Review – Staging Disorder at London College of Communication

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Sarah Pickering, Public Order

 

Architecture is never apolitical. Rather it is, in the words of Robert Hughes, the ‘carapace of political fantasy’, the thing that simultaneously represents and contains our supreme collective ambitions, and our worst communal nightmares. A new exhibition which has just opened at London College of Communication brings together work by seven photographers who have documented a particularly potent form of this fantasy, specifically the constructed spaces which are used by militaries and emergency services around the world to train in readiness for war, catastrophe, or civil strife.

The precise focus of the show, the small number of projects and the tight selection of the work makes for an interesting and well curated exhibition. Sarah Pickering’s Public Order is one highlight, a series of understated photographs of towns including ‘Denton’, constructed by British police services in order to train for euphemistically named public order incidents, better known as protests or riots. ‘Denton’ is an entire town complete with a tube station, a night club and a job centre, however the town’s buildings are nothing but hollow façades, and an occasional open house door gives way to the green of a field behind it like a surreal illusion. The real action occurs not in the non-existent interiors of these houses but in the streets which are barricaded with shopping trolleys and truck tires, the tarmac and bases of buildings burnt black by improvised incendiaries.

The show includes some artistic heavy hitters including work by three former Deustche Borse prize winners. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s Chicago documents a mock-up of an Arab town constructed by the Israeli Defence Force to train for urban combat. In their own words, ‘everything that happened, happened here first in rehearsal’ a summary which perhaps rather overstates the ability of such training grounds to anticipate the course of events in the real world, but which is still an engaging idea. In a rather different vein, Richard Mosse’s series Airside records the aircraft shaped metal hulks that are installed at major airports and which are periodically set ablaze in order to train emergency personnel to deal with a crash or a similar aeronautical disaster. If, as I have, you ever happen to land at an airport while such a training is in progress, the effect is deeply unsettling, not so much because of the threat of fire but because of the uncanny and grotesque look of these structures. The sight is less one of people battling to save a plane, and more one of them trying to slay a terrible monster. It’s maybe unsurprising that so many of the photographers in this show practice a form of photography which borders on or borrows from traditions and practices associated with conceptual art. What are these structures after all but conceptions of imagined places, anticipated events, and grotesque fears, all made material.

The exhibition also incorporates several sound installations produced by members of CRiSAP, a sound arts research group based at the college. These include Sounds from Dangerous Places, a series of recordings from the Chernobyl exclusion zone made by Peter Cusack. These blend audio cues now inextricably linked with nuclear disaster (like the scratchy clicking of a Geiger counter) with the evocative sounds of the exclusion zone’s now resurgent nature, and the people who have gradually returned to live there. Another piece, one of my favourites, is Cathy Lane’s Preparations for an Imaginary Conflict, which responds to the way political rhetoric is often used to prepare and condition populations for war. The listener is confronted by a semicircle of speakers, which gradually crackle into life with voices from Winston Churchill to David Cameron. The voices rise and fall, blending into and over one another, creating an orchestrated medley of rhetorical fear mongering.

Returning to the photographs, I think its notable that while some of these environments are stark places of poured concrete and undecorated chipboard, most by contrast feature details that go well beyond what is needed to simply train people to fight an enemy or suppress a riot. A case in point is Claudio Hill’s fascinating series Red Land Blue Land, which focuses on a model of an Irish town built in Germany for use by the British Army in training soldiers preparing to deploy to Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles. The town includes many seemingly unnecessary details including painted ‘for rent’ signs in shop windows, and mannequins inside phone boxes. As I noted in a review earlier this week, there is a question, which is ever present in this exhibition, about the point at which a simulation and the reality it depicts collide with one another. It is irresistible to ask how those who train in these deeply artificial environments find their expectations about the real world shaped and conditioned by them, and how they respond when those expectations are, or are not met by the real world.

As Dr Jennifer Good writes in one of the accompanying catalogue essays, these are fundamentally spaces where ‘form follows fear not function’ and the devil of this is very much in their detail. Seen that way, the anti-American graffiti in An-My Lê’s 29 Palms, or the nightclub and job centre signs of Pickering’s Public Order take on new meaning, as symbols of the often quite specific groups of people that these spaces are very definitely constructed against. It is impossible to know, but seductive to ask, how far these training simulations actually serve to ease the fears that they represent, or how far they in fact entrench and even exacerbate them. How in each new drill the political prejudices of these hollow streets and empty rooms are engrained on the trained. Fears heightened, intolerances nourished, and the sense of disorder’s inevitably cemented.

Staging Disorder is on at London College of Communication from Monday 26 January until Thursday 12 March.

(Critical transparency: I studied at LCC in 2012 and now work there periodically as a visiting tutor, however I do not know the curators or any of the artists involved in this show).

Review – Hyenas of the Battlefield by Lisa Barnard

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Following last week’s piece on new photographic horizons now seems like an apt time to take a look at Lisa Barnard’s recent book Hyenas of the Battlefield, Machines in the Garden. The book examines the increasingly strange turns that modern warfare is taking, evolving from an event for so long defined by physicality and proximity, but which now appears to be dematerialising, becoming ever more remote and abstract, at least for the antagonist if not the victim. Hyenas of the Battlefield looks specifically at the rise of virtual reality and simulated war systems and the growing use of remote weapons like drones. Barnard employs a scattered approach, looking with varying depth at a range of inter-related topics, and employing an enormous range of visual devices in the process, from traditional photographic documentation, to interviews, to appropriation and collage.

The first section of the book, Virtual Iraq, focuses primarily on an immersive simulation of an Iraqi city designed to aid soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder by slowly, safely reintroducing them to the source of that trauma. This is aided by a mixture of virtual and physical simulated environments, props and even bottled smells of garbage and burning tires. The level of detail gone to recreate these environments is exhaustive, and yet at the same time the whole simulation seems somehow shallow and disappointing, more reminiscent of a gameshow set than a warzone.

Also featured in this section are two virtual people developed by the US military. One named Seargent Starr is a recruitment tool for the US Army programmed to answer military careers questions with a series of evasive and inane answers, punctuated by regular ‘Hooahs’. The other simulated person ‘Raed Mutaaz’ is an Iraqi, who can be set to a range of levels of hostility and is designed to culturally acclimatise soldiers preparing to deploy in the country. The strange and rather depressing thought one is left with is the question of how far the simulation is constructed to reflect reality, or how far the user of the simulation comes to view reality as a shadow of that simulation, or an event which must conform to the dynamic created in the virtual reality. It’s not hard to imagine a soldier, having trained with Mutaaz, coming to view all Iraqis as innately hostile.

The second, larger section of the book, Whiplash Transition, looks at tele-warfare and particularly the use of drones, a practice which has become increasingly instrumental in the foreign policy of the United States over the past few decades. Remote warfare was clearly attractive because it seemed to offer the best of both worlds, the ability for technologically advanced nations to continue to project their power around the globe, without the danger of interventions disintegrating into politically unpalatable bloodbaths. Enemies could be tracked, ‘fixed’, and despatched at the push of a button. War it seemed, could become almost without consequence. The reality has proved rather different, and we are increasingly aware that soldiers can suffer trauma even when the act of killing is profoundly distant, performed by semi-autonamous machines, and mediated by computer screens.

This section starts with a relatively conventional series of still life photographs of shards from the Hellfire missiles which drones typically launch against their targets (sometimes quickly followed by a second missile intended to kill those who go to help the victims of the first). These shards are the most literal consequences of these remote foreign policy decisions, proof as it were that these near virtual war still have a real life counter-part. Also in this section is an interview with a drone operator, and as in Omer Fast’s film 5000 Feet is the Best, the operator’s words are a strange mixture of defensiveness, conciliation and pride in his work. The interview text is surrounded by pages of bleak, blue aerial views of mountainous Waziristan, the border territory of Pakistan now indelibly linked with drones.

In the final section Barnard travels to and photographs The Association for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles International, an arms trade show in Las Vegas. While this seems likely to offer the blandest source material in the book, it actually turns out to be one of the most interesting parts. Barnard photographs the trade show stands replete with sleek black killing machines, their storage crates, and includes plans of the vast show and it’s huge list of corporate exhibitors. As soldiers need to be shielded from war, so too it seems do salesmen and accountants, and particularly intriguing are the exercises in psychic deflection, the simulation and the nomenclature which spare the participants in these trade shows from having to actually discuss or consider the horror they make possible. This is what Julian Stallabrass in his introductory essay describes perfectly as the ‘armoured glacis of corporate bullshit’.

These people are the profiteers of modern war, the ‘hyenas of the battlefield’ as Bertolt Brecht called them in Mother Courage. They ought to remember another adage from the same play, that he who sups with the devil had better use a long spoon. As Fast indirectly suggested in his film, for now remote drones, guided missile strikes and long distance killing are relatively exotic ideas. A small number of countries more or less monopolise these things, and monopolise the right to execute their terrible power on other people with impunity. That imbalance won’t last forever, the machines won’t remain in the garden.

(Critical transparency: review copy purchased myself)

Analysis – Civis Sinæ Sum

Chinese workers await evacuation from Baghdad, Iraq.

Chinese workers who fled from Samarra, Iraq, wait for buses to begin their journey home as they sit at a hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. China’s official Xinhua news agency said that more than 1,200 Chinese workers who had been trapped in the embattled northern Iraqi city of Samarra have been evacuated safely to Baghdad, with the Iraqi military providing security.
(AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

 

The global trade in Chinese indentured labourers, or coolies, during the nineteenth and early twentieth century casts a long shadow. The depiction of these workers in popular culture and historical records continues to colour thoughts of China and it’s people’s role in the world today. It remains common for the Chinese to be depicted in ways which suggest they are part of a whole, and that individually they are passive, featureless and expendable.

While China might be a country developing enormous hard military power (take note of recent American fears of a Chinese initiated ‘pearl harbour in space’) it’s easy to overlook the other ways that Chinese influence is spreading across the globe. A significant example is the large and growing number of overseas projects, from dams in South America to an opera house in Algeria, initiated by the Chinese government, and invariably planned, manned and managed by Chinese workers. Iraq is no exception, with the state-owned China Machinery Engineering Corporation involved in the construction of a US$1.2 billion power plant in Samarra.

In this photo seven workers from that project pause in a hotel lobby. They are waiting to be evacuated as the ISIS rampage across Iraq continues and the security situation becomes increasingly dangerous, but there is nothing to hint at this instability apart from the soldier in the far right, his Iraqi flag badge also giving the only indication of location. Apart from a mural in the top left the lobby has the boring corporate neutrality of most hotels, and the location could be practically anywhere in the world. This photograph could just record the end of a normal, if rather tiresome, trip.

In front of the soldier the three men on the sofa seem aware of the photographer, but their responses differ considerably. The one on the furthest left seems most assured, relaxed, his demeanour and receding hairline are resonant of Ge Xiaoguang’s portrait of Mao Zedong on the Tiananmen gate. The man on the far right is hard to read, hidden as he is beyond his aviator sunglasses, which give him the air of a guard or sentinel. Like the men to his left (one playing on a mobile, another in a branded t-shirt) the glasses are a hint at the individualism, affluence and perhaps aspiration of this group. While they might be waiting passively for evacuation, it seems it would be a mistake to see these workers as anything like the coolies of the last century. As the Band of Brothers shirt hints, they are much more like the pathfinders or forward element of a new empire, and the diversity of this group reflect many of that empire’s contrasts and contradictions.

The fact they are in the process of being evacuated greatly speaks to that value. In the ancient world the phrase ‘civis romanus sum’ – or ‘I am a Roman Citizen’ – was meant to offer the speaker a measure of protection, reflecting the far reaching power of his state. It was an idea the British Empire took on at the height of its power in the nineteenth century, at times intervening militarily on behalf of its citizens around the world and using the same credo to justify its actions. This great military power also gave rise to what euphemistically referred to as the Pax Britannica (or British peace), a period of relative calm on a continent torn apart over the previous centuries by rival empires and coalitions.

A time when China has the clout and confidence to project power and protect its far flung citizens in this way seems to be drawing closer and closer, assuming that as this photograph suggests it’s not already here. With America’s commitment to it’s role as world policeman seeming to falter in the moral vacuum of the post-9/11 world (and the world’s willing to acquiesce to that power equally absent) it’s not hard to imagine a new global watchdog might be on the rise, with ‘civis sinæ sum’ a part of it’s new lexicon.

(this post was originally written in June 2014 at the start of the ISIS offensive in Iraq but not published until early 2015 due to scheduling constraints)

The Potential of Privilege

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Jerome Liebling, Outside Claridge’s Hotel, Mayfair (1967), London, UK

 

I felt like penning a quick follow up to Colin Pantall’s piece ‘Don’t be a Crybaby because you are Rich’ published yesterday. It’s a good read on a topic I often find myself thinking about in relation to photography. The medium remains painfully exclusive as a profession, dominated particularly at its higher echelons by the relatively privileged. To be sure the proliferation of cheaper cameras and new methods of dissemination have changed things somewhat, but not nearly so much as the ‘photography is inherently democratic’ crowd like to claim. There is much more to any notion of democratic photography than everyone owning a camera.

Photography has the potential to be democratic, at all levels, and we should consider it a key goal to find ways to make it realise this potential, so that it better reflects the make-up of the world that photographs circulate in. This is particularly important for practices like documentary photography, where the subjects covered and the subtlety with which they are explored often hinges so critically on the photographers own background. Lots of rich white men documenting society inevitably has consequences for the images produced, and the information they impart.

From the perspective of understanding a work of art, I think the artist’s background does matter. Pantall cites Dianne Arbus as an example of someone who made great work, and whose background isn’t relevant. It might not be critical, or even hugely important, but it is relevant, since what we know about Arbus (that she was a woman, Jewish, married, and from a wealthy family) can all help to shape how we understand her motivations for photographing, the dynamic between her and her subjects, and the ideas she was seeking to express in her photographs. We might still draw different conclusions from her images than she intended us to, but this information is part of the process of reading her photographs, and lacking it means the reading is incomplete.

The trouble of course with decrying privilege or attacking a privileged group is that it’s a deeply relative term. I am privileged, if only in the sense that I was born in a wealthy country, to loving and supportive parents, although we didn’t have that much money when I was a kid I didn’t want for anything (apart perhaps from some toys that weren’t home-made). I grew up in a house full of books and art, and generally had a pretty nice childhood. That is a form of privilege, and one to which know I owe a great deal in getting where I am now. I think Pantall’s key point is that a big problem with privilege is when those that have it often fail to recognise it for what it is. We too easily believe in the seductive myth of our own individualism and hard work.

It’s easy to laugh at the idea of the likes of James Blunt decrying the handicap of an upper class accent (and to some extent we should laugh, when there are so many more important things to complain about in Britain today). We have to recognise though that Britain remains a deeply class riven society, despite what we might like to tell ourselves about equality and egalitarianism. In the last century one might have been able to guess a huge amount about a person’s class from their dress. Something noticeable in photographs of the early twentieth century are the ‘class uniforms’ that working men invariably wore. The bowler hat and flat cap being particularly strong markers.

Today it’s much hard to make these sorts of visual judgements, but that dosen’t mean the divisions have dissolved. Instead accents are perhaps the most important marker of status, and whether we recognise it not we make all sorts of distinctions and calculations based on perceived class, privilege and geography as soon as we someone opens their mouth. This cuts both ways, the ‘privileged’ and ‘under-privileged’ having the upper hand in different scenarios. Aware of these prejudices and how they shape how others see us, many of us take on different aural personas depending on the people we find ourselves talking to, often without even recognising it. It always amuses me that my sister, who normally talks with a fairly thick London-Essex drawl switches to a fine impression of received pronunciation whenever she speaks to our elderly grandmother.

I’ve long felt that denigrating people because they were born rich or privileged is counter-productive. My attitude towards all things is there is no point being prejudiced against people for things they didn’t choose and have had no power to change. What really matters isn’t where you come from, or what assets you have on your side, but what you ultimately do with these things. I am a white, middle class man. I can’t change this, but I can be aware of it, and I can use the assets that this privilege has given me to try to use it to call out and undermine the systems and attitudes that makes these things useful in the first place. I can only hope that others aim to do the same.

Now We Can Talk About the Death of Photography

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An Ikea kitchen.

When I write for this blog I’m too often concerned with everything I say being ‘right’. Sometimes it’s interesting just to take up an idea and see where it goes, meander with it through to a conclusion and then leave others to decide if that meander is interesting or not. A year ago I published a post here on the much hyped ‘death’ of photography. This piece was an attempt to refute the endless nay saying, the self-flagellating pessimism of photographers. Predictions of photography’s demise seems to occur more than ever now, paradoxically at a time when people have never been so interested in photography.

A year on and the death of photography is of course still a non-event (the death of photographers as a professional group is another matter). Saying that though, a year is a long time in a field prone to being so seismically effected by changes in technologies and trends. Since I wrote that post I have noticed a few things which hint at interesting, perhaps threatening directions for the medium. Early hints at a gradual move towards something some purists would certainly regard as a form of death, which is the end of photography as a physical practice.

Some context first. Digital photography is undeniably now the pre-eminent means of imaging. Despite the plaintive cries of ‘Film’s not dead’ it might just as well be. The use of film has diminished to such a minority of photographers (myself included) that we might as well consider it a piece of living history, akin to dressing up as a German soldier and talking with a put-on accent for the day. The fact is that to the vast, vast majority of people who use photography and look at photography day to day, it is an entirely digital medium.

The reasons for digital photography’s rise and rise are well charted, for the sake of brevity I’ll paraphrase them to matters of economics, and (more importantly for this conversation) matters of physical space. What made and still makes digital photography remarkable is the way it abstracted photography into something ephemeral and virtual. The image ceased to exist as an actual thing in the same way one might say the latent image on a piece of film exists. (Sure you could argue the digital image still exists, at the physical level of electrons, but for most people this is functionally non-existent)

Digital capture and storage freed photography from many of the physical processes which handicapped the medium and which made it difficult for camera technology to become as omnipotent as it is now. Still, even with this loss of physicality in terms of the produced image, digital photography depends on some of the essential physical processes that have always defined photography as a phenomena. Particularly the channelling and passage of light through a lens or aperture, and it’s focusing onto a sensitised surface to record the information carried by the light. Ephemeral image or not, photography remains for now a partially physical practice.

The logical next step is obviously to eliminate these remaining physical elements too. Then in effect not only will the photograph of tomorrow no longer exist, but nor will the camera which makes it. Ridiculous sounding, but also not. Media theorists have long discussed or anticipated the emergence of a form of photographic or otherwise documentary representation with no referent in the real world, certainly since the emergence of computer graphics in the latter half of the last century. Now though the technology is catching up sufficiently to see ideas and hypotheticals which have been circulating for decades finally come close to colliding with cold hard reality.

These thoughts became hard for me to resist recently while watching someone play a video game (these seem to be cropping up rather a lot on this blog) where the player is equipped with a camera phone and encouraged to take photographs of the beautiful rendered game world. So beautiful in fact that there are online groups entirely dedicated to sharing these images, which are often difficult to identify as ‘virtual’ images, particularly in an era when the compromised quality of camera phone images is so normal. An altogether more striking, real world came to me in reading that the furniture retailer Ikea has largely abandoned the use of traditional photography to sell its products, most of those pristine chairs and tables (included the entire image included at the top of this post) are 3D models, rendered to look like photographs. This has been going on since 2004.

Both examples still take human preparation and source material, including of course photographs of actual objects to provide textures and references for these renders, but the precedent is what’s interesting. And of course, it’s a big leap from a video game or a furniture catalogue to a world where photographs are routinely rendered rather than captured. But the demonstration that this is technically possible and commercially feasible is important. If photographers as a profession feel beleaguered now, it’s not hard to see a future where these technologies have progressed to a state where they upend much of our work entirely. In the same way that photography brought an end to the work of so many commercial painters in the nineteenth century, something similar could now be in the offing for photography.

The response of many reading this will be quite straightforward, that these examples aren’t photographs, they’re computer renderings, CGI, simulations, whatever. This is true, but also exactly part of the point I was making earlier in setting out the physical differences between the latent film and latent digital image. In the era of the digital image it hardly matters whether an image is a real photograph or not, if it looks the part it will be understood as one, as both the examples above demonstrate. Photography could slowly ‘die’ from the inside out without us ever even noticing.

If these trends towards photo realistic computer generated images continues it will mean that we will have to have to return to some of the interesting conversations about what these images mean for photography. To simply dismiss them as unreal will be inadequate response. Photography appears to be pushing at the margins of new territory, a world where it has been almost entirely abstracted out of reality, and has escaped the bonds of all the physical processes which once precisely defined what it meant ‘to photograph’. The idea of writing with light, so essential to the notion of how we define photography and it’s specific strengths and uses, is starting to give way.

Review – Drawn by Light at Media Space

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Portrait of Christina, 1913, Lieutenant Colonel Mervyn O’Gorman, The Royal Photographic Society Collection,
National Media Museum, Bradford © Lieutenant Colonel Mervyn O’Gorman

A great part of the incomparable appeal of photography must stem from it’s chameleonic nature, that fact that as technologies go it must be one of the most apparently reflective and transparent, ready to shape itself to the needs of whoever picks up the camera. Photography is, as far as a technology can be, all things to all men. The Royal Photographic Society (RPS) was founded in 1853 to promote one element of that diversity, the artistic, and at the suggestion of Prince Albert soon began to collect works by its members. In the century and a half since this has grown into a remarkable collection of prints, books and photographic ephemera, all now held at the National Media Museum in Bradford.

Some of the best of these photographs forms the basis for the current exhibition in the Science Museum’s Media Space gallery. Far from the perhaps rather artless images of science and technology I and others once expected this new gallery to house, the emphasis has so far been on the opposite, on photography as art (from the wonderful Tony Ray Jones show, to the more recent Joan Fontcuberta retrospective). This trend continues in this exhibition, with works by the likes of early pioneers like Julia Margaret Cameron, Henry Peach Robinson, and Oscar Rejlander, through to contemporary photographers like Martin Parr and Calum Colvin.

The emphasis though is mostly on the old, and the contemporary part of the RPS collection gets only a relatively cursory examination. To start with there are also some remarkable artefacts from the earliest moments of photography, including a series of heliographs by Nicéphore Niépce and a display of artefacts belongin to Henry Fox Talbot, including an attempt he made at drawing a camera lucida, and some of his early prototype photographic cameras. In respect of these precious artefacts and delicate prints this exhibition is the first obvious demonstration of the great asset that the Media Space is, a grand space designed for the display of works which are extremely sensitive. It has few rivals for this purpose in London, and none on the same scale.

Continuing through the exhibition the art trend continues with early twentieth century pioneers like Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and some rather more journalistic contributions from the likes of Margaret Bourke-White and Angus McBean. As noted things get a bit thinner towards the latter half of the twentieth century, with relatively few works and fewer ones of note. Aside from the fact it might have thematically clashed with the Media Space’s forthcoming Revelations show on the origins of photography, a tighter focus on the early part of the collection might have made a little more sense.

It’s also undoubtedly true that as much as photography has been a wonderful tool of artistic expression, it has also been a tool of abuse, repression, and marginalisation. This is of course something the RPS isn’t exactly in the business of advertising but I’m glad to say it still sneaks into the show in a few pieces, for example in the form of Hugh Welch Diamond’s 1852 photographs of the inmates of Surrey County Asylum, poignantly sad pictures. The same can be said for Erna Lendvai-Dircksen’s beautiful 1938 photograph ‘Head of a Child’ which takes on another meaning, as photographs so often do, when one discovers the photographer was an ardent eugenicist and Nazi party member. These little deviations from the general theme of the show were amongst it’s highlights for me.

There is a loose curatorial rationale running through the exhibition, but in many ways Drawn by Light is an example of an exhibition where an overbearing curatorial structure (of that sort seen in say the Tate’s recent conflict exhibition) really isn’t needed. After years of complaining about flabby curation and ill-fitting underlying concepts I have to say that for once I’m glad there wasn’t more of an attempt made to exert a structure or organisation on the photographs. These images feel too disparate and individually potent to be straitjacketed into themes or categories. My advice is to go without an agenda or a timetable and simply revel in viewing so many important and wonderful early photographs housed in one space.

Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection is at the Science Museum’s Media Space, London from 2 December 2014 – 1 March 2015 and then travels to the National Media Museum, Bradford from 20 March to 21 June 2015

(Critical transparency: Exhibition seen free with press ticket, normally £8)

Review – Edward Steichen: In High Fashion at The Photographers Gallery

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Edward Steichen, Actress Mary Heberden, 1935 (Vogue, March 15, 1935)
Courtesy of Condé Nast Archive, Condé Nast Publications, Inc, New York
Paul Hawryluk, Dawn Lucas and Rachael Smalley

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As I noted in a review of Vivianne Sassen’s current exhibition, one of the reasons I sometimes struggle to get excited about fashion photography is that in the end the vast mass of it never manages to escape the gravity of the original reason for its existence, which is to sell stuff. A few photographers do manage to transcend this, and I think Edward Steichen was one of them. This was an achievement perhaps made more remarkable (or depending on your viewpoint, perhaps more understandable) by the fact that he was working at a time when fashion photography as we know it today simply didn’t exist.

Alongside the Sassen show, The Photographers Gallery also has an exhibition highlighting Steichen’s productive years working as chief photographer for Condé Nast publications between 1923 and 1937. Starting started out as a painter, Steichen’s his career was marked by a constant dabbling with photography. Enroute to study in Paris in 1901 he found time to sell several of his photographs to Alfred Stieglitz, then a major figure in a relatively small photographic world. Steichen quickly established a reputation as a skilled portrait photographer in Paris and on his return to the United States, notched up photographs of the notoriously impatient J.P Morgan amongst others sitters. In 1923, reputedly after taking a favourable photograph of Miss Nast of the Condé Nast publishing dynasty, Steichen was offered a position as taking portraits for the pages of Vanity Fair.

Stiechen’s background as a painter is evident in many of his photographs. Beyond the painterly pictorialist aesthetic evident in his earlier portraits, it’s clear in his sophisticated awareness of tone, light and dark for example, as in a 1925 portrait of Helen Menken, the white of her face looming out of a black background which mingles beautifully with her hair. It’s also evident in the way he positions and poses his subjects. While many are at first glance traditional and formal in posing, Steichen introduces dynamism in subtle ways, drawing diagonals across the frame with the line of an arm for example. This dynamism is there in many of his photographs, and in a self-portrait one even gets a sense of it in Steichen himself. He is shown crouching before an array of photographic equipment which almost look set to tip over him, he himself is primed and tense as if ready to leap at a moment’s notice. Despite his background Steichen was no traditionalist, and took advantage of emerging new technologies including faster films and portable lights to increasingly take his subjects out of the studio and into real world locations.

Having demonstrated his skills as a portraitist it didn’t take Steichen long to branch out into producing fashion photographs for the pages of another Condé Nast title; Vogue. What’s remarkable isn’t just this rapid ascendency to the position of highest paid photographer in the world, but that in the process Steichen was drastically changing how fashion was seen and marketed. Until his appearance on the scene drawings had been the primary method of fashion advertising in magazines, remarkable when you consider that technically speaking photographs had been easily reproducible in print for more than forty years. Steichen upended this.

Steichen’s photographs sometimes charmingly dated now, very much the cliché of 1920’s fashion and photography, but recognising the familiarity of these tropes in his photography is a reminder of the part he played in defining the fashion photography of the era, and since. Its interesting considering one of Vivianne Sassen’s claims to fame is drawing fashion photography back away from the cult of the celebrity, that Steichen’s photographs similarly tend to place far more emphasis on the setting and the clothing than on the model, even when that model is something of a celebirty. Given the role of fashion photography today and the great debates over it’s positive and negative influences, his role as effective founder of the genre puts Steichen in quite a position, for better or for worse, as someone to which all fashion photographers today probably pay homage, whether they realise it or not.

Edward Steichen: In High Fashion is at The Photographers’ Gallery, 31 October 2014 – 18 January 2015

(Critical transparency: Exhibition seen free at a press view, normally £4.50, but free Admission Mon – Fri, 10.00 – 12.00)

Disphotic News 2015

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St John’s party, Shrewsbury. January 1, 1953.
Geoff Charles, Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales

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Happy new year! Here’s a little news about Disphotic to kick off 2015. First of all I’ve finally transferred over the better posts from the old blog site, which is now no more. Although it’s a little sad to pull the plug on the old site it just made no sense having the material spread across two sites. Now it’s been refined down to the better posts, which have finally also all been catalogued in one place in a coherent way for easy recall and rereading. You can find links to all the old posts through the writing catalogue (link also in the header of the site) or search or view posts by month using the archive tab to the right. Because of the transfer of the old posts there are a few teething problems with some images on the old posts not displaying properly but these are gradually being fixed.

There are a few other minor changes on the blog, mostly back of house things which you hopefully won’t notice but should make the user experience more enjoyable. The main change is that the monthly e-mail updates about new posts have been restored by popular demand, and you can sign up for these and manage your subscription here or through the subscribe link in the blog’s banner. I have a few plans content wise as well. One is to loosely theme some months around particular topics and issues, both photographic ones and wider ones. For example in March we have a month of reviews, interviews and comment pieces coming up to coincide with the anniversary of the Ukraine crisis and the Russian annexation of Crimea.

I also feel a little more accountability is in order when it comes to reviews, so from here on I’ll be noting at the end of the reviews whether the book or exhibition ticket was gratis from a publisher or gallery. It might seem minor to note this but the more time I spend writing about photography the more aware I feel of the uncomfortable closeness that can develop between critics and the things they ought to be critiquing. This little bit of openness seems like a small way of counter-balancing that, and also seems like a good way of reminding readers of the dynamic that often exists here.

When I launched this new site I had the idea of also producing a hard copy of Disphotic on a semi-regular basis. This has proved impractical, the time requirement to write for two versions of the Disphotic, as well as writing for other places, working on my own photographic projects (I’m actually a photographer you know) and er, also just making a living, was just too much. The hard copy idea hasn’t completely died a death though, I’m working on a plan to produce a co-operative joint publication with a few other photography writers, partly as a way to start to establish some connections between us (we’re generally a fairly fragmented bunch) and also as a way to get a range of diverse opinions on key issues in photography collected together in one place, free from any of the usual institutional pressures to say nice things. More on that soon.

That’s all, thanks for reading and here’s to a great 2015!

Review – This War of Mine

this war of mine

This War of Mine

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I’ve never really set myself a formal remit for what I can and can’t review, because it always seemed rather clear to me that some media are consistently used to talk about interesting things in interesting ways and others simply aren’t. I review books, films, exhibitions because these are the formats that are generally used to explore the things that I want to spend time thinking and writing about. I’ve never reviewed video games (even though I often play them) because with very few exceptions they just don’t do this. However, this informal rationale has become harder and harder to stick to, as over the past few years games have got much smarter.

There was 2008’s Bioshock for example, which took an axe to Ayn Rand’s objectional Objectivist philosophy by imagining a dystopian society ruled by the demands of the market and a total subjection to free will. Another great example was 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which engaged with complex and highly relevant questions of globalisation, technological dependence and trans-humanism. I’m not sure if they’ve exactly reached the status of art, but games can be very clever and be fully engaged with the real world as well as offering an opportunity for escapism. So with that in mind, here it is, my first (and perhaps last) video game review:

Released by a Polish indie games firm, This War of Mine drops you into an unidentified eastern European city (possibly modelled on Sarajevo) which is embroiled in civil war and under a state of siege. In most games you would expect at this point to assume the part of an elite soldier who must slaughter his way through a ridiculous number of enemies to an implausibly absolute and consequence free victory. Instead This War of Mine cleverly mixes things up by putting you control of a small group of civilians just struggling to survive from one day to the next. From your home in a bombed out apartment building you must sally forth into the city in search of supplies, scavenging in the ruins of nearby structures for the food and medicine you need to keep going and the parts you need to gradually improve your shelter and prepare for the coming winter.

These supplies are few and the moral quandaries involved in getting them are many. At times the only option is to steal from other survivors, perhaps by stealth or as the game goes on and things get increasingly desperate then by taking what you require by force. Doing so is never a decision taken lightly, particularly as it runs a high risk of your scavenger being caught and killed. Losing a character has a knock on effect on the others in your group, reducing their chances of survival and sometimes sending them into a spiral of depression, on top of the already constant dangers of hunger, sickness and being in turn robbed yourself by marauding bands of starving civilians. The game is compelling and somewhat addictive, but it’s also gruelling, tense and at times deeply depressing.

Anyone who thinks This War of Mine gives them an accurate idea of what it’s like to be a civilian trying to survive in a war zone is an idiot, but the game might at least encourage some to doubt the pro-military heroics of most war games, and lead them instead to think about the invisible civilians who might be hiding in the shadows as they blast their way to victory. This War of Mine is also about much more than changing attitudes or raising ethical dilemmas, it has a fund-raising role as well. The game is directly linked to the charity War Child who get a cut of the sales of the game, and you’re encouraged to donate directly to support the charity’s work from within the game. an interesting feature which shows that at least a few in the charity sector are thinking in innovative ways and that they are not all (as it sometimes seems) just desperately attempting to catch-up with the possibilities of new technology and cultural forms.

And looking for new ways to tell stories is important. Photography and video are, and will remain, essential media in delivering humanitarian messages and appeals. But both also have obvious shortcomings, not least in the fact that the viewer’s engagement can sometimes be quite passive and narratives or appeals delivered through these mediums can give you the feeling of looking at a world powerlessly, as if through a window, rather than having much sense of being there. You might empathise with the person depicted but it can be hard to feel compelled to do much more than pull the curtains at the end of the story and carry on with your life. One of the obvious strengths of video games is they demand that you take control and experience (on an ultra-diluted level) the cause and consequences of these things yourself. If you’ve ever seen a gamer physically duck out of the way of something in a game you’ll know what I mean.

It’s hard of course not to feel ethically troubled by a game which turns survival into a form of optional entertainment at a time when so many in Syria, Ukraine, etc. are living this as an enforced reality. The game necessarily has to tread a line between trying to replicate a gruelling experience and making it compelling enough to keep you returning for more. As often as it falls on the right side of that line, it also tips over onto the wrong side. That said, This War of Mine is certainly no more ethically questionable than the vast number of games that turn war into entertainment (or ‘Millitainment’ as Roger Stahl dubs it) and which encourage killing without consideration of its consequences. Whatever criticisms you could make of This War of Mine, at least it keeps these ethical questions very, very close to the surface.

This War of Mine is published by 11Bit Studios.

 

Review – Conflict, Time, Photography at Tate Modern

Toshio Fukada
Toshio Fukada
The Mushroom Cloud – Less than twenty minutes after the explosion (1) 1945
Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (Tokyo, Japan)

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An unlikely approach to a troubling, yet familiar subject is often the most effective in resetting our way of viewing it. Kurt Vonnegut must have had a sense of this when he wrote Slaughterhouse 5, his remarkable anti-war novel in which time implodes and a traumatised veteran telescopes between his present, past and a future where he has been kidnapped by psychic aliens who resemble green drain plungers. Drawing inspiration from this novel and its spasmodic narrative is Tate Modern’s Conflict, Time, Photography, a major new show of war photographs. What makes this exhibition notably different from the many others that have been staged about conflict photography is the way that it abandons the typical curatorial rationales. Rather than dividing and arranging its constituent photographs by themes, eras or regions, Conflict, Time, Photography instead structures itself around the amount of time that elapsed between the conflict depicted in each photograph and the release of the actual camera shutter.

This chronology means that on first entering the gallery you are confronted by a puff of smoke, a photograph by Luc Delahaye showing the moment after an American airstrike on an Afghan Taliban position in 2001. In the same room are four remarkable photographs by Toshio Fukada of the Nagasaki atomic bomb mushroom cloud, billowing above the city about twenty minutes after its total destruction in 1945. Again, because the emphasis is on the elapsed time between event and photograph, images of conflicts from very different regions and time frames come to inhabit similar spaces simply because they were made with similar speed or slowness. As well as the chronological relationship there is some thematic closeness between the works in many of the rooms, but you sometimes have to search quite hard to find it.

Moving through the gallery the duration between image and event becomes longer, growing into weeks, months, years and eventually decades. Half-way through the exhibition an entire room is dedicated to works about the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, all of them (like Kikuji Kawada’s landmark 1965 book The Map) made some twenty or thirty years after the end of the war. Coming to the end of the exhibition the time elapsed between event and image is now nearing a century. The final photographs on show are from Chloe Dewe Mathews series Shot at Dawn, which records locations where First World War soldiers accused of cowardice or desertion were executed.

In the second to last room a corridor leads off to a hidden chamber housing an assortment of fascinating objects drawn from the esoteric Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC) in a display which takes an irreverent look at war and the selective memory and amnesia involved in its reporting and commemoration. From fragments of sunken battleships, to a cabinet of military horseshoes, the selection is bizarre and something of a relief from the sometimes rather worthy art photographs in the main show. However, great as the AMC display is, it’s inclusion here also seems rather strange because it doesn’t obviously fit with the theme of the main show and has more than enough interest to stand alone as an independent mini-exhibition.

The AMC room also highlights one of the main issues with Conflict, Time, Photography, which is one that afflicts many of the headline Tate Modern exhibitions. It’s just far too big, and the selection of work often feels flabby and indiscriminate, with multiple works from the same artists when one would have illustrated the same point perfectly. Two very similar pieces on bloodlines by Taryn Simon are a case in point, as is a huge wall of not particularly remarkable photographs of Ukrainian holocaust survivors by Stephen Shore. There is also often a sense that one is viewing works which are less concerned with commenting on the disaster that is war and which are more focused on vying to outdo the competition in aesthetic loveliness and conceptual complexity. To slightly misquote Vonnegut; ‘everything was beautiful and nothing hurt’ and amongst so much self-consciously artistic photography it’s actually the very few truly raw images (like Don McCullin’s Shellshocked Marine) that really stand out and linger on in the mind.

The selection of events featured is a little strange as well, with some occurring excessively, like the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In contrast there is much less focus on other wars and regions. I only recall four works about the Middle East for example, though they were for most part very good and included Walid Raad’s brilliant and bizarre pseudo-documentary record of Lebanese car bombings, and Sophie Ristelhueber’s remarkable series Fait. This is a startling collection of photographs about the desert battlescapes of the First Gulf War, which beautifully and spookily anticipate the breakdown in scale and distance inherent in the drone and satellite tele-wars of today.

The chronological structure of the main show is very interesting and does quite an effective job of reminding you how long the traces of war last on the physical surface of places, and the bodies and minds of the people exposed to it. The downside of it is that as you progress through the gallery and find yourself drawn further and further away in time from the events depicted in the art works and it becomes harder to engage with and particularly care about the conflicts they deal with (something somewhat exacerbated by the sheer volume of photographs). Dogged by this sense of image fatigue, I found myself wondering if a reversed chronology might have been more powerful, with visitors entering the exhibition instead starting with photographs showing events that occurred a century ago, and then drawing closer and closer to the actual act of conflict as they moved on through the gallery. Finally, turning a corner into the last room, one would find oneself confronted by Fukada’s terrifying and accusatory quadtych of mushroom clouds.

Conflict, Time, Photography is at Tate Modern from 26 November 2014 until 15 March 2015.