Category Archives: Research and Reflection

exercise 5.2 – exhausting a place

I thought the premise of this exercise was so interesting – ‘Choose a viewpoint, perhaps looking out of your window or from a café in the central square, and write down everything you can see. No matter how boring it seems or how detailed, just write it down. Spend at least an hour on this exercise’ – that I never quite got round to doing it, as I was so interested in working out where  – the threatened open space beside Walthamstow Central? staring out of the window of The Chequers as the market packs up for the evening? somewhere in Orkney? somewhere in Glasgow? somewhere in Salford? – however, I did manage to publish my jotted notes from a train journey.

This does not mean it won’t be something I try to do in the future and I may even try and insert it into a suitable place in a later course. The subtitle of Christian Licoppe’s 2015 paper on exhausting an augmented place – Georges Perec, observer-writer of urban life, as a mobile locative media user – could fit with Digital Image and Culture; using the exercise as a starting point for an examination of space could be applied to any number of landscape, documentary or ‘self and other’ situations. Indeed a quote jumped out at me this morning from an article found by fellow student Nuala Mahon and linked on the OCA Photography facebook group page:

“Whenever Frank went into a new town,” Greenough said, “he tried to find one or two objects or scenes that for him symbolized that place.” That doesn’t mean he was cozying up to the diner counter and getting to know the locals. “You don’t get the sense that he’s really talking with people,” Greenough added—but rather drifting in the background, shooting in hotel lobbies and bars, at funerals and political rallies and outside auto factories”

– Scott Indrisek: Why Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ Matters Today


As for photographic treatments of places that might complement Perec’s short book, I found myself pondering three different approaches:

1 – Stephen Shore: In Uncommon Places (known to me from the expanded version published by Thames and Hudson in 2014) Stephen Shore collects pictures taken with a large format camera on a series of road trips he made across America in the 1970s. They are very different to the photographs he took on an earlier series of trips out of New York that are collected as American Surfaces. These pictures are much more carefully composed and framed; obviously they took much more time to envisage and set up. The idea of taking a ‘screenshot’ of what was in front of him (as Shore describes himself doing in the introduction to American Surfaces) is gone; these pictures are not spontaneous snapshots; something vernacular has been superseded by something more coolly calculated.

While you certainly feel as if you are able to get to know his viewpoint and subject, there is little sense of Shore’s exhausting a location in  Perec’s sense. They are static scenes, isolated in time. This doesn’t mean that I dislike them (or that I will not try to emulate them) but that they do not really fit the brief here.

2 – Chris Dorley-Brown: I used to live about ten minutes up the Dalston High Street from the Rio Cinema, so when I saw its unmistakable facade taking up most of a double spread in the Observer, I was naturally going to read the whole article and then to buy the book it came from. Unlike Shore’s single, large format pictures, Dorley-Brown’s are composites, designed to resemble LF photography, but made up from many individual photographs: ‘a simultaneous snapshot of events that happened over an hour’ (Bromwich).  The pictures are assembled seamlessly, in the manner of Andreas Gursky’s massive panoramas. The effect is strange – a number of people cross the farm in each picture, but none of them seems to be aware of the others (obviously – they were not occupying the same point in the space-time continuum when they were photographed) while the perspective has the same strangely precise linearity that estate agents’ perspective corrected cramped interiors have. There is something up with them, but – without having the trick explained to you, you might not quite be able to put your finger on it, 

3 – David Hockney: At the huge retrospective of Hockney’s work at Tate Britain last year, one of his photographic collages  – Pearblossom Hwy. 11–18th April 1986, #1 (1986) offered a model for a picture which would not try to ape a single photograph. Where Dorley-Brown’s pictures are taken from a single point of view, Hockney moved in and out of the scene before him. He describes the process of making the 850 exposures thus:  ‘[each] was taken close to the surface of every element. I was up a ladder photographing the road sign or the cactus. We always took a big ladder, because I knew I needed the ladder – otherwise you have a standard, lens perspective of the object. The markings on the road were done from a ladder, you had to be up above them looking straight down. How do you look at it otherwise?’ (Tate) The effect is an obviously authored view of a space and would be a tremendously complicated (and expensive – 850 prints, even if struck from files made with a digital camera, would cost in the region of 250 pounds) thing to do; you could try it in photoshop for much less money, but I suspect it would drive you mad! A nice thing to try though, if possibly on a smaller scale and budget.

 


Reference:

  • Perec, G (1975) An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris
  • Indrisek, S (Sept 2018)  Why Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ Matters Today Published Online by Artsy.Net (accessed 16/9/18)
  • Licoppe, C (2015) An Attempt at Exhausting an Augmented Place in Paris; Department of Social Science, Telecom Paristech, Paris. (accessed online – 15/9/18)
  • Shore, S (2014) Uncommon Places; Thames and Hudson, London
  • Dorley-Brown, C (2018) The Corners; Hoxton Mini Press, London
  • Bromwich, K (20/05/18)  The Big Picture – Chris Dorley-Brown’s surreal street corner photography (The Observer, accessed online, https://bit.ly/2wYEDJ5 – 30/09/18)
  • Gayford, M. (2017) Hockney’s World of Pictures in Tate Etc. issue 39: Spring 2017 – accessed 30/9/18)

orkney again – dancing

I’m in Orkney on holiday with Fiona, Alice and James again. The break is almost over (as I type this, I’m also running through a checklist for getting packed and heading south again, for the autumn) and when this sees the light of day, I’ll be back in the new house in Walthamstow. It’s been good and I feel a lot more relaxed than I did last year.

But anyway, Orkney. The way dates click round through the days of the week means that for the first time in ages we were around for some of the agricultural shows; we went to Dounby and the West Mainland Show. Insider/outsider – Winogrand – show week would be a  possible project for someone (but not for me – my engagement with farming has only ever been through the prism of The Archers, really). Fairgrounds and rides. People taking themselves and what they’re engaged in very seriously.

As well as animals (or rather their farmer owners) competing for prizes, there were the usual trade stands and displays. We paused by the dance exhibition for a while. Fiona did Scottish dancing when she was a child, living just to the north of Glasgow; she won medals and was surprised by the emotional charge of watching this part of the show; Alice – along with other things – does ballet and was entranced, taking videos which she watched again and again later.

The dancing in Dounby was very precise – small movements with specific parts of the dancers’ feet touching the ground or circling round the other foot in a series of taps –  this is dance as control of self, codified (by the victorians?) and turned into something capable of being judged or rated. I began to think about my experience of dance as a form of abandonment, at weddings and ceilidhs…


Later in the day we washed up at the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness. There were two temporary exhibitions on with the larger of them devoted to the films of Margaret Tait. The last film I watched before the gallery closed was a short I had never seen before called Painted Eightsome which was completed in 1970; it was marvellous! I sat entranced as patterns swirled on the screen, forming and reforming, combining and splitting again, mirroring dancers in bursts of hand-painted colour.

I recognised the music from  weddings and school dances and ceilidhs, and guessed that it was the Strathspey and Reel society playing. How different it was from the academic dancing we’d seen at the show earlier.


Reference:

  • Tait, M (1970) Painted eightsome. Ancona Films, Edinburgh and Orkney.

The link to the film in the body of this post goes to the Moving Picture Archive of the National Library of Scotland. Give it a look – it’s great!

reflection point – on looking out of train windows

How often do you see people walking and reading their texts or on the train and reading their tablet rather than enjoying the view? What are we missing when we do that?

– IaP Coursebook, p.106

In its final chapter – The City and its Discontents –  of Sudjic (2017), the idea is floated that – by burying themselves in a screen – pedestrian city-dwellers lose their ability to navigate their streets deftly, becoming instead less of a citizen and – like (bloody) tourists – more of an obstacle to people who know where they’re going. Certainly, you become less aware of the space you are passing through. Like listening to music on headphones, you become less present, more abstracted. You have ceased to be in the here and now.

When it comes to journeys, I value the sense of time-out  far too much to try and remain engaged with the quotidian of my regular life. I certainly never try to work, unless I absolutely have to. I may read, or I may play with photography from a train’s window, or just to lose myself in the movement and of being in motion through somewhere. Travel takes place in a corridor as  – in the case of railway, literally – you follow a line through the geography of the country, rarely seeing much beyond a few hundred yards on either side of the track.

So, on a journey to Manchester for work, I put down my newspaper and switched off my laptop, forgetting to take a picture for the series I was making for exercise 5.1; Instead I started to stare out of the window, and – in the spirit of Georges Perec – began making notes of what I saw.

25-vi-18 Stuff seen from the Manchester train, looking east.

  • A cluster of 6 or so wind turbines
  • A remarkable banked tilt as we approached (and then went under) a motorway – vehicles, sheets of metal standing like gravestones and – I think – some real beehives
  • Colwich Memorial Garden
  • A park of OpenReach, Thames Water and (orange) RAC vans
  • A blue portaloo at the far corner of a field, after a caravan with a factory (concrete?) in the background
  • Pink-wrapped hay bales dotted over a field
  • Sheep dotted over a field
  • Industry – modern steel shell and victorian brick
  • Farms
  • Pylons, overhead electricity – POWER!
  • People on Platforms, waiting for trains
  • Graffiti
  • Was that a castle on a hill? With a village?
  • Some sort of huge comms mast on the horizon; contrails overhead (photo)
  • -> Arriving in Macclesfield
  • Steel Fences to keep people off the track
  • Stairs so people can get down to the track if they’ve got keys for the gate
  • A pregnant woman in a red and white striped top at Macclesfield; a man in lycra with a bike; a man with an interesting tube/container thing

fig.1 macclesfield

  • Facing forward, I see what’s coming
  • 5 brown cows on a hillside, straddling a path between some trees. How now.
  • Green (grass, trees) – Blue (sky) – Grey (gravel, stone, concrete)
  • Steps up to a green painted footbridge over the railway
  • Stations we don’t stop at; the signs blur past, too fast to be read
  • ‘Polish flag’ signs at bridges
  • Back gardens glimpsed through trees
  • An old(ish) woman in a shocking pink skirt and bikini top in the sun taking down the washing in the back garden of her cubic postwar house
  • Brown brick; grey slate
  • A train whizzing past, going the way I’ve just come
  • Greened up copper on a roof
  • NCP car parks
  • Tethered bikes and golden dried grass like a horse’s mane poking out of gravel at Stockport
  • Chimneys
  • The tradesman’s entrance to cities
  • Regent House Travelodge (blue); Redrock Stockport (red, funnily enough)
  • A rusty metal footbridge – Ardwick – with the Etihad (?) stadium in the background
  • Cranes, construction all around as we near Piccadilly

There are many precedents for taking photographs from trains, and Dyer in The Ongoing Moment makes a strong case for train travel leading to a different, more serendipitous perspective upon a country than the road trips across the USA made by photographers such as Robert Frank or Gary Winogrand in the sixties. He cites Walker Evans’ in some of his pieces for Fortune Magazine or Paul Fusco’s pictures of people lining the tracks, taken from the train carrying the coffin of Bobby Kennedy from New York to Arlington almost exactly 50 years ago.

Beyond photography, I immediately found myself thinking of Phillip Larkin’s poem, The Whitsun Weddings, where the view from a stopping train leads to a reverie on marriage and what it means and on Larkin’s being single when so many people are not. And how Larkin took photographs (and was good at it, too).

fig.2 – from an earlier journey,  heading home from Nottingham

It’s quite hard, maintaining concentration as you watch the country and the towns slip past and make notes; you do end up making connections and thinking about things, based on what  you have seen and how you relate to it. On your phone (more so than reading a book or the paper – I don’t know) you are abstracted from you surroundings, you are somewhere else rather than in the here and now.

Reference:

  • Sudjic, Deyan (2017) The Language of Cities. London, Penguin
  • Larkin, Phillip (1964) The Whitsun Weddings (in the collection The Whitsun Weddings, Faber and Faber, London)
  • Dyer, Geoff (2006) The Ongoing Moment Abacus, London.

 

Assignment 4 – A coda

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…

 

 

 

 

Towards Assignment 4 – Martha Rosler

(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.’


Reference:

  • Rosler, M (1981) In around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography); essay, widely available online.
  • Edwards, S (2012) Martha Rossler, The Bowery in two indadequate descriptive systems; Afterall, London

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).


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