Category Archives: Notes

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…

 

 

 

 

nftu #11 – where you draw the boundaries

‘The sorts of doors to knowledge we find in universities are based on exclusions. A subject is made up by teaching this and not that, about space (geography) not time (history), about collectives (sociology) and not about individuals (psychology), and so on. Of course there are leakages and these are often where the most interesting thinking happens…’

Parker, M Bulldoze the business school! Guardian, London 27/04/18

Last Friday.  It set me thinking (typologies of people relating to sociology; while portraits are closer to psychology, say or identity as psychology – or politics -and place as geography?) but not as yet to any definite end…

 

 

nftu #10 – a further thought on August Sander

Reading Max Kozloff’s essay, New Documents Revisited (part of the introduction to Meister, S. H. (2017) Arbus, Friedlander, Winogrand – New documents, 1967.  Museum of Modern Art, New York) the following sentence jumped out at me from the section on Diane Arbus (p.24):

‘Growing out of that tradition [commercial studio practice…based on deference to the sitter’s performance] Sander came to visualize pictures that were about personal performance, not an endorsement of them.’

This seems to me as good a way as any of describing the effect of pictures like that of the Pastry Cook in Face of Our Time (1929, plate 16) as he stands there in his kitchen,  spoon and bowl in hand, hidden behind his moustache in his white coat. There is an implied distance between Sander and his subjects that is vital, I think and that lack of endorsement is at the heart of it…

nftu #9 – personal narrative and a question of curation

Now, I’ve taken all the pictures for Assignment 3 on the underground, I’ve got time to read during my commute again. This morning I read the interview with Sonia Boyce in the Guardian, which (besides the obvious relevance of the furore about the – temporary – removal of Hylas and the Nymphs from Manchester Art Gallery to stuff I had been thinking about the male gaze and the representation of women in art – there’s even reference to Berger’s Ways of Seeing) fired off two quick bursts of associative thought.

1: How my identity as a white, straight man has simplified my ability to inhabit various narratives through my life.

“Even though there were a lot of female students, they were thought about as though they were being trained to become the wives of artists, not artists themselves. As a black person, there wasn’t a narrative at all.” – Sonia Boyce, quoted in the Guardian

(Like Chris Huhne in Grayson Perry’s Ch4 series about Identity, but hopefully less complacently)  I have never really had to consider what I am doing inhabiting any of the roles I’ve played in my life, as they all have seemed a natural result of stuff that I haven’t had to think about, like “being clever” or “being male” or “white” or “middle class”. Sonia Boyce on the other hand has had to write her own story to explain herself (“…she was the first black female artist to enter the collection and, she later discovered to her shock, only the fifth woman. In 2016, she became the first black woman to be elected a Royal Academician...” – Guardian). I wonder how I would turned out with a less friction-free path through life.

2: The extent to which curation is a process of constant, conscious construction (which is also a major strand in all the discussion of the BBC’s plural re-make of Kenneth Clarke’s Civilization)

“Nor do paintings arrive on museum walls by magic. Someone decides to put them up – and, later, to take them down or move them around, which is the job of a curator. This might happen for all kinds of reasons, including the changing of taste or, indeed, a shift in the limits of acceptability.  Hylas and the Nymphs was removed through an impulse to reveal normally hidden institutional machinery to the public, and to invite them to take a stake in it.” – Charlotte Higgins, author of the Guardian article

This set me thinking about the extent to which the various curators – John Szarkowski in particular – of the photography department at MOMA in New York had shaped the general idea of what photography is , not just in America, but here as well.

Where would a British Eggleston have been able to buttonhole a curator like Szarkowski who would have had the clout to catapult him into the art world stratosphere? Of course it is possible that there could never have been a British Eggleston. And there is also the question of whether the art world embracing photography is a good thing in the first place.

I am capable of tracing multiple, parallel paths through American 20th Century Photography (and beyond); I can even name a string of specific canonical exhibitions; but my knowledge of British photography over the same period is much more patchy with plenty of gaps that are filled in my US canon. I know much more about the FSA’s work in the US during the 30s than I do of Mass Observation’s here for example. MOMA has carried out a task to place photography and photographers at the heart of “the culture”  that the great institutions in UK have barely started on. even now.

But there is still scope to dig  here, I think…

(This is not to belittle the stuff that is done by the V&A or The Photographers’ Gallery or even the Johnny-come-lately-to-the-photography-party that is the Tate collossus; but it is striking how much more visible the US photographers are over here.)