Goodbye Disphotic

SMS Bayern sinking after being scuttled by her crew
Scapa Flow, 21 June 1919

The time has come for me to order full stop to Disphotic’s engines and leave it to drift down into the internet’s abyssal depths, to rest with the countless other abandoned hulks. In plainer speak, I’m giving up regularly writing this blog, and there are three main reasons why.

Disphotic called for a very particular type of writing, a sort of didactic, short form which isn’t the only type of prose I want to explore and experiment with (and writing has always for me been something of an experiment, however evidenced that might be in the rather stymied final form of what was published here). I once found writing far more of a balancing act, a perilous tightrope walk along a line of thinking or argument. As this analogy implies it was also something of a game, and having set the rules and now got rather too used to them I now find myself wanting other scenarios and the challenges they might bring. Increasingly when I sit down to write I find my thoughts meandering over more and more pages and subjects, regularly breaking the once inviolable word length barriers and topic areas I had set for myself when writing for Disphotic. Put simply I feel dissatisfied and constrained with this blog and I want to do other things. I can only hope that this dissatisfaction perhaps reflects a maturation and a growing interest in ideas that cannot be easily expressed in one thousand words or less, not simply self-indulgence and engorgement on my part. I will continue to write in other forms and places in the future, as well as working on a proposal for doctoral study which I may or may not pursue. Disphotic’s index will also continue to be updated with new pieces of writing as they appear elsewhere, and I will also be sporadically blogging on educational matters here. So, the end of Disphotic is not the end of my writing, rather the start of a different direction for it.

The decision to stop writing this blog however is also about much more than style. This site has taken an enormous amount of time and energy to produce, not only to write the posts and maintain the blog, but also to formulate the ideas, to read and look, and follow intellectual rabbit holes downwards through sometimes labyrinthine routes to their termination (more often than not at dead ends). To say that Disphotic required a great deal of energy is not at all to say that I lay any great claim to the originality or insight of what I have posted here, just that what it demanded of me were resources I can increasingly see being better put to use elsewhere. I want to focus more of my energies on my own practice for example, which after all was the very reason I started to write this blog, as a way to tease out questions and illuminate dark spots in my own work. As my projects become bigger and more complex, particularly in terms of the research that underlies them, I feel I need more and more of my resources reserved for these. Equally teaching is an ever-bigger part of my life, and in contrast to writing here I enjoy the fact those conversations are not so one directional and didactic, and that the tangible results of these efforts are much quicker and clearer to see.

This leads on to the third reason and the most significant, that my quitting Disphotic is also the result of a mounting frustration with the photography world which this blog grew to become an engagement with. That frustration takes many forms. For one I am frustrated by the narrow, inward looking horizons of our field. Photography has its limits as a medium, technically and intellectually, but even those meagre boundaries rarely seem to be pushed very hard against by those within it (more often indeed the challengers seem to come from without). I have, through this blog, come to know a great many writers, photographers, and curators who are not so complacent, who feel for and test these edges, but they are still too few, and the field as a whole remains tediously self-satisfied and provincial. To some extent this is reflected in another frustration of mine. While being utterly areligious I’ve always tried with this blog to live up to the Quaker credo of speaking truth to power, by highlighting whenever I can those things I see as the problems and inadequacies with our field, and those who benefit from them. There are a great many things which obstruct photography’s ability to live up to the tenets that are often parroted by those within it. For all the grand talk of photography’s democracy, equality and possibility, our field is one which in reality is conditioned by systemic inequality, nepotism, corporate influence, prejudice, opportunism, protectionism, codes of silence, dirty money, and sometimes outright exploitation.

Trying to draw attention to some of these things over the years has had some detectable professional implications for me as a photographer (a price I pay without much regret) but it has met with little tangible response in return. Again through my writing I have come to know others who, having learnt the inner rules of our profession, refuse to play the games that are expected of them. Sadly they are few. I have often wondered that this inability to galvanise some change reflects a failure of my own writing, it’s inability to invoke the sort of action I had hoped to see in response to these things. Perhaps though I just have allowed myself to do what I have so often been critical of photographers for doing; that is grossly over-estimating the power of pictures, or words, to motivate change. Perhaps I need to continue to grapple with these problems but find wholly different ways of doing it. Responsibility must also lie ultimately however with the photography community at large. The French diplomat Joseph de Maistre, in most respects an eminently dislikeable figure, was possibly on to something when he observed that people get the government they deserve. Perhaps that observation goes for professionals also. While they might condemn some of these things in private most photography professionals it seems are quite happy to remain silent in public, to press themselves against those in power and blithely ignore what they know is wrong, presumably in the hope that if they keep quiet some small crumbs scattered from these wrongdoings will eventually trickle down to benefit them.

Ours is a stressful, difficult profession to get along in and I understand the reasons that many are unwilling to speak out. But I am also tired of being, along with a relatively small group of others, a self-appointed lightning rod for issues and problems in which we all have an equal stake. It has been an interesting journey developing my thoughts on photography and many other things besides in an increasingly public forum, and it has been amazing thing to see the audience for a blog which was always intended to be very personal grow to several thousand regular readers. I need to draw an end to this now before the sense of having had too much of a good thing becomes too strong and I come to resent and regret something which up until now fills me mostly with positive feelings. For conversations, commissions, commiserations, etc I can as ever be contacted here and new projects will be announced here.

But now without further ado, let us set the charges, man the lifeboats, and abandon ship.

An Exhibition and Book Making Resource

machine_shop_in_the_government_printing_office
Machine shop in the Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.
c. 1909 – 1932

It might seem to rather fly in the face of what image making is now, but more often than not photography still ends up finally as a physical thing, whether as a book, an exhibition or something else. When this happens the extent to which the idea in a photographers head is realised in physical form is heavily dependent on the quality and variety of the firms that provide the paper, print the pages, bind the books, make the prints, mount them, and so forth. Both because I want to help support the companies that make it possible for us to do these things, and because I want to make life easier for photographers searching for the right firm to make their ideas into reality, I’ve been compiling a list of companies that might be useful for photographers. These range from paper merchants, to binderies, to fine art and business card printers, to film processors and camera repair firms. Alongside these I’ve also been updating my existing list of fee free grants, competitions and residencies and reproducing both as a rather more convenient embedded spreadsheet.

Originally I envisaged this new list as a resource for my BA and MA students, who often experience a mad flurry in the last stages of their studies to find firms able to produce the projects they’ve been labouring on over the previous months or years. Each year the teaching staff suggest this or that place as and when students come to us with requests or ideas, but I’ve long felt there ought to be a better way of doing this. Although the original idea was as an educational resource ass I’ve gradually worked on this list and shared it with incrementally larger groups of people, it’s also become clear to me that it would be a useful thing to many more established photographers. The list itself also benefits from this wider sharing since it very much depends on public contributions, you can see how for now, it has a very British bias and also tends towards the conventionally photographic (I would like add more firms offering esoteric services). So consider it a form of karmic contract. If you use this list, if you benefit from it, suggest a few additions in return.

On a more general note, as I’ve shown this to more people the response I’ve increasingly had is ‘how generous of you to compile this’. While it’s obviously nice to hear this I don’t see this project as particularly generous as all, this resource benefits me in my own work as much as it does anyone else. What I think that exclamation is more indicative of it how generally ungenerous and stingy the photography community can be, the way we often hold our knowledge close to our chests and can be really mean about sharing it with one another. The old idea that where one person benefits another most suffer some sort of deficit seems to remain a dearly held one in the photography world. So as much as being a useful resource I also hope this list is an example to resist this sort of meanness, and to embrace that idea that in helping others in the industry you more often than not end up benefiting yourself.

View the exhibition and book resource here.

View the competition and grant list here.

 

School of Punktum Scholarship

800px-Post-mortem_photograph_of_young_child_with_flowers

Post-mortem photograph of a child, c.19th century

I’m teaching some classes as part of the School of Punktum, an alternative documentary photography school established by Ed Thompson. In the interest of practicing some of what I preach, I will be donating my teaching fee to establish the Lewis Bush pre-emptive memorial scholarship. The serious aim of this tongue in cheek fund is to cover one student’s fees so they can attend the advanced Punktum program which lasts one month taking place on weekends and features a combination of virtual and face to face classes and crits.

I’ve said it before, the only way documentary photography can really hope to live up to it’s creed and reflect the world in all it’s brilliant complexity is if the range of people making documentary works becomes just as diverse and complex. As long as financial barriers remain (whether big or small) that’s always going to be an aspiration rather than a reality. So if you know an aspiring photographer of whatever level who’d like to attend but really can’t afford to pay then have them drop me a line at info [at] disphotic.com explaining the reason they need the scholarship and including some examples of their work. And please share this around. You can also read more about Punktum here. Thanks!

Disphotic’s Future

An East German ‘village teacher’ teaching students of all age groups in one class, 1951
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-13055-0008 / CC-BY-SA

Happy new year! 2016 marks the fifth year of Disphotic’s existence, and it’s third as a blog dedicated to writing on photography. Each new year usually brings small changes as I try to refine what the blog does and how it fits in to the other things I spend my time doing and this year there are two small changes I want to announce. Firstly I will be significantly reducing the number of reviews (particularly book reviews) I do and possibly in time stopping them altogether. Lately I’ve found reviews more and more of a pain to write, and I never really derived that much pleasure from getting up on my high horse and proclaiming one piece of work better than another. I will continue to write about new photography but I’d prefer to find other ways to do it, whether that be through essays which are more analytically critical than judgemental, and through things like interviews with photographers.

The second change is a consequence of my joining London College of Communication’s BA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography as a lecturer last October. It’s a really exciting opportunity to explore many of the topics I discuss on this blog in a much more practical setting and to be far more deeply involved in shaping a course than I ever have been in the past. However this new commitment inevitably  means that I have rather less free time for pleasant diversions like writing and working on my own projects, at least during the transition into teaching and for however long it takes for me to find my feet. Disphotic will carry on publishing, but I anticipate the schedule of new posts might start to be less regular than it has been.

Slowing the blog down a year ago from two posts per week ago to one was meant to make Disphotic more sustainable, because that sort of writing commitment proved remarkably grueling over the fourteen months or so that I kept it up. In practice even posting once a week has proven pretty exhausting, and although I’ve just about managed to maintain that pace for about a year and a half I know it’s not always been to the best. Things get posted which aren’t always up to the standard I’d like them to be. That comes with the territory of blogging, but you still strive for the best quality you can. I hope that reducing the pressure to post on a regular basis will mean I can spend longer developing each piece, and make them rather better for it. I remain totally committed to this blog and the conversations that it has helped to start. This isn’t going to mean an end to any of that, just perhaps a slight change of pace.

Lets Talk About Money

Metropole book Lewis Bush (1)
Lets Talk About Money (or: What is the Point of Photobook Publishing?)

The photo world abounds with articles, essays and titles on photo book publishing, covering seemingly every topic from the abstract philosophy of designing books through to the essential practicalities of marketing and distributing them. What is seldom discussed are the rather grim economic realities of book publishing. Photographers often plow their savings into new publications or spend month’s crowdsourcing or grant seeking in order to pay for them. Many books remain mouldering unsold, in closets, attics or under the bed for years, and even successful titles sometimes do not recoup their considerable shooting and production costs.

As part of the photo book extravaganza that is Photobook Bristol I’ll be chairing a panel discussion on Sunday June 14th exploring this little discussed area of photo book publishing. Joining me will be Emma Chetcuti of Multistory, Craig Atkinson of Café Royal Books and photographer Mark Power, who all have distinct insights into the topic. The subject of money is little discussed perhaps in part because the economic realities of photo book publishing can seem quite depressing. Who pays for books, why they do it, and what we can expect out of it as photographers are all questions that most of us would prefer not to ask because these questions both shine a light both on our motivations for putting work out into the world, and also cause us to reconsider our assumptions about what we get back in return.

A few of the questions we will be discussing include the quandary of who pays for photo books? Should publishers foot the bill, or is it right to expect photographers to cover the costs of their projects. With so many photographers making books, supply often seems to outstrip demand. Do we need to be more realistic about the market for photo books or look for ways to broaden that market, whether by changing the topics we focus on or the type of books we produce? Should the trade in photography books be dependent on the invisible hand of the market (particularly a market imbalanced by powerhouses like Amazon), or is there an argument for public funding of book projects which lack broad public appeal but have an important creative, cultural or political contribution to make?

If photo book publishing is not financially viable, and even sometimes unviable for the publisher, then why do we keep doing it? What do we expect to gain from publishing our works if it is not financial remuneration? Do the benefits of exposure and career advancement outweigh the financial costs and investment in time that go into producing a book project? Can we say photo book publishing is basically a vanity project, and if so for who? For the publisher, or for the artists, or for both? If they each have different agendas is this important? Should the burden to fund fall on the one who stands to gain?

We will be discussing these questions and many more, so come on down to the Southbank Club in Bristol for a weekend of great talks, books and entertainment.

Five More Years to Fight

Mother Frackers A3

‘Mother Frackers’ (2015)
Digital photomontage

A few months ago I posted a piece asking why there is so little photography of austerity? The last five years have seen the widespread closure of public services, the scapegoating of the weak, and the wholesale promotion of a degenerate, hypocritical set of values that have spread beyond individual parties and which seem to permeate almost the entire political establishment. And yet beyond a few heavily repeated topics, photographers have done relatively little to document (let alone protest) the current direction of British politics.

When I first wrote that piece I have to admit that in the back of my mind was the thought that it was hopelessly overdue. I knew that a general election was in the offing and like many I suspected (or perhaps just hoped) it would result in a victory that would reverse many of the regressions we have seen taking place over the last five years. Now that election has been and gone, and we know now that the longed for reversal will not materialise. Indeed depressingly the champions of an ‘age of austerity’ are now in an even more powerful position from which to pursue their destructive agenda.

Little good can be said about this state of affairs. The only thing that I can draw from it at the moment is the knowledge that there will be plenty of new regressions coming in the next few years that will need to be highlighted, challenged and resisted. Different people will do this in different ways, but for me this remains in large part the purpose of what I do with photography, writing and other media. Loathe as I am to admit it, my sense of what art is and how it should be used has been in great part a product of spending almost all my formative years under a succession of governments I profoundly disagreed with, from the neo-Thatcherism of Blair to the austerity of Cameron. Once again I think we need to call for an ‘art of austerity’ to counter this ‘age of austerity’.

I know as well as anyone that it can sound deeply naïve to talk about photography and art as a force for change, and in and of themselves they very rarely are. With odd exceptions the only thing the arts can be said to really change are people’s thoughts, but this cognitive change is the essential first step which leads to those affected by it to agitate for real change. To be a dour realist again, I also know that most arts and photography projects reach only small audiences and preach largely to the converted, this is partly the result of complacency on the part of those in the arts, and we need to look for ways to change this.

Whatever else happens over the next five years I hope other photographers and artists will recognise and embrace the power they possess, however slight it might be, to draw attention to injustices and challenge official narratives. Drop all this artistic self-referentialism, this pathetic pandering to ingrowing cliques of curators and critics. This stuff is beyond irrelevant. Speak to the people who have a power to shape more than just your career. Art is a voice, sometimes quiet, sometimes loud, but it should always be raging.

Disphotic News 2015

St_Johns_party,_Shrewsbury_(8385523793)
St John’s party, Shrewsbury. January 1, 1953.
Geoff Charles, Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales

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!

Epitaph – Roger Mayne

 girl about to do a handstand, southam street, 1957
Girl about to do a handstand, Southam Street, 1957. Roger Mayne.

I’m no hero worshipper, but it seems a little fitting to use Disphotic’s first post to commiserate the death and celebrate the life and work of one of Britain’s great post-war photographers. When I heard a month ago that Roger Mayne had passed away I felt a tinge of sadness, tempered by the thought that this might at least be an opportunity for his work to get another viewing. Mayne was someone I encountered early on, at an embryonic stage in my awareness of photography. While many of his peers faded from my interest as time went by and I became better able to interpret and understand their photographs, his pictures remained permanently and exceptionally gripping.

As many have noted Mayne was hardly the archetypal street photographer. An Oxford educated chemist, by most accounts shy and intellectual, he found his  calling in photographing the streets of the east and west ends of London in the decades after the Second World War. If memoirs and photographs of apparently idylic pre-war childhoods in the cities of Europe now weigh heavy with the knowledge of the horror that was to come, then Mayne’s photographs are a sort of negative image of these. The want and destruction of the war years are plain to see in his them, marked on every building and face. Somehow though this sense of dirt and tiredness is still overwhelmed by the sheer exuberance and energy of his photographs.

While he photographed a wide range of subjects in the streets he roved, he was particularly drawn to children at play. As H.V Morton noted in his post-war travels through the city, these were children who had only ever known London as a smoky wasteland of ruined buildings and bomb sites, and they adapted to it as only children can, making it their own playground. Mayne captured kids being kids; playing football, bullying one another, climbing on things they shouldn’t, coyly smoking cigarettes or gambling. In some ways these subjects were nothing out of the ordinary, but he caught them with such a clever, delicate eye that the resulting photographs are of far more interest than these simple verbal descriptions suggest.

At the same time Mayne was also documenting the start of something rather more exceptional, the changing role of the young in British society. Alongside the young kids up to mischief we start to see young adults evolving into something more distinctly recognisable as the teenager. We see the emergence of nascent youth movements, most notably the Teddy Boys and Teddy Girls, mixing a heady combination of style and physical menace, a cocktail which continues to define the teenager in the popular imagination, if not in fact. Mayne’s photographs then are ahistorical in the sense that they deal with the universality of childhood, but they are also historically specific in the way they document a turning point for Britain, from a country where children generally remained hidden in the background, to one which today is obsessed with youth, and which foregrounds it at every opportunity.

These photographs remain enormously significant as a reminder of how attitudes towards children have changed for the worse in the last fifty years. Amidst the clamour of fear in the United Kingdom over child abductions, paedophilia and perhaps also the outrages of the paparazzi press, it has become nearly impossible to turn a camera on a child in public, especially not one to which the photographer has no prior relationship. To do so risks disapprobation, violence, even intervention by the police. This, despite the sad fact that children are statistically most frequently at risk from those that they are closest to. In our desire to protect children, we have lost the ability to record and remember the fun and freedom that can make childhood great, and we now have only the photographs of Mayne and a few others, relics from another era, to remind us.

 

Welcome to the New Disphotic

'Smiling boy seated at a table writing'. China, c. 1918-1938.
‘Smiling boy seated at a table writing’. China, c. 1918-1938.

After two months in the wilderness, Disphotic returns with a new site, and a clearer focus. From here on the site will predominantly consist of shorter articles of around five hundred words, reacting quickly to current events and ideas in the worlds of photography, journalism, art and history. These articles will consist of reviews of exhibitions and books, responses to ongoing debates and articles published elsewhere, and periodic spotlights focusing on ideas, photographers, and practices which seem important or under discussed.

The intention is that further into the future this online format will be complemented by a print version of Disphotic. Each issue will be focused on a central theme and consist of five much longer essays dealing much more broadly with photography and it’s relationship to other disciplines and practices. Alongside these essays, the print version of Disphotic will also feature small sets of carefully curated images from a range of sources, designed to play off against and build on ideas discussed in the essays. Check out the ‘Zine’ page for more information and updates on the print version as it takes shape.

Questions or comments? Contact info@disphotic.com or tweet @lewiskaybush.