planning documents and saw the direct contradiction between the words and their final outcome, shown in the pictures. That, and some sense that something about the whole way we treat where we live needs to change.
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
I have had my words ready for this assignment since last November: I had taken the short paragraph (a condensation of the planning summary for the refurbishment of Grenfell tower) from the introduction to Darren McGarvey’s book, Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass. I made searches online found those paragraphs among the public records on the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s planning department site (the case reference is PP/12/04097) and decompiled them, breaking them down into short sentences.
Then, by splitting the reference to the Ladbroke and the Avondale conservation areas into two, I had five short texts and a reference. I also – from the planning proposal documentation had the internal document references for the individual sentences.
To balance the words, one picture for each sentence, I therefore needed five photographs. This later rose to six, after I had decided that a paragraph from a Guardian article – The powerful will only see tragedy when it suits them (11/05/18) – would round the narrative out, opening it up to be about more than the Grenfell fire itself.
By the end of March, I had amassed a number of photographs of Grenfell tower. In addition to those I’d taken from Wood Lane on my way to and from work, I had made four walks around the surrounding areas of west London.
This process repeated my journey around Kirkwall taking pictures from the four points of the compass forming part of my square mile exercise at the start of this module. Just as St Magnus Cathedral stands out from the Kirkwall skyline, Grenfell Tower is ever present – appearing above the roofline of terraced streets or through gaps in the buildings as you move in a wide circle around it.
My first shoot in January took me close to the tower itself. The second ranged up over the hill from Holland Park and down through the two conservation areas named in the planning documents towards the tower. From a bus, I had seen that there was a point on Holland Park Avenue where you got very clear views of the tower; I went back and took a small number of views. Finally, I went for a walk up to the north and back down under the A40 to get some pictures from that viewpoint.
Having gathered my words and pictures, I started pulling in the set of references that (I hope) give context to this small body of work made in the streets around Grenfell Tower.
Joel Meyerowitz World Trade Center Archive (and David Campany’s thoughts on late photography) seemed a good place to start. Although Meyerowitz took his photographs as an insider (a New Yorker, he felt a powerful need to be involved in some way in the ongoing narrative of 9/11) I already knew that what I was doing should not aspire to being a ‘mirror’. I can only act as an outsider looking in at the Grenfell fire. It is not my tragedy and this work cannot reasonably be about me.
I needed something to give me a different formal approach. Martha Rosler was suggested by my earlier reading of the extended examination of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother in Liz Wells’ Photography – A Critical Introduction where it is one of the critical texts discussed by Wells and her co-author, Derrick Price. I had been struck by her juxtaposition of text with flat, uninflected photographs of the fronts of buildings in the Bowery seemed to offer a way to combine words and pictures in a way that managed to be critical of the social position that they were derived from; her description of both strands as ‘inadequate systems’ also neatly captured my sense of powerlessness when confronted by the awfulness of the fire.
I had already decided not to use any of my location photographs that included ‘found’ text.
(fig.1 shows a sign that appeared one morning along my route to work; suspecting it would not be there long, I took a picture; sure enough, it had been removed by lunchtime)
I am not trying to appropriate other people’s words nor to make myself appear closer to the experience of the fire than I am. I am not trying to awaken the conscience of any audience these pictures may have; you are free to draw your own conclusions from them. Of course, I hope your conclusion will be close to my own, but there is – I think – scope for variation.
To achieve this I have appropriated Rosler’s presentation – double-width panels with photographed text on one side and documentary-style photographs on the other – wholesale. Where she worked in black and white (The bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems is a pre-Egglestone, pre-Shore, pre-non-commercial-use-of-colour work) I have chosen colour. It is the way we see the world now, and black and white can seem simply to be an appeal to judge pictures as art, or against photographs taken during the heroic age of photo journalism between the 1930s and the mid-seventies. I have not tried to aestheticise the street views; they are plain pictures which are not aiming for any profound emotional response. Unlike Meyerowitz, I am not reaching for the sublime.
I manufactured the record cards with text which make up six of the thirteen assignment pictures in photoshop – they are not records or sentences, they are pictures of words presented in a way which I hope signifies. They should be read as such.
The brief for this assignment asks for an open narrative (one which does not overly direct the viewer along a specific track to a pre-ordained closure); I have tried to leave space for viewers to work with the words and the pictures, deriving their own meaning as they pass through the sequence of untitled pictures. If the pictures of text are viewed as captions, I hope they act as relays, setting off flurries of association rather than as anchors, keeping the pictures in place as simple illustrations of fact.
The planning permission sentences all concern the surface appearance of the tower, after cladding has been applied. They seem only to be concerned with the needs of people who do not live in the tower. The refurbishment’s effects will not simply be benign; they shall be positively beneficial. The pictures give the lie to this. In the gulf between words and pictures, between intention and result, I think there exists sufficient space for reflection, for the viewer to draw their own conclusions.
If I wished, I could give my assignment the emotive title, The Road to Hell…
But I shall not. I believe my intentions are good, but there is no sense in tempting fate.
Other works referred to in passing here are referenced fully in the earlier posts which deal with them in more depth.
(Unless it is stated otherwise, all quotes in this post come from Martha Rossler’s 1981 essay, In around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography). The essay was written later than, but included as a third work alongside, The Bowery in two indadequate descriptive systems in Rosler’s publication, 3 Works (1981). It provides a commentary on the pictures, and can perhaps be seen as a third (inadequate) descriptive system…)
When I first read In around and afterthoughts (a couple of years ago now), I was delighted to be reading something that took me back to being my much younger self, at university in the early eighties and studying a subject that ended in ‘studies,’ a time when all this stuff seemed still to be up for grabs. The familiarity of the language, the oppositional political position, the absence of any sense that if you hadn’t seen a picture mentioned, you would just be able to find it with a couple of clicks of a keyboard, all this felt really comfortable to me.
Now of course, it also reads as a historical document. In around and afterthoughts is a postcard from a time before the baddies won, when ‘oppositional’ could be seen as a political and social position when neither monetarism nor post modernism had swept all obstacles from their path. But also, post-crash, there is once again a relevance to Rosler’s work. If Jeremy Corbyn is leader of the Labour Party, why shouldn’t other figures (and more importantly their ideas) from forty years ago take a step back in from the margins?
The essay opens with three numbered sections, dealing with the development of documentary photography (both in terms of the intention of the photographer, the subjects of the pictures and their expected audience) from the end of the nineteenth century up to the mid-seventies, when Rosler took her series of pictures in the Bowery.
Section 1 looks at documentary’s tabloid/sensational beginnings, literally shining a light (or a burst of flash powder) on the dark, unseen corners of society and how this came ‘to represent the social conscience of liberal sensibility presented in visual imagery.’ The Bowery – New York’s ‘archetypal skid row’ – and the people who lived there were from documentary’s beginnings grist to photographers such as Jacob Riis’s mill. The intended audience was more privileged than the derelicts in the pictures and the expected response was charity – ‘an argument for the preservation of [the givers’] wealth’ – and limited social reform, ‘giving a little in order to mollify the dangerous classes below’. Documentary became institutionalised (you think of the work of the FSA in America during the depression) and – even when taken by insiders – workers’ film and photo societies etc – suggested a need for reform of the existing system rather than any radical changes to it and the existing social order.
Section 2 looks at the situation at the time Rosler was writing in the early eighties. In America the response to the depression (Roosevelt’s New Deal) and the post second world war boom had run out of steam; Ronald Reagan had been elected president. ‘The War on Poverty has been called off. Utopia has been abandoned, and liberalism itself has been deserted.’ Alongside this, ‘The exposé, the compassion and outrage of documentary fueled by the dedication of reforem has shaded over into combinations of exoticism, tourism, voyeurism […] trophy hunting – and careerism.’ Even when there is still some remaining element of showing things to expose something awful, there is still only a call for the ‘us’ of the viewers to feel pity (and possibly to donate to a charity) while admiring the bravery of the photographer who has spared us the need to go and see ‘them’ (or in the case of a ‘natural’ disaster, ‘it’) for ourselves. ‘Causality is vague, blame is not assigned, fate cannot be overcome.’
Section 3 – Rosler sees documentary’s purpose as having moved from being about its subject matter to being about the heroic photographer: ‘What has ceased to be news becomes testimonial to the bearer of the news.’ Photographs are presented as the work of individuals; what they depict becomes secondary. They allow the viewer to vicariously experience things that are distasteful, dangerous, or far-flung. They become opportunities to view things seen as ‘other’ rather than as subjects for compassion or charity or reform. ‘Documentary’ pictures can act as art or as advertisement, as substitute for actual travel or as romantic depictions of other cultures, always seen from the perspective shared between the photographer and the viewer.
Along side this there was the reinvention of documentary photography as something that has changed its focus from the social causes of the first half of the twentieth century (seen in the work of Hine and the FSA and Robert Frank) to point instead towards more personal individual ends. And so Dorothea Lange had given way to Diane Arbus.
Documentary photography had become spectacle and been severed from its earlier political purpose; viewing it had become a question of connoisseurship (in the gallery) or a test of the viewers’ courage inspiring in them ‘anxiety and perverse fascination’ when viewed as images in the mass media, providing (in John Lydon’s words as he opened the Sex Pistols’ fourth single) ‘A cheap holiday in other people’s misery.’
The remainder of Rosler’s essay (3 much shorter sections) examines what she was trying to do with her photographing of the Bowery. She begins by examining what pictures of ‘drunken bums’ show (people ‘to be finally judged as vile’) and what they are not (‘a treatise on political economy,’ analysing the pressures which lead to members of society falling out of its bottom). It is this analysis that pictures are inadequate to provide. There will be no people ‘captured’ and displayed as trophies from Rosler’s expeditions into skid row.
The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems is made up of twenty four rectangular framed panels. All of the panels have room for two 6:4 prints mounted on a black background. All twenty four of the panels have a print of typewritten words, photographed and enlarged; twenty one of them also have a black and white photograph taken in the Bowery. None of the pictures have people in them, though they all contain evidence of human activity in the form of shop fronts, abandoned bottles and other slum-area city detritus. This is described as ‘radical metonomy’ – the street standing in for the condition of the people who live there.
Although the work does not form a typology, the installation views of the panels show them displayed in a regular grid. Rosler refers to the way there are two groups of words: ‘First the adjectives, begging with playful metaphor […] A second series begins, of nouns belonging firmly to the Bowery…’ The adjectives occupy the right-hand side of the diptyches; the nouns the left.
Neither the pictures nor the words are intended to be original or offering a new perspective. They are inadequate to the task of making ‘an argument about social relations,’ but in Rosler’s view perhaps they contain ‘the germ of another documentary’ that is not given high status by art of the media, but which instead is ‘committed to the exposure of specific abuses […] a body of documentary works about militancy or about self-organisation, or works meant to support them.’
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).