Review – Deadline by Will Steacy


I’m conscious that I’ve reviewed relatively few books on the blog this year. If I’m honest I find reviews less and less satisfying to write, since the experience can often feel rather like banging your head against a wall. Sometimes I feel the urge to review again when I come across a particularly intriguing or brilliant body of work, but even when this happens I often feel I don’t have the time that a decent review really demands I commit. Sometimes you have to make time though, and having published a couple of posts recently on the ways that I think narrative and design contribute to a really interesting book project I thought it would be good to follow that up a real example.

If you’re being pedantic Will Steacy’s Deadline isn’t exactly a photobook, it’s a newsprint publication but this actually makes what he has done with it all the more impressive. Plenty of people are snobby about newsprint I suppose because it’s innately ephemeral, hard to preserve, and can’t compete for photographic print quality with other formats. Many photographers complain about these issues and avoid the medium because of them, the smart photographers though turn these characteristics into strengths which complement their work and this is exactly what Steacy has done here. Deadline charts the decline of the Philladelphia Inquirer newspaper over a five year period. Photographing the newsroom and printing plant of this nearly two hundred year old newspaper, Steacy’s project is a fascinating microcosm of things taking place across an industry struggling to deal with rapid technological and cultural change, and facing gradual erosion.

Steacy photographically explores the news room inch by inch and from end to end, hoovering up a mixture of candid and posed photographs of the staff, and a large number of still life photographs. The portraits are competent and fairly engaging but as is often the case the devil is in the detail and still lives are really where the story takes shape. Stacks of paperwork, stamps, notes, newspaper clippings, a Pulitzer prize, scrawled notes, motivational (and demotivational) signs, used coffee cups, and cartoons. For anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom these details will be richly evocative, brilliant reflections of the paradox that a newsroom can be both an intellectually stimulating and equally banal, bureaucratic place to work.

Steacy revisits the same locations from the same vantage points over the course of five years, showing the gradual changes in the newsroom until it is finally left empty and abandoned by the downsizing newspaper. A series of photographs of the ridiculously overloaded desk of Don Sapatkin, the Inquirer’s Deputy Science and Medicine editor, is an nice example of this, with Sapatkin’s desk overflowing with papers in the first photograph, and in the final photograph all that is left is a stained mark on the carpet. It has to be said the choice of newsprint means that some photographs don’t have quite the punch printed in black and white than they do when seen in colour. These photographs charting the growth and dispersal of Sapatkin’s paperwork were what made me really fall in love with the project when I first came across them online. They lose something of their potency in newsprint but are still fantastic.

The decision to publish Deadline as a newsprint publication rather than a traditional book is a brave one for some of the reasons listed above, but it’s a choice which really makes this project work. Newsprint makes perfect sense for the subject and the added knowledge that the project has been printed on the Philladelphia Inquirer’s own presses somehow makes the work all the more pertinent. The final act of asking journalists from the paper to contribute stories to the newspaper and styling it accordingly round Deadline off perfectly. The contributed stories both chart the broader rise and virtual fall of the Inquirer, and recount individual journalist’s experiences, a nice reminder of the tensions between news titles as monothlic brands, and the individualism and ambition of the journalists that staff them.

‘Never become part of the news’ were the watchwords of more than a few journalists I’ve known, and Deadline is a great look inwards at what happens when an industry is so busy reporting on the outside world that it forgets to scrutinise its own practices and becomes in effect, old news. Deadline is a wonderfully conceived and executed project, right down to the smell of ink and the smudge of newsprint it leaves on your fingers after a viewing. There is a constant tension in the work between knowing that this is a sort of historical document or record, and knowing that the newsprint it is published on will inevitably yellow and fall to pieces in time.

(Critical transparency: review copy purchased myself)

The Taylor Wessing Prize 2015 Longlist


Five Girls 2014, David Stewart

Having reviewed the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize pretty much every year since Disphotic’s creation, I decided to approach it in a different way this year. I’ve tended to criticise the prize in the past for being a public relations figleaf for corporate interests, and also for rewarding photographs which are technically fastidious but conceptually banal and predictable. When the shortlist was first announced back in September I offered a closer reading of the four photographs in it and to test the latter criticism I attempted to predict the winner, suggesting that it would be Ivor Prickett’s photograph Amira and Her Children which would ultimately triumph because of its combination of topical relevancy and visual tropes common to many other winners of the competition.

So first of all I should say, I was totally wrong (it’s been known to happen). The first prize went instead to David Stewart’s photograph Five Girls 2014, which shows the photographer’s daughter and four friends, and mirrors a photograph he took of the group seven years earlier shortly before they began studying for their GCSE’s, an image which was also long listed for the prize in 2008. Perhaps Prickett’s photograph was too obvious to win, or perhaps someone has been reading my blog (I live in hope). In either case it still says something about the prize’s tendency towards self-referentialism that the jury should select a winner which is a reshoot of a photograph exhibited in the prize seven years before. Stewart’s winning photograph would have gained much from being displayed in the gallery alongside its predecessor, but perhaps this would have said rather too much about how little the Taylor Wessing prize dares to reward innovation.

Onwards then to the real purpose of this post, which is to look at the wider long list, a selection of images which can shed a little more light on the direction the prize might be taking than the shortlist of four photographs. In recent years however there has been less a sense of movement or direction with the prize, and rather one of inertia and I regret to say that this remains the case. The smattering of celebrity portraits which one encounters very soon after entering the gallery rather sets the tone. Examples include portraits of the actor Peter Capaldi by Paul Stuart, and of Barack and Michelle Obama by Gillian Laub. In some respects I wish the prize excluded these sorts of images entirely, since with rare exceptions celebrity portraits never seem penetrate beneath their subject’s well-rehearsed personas (I would say that Anoush Abrar’s portrait of Kofi Anan, shortlisted in 2013 is a notable exception to this).

This year I felt Tom Oldham’s photograph of the artists Gilbert and George was about the closest things got to an insightful celebrity portrait, but only by dint of photographing them from behind and hinting at the artists’s advancing age rather than doing battle with their carefully cultivated image. Another exception was Noriko Takasugi’s portrait of the artist Yayoi Kusama stands out for it’s boldness amongst the mostly drab colour palettes of other photographs on show (although perhaps a greater challenge for a photographer would be to take a drab portrait of Kusama). In this image the artist sits in front of a vibrant print emblazoned with a pumpkin, the vegetable’s shape a perfect match for Kusama’s pulsating bob of bright red hair. Judging by other portraits this pose is Kusama’s preferred one when being photographed, but the skilful composition means Takasugi manages to put her own mark on it.

The stronger photographs in the long list are perhaps inevitably those of ordinary, unrecognised people. Special mention should go to Kai Weidenhofer’s two photographs of children from his project Forty out of one million which explores the fate of those fleeing the Syrian Civil War. Bright eyed and looking curiously towards the camera, what pricks one is the realisation that they are all casualties, and two of them are missing limbs. One portraits shows two young girls, one of them a toddler, the fleshy skin of her upper leg pours over the top of the prosthetic, the foot of which is jammed into a tiny child’s wellington boot. The other girl, perhaps her sister, wears a pink leg brace which matches her hoodie. It’s a tragic image, but not one which is entirely devoid of hope. Birgit Püve’s portrait of Fagira D Morti from her project Estonian Documents was another strong and strange image which left me wanting to know much more, and this and Wiedenhofer’s photographs evidence a notable trend amongst this years longlist for images drawn from much larger documentary or artistic projects.

Despite the Evening Standard heralding a longlist of experimental ‘gems’, I found that in fact it disappointed once again because of the utter lack of experimentation or diversity. I’m a realist, I don’t expect the main prize to go to anything profoundly challenging, but as I’ve often said before it would be nice to see the longlist at least used to reflect a wider sense of what portraiture is. Rakesh Mohindra’s portrait tryptch Desmond is by far the most conceptual, combining a conventional portrait with a sheet of braille and a still life. Ines Dumig’s portrait, part of a series looking at the asylum process in Germany through the experiences of a young Somali woman, is another one which bucks the trend, turning the portrait on its head by masking her subject’s face in impenetrable shadow. These exceptions however are in a real minority, and there is nothing among them which is truly challenging in the way that I hope to see each year (for more on that see the end of 2013’s Taylor Wessing review).

The shocking shortage of innovation in the long list is absolutely not due to some inherent limitation of photography. Photography is transmuting itself out of all recognition at the moment, in ways which are variously terrifying and exciting, but the effects of which the Taylor Wessing prize seems either ignorant or indifferent to (or to be charitable to the jury, perhaps this is simply the only type of photography that gets submitted). Equally the idea that portraiture or the representation of the human form is as static a genre as these annual exhibitions would suggest is almost laughable when one looks at the way artists in other media have and continue to constantly reinvent both. Rather than visiting this exhibition and feeling that I am seeing the brightest and best of one strand of contemporary photography, my feeling instead is much the same as when I review some chapter in photography’s distant, historical past. Aha, that’s how they did this then. How charming…

(Critical transparency: exhibition seen with a press ticket during normal hours. I studied with Noriko Takasugi, although I was drawn to her photograph before I knew who it was by. I also briefly taught Ines Dumig. I have never entered or been otherwise involved with the prize.)

Picking up the Pieces

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Map purportedly showing site of US/UK drone strike on Mohammed Emwazi.
From @Raqqa_SL

As the somewhat disjointed nature of this post will indicate, it’s been hard to process the events that took place in Paris this weekend. That in spite of the fact that such things happen with depressing regularity in cities all around the world, as they did just a day before in Beirut. The Paris attacks have hit home with many I suppose because the city is so known, so at the heart of Europe, but also for me because they coincided with the Paris Photography Festival, and so countless friends, colleagues, teachers and students were in the city at the time. Miraculously it seems at the time of writing that no one from this photography community was caught up in the violence, although that makes little difference to what remains a huge loss of life, and particularly in an age when all of us are photographers of a sort.

The maxim that if you have a hammer you’ll see everything as a nail rings true for me in the wake of these events. As a photographer my response to too many problems tends to be to ask if by photographing or otherwise visualising it I can do anything useful about it. In this case, and in spite of my belief that photographs can be a powerful force for change, the answer is a resounding no. What the attacks in Paris have reminded me of, alongside the fragility of the ordered societies we in the west take for granted, and the preciousness of human life, is how very limp the type of photography I do is. This type of  authored photography that so many had converged on the festival to see, discuss and buy feels in a moment like this to be so irrelevant, so unable to react to events as they occur, only able to pick through them long afterwards, if even that.

At the same time though the aftermath of these attacks is also already demonstrating in another sense how very important and powerful photography is, and also how dangerous it can be. Not the authored photography of artists, or even journalists, but the forms of photography which are often overlooked or looked down on by many of these people. Imagery produced by a panopoly of what are often regarded as naïve, artless or automatic sources, from bystanders on the street, forensic investigators, satellites overhead. It’s too early to know if photography played a part in the planning of these attacks, but it will certainly play its part in the analysis of the aftermath, where the scenes of the crime will be meticulously recorded using conventional and unconventional forms of photography. I expect vernacular photography also will play a part in the reconstruction of the timelines of the attacks, perhaps as it did following the Boston Marathon attacks, as the mass of imagery and video produced by bystanders is pieced back together to give a fuller image of events than the forensic still-life of a crime scene photograph can.

Photography will play a critical part in casting the perpetrators, as more images of those suspected of plotting and executing the attacks inevitably emerge. However broad or fine the net that is thrown, Muslims, Arabs, Refugees, Syrians, or young men from the deprived Parisian suburbs, the imagery that is published of those involved will play a part in shaping the way people process what has happened, integrate these events into their experience and outlook on the world, and decide which groups are henceforth to be feared, suspected, watched and, inevitably, photographed. This process of revealing the perpetrators and the choice of how to represent them is problematic for many reasons (consider how a man killed in error by the counter-terrorist police was visually treated). It’s not least problematic in that, as the photographs that have been published of British extremist Mohammed Emwazi show, one person can have many guises for the camera.

Lastly I suspect photography will play a part in the promised ‘merciless’ retribution, likely the same type of retribution already visited on Emwazi by British and American drones, which ‘evaporated’ him in a joint attack a few days before the attacks in Paris. As much as a means of understanding what feels like an increasingly frightening and confusing world, photography also helps to make that world what it is. The camera is a part of the extreme asymmetry of modern conflict, where one side blow themselves up in spectacular attacks staged partly for the media, while the other side builds the camera into the very spear tip of it’s weapons systems, into remotely operated aircraft or the nose cones of guided missiles. Photography picks up the piece, but it also plays a part in the destruction.

The New Continent: The Refugee Nightmare and the European Dream


Portrait of Erich Honecker, president of DDR/GDR, inside an interrogation room at the former Iron Curtain crossing Marienborn memorial site.
From The New Continent, Phil le Gal

The dream of a united Europe and the free travel it allowed was in no small part born of the continent’s long history of intolerance and division. It came from the destruction and division of the Second World War, six years when human rights in Europe were trampled underfoot, and the continent was made anew as Fortress Europe, a continent ringed by the concrete and barbed wire of the Atlantic wall. It came also from the division between communist East and capitalist West that followed the end of the war, again was symbolised most pertinently by a physical border of concrete and steel. Not a wall built to keep people out of the East, but one uniquely designed to keep people trapped within it. Schengen was signed in 1985 even as the Berlin wall still stood, but it was a gesture of hope, a foreshadowing of the wall’s destruction four years later, and the treaty’s implementation in 1995 at last saw the creation at last of a single space within the borders of a long disunited continent. Flash forward, past the collapse of the Soviet system and through the fires of German reunification, and division is returning to Europe. This time though what Europeans fear are not massing foreign armies or an aggressive ideology, but ordinary people, forced into exodus by extraordinary circumstances like wars, and revolutions – some of them indeed catalysed by ill considered European interventions in distant lands – or sometimes just by the hope of a better life.

The way each country responds to outsiders is different, a product of its unique culture and history. Slovakia for example announced it would only take in Christians wishing to settle in the country. Meanwhile in Germany one group has attempted to recall the broadly positive perception of those who fled East Germany, with campaigns calling on Germans to pick up refugees at the roadside and help them cross the border. It says much about Germany’s history that many of it’s people and politicians can are able to understand migration as a humanitarian or political act, not simply an economic one. By contrast, and in spite of the reputation of the British as a nation that offers safe haven, and of the British as a people who believe in fairness and playing by the rules, we have consistently refused to be fair with the people seeking to travel here. Rather than allowing them to reach the United Kingdom and seek asylum through the proper processes, our response to those who seek safety here is an ever more complex panoply of fences, barriers and security, intended to keep them languishing indefinitely on the outskirts of Calais. The United Kingdom, once a country regarded for its openness to foreigners, has systematically remade itself as Fortress Britain. In defence of these arrangements the Prime Minister David Cameron has argued that we must at all costs stop these ‘swarms’ of people intent on illegally breaking into the United Kingdom. Given the security arrangements in place, those people desperately wanting to settle in the United Kingdom have little other choice.

Those few who make it across the channel face two grim realities: Either a lifetime of living in the shadows of the United Kingdom’s black economy, vulnerable to human slavery, trafficking and exploitation. Or else a future of indefinite detention without trial in one of the country’s network of detention facilities, prisons in all but name. Places like the deceptively named Yarl’s Wood, operated for profit by the private security company Serco, and recently condemned by the chief inspector of prisons. What we need is not to seal refugees and migrants away behind barriers and fences, to ignore them and hope they give up and go away. Faced with few alternatives, not many will, and in the meantime many more will come. What we need is a more mature discourse about migration and the people forced to undertake it. We need to hear the stories and experiences of these people themselves, stories which are notably absent in the press. Those traveling from Africa, the Middle East and beyond need to be humanised and visualised as a matter of urgency, their stories and experiences used to combat uninformed prejudices and ignorance. The recent appearance of an Instagram account which appeared to belong to a young Senegalese man making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea, and the surge of public interest paid to it before it was unmasked as fake, shows that people are genuinely interested in hearing these stories.

To tell these stories is part of the purpose of Phil le Gal’s The New Continent, a project featuring people caught on either side of Europe’s borders and offering a platform for them to describe their experiences, hopes and fears. People like Sadik from Sudan, a medical student who fleeing conflict was interned for months in Libya before making the dangerous Mediterranean crossing. Or Ahmed and Ikbal, two teenagers who became friends during their journey from Afghanistan and now look out for each other in The Jungle, the sprawling informal settlement on the outskirts of Calais. These are not ‘swarms’ or ‘marauders’, not abstract embodiments of a political or economic problem. They are human beings, people, in the position they are now because of the lottery of birth and the game of geopolitics. Fortifying our country and our continent only exacerbates their plight, by pushing a burden that we are in a rare position to shoulder on to other states in Europe less able to do so, and who lie closer to the key entry points into the continent. These states perhaps understandably follow our pathetic example, avoiding the burden of supporting those fleeing war and turmoil by trying to prevent them from crossing borders at all, or else funneling them as rapidly as possible into neighboring countries. The result is that Europe is witnessing an arms race of fence building and a militarisation of borders as states across the continent respond to the crisis not by increasing provision for displaced people, but by spending vast amounts to ensure that they cannot access provision at all.

These fences and barriers are spreading across Europe, from one country to another like a regressive ripple, a new iron curtain of steel chainlink and razor wire. France has reinstated its border controls with Italy in an attempt to curb migration, and Hungary has recently completed the construction of a new $35 million fence along its border with Serbia. Reflecting the strange nature of these solutions, this fence is reported to end suddenly in the middle of a field, at the tri-point where the Hungarian, Serbian and Romanian borders meet. Other countries seem likely to follow the example, Macedonian police have struggled to prevent large numbers of Syrian refugees from crossing into the country from Greece, employing batons and stun grenades, while Bulgaria has mobilised military units near the Macedonian border and is extending its border fence with Turkey. In counterpoint to the dream, Europe is degenerating into something which increasingly resembles the darkest days of it’s history. It is becoming a contradictory land of fences and gates, armed guards and checkpoints, a union in name but a patchwork in practice. A place where by a twist of birth some are left free to travel without care, while others languish for months in the hinterlands of port cities and border zones, waiting for a chance to slip through.

A Photobook Manifesto II: On Design

war primer 1 and 3

The 1998 Libris edition of War Primer (bottom) and the 2015 War Primer 3 dummy (top).

In response to a few requests I wrote a piece last week setting out how I start to think about and approach a new book project. I talked about the importance of considering whether a project is really suited to being a book, and then spent most of the piece discussing narrative and editing strategies that I’ve found have worked quite well when teaching. It might have seemed a little odd to give over so much of the post to discussing something which isn’t directly related to book design, but the way you construct a narrative from a series of photographs is I think the single most important thing about a book. Every other element can be amazing, but if the order of the images is vague, or worse, without any extractable meaning, then it’s all for nothing. As anyone will know who has ever been shown a very version of a project which still looked amazing, a book live and dies by the order of its pages and too many books labour over a beautiful design while being are willfully or accidentally obscure and arcane about their messages.

Assuming you’ve constructed a narrative that works for your subject, the next question for me is how I get this narrative to sit on the page, and what design details I incorporate to really try and pull the whole book towards the topic. For me a well-designed book is one where all the elements speak to the central topic, but not in a way which is flashy, over the top or distracting from the core subject. Naïve or clumsy design is one thing, far worse for me though is a book that’s been completely over-designed, to the extent that the photographs and other content are overwhelmed. If you’re looking to work with a designer I’d be wary of anyone who doesn’t seem sympathetic or engaged with the subject or seems too eager to put their design signature on the finished book.

Once I’ve established a narrative the first thing I start to think about it layout. In truth often narrative and layout start to evolve and suggest each other at the same time so like many of the categories I’m talking about here this is something of an arbitrary distinction. I tend to use layouts structured around grids which is a somewhat rigid way to design but makes it far easier to be consistent through a book and to arrange things in a way which echo things on other pages. For example with Metropole a grid structure made it easy to have all the texts in the book echo the size and positioning of the cover title, a minor detail but an important one to the design. It also helped in lining up elements within some of the photographs.

At this stage the book will be starting to look pretty complete and I might start to think about any smaller elements that I might want to include in the book to tie together the design or theme. In The Camera Obscured I found that I wanted to leave quite a few blank pages but these looked a little odd, so I spent some time researching old printers marks looking for one which fitted the theme, until I found one shaped like the sun. I also felt the cover, which was text only at the time, needed something extra and spent some time researching old treatise on optics looking for decorative elements I could extract and use. Personally I think less is more with these details, and once again they always need to tie back in to what the book is ultimately about.

I’ve left fonts until last to mention, but in practice the choice of a particular font can occur at any point in a project. Personally I like to use fonts which have some echo of the central theme of the book but without that echo being overwhelmingly obvious. Sometimes I have one in mind even as I’m still shooting, at other times I spend hours searching through font databases looking for one with the right character. For Metropole I used Gill Sans Light for it’s slight art deco styling which I thought neatly echoed the origins of the book’s title. Sometimes the choice is defined more by practically and for Numbers in the Dark I knew there would be a great deal of text so I looked for an easy to read font that also had an echo of a computer or typewritten font. I eventually found what I wanted in one called Inconsolata.

I know there remain a host of topics I haven’t discussed, but I hope that the guiding principle of considering how each decision relates to the topic you want to talk about will answer many of these. I also know I’ve made it sound rather like a book can go from a scattering of photographs to a finished item in one easy draft. In practice it often takes many redrafts and revisions. Metropole is only thirty pages long and went through about six versions, and Numbers in the Dark has been through eight versions so far and is only just reaching a finished state. Whether you’re working on a ten page photocopied zine or a hundred page leather bound opus, take your time, think about every detail in relation to the topic and the book will reward you for it.

The Deutsche Börse 2016 Shortlist


Trevor Paglen, They Watch the Moon, C-print, 36 x 48 inches.

The shortlist for the 2016 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize has just been announced, and while there are no major upsets as there were in the 2012 Deutsche Börse shortlist when the likes of Mishka Henner and Cristina de Middel featured, it’s still one of the more interesting shortlists of recent years. As I recently did with the Taylor Wessing prize, I thought I’d offer some short reflections on the shortlist now, and a more in-depth consideration when the exhibition opens to the public next year.

Since 2012’s shortlisting of Cristina de Middel’s Afronauts it seems to be increasingly a given that each year’s shortlist will include some form of photo book, whether grandiose and conventionally published (like last year’s Ponte City by Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse) or more modest and self-published like de Middel’s book. Laura el Tanway’s The Shadow of the Pyramids is a worthy inclusion, an intriguing and intelligent volume which explores the build up to the recent revolution in Egypt by blending family archive photographs with events in Cairo’s streets, drawing parallels between the micro and macro units of family and nation. The Shadow of the Pyramids is a fantastic book, but its inclusion is also (perhaps accidentally) symbolic at the present moment, as Egyptian revolutionary enthusiasm and turmoil subsides back towards a new status quo, and governments (including the British government) sidle up to military leader, turned president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi hoping for a rapid continuation of business as usual.

To some Erik Kessels will come as a surprising and perhaps slightly controversial inclusion since he dosen’t take his own photographs but works with archives of found vernacular imagery. Again though I doubt the controversy will be anything like that which has surrounded the past inclusion of these post-photographic photographers (if one can call them that). Kessel’s has more than demonstrated his visual credentials, showing a humour and intelligence about the way he works and arranges imagery which is much more sophisticated than that of most ‘real’ photographers. The surprise is maybe more in the particular choice of project to include, his dramatic installation Unfinished Father, a rumination on loss and memory explored through photographs and the remains of an old Fiat 500 left half restored after Kessel’s father suffered a debilitating stroke. It’s a powerful piece although I’m not convinced it’s sculpturally or photographically innovative enough to warrant the prize.

The real surprise inclusion for me was Tobias Zielony for his exhibition The Citizen, although when I say surprise I mostly mean in the sense that I hadn’t seen this work before and I was surprised by that because because of it’s quality, relevance and apparent subtlety. Zielony explores the lives of African refugee activists in Berlin in Hamburg, combining photography with first person accounts of their experiences. The Citizen raises significant issues of integration and identity at a time when more and more European countries are closing their borders to migrants and refugees, and even those like Sweden which up until have had a virtual open door policy are thinking twice. This work I particularly look forward to spending more time with when the exhibition opens next year.

Last is Trevor Paglen, shortlisted for his exhibition The Octopus at Frankfurter Kunstverein. The smart and cynical money is on Paglen to take the prize. His work is undeniably relevant beyond the ghetto of photography, interesting in both conception and execution, and lacks the deeply uncritical self-indulgence of Richard Mosse’s Enclave which won in 2013. But as I’ve written before I don’t really think the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize is particularly about any of those things. It’s about rewarding work which lends Deutsche Börse and its attendants some cultural credibility and relevance, while at the same time being work which is ultimately toothless and unthreatening, and perhaps just a little bit bankable (I wonder how many of the prize’s winners ultimately end up in the company’s extensive art collection). It seems to me that there is a sort of apt resonance in Paglen being shortlisted for an exhibition in Deutsche Börse’s home city of Frankfurt.

In his brief write up of the shortlist, the Guardian’s photography writer Sean O’Hagan proposed a couple of names he would have liked to see on the list, and while I think O’Hagan’s suggestions are pretty irrelevant I think the act of highlighting what was missed is a worthwhile one. In vain I have wondered before, and I continue to wonder, what it would take for a body work to be shortlisted which asks difficult questions about the system and problems that this prize’s sponsor is very clearly part of. Work which focuses on capital, exchange and austerity like that by Mark Curran for example, photography which attempts to get inside and reveal the insidious innards of global finance in much the same way that Paglen has done with global surveillance. How badly we need this, and what a gesture the inclusion of work like that would make. But I doubt it would be a welcome gesture on the wall of a Frankfurt boardroom, and after all ladies and gentlemen, that is what really counts.

A Photobook Manifesto I: Narrative

metropole-draftsDrafts of Metropole, earliest at top left, final book at bottom right.

One of my motivations for setting up this blog was to get away from what seemed to be the preponderance of practical blogs and websites out there, focused far more on mandating the specific ‘dos and do nots’ of photography than about trying to articulate a general philosophy of photography that would serve to answer many of these questions if applied to them. Writing regularly has helped me to build up an inner framework of ideas about what good photography is which has really helped me when it comes to make work, and I hope might have also helped others a little. All the same, I get more and more requests for specific types of posts and quite a number have asked that I write something about book making and design. I’m not willing to go so far as to sit down and explain how to make a book from start to end. There are plenty of sites out there already that deal with everything from making an edit of a series of photographs, to the physical craft of binding.

What I thought would be more interesting would be to articulate the philosophy of book making that I’ve gradually formed over the past couple of years and through the dozen or so books I’ve made. I’m by no means a book designer or binder by training, my knowledge is limited and so is my time and ability to learn new tricks and crafts. I keep things simple, hopefully relevant to the subject matter, and as affordable as possible. These simple guiding lights, acquired mainly for practicality, have helped me develop something resembling a style of my own. It might not be for everyone, and it might not come anywhere near rivaling what a professional designer can offer, but so far it works for me.

So, when it comes to thinking about a new book project the question I increasingly ask myself is should this project even be a book? Photo books have become so much the default form that it’s easy to not even consider that other formats might make more sense (or that a hybrid form like a book and accompanying website might be more effective). I’ve written about this before and so I won’t labour the point, but as someone who looks at a great deal of books I see many projects which would have been much better served as something else, and that can be a real shame.

Assuming though the answer to that important first question is yes the next step for me is to start to think about how the photographs I have can form a narrative and how this will relate to other content I want to use, for example text or illustrations. Before I even begin to try and construct this narrative I often use an assortment of strategies to figure out what the photographs I have are actually saying to a viewer, and how they might relate to each other when strung together in a series. For example one technique I often use with students is to ask them to try and put aside what they know about their work and put themselves into the position of a viewer. Then to go through their photographs and think carefully about what each image is saying on two levels. On the literal level of what it shows, and how this might fit into a purely descriptive story, but also on a slightly deeper, almost semiological level. What is the over-riding emotion, idea or image that they take away from each photograph? Can it be reduced to a single word?

Once I have some idea of my building blocks I start to build the narrative itself. The form this takes obviously varies enormously from one project to the next, with some projects taking on a very traditional and linear story telling narrative, and others adopting much more unconventional, fragmented narrative forms. One of my projects, The Memory of History, even dispensed with the idea of a fixed narrative altogether, pushing the onus to construct a story on to the viewer instead and in the process trying to encourage them to think about how historical narratives are constructed. Some might consider that a creative cop out, an example of not taking responsibility for the most important job, but for that project it seemed to make perfect sense.

And that I think is the essential thing, that the narrative approach makes sense for the topic that’s being discussed, and doesn’t become an attention seeking gimmick or a homage to some passing photographic fad. Some subjects are essentially lacking in narrative, particularly when they’re photographed in a very straight typological way. A current project of mine, Numbers in the Dark, is an example of this, with the images presented in quite a regular pattern throughout the book. At the same time there are hints of a narrative contained in the photographs, with the distance between the camera and the subject producing a sense of ‘closing-in’ as the book progresses (which in turn contrasts with the accompanying texts, which imply a distancing and a growing uncertainty about the veracity of these images and the true nature of the subject these photographs purport to reveal).

Sometimes it works very well to try and instil some sort of rhythm of pattern to the narrative. I’m a classical music addict and I’m particularly obsessed with Bach and the way he often constructs a piece of music with a very simple theme which is thoroughly explored, broken down, seemingly abandoned in favour of something else and then finally returned to. This seems to me like a nice analogy for how some of the most interesting book narratives work. Not hammering away at the same idea in every photograph, but using the core idea or leitmotif as a jumping off point from which to explore other things, before recapitulating on the original topic as the narrative draws to an end. Once I have a clear idea of the sort of narrative I want to employ it’s only then that I really turn to the matter of designing the book, something which I’ll be discussing in more depth later in the week.

Review – Predator by Jean-Marie Donat


I was relatively underwhelmed by Les Rencontres d’Arles this year, but one of the highlights was an exhibition housed in an old church and simply titled Vernacular. Curated from the collection of Jean-Marie Donat, the exhibition consists of three series of vernacular photographs each of which focus on very particular and rather eccentric subjects. One consisted of photographs of people in blackface, another featured images of people dressed as incongruous and slightly threatening polar bears, but for me the stand out was a series of images simply titled Predator.

This series had such an impression on me that I found myself still thinking about it three months on, and I finally decided to buy the book of it. Predator consists very simply of a series of vintage vernacular photographs where the shadow of the behatted photographer has intruded into the frame from the bottom of the photo. As a concept for a short series, let alone a 200 page book, that might seem very slight, but Predator is a great example of how a simple idea can be repeated and varied in subtle ways that gradually build up into a strangely engaging narrative.

As a viewer you know that the photographs in the book are all taken by different people, but a part of your brain can’t quite release the idea that it’s the same individual behind the camera each time. The photographs themselves are often so so sparse and the information in them so repetitive that one searches each new image carefully for significant information, incorporating anything that stands out into the mental image that you have started to construct of this odd and dimly threatening photographer.

An early group of photographs are all of children mostly smiling or bemused but occasionally more ambivalent or crying. While you’re already wondering what the photographer’s relationship is to all these very different children might be, the appearance of crying children starts to seed the thought that it’s something sinister. After all who stands there and takes a photograph of a crying child, rather than attempting to comfort them? The hatted shadow starts to call to mind a film noir villain, perhaps from Peter Lorre’s sinister if pitiful child murdered in M or Orson Welles’s kingpin Harry Lime in The Third Man. Later photographs of young men similarly conjure the image of Robert Mitchum’s predatory preacher Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter.

I never thought I’d praise a book for providing it’s viewers with almost no information besides photographs, but this is exactly what makes Predator work. Because information is so scant the interpretation of the book is left very much to your imagination, and that might be the only weakness of the book in that to those with little imagination it will just appear like a catalogue of visually connected images. The structure of the book hovers somewhere between an actual narrative and a series of loose themes. It starts with photographs of children, then animals, then adults, before breaking into a mixture towards the end. In truth there probably is no real narrative, but because the photographs aren’t strictly typological I found myself irresistibly drawn to search for one.

In short the conceptual simplicity of Predator belies a book of surprising depth, which I found myself spending far more time with than I imagined I would. It illustrates so many things about photography, from the way context alters meaning, to the irrelevance of a photographers intent, in defining how a viewer understands an image. If you have the imaginative energy those photographs can act as springboards for all sorts of strange narratives, and the book is a great reminder that a photographic series doesn’t need to be complicated or even consist of particularly different photographs to have a powerful narrative effect.

(Critical transparency: review copy purchased myself)

Review – Lee Miller: A Woman’s War at Imperial War Museum

Miller_Archives_England_2014_All_rights_ reserved
Anna Leska, Air Transport Auxilliary,
White Waltham, Berkshire, England 1942 by Lee Miller

It’s hard to know how best to frame a review of the work of Lee Miller. A fashion model, turned artists muse, turned fashion photographer, turned photojournalist, she played a significant part in both documenting the vital and diverse roles played by women during the Second World War. And yet she seems to have always worked ‘without concession to her gender’ and one senses she probably would have resented being pigeonholed in these terms, reduced to the historical oddity of having been a female photojournalist in an era when such a thing was exceptionally rare. A Woman’s War, the new exhibition of Miller’s work which has just opened at the Imperial War Museum in London seemingly has no qualms about viewing Miller primarily in terms of gender. In some ways this is understandable, since whether Miller liked it or not, almost every stage of her life seemed to have involved grappling with what the expectations other people had for her as a woman, and maybe there is a relevance in it given how deep the gender divide remains in photojournalism.

As a model and muse to a series of artists including Man Ray, Pablo Picasso and Roland Penrose, Miller was hardly the passive background figure one might expect, but rather someone who was obviously constantly watching, learning and absorbing. In 1937 she joined vogue as a volunteer studio assistant, progressing to a photographer by the outbreak of war. Viewing her early photographs, it seems clear that she had been systematically gathering ideas from the people who had variously painted and photographed her, ideas which she now re-employed, sometimes more or less verbatim, sometimes with her own style put on them. For example for a 1942 Vogue feature on underwear Miller created a stark solarised image. Where Man Ray’s ‘rayograms’ now often feel very dated and the product of their era this image remains strikingly contemporary, the depersonalised, headless model giving it the jarring ring of works by much later feminist artists like Barbara Kruger.

Miller spent the early years of the Second World War in Britain, shooting a mixture of fashion and editorial photographs for Vogue which often filled a dual role as propaganda or wartime social engineering. One fashion feature she photographed was intended to popularise shorter hair hairstyles, a question of safety as much as fashion at a time when more and more women were taking on roles in factories and other sites operating dangerous heavy machinery. If Miller wasn’t already well aware that women were able to fulfill far more roles than society had traditionally permitted them, this period must have made it clear to her, as she photographed women involved in everything from heavy manufacturing to home guard duties. Her 1942 photograph of the Polish fighter pilot Anna Leska seems a fitting example of this. Seated in a Spitfire, Leska purposefully looks out to the left of the frame as if scanning the skies for enemy aircraft. Despite the desperate need for pilots, Leska’s gender meant she spent the war shuttling aircraft around the country.

In 1943 the start of female conscription offered Miller new opportunities and she began to work as an accredited photojournalist attached to American military forces, one of only four women to do so. Another in this small group was Margaret Bourke-White, a photographic veteran and a trailblazer in many more senses than simply because she was a female photojournalist in an age when that was rare. Still despite the pedigree of this group remarkable restrictions remained on what they, as women, were allowed to witness or document. They were largely kept away from the front-line and from significant battles, and, with the exception of Martha Gellhorn who stowed away on an American ship, no female journalists were permitted to be present at the 1944 Normandy Landings, one of the decisive moments of the war.

After the invasion of France Miller found herself behind the lines much of the time, with the exception of a chance misdirection which led her being sent to St. Malo, then under siege. This fluke resulted in some of her few photographs that directly document conflict. One gets a sense that Miller really came into her own as a photographer during this time, and all her influences from her time spent with surrealist artists, to the constant crushing expectations of gender appear to coalesce in her photographs. In one brilliantly surreal image from St. Malo two American soldiers lie on the bed of a hotel honeymoon suite, directing mortar fire on to German positions in the city. In another photograph a soldier holds a long pole with a child’s doll mounted on the end, which he had been using to draw fire from enemy snipers. Later following the liberation of Paris, Miller documented life returning to the city, including photographing the sole operating hairdresser, the Salon Gervais in a bizarrely brilliant vertical diptych. In the top photograph a row of women sit serenely having their hair done in electric dryers. The bottom image shows the basement below the salon, were four shirtless men taken turns riding a tandem bicycle to generate enough power for the salon’s hairdressing equipment to keep operating.

As the war progressed into Germany it’s increasing depravity took a toll on many, including it seems on Miller. The total aerial destruction of German cities like Cologne, the hostility, complicity and desperation of German civilians and the discovery of the concentration and extermination camp system must have been a watershed even in the context of this hugely destructive war. One of her photographs in the exhibition shows the aftermath of the suicides of committed Nazis and their families. Arranging symbolic objects around themselves before committing the act, these carefully thought out deaths have a terrifying composure about them. Miller was also among those present at the liberation of Dachau concentration camp, where at least thirty thousand people had been systematically worked to death. In one of the final and perhaps best known photographs in the exhibition Miller returns to her role as model, as well as photographer, as she appears washing herself in Hitler’s bath in a symbolically charged portrait that seems to signal her need to get away from the conflict.

Following the end of hostilities Miller gradually abandoned photography, left Vogue and suffered badly from depression and alcoholism. Marrying her long term partner Roland Penrose in 1947 and settling with him at Farley Farm in east Sussex, she began a far more domestic existence as Lady Penrose, a life which seems a jarring contrast with the worlds she had moved in before and during the war. The exhibition ends with a large colour photograph showing a relatively elderly Miller in the kitchen at Farley Farm, an image which is less Battle of Britain than Great British Bake Off. All in all this exhibition covers a remarkable career and span of work, and leaves one with a sense of Miller as someone who in the end perhaps found herself overwhelmed by some of the very same societal contradictions that her photographs had seemed designed to challenge.

(Critical transparency: exhibition seen with a press ticket during normal hours)

Review – Missing Buildings by Thom and Beth Atkinson


“When a fire happened to consume a particular dwelling in a row of dwellings the site of the conflagration remained for a long time afterwards. That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. Everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on their memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly― Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March

Unlike so many other great European capitals, London has defied all attempts to order or plan it. The travel writer H.V Morton described it as a series of villages submerged by bricks and mortar as the city overgrew its Roman walls and spread out into the green fields of the surrounding counties. From the narrow medieval lanes of the City, to the anachronistic names of its further flung quarters, the London we know today was only made possible by this slow and disordered growth, which absorbed and amalgamated rather than destroyed it’s past.

Equally important though to the city’s present character though have been brief periods of immense destruction. The Great Fire of 1666 swept away two thirds of the city, only stopping when it reached the ancient walls. But it left the ancient street plan in place but offering space and light for new buildings to grow like seedlings in the wake of a forest fire. The air bombardment unleashed on London from 1940, had a similar effect, wiping clear great swathes of inner London and pockmarking it’s outskirts with random destruction. Many of those erratically distributed bomb sites would later become the site of the new post-war social housing, resulting in a city where people of all social and economic tiers often live in a jumbled proximity which is sometimes surprising to visitors.

Despite the comprehensive rebuilding of the city in the years after the war traces of many of these bomb sites remain in the city, for anyone who is willing and knows how to look for them. Thom and Beth Atkinson do know how, and their first book Missing Buildings consists of a collection of photographs of these strange gaps in the spatial fabric of the city. Like psychic scars, these empty spaces with their precarious hovering fireplaces and pale outlines of long vanished roof-lines are a lingering reminder of the indiscriminate destruction that rained on the city during the Second World War, and the speed with which the order and fabric of urban life can be shattered be conflict.

The photographs are straight and typological, each site photographed in the grey light of an overcast London day, often at a forty-five degree angle which displays both the frontages of the intact surrounding buildings and the markings left on their sides by the missing building. In some cases the missing has been replaced, with varying success, and so post-war prefabs and sixties brick builds appear incongruously inserted amongst rows of Victorian terraced houses. The surviving neighbours of some of these missing buildings often look as if they are not long for this world themselves. Wapping’s Old Rose pub stands like an isolated Victorian promontory in a sea of wasteland. It’s windows are boarded up, and it looks rather as if it is waiting for the bomb which will at last arrive seventy years late, to send it to join the buildings that once surrounded it.

This could be a case of me projecting my own interests and concerns too forcefully, but I find it hard not to view this book as a commentary on the process of demolition and reconstruction which is sweeping across London today. As the value of property has soared and even the most meagre scraps of land are acquired for ‘redevelopment’ the sights and sites shown in this book become fewer and further between as they are pulled down, sealed up or built over. ‘So what’ one might well say, these derelicts and empty spaces offer the city no quantifiable or easily defined benefit to the city. But as the Roth quote above implies, some things of importance are beyond measurement. These missing buildings are the memento mori of the city. They are a reminder to us all that while order is illusory, life is short, and our own time will come, the city does not readily forget it’s own.

(Critical transparency: review copy provided by publisher)