Conflicting Interests: A Follow Up

KC Green

I wanted to write a short update to my previous piece about conflicts of interest and transparency in the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation prize.

After a rather drawn out back and forth with The Photographers Gallery they have provided me with the guidelines used by the jury and chair. You can read them in their entirety here, but I just want to focus here on the bits that relate to what I actually talked about in my piece: transparency and conflicts of interest. Before launching into that I think it’s worth mentioning that the gallery maintain the line that there was no conflict of interest in this year’s judging as the The Winners book was not part of the shortlisted exhibition. Milach states here that the series The Winners project was part of the shortlisted exhibition Refusal. I think the gallery are trying to draw a very fine semantic line in distinguishing between the project and the book in this way, but as we will see in a moment the competition guidelines give them that perogative, and that’s really the problem because as they stand the rules are incredibly open ended.

The DBPF prize rules state that jury members must: ‘Disclose any personal involvement with specific bodies of work nominated for the prize to the panel.’ They also state that the chair must ‘Rule out any projects nominated where a member of the jury would financially benefit from the award.’ The rules say nothing about any other conflicts of interest, for example where a nominated photographer is a relative (but would not in any obvious sense gain financially from the award) or where a jury member has been closely involved in another part of the photographer’s work or career besides the project nominated. In the absence of more detailed guidelines it’s essentially up to the jury and chair to decide what constitutes a conflict of interest (and for that matter what constitutes financial gain), and as these deliberations are treated as confidential there is absolutely no transparency about how this is decided or managed.

In short what this means is that my own mother could be a juror standing in judgement of my work, and could have been heavily involved with every aspect of my career except the project under consideration and if you follow these guidelines to the letter that would not be considered a conflict of interest. Even if she disclosed this (which she wouldn’t have to) it would then be up to the jury and chair to decide if that represented a conflict of interest, and if they decided it wasn’t then they wouldn’t have to justify their decision to anyone, or even reveal that it had been discussed.

Maybe I find this all staggering because I haven’t spent my entire career working in photography and the arts. None of the other sectors I’ve worked in; public health, international development, and academia, would tolerate such ambiguity and opaqueness in a process leading to an award of £30,000. This isn’t even to consider the implications for photography in a broader sense when one realises the role these prizes play in influencing taste, and when so many people (including many of my students) look to awards  as a yardstick for what contemporary photography matters, and by association what does not. In my view the rules of the prize, particularly those that relate to conflicts of interest, need drastically strengthening and when conflicts of interest do occur the process by which they are dealt with needs to be made far more transparent to the public who support the gallery’s activities. To the people who criticised me for not contacting the gallery or jury before publishing that was precisely the point of the piece, that this information shouldn’t need to be sought, it should be given.

Based on my exchange with the gallery they seem to be intent on sticking to the line that everything is fine, and won’t engage with the idea of even reviewing the rules, much less changing them. Again if you feel as I do that this is not an ok way for them operate, please let them know it. I am not going to delve in detail into the pressure and personal abuse I’ve been subjected to for bringing this issue up, driven in large part by the (sometimes I think intentional) misrepresentation of my writing, or by people who have weighed in to the discussion without actually reading what I wrote. Even the gallery initiated their dialogue with me by describing my piece as ‘misleading’ and ‘inaccurate’ without qualifying those claims with any evidence, and then not providing evidence even when I asked them to do so. Suffice to say I am not cowed by this, I am still here, and I will still draw attention to these things when I see them occur.

There is a section of the photography world that needs to learn quite a bit from this episode (but probably won’t). For starters it needs to learn to distinguish the personal from the professional, because that is what is at the core of many of the problems here. It needs to learn not to shoot the messenger, but to engage with the message however unpalatable its contents might be, and to be open to self-critique and change in response. Lastly it needs to learn what transparency and conflicts of interest actually are, and why clarity and openess about them are so important. Otherwise the higher echelons of our industry will always be an insiders game, lacking in transparency to the audiences who it claims to engage. In the long run that will only harm photography, and the people who make and enjoy it.

Conflicting Interests: The Deutsche Börse Foundation Prize 2018

Luke Willis Thompson – Autoportrait

When I gave up writing this blog, I thought that the four years and three hundred odd posts would have made it pretty clear where I stand critically, and ethically. I thought that editors would either understand and respect these things when they asked me to write for them, or they simply wouldn’t ask. Some recent experiences suggest otherwise, and so a review originally intended for one place now needs to find an alternative home. That place, after considering all the other options, can only be Disphotic, briefly returned from the dead. I promise I will not make resurrection a habit.

This review concerns The Deutsche Börse Foundation Prize hosted at The Photographers Gallery in London, a competition which I have written about many times before, and which I make no bones about having very mixed feeling about it, both because of the sponsor, and because of what I feel is the generally unhealthy effect that prizes often have on the creative fields. These issues aside, this year’s iteration consists of an interestingly political shortlist selected by a five-person jury, from an initial longlist proposed by 100 anonymous nominators. It is however also a shortlist which illustrates a difficulty with the fashion for politically inflected art. The problem being that if you are going to champion works which challenge opacity and wrongdoing, I think you need to be pretty open and clean yourself. Put another way it is no good adopting the guise of critique while also being unwilling to practice self-critique or engage with it when it comes from outside. Any reviewer worth their salt knows that if you live by the sword, the pen, or for that matter anything else, then you also need to be prepared to die by these things.

To the exhibition then. The first of the four on show is the New Zealand artist Luke Willis Thompson who is shortlisted for his exhibition autoportrait, which took place at Chisenhale Gallery, London. This work consists of a filmed portrait of Diamond Reynolds, the young American woman pulled to public attention in 2016 after she broadcast to Facebook Live a stream of video showing the aftermath of her partner Philando Castile being shot and killed by police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Collaborating with Reynolds Thompson has created a cinematic portrait which attempts to act as a ‘sister-image’, counterbalancing the much more widely known and shared video of her. Eschewing the low resolution digital ephemerality of a smartphone for an enormous projection from a 35mm cine projector installed in the gallery, autoportrait offers a space for reflection amongst the other works and becomes incrementally more absorbing and moving the longer one spends with it.

It does however raise the question of whether the Deutsche Börse prize’s remit, to reward ‘a living artist of any nationality who has made the most significant contribution … to the [sic] photography in Europe in the previous year’ is actually useful. It might seem to be splitting hairs to point out that autoportrait is a video piece, which is not in any sense a suggestion that the work should not be in the shortlist, because for me at least it is one of the stronger pieces on display. Rather it is to point out that as ‘photography’ comes to encompass almost anything from performance to computationally derived images, the basic terms of this and many other photographic prizes seem more than ever to need rethinking. Even the old trusty recourse of ‘lens-based media’ seems clunky and self-conscious when so many fine and important works are being created without the need of even a piece of shaped glass.

Next, the French-Venezuelan photographer Mathieu Asselin is shortlisted for his book Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation, published by Actes Sud. In the interests of transparency, I have been a bit of a cheerleader for Asselin’s project since I first encountered it in 2016, and time has done little to lessen my sense that this is a really important work. Over five years Asselin has systematically investigated the agrochemical corporation Monsanto, compiling what is effectively a dossier of visual and textual evidence of the damage that their business has done internationally. From Vietnamese children still suffering the consequences of the highly toxic military defoliant Agent Orange, to United States farmers driven to the verge of bankruptcy by restrictive seed contracts and aggressive litigation against infractors. Asselin’s work is a prime example of what might be termed ‘investigative documentary photography’, but as well as taking the micro-approach of investigating one particular company, it also hints at the macro issue of a world where multi-national companies rampage remarkably unchecked.

Asselin’s display is also one of the better uses of space in the show, sensibly choosing to use the gallery to display a number of things which could never function in the original book form. More impressively he has done something I can remember no other shortlistee doing, which is to make a direct connection between the topic of his work and the sponsor of the prize. To do this Asselin has added an extra chapter to his project, one which focuses on the stock market and Monsanto’s pending merger with chemical giant Bayer AG. Two framed tablets in the gallery show Monsanto’s share price as listed on Deutsche Börse’s own stock index app, a neat reminder that the sponsor of this prize is also a facilitator and beneficiary of the type of necrotic capitalism that Asselin is critiquing. When so many avowedly left-wing, critical artists pathetically roll over at the first sight of a corporate sponsor, it is reassuring to encounter one who follows his critique right the way through.

Next, the Swiss artist Batia Suter is shortlisted for her publication Parallel Encyclopedia #2, published by Roma in 2016. A sprawling book, Parallel Encyclopedia #2 merges photographs taken from over a thousand sources into a series of chapters where one type of image flows into another, in doing so seeking to explore the ‘iconographic transformation of images’. The book encompasses everything from anonymous technical photographs to engravings by Gustave Doré, and the subject matter is similarly varied with astronomical photographs sharing page space alongside stills of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. The core idea the book has something resonant of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, an idiosyncratic attempt to identify shared aesthetic concerns across disparate art works. However, unlike Warburg’s atlas which had such a strong and peculiar thesis at its core, Batia’s encyclopedia seems noticeably lacking in a central argument or conviction about what these images are doing and why that matters, and if one exists it gets watered down by the sheer quantity of material.

For me Parallel Encyclopedia #2 is a good example of the way many appropriative photographic works seem to have ceased to be about specific, carefully judged interventions, and increasingly seem to have instead become about sheer quantity. This is rather a shame, because with our present age of digitally induced visual overload it often seems that the former type of appropriation potentially has more to say, than the latter. Viewing the shortlist as a whole and thinking in terms of the prize’s proclaimed remit, it is sometimes easy to imagine the thinking that led a jury to shortlist a particular work. In the case of Suter’s work however it is rather hard to guess the reason, although there are certainly some resonances with the work of juror Penelope Umbrico. On the other hand, perhaps realising that the other works shortlisted this year were all so avowedly political the jury decided they needed to include something of a counter-balance to that.

Finally, the Polish photographer Rafal Milach is shortlisted for his exhibition Refusal, which was held at Atlas Szutki Gallery, Lodz. This work looks at forms of subtle state control and manipulation in post-Soviet countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan. The strategies and forms on show are various, ranging from incomplete monumental architecture, to intellectual games intended to mould and develop the cognitive capabilities of children. It would be easy to misinterpret this work as an example of post-Soviet ‘ruin porn’ extended into the realm of mind, except the historical resonances and geographic specificities of the work are much less interesting than are the connections with ‘fake news’ and other forms of contemporary political influencing. Refusal is an outgrowth of Milach’s much lauded 2014 book The Winners, and a copy of this is on show as part of his display in the gallery. The Winners was published by GOST, a publishing house co-founded by Gordon MacDonald, one of the members of this year’s jury. MacDonald may have since quietly exited from GOST, but the association lingers. To my mind this is a remarkable conflict of interest, worthy of some explanation, but in the gallery it is passed over without any acknowledgement at all.

[EDIT: the subtlety of what I am saying here seems to be lost on some readers, so to clarify; I am not accusing MacDonald of exploiting a conflict of interest for his own benefit or anyone elses, only identifying that one exists as a consequence of his prior relationship to Milach and his position on the jury, and that it is problematic that this is not acknowledged anywhere.]

It may not have occurred to any of those involved that this could look dubious, but that is also very much part of the problem. There is a prevailing attitude in photography that regards accountability and transparency as superfluous, or not even worth thinking about. The corollary of this is an industry which too often operates like an old boy’s network, where mechanisms of decision making are opaque, and conflicts of interest are brushed over with a wink and a funny handshake (see my concerns about the 2016 Paris Photo Aperture Photobook Prize for another example). As if to illustrate my point, and to explain why you read this review here and not elsewhere, the editor who originally commissioned it then declined to publish it unless I removed this section of the review. In a phone call she explained had known MacDonald for years and doubted he would have done this intentionally, something which fails to appreciate that some of the worse conflicts of interest are not consciously committed. Indeed, the term ‘conflict of interest’ describes a state where such an abuse of position is possible, not a state where one has necessarily taken place. In the same call I was also advised that I didn’t need to ‘burn my bridges’ by publishing this piece myself. If there are three words that sum up much of what is wrong with this industry it is these.

One of the reasons I gave up blogging was the sense it didn’t achieve much, and because I don’t want this to just be another dead-end rant I have a request to make of you, kind reader. If like me you feel the Deutsche Börse Foundation and The Photographers Gallery could do better and be much more transparent please take five minutes to let them know. You can phone, e-mail or tweet, and if either of the latter feel free to CC me in. That is all from me, I am back into blogging retirement, and off to work in the Channel Islands for the next six months on a new project about (you guessed it!) financial transparency. I take some heart at least from the fact that Jersey has hosted a number of exiled writers in the past, not least amongst them Victor Hugo, and also from the fact there are no bridges to the island which might tempt my pyrotechnicist tendencies.

The winner of the £30,000 prize (which at the time of writing would buy you roughly 336 shares of Monsanto stock, or 317 shares of Deutsche Börse stock) is announced at The Photographers Gallery on 17th May 2018.

You can read Gordon Macdonald’s response here.

You can read exhibition curator Anna Dannemann’s response here.

You can read editor Christiane Monarchi’s response here.

You can read my follow up piece here.

How to be a Thorn in Photography’s Side

Some of the notebooks I’ve filled over four years of writing.

Ok, this is a bit little weird. I am for the first time publishing a retroactive post, one coming hot on the heels of a piece where I declare an end to writing this blog. I hope the reasons for doing this will soon become clear if they have not already from the title, and allow me to reassure you that this will indeed be the last. In the wake of my decision to stop writing Disphotic last week quite a few people commented on the blog’s demise by remarking how urgently the photography world needs critical voices. I fully agree, but those voices need to belong to someone, and I feel I have more than said my bit. While I didn’t mention it in my piece last week another reason for abandoning Disphotic was the fear that in time that it too would become part of the detestable canon of voices on photography. Other writers, younger and older, with different ideas and experiences, need to take up the baton which I’ve dropped. Disphotic’s end can be seen, in a way, as a making room for them.

To that end, what I’ve assembled here is a very brief guide on how to be a photography writer. By that I do not mean someone who writes technical reviews about the latest camera, or rehashes the official line on the latest book or exhibition, these are technicians and hacks. What I mean by a writer is someone who through the medium of words sets out to be a thorn in the side of everything and everyone that is wrong with contemporary photography, and in doing so to illuminate and explore it with and for other people. On the off chance that someone reading this might desire to do this, here are a few suggestions for going about it:

Just start – Right now. Seriously, what better things are you going to do today? Put pen to paper, fingers to keys, and say something about something, whether for yourself or for others.

Write, write, write – Some wordsmiths might disagree, but for me writing is unnatural and the only way to do it and do it well was to do it as constantly as I could manage. Carry a notebook or equivalent everywhere with you and write anytime you have time to kill or an idea emerges into your brain. This writing needn’t be about photography, just practise articulating something. Write about the look of a room, the feeling of something experienced, or an unexpected thought. I can only speak for myself when I say that writing is like a deep course of water, where the great majority of the effort and energy remains down deep, unseen and unreachable but still completely necessary for the pleasant shallows we bask in.

Have an opinion – This is easy, and it is also hard. When you go to a show, look at a book, or hear someone talk, you’ll have an instinctive reaction to it. Tune in to that, listen to what your heart says about something. Criticism, for me, is taking that instinctive response to something and spending some time with it, trying to articulate and figure out where it comes from, then deciding whether you also agree with it intellectually. The hardest things to write are where the head and the heart disagree, but those are sometimes also the best. (Also it’s fine to feel the same way as everyone else about something and critics needn’t always be contrary, but those feelings always need to be double or triple questioned.)

Read everything – Some writers claim literary influence kills innate style. For those of us who had no style to start with it also helps us to manufacture something which passes for it. Read everything you can get your hands on, from fact and theory to fiction and poetry. An idea, a reference, an archaic term or a turn of phrase; all are fodder for your future attempts to figure out what a photographer or artist is trying to do (whether they know it themselves or not) and then articulate that to other people.

Critics can’t have friends – Many critics, even the big shots, write about their friends, or people they want to influence or catch the eye of. It’s nice to be wanted, to get invited to stuff and all the rest, but if you are lonely just get a dog, it will be simpler in the long run and probably more thought provoking as well. Blogging is influence and influence is power, take that seriously and use it right. People will ask you to write about them, only do it when you actually like the work, and if there are conflicts of interest declare them to your readers. It’s that simple. Call out writers who don’t do this, they drag the rest of us and what we do down with them. From time to time stop and check you are not becoming one of them.

Give yourself parameters – Take it from me, you can’t take them all on however much you want to. Give yourself a focus and a target for how much to publish and when. Write about a particular branch of photography, or a particular practice, do it in a particular way. Look at what other people are writing about, emulate those you admire or better still pick a niche all of your own.

Tear up the press release – If all you plan to do is rephrase the press releases that get sent to you, please don’t bother blogging. There are enough people already doing this, including people who are actually getting paid for it. On a practical note, set up a fake e-mail account and politely request all galleries and artists that they use this for their mailings rather than your actual account. It will extend the life of your delete key.

Think about for whom you write – At the start that may just be yourself, as it was for me. As an audience grows you should take the time observe it. It will have demands on you, often these will be confusing, contradictory ones. Consider how far you adjust what you to do those, or just continue in your own rut. Both approaches have things to commend and condemn them.

Go looking for trouble – Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Do your research and then do it again, brush up on libel law, and speak truth to power.

Good luck.

The Shadows of Doubt: Art, Distance and Truth

Spectrum analysis of Cuban intelligence radio broadcast
From Shadows of the State

Journalism has traditionally rested on certain core truths which are often taken to be self-evident and beyond question. The Hungarian photojournalist Robert Capa’s often quoted dictum that ‘if your photographs are not good enough, you aren’t close enough’[1] would seem to encapsulate a particularly important one, the axiom of proximity. This idea that a journalist should seek a certain closeness to the story, that is to say a spatial rather than emotional closeness, has long been regarded as one of the most important routes to insight and revelation, as well as being central to the journalist’s role as witness to vitally important events. The implication of Capa’s aphorism might have been true when he first spoke it in the early part of the last century, but his world was a strikingly different one from the one we occupy today. Profound and ongoing changes in every arena call his words, and journalism’s emphasis on proximity, into ever greater question.

In a present marked by unchecked environmental collapse, by undeclared wars fought with increasingly autonomous aircraft, by aggressive multinational corporations, and massive data surveillance, spatial proximity to the story in the traditional sense implied by Capa is often simply no longer an option for many journalists. The news of today occupies spaces which are often too remote, too dangerous, too abstract, or where the machinery of public relations are too effective to permit any sort of useful access. Even where such physical proximity to the issue remains possible is it any longer a guarantee of journalistic insight, because even where such topics can be ‘seen’ such sight often offers little comprehension of the systems and processes which make them possible. The playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, a contemporary of Capa, had already observed this truth in the 1930s when he perceptively argued that ‘… less  than  ever  does  the  mere  reflection  of  reality  reveal  anything  about  reality.  A photograph of the Krupp [armament] works or the AEG [general electricity company] tells us next to nothing about these institutions. Actual reality has slipped into the functional. The reification  of  human  relations—the  factory,  say—means  that  they  are  no  longer  explicit.  So something must in fact be built up, something artificial, posed’[2]

The equivalent today of Brecht’s armaments factory might be one of the high tech facilities where the subsystems of military drones are manufactured prior to integration, packaging and delivery to the battlespace. It might, still more abstractly, be a server farm humming with exabytes of data, a resource now as important to our world as Krupp’s steel was to Brecht and Capa’s. Whichever the more appropriate modern analogue, witnessing or photographing these places in any traditional sense of these words tells us as little and perhaps even less than Brecht’s factory photographs, so abstracted have the relations that underlie them become. The work of the artists Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann, who have extensively photographed the infrastructure of high frequency stock market trades, reveal this difficulty[3]. Their photographs, which are the product of lengthy and difficult negotiations for access, depict the workstations where the algorithms that execute these transactions are monitored by their human retainers. Geissler and Sann have managed to reach the center of the labyrinthine financial empires being made possible by these new technologies, but at the heart of the labyrinth they have found no Minotaur, and nor even its human thralls, instead only a series of uncompromisingly blank screens. What their photographs are unable to directly reveal are the relations, and specifically the networks which make such deals possible, nor can they fully reveal the relations that they create.

Ours is a world defined less and less by the power and significance of specific, discrete geographical sites, but increasingly instead by the collective power of these sites, as nodes in networks made possible by the communications superhighways of the 21st century. The use of drones as part of ever more network dependent wars[4] is an apt example of this, an activity conducted in a highly-distributed manner with hundreds of sites across dozens of countries joined together in real time via undersea fiber optic cables and communications satellites in order to ‘find, fix and finish’[5] those who are its targets. In finding ways to report, document or respond to such a war, witnessing the existence and even the activities of individual nodes is less revealing than the documentation of the relationships between them, and the relationships which make these activities possible. The military contracting, the political lobbying, the legal wrangling, and the international alliances and agreements without which one human being in a cabin in Nevada would not be able to release a missile on another human being on a mountain side half a world away. This is a networked war in an informatics sense, but it is networked also in the sense that in a globalized world everything is inescapably linked to everything else. Conflict, social inequality, unbridled capitalism, environmental degradation, man-made disasters are, if I may be momentarily unemotional, nodes in a network which sync, reverberate, and feed back into one another. But as has often been observed the network only recognizes what it is taught to recognize, and we, as nodes ourselves, have been taught to ignore what is right in front of us.

In the context of the changing form of global problems new hybrid practices have emerged to offer us ways to report and understand these things. One, which we could call network centric journalism lies closer to traditional journalistic practices. Another, perhaps the binary of this new journalism, is the practice often called documentary art. This is also a hybrid or Chimera, combining the real world concerns and methodologies of documentary and journalism with the visual, conceptual and disseminative strategies of art. Such an approach is not entirely new, and Brecht himself was an innovator in this field. His most remarkable effort, the 1955 book Kriegsfibel, combined appropriated press photography with poetry in an attempt to reveal the truths which he believed lay hidden within these photographs, and in doing this the truth of the Second World War. This book includes the very same image of a Krupp armaments factory which he had before decried for its muteness. Brecht’s compatriot Hans Haacke is a more contemporary example, an artist who has often used journalistic research blended with conceptual display strategies to ask uncomfortable questions, not least of the art world in which his work circulates. His 1971 installation Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, sought to reveal the activities of a notorious New York slum landlord and was withdrawn from exhibition amid speculation that it suggested connections between Shapolsky and members of the Guggenheim Museum’s board of trustees.[6]

This blend of art and journalism then has an impressive lineage, and it continues to gain in traction and acceptance, both within the context of galleries which might have regarded such unambiguously worldly and political concerns as vulgar and uncouth, but also in magazines and newspapers which once might have been suspicious of using experimental strategies to talk about contemporary matters. The latest manifestations of documentary art frequently raise and discuss issues which elude traditional strategies of investigation, and often indeed also reflecting on the muteness, and indeed sometimes complicity, of traditional media in the face of these problems. This is the case for example in Edmund Clark’s investigations of the consequences of the global War on Terror and in particular in Body Politic, a video piece produced in collaboration with Max Houghton, which juxtaposes the realities of state secrecy and redaction with the false narratives of the press conference. Likewise in the work of Peter Kennard and Cat Phillips, or KennardPhillips, juxtaposition plays an even more direct role, placing vastly different realities side by side in the same frame in order to reveal the falsity and opportunism of populist press reporting of the recent refugee crisis. It is precisely this type of layering and building up that Brecht had argued was required to penetrate the reified reality of the armaments factory.

The work of KennardPhillips also reveals part of the great attraction of this borderland between art and journalism, that it is not bound by the same codified rules as journalism, the same ethical constraints, and the same burdens of truth. Documentary art labours under none of the diktats about staging images or later manipulating them, there no thresholds for the proof of a claim, and the risk of libel action while certainly not absent is generally regarded as far less present in this field than in traditional journalism. This is of course to say nothing of the reality that many traditional journalistic organs are owned by private owners who may exercise an editorial control in line with their own political priorities.[7] Liberation from these restrictions can be advantageous in reporting certain subjects, and indeed it is telling that a significant number of people who previously trained and operated as traditional journalists have made the migration to this border land, including Laura el-Tantawy whose installation In The Shadow of the Pyramids offers a deeply personal and impressionistic look at the Egyptian revolution of 2011. From one shadow to another, in my own project Shadows of the State I reveal the communication networks established by the world’s intelligence agencies during the Cold War, and which in some cases continue to broadcast to this day. Locating these sites has relied on comparisons of large quantities of public information, some of it highly questionable, and throughout I have been aware that much of this information would likely not pass the conventional journalistic thresholds for reliability. That in a sense is what the work is about, about traversing a landscape of ambiguities, where nothing can be taken at face value.

This in turn poses as yet unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions. In particular when artists make work about important contemporary issues one must ask what burden of truth lies upon them, and whether it is ever acceptable for an artist to ‘not let the truth get in the way of a good story?’ [8] While most journalists adhere to the notion of an objective truth, the possibility and indeed desirability of such a truth remains far less clear in art, where it is often tacitly recognized that the artist is, in Plato’s words an imitator or ‘manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth.[9] Imitation can of course reveal truth, as for example in Jeremy Deller’s The Battle Of Orgreave which recreates the events of a notorious 1984 confrontation between striking miners and the police in a form which hovers somewhere between theatre, living history and crime scence re-enactment. Further important questions which demand discussion are how this hybrid of art and journalism fits with the art world’s proclivity for self-aggrandizement, and the old fashioned expectation that artists position themselves as visionaries, in the process often eschewing and downplay collaborations and the many others who play a part in the creation of their works. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Ruth Berlau, Brecht’s collaborator on his Kriegsfibel, has been often written out of the subsequent history of that work.[10] Journalism is perhaps more than ever a collective enterprise. All the more so in the era of investigations involving vast data leaks which sometimes require networks comprising hundreds of journalists across the globe to work cooperatively to marshal the facts and break stories. The journalism that surrounded Edward Snowden’s revelations into the activities of the American National Security Agency would have been inconceivable as a solitary effort involving as it did the review of as many as 1.7 million documents.[11]

It is intentionally provocative of me to suggest that journalism’s emphasis on proximity is now completely irrelevant. Many of the works discussed in this essay clearly reveal that spatial closeness still has an important part to play even in the reporting of even the most abstract of modern issues. Equally alongside these new terrors of drone and algorithm our world is still afflicted by many of the same problems that troubled Capa and Brecht, and in the reporting of these things proximity to the story, and in particular to the human subjects of the story, remains an essential part of journalism’s function. Alongside this though perhaps what is also required is a different form of distance, a view which takes in and which can critically make visible and understandable the macro as well as the micro. Without this wide view, the sense of how a humanitarian crisis, environmental collapse and corporate malpractice might all be connected, journalism will always be chasing the effects and affects of it’s subjects rather than the causes and the culprits. The two practices of art and journalism are still in a state of fusing, and they still have much they can learn from each other. It is less a case of an either-or scenario, or a replacement of journalism’s functions by these new approaches, than it is a case of two different practices which share fundamentally the same concerns and have an enormous capacity to support each other in important ways. In a world racked by a problems which seem to grow more abstract by the day it is not enough however to continue as it has always been done. The reified power relations which make our world what is must be drawn out of the shadows, and exposed to public scrutiny even if to do so requires, in Brecht’s own words, that something must be built up, and something artificial posed.

This essay is an adapted version of one originally written to accomplish Very Now, an exhibition exploring the intersections of art and journalism, held at London College of Communication in August 2016.

[1] Robert Capa, Slightly Out of Focus, xi.
[2] Walter Benjamin, A Short History of Photography, p.24
[3] Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann, Volatile Smile, 2011
[4] Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Garska, Network Centric Warfare: It’s Origins and Future, 1998
[5] The Intercept, The Drone Papers: A Visual Glossary (Oct 15, 2015 )https://theintercept.com/drone-papers/a-visual-glossary/ (accessed 19th June 2016)
[6] Hans Haacke, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 http://collection.whitney.org/object/29487 (accessed 19th June 2016)
[7] The Elephant In The Room: New report on UK media ownership http://www.mediareform.org.uk/media-ownership/the-elephant-in-the-room (accessed 22nd June 2016)
[8] Usually attributed to Mark Twain, it seems apt that there is much doubt whether he indeed ever said this.
[9] Plato, The Republic X, 27
[10] Berlau edited Kriegsfibel, wrote the preface to the original publication , and may have contributed some of the core ideas behind the work. Yet reference to her is notably absent from much subsequent writing about the book.
[11] NSA: Snowden Stole 1.7 Millionn Classified Documents And Still Has Access To Most Of Them http://www.businessinsider.com/how-many-docs-did-snowden-take-2013-12?IR=T (accessed 22nd June 2016)

Research and a New Photography

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What is photographic research? A seemingly straightforward question begs a straightforward answer, but so often begets instead many more, less straightforward inquiries. How does one begin to answer a question which rests with such apparent ease on such unresolved terms? What is photographic research when the question of what photography has become (is becoming, will be) still seems so unclear. Not just unclear, but uncomfortable, a question which might have answers waiting in the wings, but answers which many are unwilling to call upon for fear that these understudies might upstage those they replace. Survey the fields of creative photography, from art to documentary, and you will observe many unwilling even to consider the proposition that photography has become something profoundly different, alien, to what it has been for the previous one and half centuries. Turning away from it’s new physical immateriality, technical subjectivities, it’s now truly infinite reproducibility, it’s increasingly networked and automated state, many people prefer to continue to invest themselves in an idea of the medium which feels as anachronistic as the telegraph. Analogue film, luscious prints and beautiful books of photographs are on the rise again, a trend often explained as being the result of a renewed interest in research and process, but which I often suspect in fact belies a deep conservatism, a regression less than a revolution. These things were photography once, but they are manifestly not photography now.

This problem of an unwillingness to engage with, let alone embrace, photography’s changes might seem to be a purely an academic, theoretical one, but this question of what photography has become is bound up in the far larger question of what photography is for. That, at least in the fields with which I am concerned, is the purpose of illuminating, explaining, or provoking the critical issues or our day. Ours is a world full of known unknowns, and unknowable knowns, where so many of the things that urgently need to be rought into the light are constructed (by accident or intent) to elude what we would traditionally think of as the sight of the camera and the explanatory power of a photograph. Make no mistake, photographs can change the world, but their capacity to do so is unpredictable, limited by their ability to reveal or suggest, and this ability for change always has as much potential to be regressive as it does positive.

Conversely ours is a world where issues rarely exist in isolation, but come in concert and find themselves interwoven, interdependent and networked, more so than ever before. We must speak urgently of environmental collapse, but how can we do that without thinking also of globalised capitalism, and how in turn can we understand that without analysing the politics and culture of the societies that allow it. The old photography is spatially, temporally and conceptually micro, but more than ever before we face problems that are manifestly macro, that reach beyond the horizons of individual perception or comprehension. Systems that are massive, complex, and interlinked defy explanation within the four sides of a print on a wall. In the face of this world and it’s challenges, even had photography not mutated as it has over the last three decades we might have found before long that we needed to change it ourselves to meet these new problems. As it is the changing world has in turn changed photography, but it has not yet it seems sufficiently changed us.

In this context then what is photography research? It becomes both a way to answer some of these questions, and in the absence of a convincing new definition of photography also a surrogate which in many ways more important than the resulting image. The photograph becomes more than ever a sort of token or gesture, a visible marker concealing the mass of ideas and information that loom beneath it like the inverted abyssal mass of an iceberg. To make one final metaphorical mix in a text plagued with them, let us leap from ice to fire, of a sort. The mystical priest-philosopher-poet of photography is best remembered for one essay, (attached to university reading lists across the land by lecturers who often appear to have never seriously read it). By contrast his most interesting work, itself a monument to unfinished research, moulders in its incompleteness. An attempt to potential reinvent history, within its pages was written that ‘knowledge comes only in lightning flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.’ Photographic research is maybe something like this in the reverse. It is the thunder rolling long, drawing back slow or fast until it comes to coalesce in the lightning flash of an image, and perhaps, eventually, in a new photography.

This is an expanded version of a very short essay written for A Photography Research reader, published in conjunction with the UAL staff research exhibition. The exhibition continues at Camberwell Space untill December 16th.

 

The Empire of the Drone: Dinh Q. Lê’s The Colony

The trailer for Dinh Q. Lê’s The Colony

I feel a pressure to always write in the moment, certainly with reviewing to talk about something while it’s still happening, still accessible, as if to give people a chance to test my the sum of my words out for themselves. Real life frequently often gets in the way and that’s not always to the bad. The slower burn can be rewarding, spending a few weeks mulling something over, pulling it this way and that in the confines of my own head, in the end resulting in a reading which is perhaps less literal, indeed perhaps rather oblique, but at least it is mine, unpressured by the expectation to respond. So it was after seeing the Vietnamese artist  Dinh Q. Lê’s remarkable drone filmed, three screen video installation The Colony which was on display in Peckham over a month ago. Housed in the remarkable derelict space of one of London’s earliest cinemas, the installation has since closed and the work is now on display at Site Gallery in Sheffield. The intervening time since seeing and writing have I hope not been spent entirely idly, as ideas have circulated and other influences have intervened.

Lê’s practice to date has largely photographic and almost exclusively focused on the legacy of the Vietnam War, particularly the way it’s memories are incorporated variously as trauma and fantasy. Superficially then The Colony then is a great departure from his work to date, but there is also a clear continuance, a concern with ideas about imperial ambitions and power, and more visibily with the marks these things leave on the present, and perhaps also on a future yet to arrive. The Colony examines the Chincha islands, three remote outcrops of rock off the coast of Peru, and home to enormous seabird colonies which have over centuries layered the islands with their droppings. In the nineteenth century, before the advent of chemically manufactured fertilisers, this guano was a valuable commodity, a means to boost yields of vital cash crops like Tobacco. As a result, and to the loss of the native Chincha people, the islands were colonised and contested by regional powers. Spain and its former colony Peru fought over the islands in the 1860’s, with what began as an attempt by a once extensive empire to reassert its waning influence rapidly escalating into a regional conflict involving Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. As time passed the stockpiles of guano on the islands were depleted and the value of the product declined particularly as methods were developed to synthesise nitrogen based fertilisers on an industrial scale. The islands today remain dotted with relics of their former owners and while the practice of digging on the islands continues it does so on a far smaller scale than in the past.

With such subject matter, it was perhaps inevitable that many of the reviews of Lê’s installation fixated overly on the obvious, (Adrian Searle for the Guardian was one of the worst offenders in this regard with a joke about shit in the first line, someone take the man’s crayons away). What these reviews miss with their scatological puns is that the guano in Lê’s film is really only a very minor element, a foil to the much bigger themes he seems to be interested in. A much more prominent interest is clearly indicated by the title, it is the motivations for imperialism, and its ultimate leavings, the ruins both physical and psychical that great empires leave in their wake. The roving drove mounted cameras of Lê’s film crew explore the decaying derelicts of the island, hovering above abandoned buildings and even roving inside, moving cautiously through the corridors of abandoned buildings, their rotors mixing up the dust and bird feathers that line the corridors, pausing periodically to inspect a relic or negotiate a tricky obstacle. The Colony is a work about the battlegrounds that are fought over, exploited and then subsequently abandoned when they no longer prove worthwhile then, but it is also about the people who enter the frame at that point to take over the remaining crumbs which empire has deigned to exploit itself. Part of what makes The Colony remarkable is the depiction of the guano mining operations that continue on the island today, which seem like something out of an entirely different era. On these exposed, isolated rocks teams of men dig with crude tools to fill sacks of the dusty brown tuff, which are then physically hauled and slid to the water’s edge, to be pilled in huge, neat ziggurats awaiting offloading on to cargo ships. It’s hard to tell if this hellish existence owes more to the old empires of the nineteenth century, or of the new Empire of twenty first century globalisation. It’s probably a bit of both.

In this sense and in others The Colony bears some comparison to Richard Mosse’s The Enclave, a similar multi-screen video installation filmed using a now obsolete military infra-red film originally developed for military reconnaissance purposes. The chemistry of this film reacts to a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum to normal film or our eyes, meaning natural greens which absorb large amounts of infra-red light are rendered as a bizarre pink. Using this Mosse photographed and filmed in the war torn Democratic Republic of Congo. The footage shot by cinematographer Trevor Tweeten is particularly compelling, as the steady cam glides through an alien landscape to a soundtrack of faux radio chatter. The Enclave, like The Colony, is partly fixated on both old and new ideas about empire, but Mosse, unlike Lê, is just a little too beguiled with his image making technology, and the The Enclave becomes just a little bit too much about the process and the technology, not the subject matter it is pointed at. This really brings me to the core of what I think is interesting about The Colony. I would suggest though that the real stars of the film though are neither the guano covered outcrops with their anonymous workers, nor the descendant imperial ambitions that these places represent. The real stars are the drones that record it all.

Before I explain this I have to take issue with drone videography as an artistic medium. In itself it is simply a process for making a work, and the results of course are variable and contingent on what is being filmed and how. I often think that an over emphasis on process in art is a bad sign, regardless of how fantastically byzantine or exotic the steps undertaken, it’s the end result or effect on a viewer that matters, and unless that exotic process really does something to a viewer then I find myself asking ‘so what?’ Perhaps because drones are new and exciting in themselves drone film makers often seem to get caught up in the novelty of their technology without really reflecting on what it means to use it. I recently attended a talk by researcher Bradley Garrett who showed a sequence of drone film made on a Scottish island at a point where an undersea internet cable comes ashore. Garrett is an academic but the film is undeniably artistic, not only it’s clear aesthetic concerns but also in the sense that the video actually provides very little information about its suggested subject (this is not exactly a criticism, it’s more or less inevitable given the subject matter). More interestingly all hints of both drone and operator have been excluded from the frame, and Garrett acknowledged in response to an audience question that he had been hiding behind a small structure during the sequence, guiding the drone unseen. This to me is representative of a certain aesthetic in drone films, that fantasise the drone and it’s operator as not really being there at all. It is a roving, god’s eye view, and this pretended disappearance of the technology that makes this viewpoint possible also makes it in some way also easier to avoid difficult questions about the technology itself. Amongst the varyingly interesting ideas Garrett discussed in his talk it was noticeable that there was no conversation about what it meant as a researcher to employ a technology like a drone which has a very specific lineage. That is a line of descendent that even in civilian dronesleads backthrough a history of militarism and imperialism, and this seems a particularly important observation in relation to Lê’s previous focus on the conflict in his native Vietnam, a laboratory for some of the earliest millitary drones.

Lê on the other hand seems highly aware of these issues. In The Colony, the two drones produce staggering aerial imagery of thousands of bird nests, of jagged cliffs and greyed decaying structures. But beautiful as these are they would be little more than eye candy without the frequent appearance of the drones themselves in each other’s footage and in static shots filmed from the ground. It says much of the aesthetic of drone cinematography that these insertions feel like continuity errors the first few times they occur in The Colony, but over the course of watching the three separate projections that make up the installation one has a mounting sense of a transformation of the drones into key characters themselves. At moments, this sense of personification is inescapable, particularly in sequences where the drones appear to enter into strange aerial ballet routines, and during several sequences where they follow each other, at one stage into the corridors of a dilapidated barracks building. As one drone pauses to inspect a faded piece of pornography pasted to the wall besides a crude bunk bed while it’s companion looks on, one has the overwhelming sense of watching as the vanguard of some unknown high tech power, tentatively scouting out the ruins of its predecessor. In that sense The Colony feels less like rumination on old empire, even though it certainly is also that, and far more a meditation on the rise of something new and very different. A new power far less concrete than the competing empires of the nineteenth century, perhaps even less tangible than the diffuse global empire of post-cold war capitalism. Lê seems to be hinting at an empire yet to arise, an imperium hard and soft wired into the circuit boards of the supposedly neutral technologies with which we surround ourselves.

Incomplete Images: A Different Perspective on Forced Migration

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Elena Kollatou and Leonidas Toumpanos

The past two years have seen an unprecedented wave of forced migration, with conflict, instability and authoritarianism in north Africa, the Middle East and other regions forcing millions to flee their homes and seek safety overseas. This humanitarian crisis has coincided with, and in some cases contributed to, a resurgence of the political right in Europe and north America. This, alongside the continused evisceration of the media produces a climate where simplistic narratives about refugees flourish, and where depiction of the crisis often lack any reflection of the experiences of those who are most directly affected by it. The exhibition Incomplete Images, which I have co-curated with Monica Alcazar-Duarte, opens today and attempts to respond to this imbalance, by exhibiting work by a series of artists who are themselves refugees, or who have worked in close collaboration with them. The aim of this show is clearly modest and one small show is not going to redress the rise of right wing populism or years of imbalanced media coverage, but we hope it will have an influence, however small, and to that end some of the works on display will also be for sale with all proceeds going to the artist.

In terms of the artists and photographers in the show, Aram Karim’s Smugglers series depicts his journey across the border between Iraq and Iran, where men smuggle fuel, alcohol and other supplies in vast quantities, making multiple trips a day through mud, snow and across active minefields for a few dollars. Aram is a musican and photographer originally from Iraq but currently living near Marseilles, France while he awaits a decision on his refugee status. Damon Amb’s practice involves digitally reworking photographs taken in his native Iran and during his subsequent travels to express his inner world. Damon writes that ‘my art doesn’t communicate the things that have happened to me or what could happen to me if I go back to Iran. I’m a criminal in my country because I’m an artist’. Elena Kollatou and Leonidas Toumpanos’s video piece Greetings from Greece addresses the recent war in Syria and the thousands of refugees that it created through the portrait of a young man that has settled in Greece. The film also incorporates portraits which are the result of a collaboration with a refugee photo studio in Athens. These images are meticulously constructed from stock imagery, and were delivered to us for printing in various stages of completion. Next, Iranian Kurdish photographer Rahman Hassami’s series compares and contrasts the scenery of his native Kurdistan with the countryside of Yorkshire in the north of England, a quintessential English landscape, drawing out differences and similarities between his former and adoptive home. Finally, on a table in the center of the gallery is a display of images taken from an Instagram account purportedly belonging to a young migrant named Abdou Diouf. This account was in fact a hoax created by a marketing company to advertise a photography festival, and was first unmasked here on Disphotic in the summer of 2015. It’s inclusion in this exhibition highlights the way that even the perspective of refugees is open to problematic appropriation.

The exhibition is open for one week from 21st to 27th November, 12 – 5pm each day at Light Eye Mind gallery, 176 Blackstock Road, London N5 1HA

Highlights and Trends: Paris Photo 2016

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Archive Pierre Molinier, Maison Européenne de la Photographie

Like all contemporary art fairs, Paris Photo is a photography business and be in no doubt about the proper order of those two words. It was notable that even outside the event one had to run a gauntlet of ticket touts offering illict entrance to the fair. It wasn’t vastly different inside, where there are certainly some touts active only wearing suits and displaying more discrimination about their clientele. It was interesting to arrive in Paris just a few days after a session with my MA students discussing the transition of documentary to the gallery. One of the questions we discussed was that old sticking point of what makes something art, something we failed to reach a conclusion to but which led to some interesting observations, including that something (perhaps anything) can be art if someone says it is, but whether it’s good or bad art is another matter entirely.

Paris Photo evidences the truth of this, with an enormous amount of photography desperate to assert its artistic value in the most obvious of ways, through process, size and other ostentatious displays. As I noted last week art is often encouraged to exist in the artificial vacuum of the white cube gallery, but the reality is that it’s meaning is often defined in the most interesting ways by what surrounds it. Amongst the ocular and aural noise of the huge Grand Palais, the photographs that were content to sit on the wall quietly, sometimes neglected in the dingiest corner of a gallery’s booth (I saw a print by surrealist Maurice Tabard hung on a cupboard door) were often the most pleasurable discoveries when you stumbled across them. The typology, the calling card of art photography, appears alive and well, with a staggering variety from Ursula Schultz-Dornburg’s Becher-esque photographs of bus stops to Luis Molina-Pantin’s series of Mexican door intercoms. Often it’s the ones that feel more casual, the latter in this case, that work. Ditto photographic abstraction which is abundant and almost to a man dull. For the most part contemporary journalism and documentary are absent which perhaps says much about it’s percieved worth. One encounters weird anomalies of course, for example James Hill’s photographs of Afghanistan circa 2001. In one image an elderly man prays against the backdrop of a sky filled with the white loops of contrails left by American bombers. Then there was Daniel Blau selling the purest documentary in the form of vintage NASA prints of stars and military shots of atom bomb detonations, showing that anything can be repurposed as art if the price is right.

Prints exhibiting texture and sculpture were less in evidence than at Unseen Photo Fair earlier in the summer but still represented especially amongst younger artists. Some of these managed to make something unique without appearing to try too hard. Tom Lovelace’s cinema pinboard (transformed by the sun into a natural photogram suggestive of a Mark Rothko) is a neat example, although displayed without explanation I expect the idea is lost on most. Another nice twist on this came in Timm Rautert’s framed boxes of darkroom paper, each box containing an unseeable photographic print. The boxes are themselves rather beautiful objects carrying a timely commentary on analog fetishism, and almost don’t need the added conceptual twist of containing the photographic equivalent of Schrodinger’s cat. A few artists even riff on what you might call the textural turn, for example Ben Cauchi’s photographs, which from a distance appear to be crumpled prints representing exactly this type of sculptural photography, until you get close and realize they are just normal photographs cleverly lit. As I said in my write up of Unseen, the sculptural trend isn’t inherently interesting but it definitely serves a purpose in the context of the photographic art market’s inherently contradictory need to limit a medium which in reproductive terms is entirely unlimited. And how glaring that contradiction is in the Grand Palais. You might feel that a vintage Edward Weston for €230,000 is sort of understandable, it’s all about the history I guess and for institutions and perhaps some collectors owning an object with lineage is worth that sort of price. But I feel that prices even a small fraction of this hard to rationalize when you come to contemporary works, irrespective of who the photographer is. It makes you realize how much art can be like trading currency or junk bonds, a game which perhaps will get most interesting when the wheels finally start to fall off and someone with some influence abandons the ridiculous game of treating photographs like paintings.

Perhaps hedging their bets because of the pressure to recoup their costs (I heard speak of around €20,000 for a booth) many of galleries opted to show a little of everything, with clusters of old and new, photojournalism and art, but this approach usually felt dysfunctional and rather as if they were showing nothing very much at all. In contrast to this tendency the ones that made something of a stand by offering a coherent display really stood out. East Wing Dubai got a tip of the hat for this at Unseen, and they did the same again although perhaps not quite as compellingly. In a similar way the Paris-Beijing booth was turned over to a display of Thomas Sauvin’s Beijing Silvermine, a wonderful collection of Chinese vernacular photography rescued from the city’s municipal dumps. These degraded and distorted the images are a fitting metaphor for historical adjustment and technological change. A nice touch was a light box table in the middle of the booth piled high with the original negatives which visitors were encouraged to inspect with a loup, in contrast to the hands-in-pockets-and-don’t-get-too-close-to-the-merchandise vibe in some of the other parts of the fair. For me the highlight of the more ‘curated’ displays was the whole of James Danzinger’s booth turned over to Paul Fusco’s RFK Funeral Train. A series shot from the locomotive that carried the younger Kennedy’s coffin to burial in 1968, Fuso captures Americans coming out to pay their final respects, holding signs, smiling, saluting and shedding tears. In each image the subject is isolated in a bubble of sharpness, their surroundings blurred out by the movement of the speeding train. Both as an important moment in time and for its resonance with the current divisions in the United States the series is beyond moving. I’ve got to admit I was almost tempted to ask for the price, but the old truism that ‘if you need to ask then you can’t afford it’ came to mind.

Predictably many of the memorable bits were away from the main event. Le Bal’s Provoke exhibition was one, and while part of me would have preferred something I’d not seen so many times before the curation of the show was so excellent that it made this familiar material feel fresh and exciting anew. A particularly nice touch were deconstructed facsimiles of the original issues of the radical photography magazine pinned to the walls, allowing visitors to study them in detail. ‘Unlike today we thought of the camera as a weapon’ Nobuyoshi Araki says in one of the wall texts, and it is the political agenda of the work that is partly what excites along with the iconoclastic attitude towards photography. The abandonment of the idea of the camera as a weapon (however flawed an idea it is) explains much about why so much in the Grand Palais is dull beyond belief. Provoke and it’s contributors had an ethos, and that made them dangerous, but were it around today it would also probably make it deeply unfashionable. At the Maison Européenne de la Photographie the Andres Serrano show was worth a look, particularly for America his series of vast portraits made in the wake of the 9/11 attacks which echo August Sander’s similar documentation of Weimar Germans. A photograph of president elect Donald Trump is one of the first you see, aptly flanked by a child beauty queen on one side and a crack cocaine addict and model on the other. Serrano’s massive prints are partly engaging for the way they reveal the small imperfections in even the most superficially perfect people, but doing so without suggesting these imperfections are shortcomings, more part of what makes us who we are. The really uncanny thing about Trump is noticing the way he lacks even the smallest blemish or scar, even the child beauty queen showing more sign of this very human imperfection.

My highlight of the entire trip however was the exhibition upstairs Archive Pierre Molinier. A house painter turned artist, cross dresser, and hedonist loosely aligned with surrealism, Molinier produced a series of erotic self-portraits blending photography, drawing, and collage to bizarrely brilliant effect. It’s hard to know what to compare his images to, the thought that came to my mind was that had Otto Dix employed photography and had a penchant for transvestitism, sodomy and mixing colour pigments with his sperm (as Molinier did) he might have produced a series of images a little like these. Mollinier’s photographs and photomontages vary between the funny, the smutty and the downright creepy, but the overall effect of the exhibition is powerfully moving. Despite André Bréton championing his art, Mollinier lived a marginalized life and killed himself in 1976, which in the context of Paris Photo would seem to make it worth quoting the critic Frédéric Beigbeder. Writing an essay to accompany an auction sale of Molinier’s work last year, a text which might normally be a congratulatory piece aimed at the soon to be owners of the artist’s work, Beigbeder instead offers this apt truth: ‘true artists die in suffering, poverty and anonymity, while decades later the high classes pay tribute to them as they eat their truffle risottos’.

My visit to Paris was brief and so I didn’t look at as many books as I might have normally, skipping Offprint entirely to save on time (and also because such large book fairs also often have a strangely depressive effect one me). The Aperture Photo Book prize had a few interesting titles in the long list but there was also quite a bit that was bland and the knowledge that is a paying prize is hard to escape when noticing this. As I wrote recently of the prize, when you charge entrants for a competition you can’t expect it to reflect the best, only the best of what can afford to pay. The winner, Gregory Halpern’s ZZYZX is a competent book, beautifully photographed and printed. I appreciate what Halpern is doing but at the same time in its intellectual abstractness it’s a league away from the photographic terrain that I like to spend my time traversing. I found the offerings at the boat-borne book fair at Polycopies more rewarding. Some highlights included Marco Tiberio and Maria Ghetti‘s Immo Refugee Camp, a typology of the Calais jungle’s informal structures which in it’s published form masquerades as an estate agent’s brochure and Dear Clark, Sara-Lena Maierhofer’s compelling investigation into identity via a non-receptive con man (the book also appears in Aperture’s shortlist). For the photo history buffs Javier Viver’s Révélations. Iconographie de La Salpêtrière is a wonderful catalogue of the hospital’s pioneering medical photography including the profound and troublesome work of Freud’s mentor Jean-Martin Charcot and his collaboration with pioneering chrono-photographer Albert Londe. At all these places there was such lavish overdesign on show (inserts, French folds, etc), which rather like the gallery penchant for cleverly manipulated and distorted prints really needs to be taken to be analysed, and taken to task.

So there were of course some wonderful gems to be found at Paris Photo, but rather like Sauvin’s trawling of rubbish dumps it took time and a strong stomach to find them. I calculated that I found one image actually worth spending time over for every thirty minutes I spent exploring the main fair, whether that is a good ratio and how it compares to previous years of Paris Photo, I dare not determine.

The Space is the Thing (and White Cubes are Nothing)

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Viewing through a home made camera obsucra.
From the Camera Obscured (2012)

One of the very few opinions I share in common with the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones is a dislike of white cube galleries, spaces which he rightly describes as having ‘have all the joy of a cenotaph’. Like Jones I can see the purpose of them in the context of art’s evolution, it’s rejection of past orthodoxies, but like him I also distrust the way one convention seems to has been replaced by another which has come in time to be treated just as unquestioningly, and is now just as in need of breaking down. Jones describes the white space of a gallery as a sanctifying force, the equivalent of a frame on an oil painting designed to convey authority and value. I’d go further back in to the history of art, to it’s use as an object of religious veneration. If Kazimir Malevich’s ultra-abstract suprematist compositions like his 1915 painting Black Square are sometimes compared to Russian orthodox icons, the minimalist space of the modern art gallery maybe makes a fitting place of worship in which to commune with them. That’s precisely what these spaces often become, sick shrines, although it’s a matter of debate what exactly is being worshipped and I’m not unsympathetic with Jones for suggesting it’s often actually money, not art which is on the high altar. There have been some other fine critiques and contestations over the white cube, including the experimental website Whitecu.be, which was ultimately shut down by lawyers acting on behalf of Jay Jopling, founder of the London gallery of the same name. This case also says much about the interactions and unease that exist between the art world and the internet.

One might say the pristine emptiness of a high end white cube gallery demonstrates a necessary level of respect for art, that it allows it be regarded in it’s wholeness, uninfluenced by external distractions. I would suggest it often demonstrates the opposite, it suggests work which needs to be imbued with an aura by the space because it lacks it in it’s own right, and has an effect which is so weak and pallid that it requires all other distractions to be closed off in order for it to effective. Indeed I often sense that some works actually suffer by being housed in such bland surrounds, precisely because the sort of cross pollination that white cubes seem designed specifically to avoid is often what activates art and makes it interesting in surprising ways unanticipated by the artist. That becomes particularly true when it comes to photography, because while fine art is a rarefied exception, photography is a mass medium. And when does photography really behave like this in the real world? Whether you view them in a book amongst the jostle of a train journey or the birdsong and breeze of a summer afternoon, or view on them on a website where they compete with text and adverts, the idea of the photograph displayed entirely on its own is an increasingly odd one. This all before one even considers the question of audience, and the reality that the space where work is shown necessarily prescribes who is able to see it.

In my practice I’ve found it far more interesting, challenging, and ultimately productive, to display work in spaces which bears a close relation to the subject matter. That’s included exhibiting my series on history and the European recession at the European Union’s permanent representation in London, which led to a series of fascinating conversations with workers at the representation including its head about the direction the European Union was heading in. Another example was showing my series on gentrification and redevelopment at an art school due to be demolished to make way for luxury flats. We printed the images in the architecture department on the large format plotters normally used to produce architectural plans, and this led to a series of really interesting conversations with architecture students about the new buildings of London and how they saw their profession. It was a relief to find many shared my feelings, and saw their practice as one which desperately needed to be more socially engaged.

I’m currently showing my 2012 series The Camera Obscured in one of the cells of a former police station in Deptford as part of the Urban Photo Fest exhibition [Taking] Control. The series examines the prohibitions on photography in certain areas of the City of London, by employing a series of rather ridiculous home-made camera obscuras. Using these I produced detailed drawings of sensitive locations, the intention being to entice police officers and security guards intent on stopping me into a discussion about the technical and philosophical dividing lines that separate a photograph taken with a modern digital camera from a painting by an artist like Canaletto, himself an avid employer of camerae obscurae. The space of the cell is apt (not least because I spent much of the project fearing I might end up in one) because it’s form is in effect the same as a simple camera obscura, it’s not for nothing that Jeremy Bentham’s conception of the panopticon and Michel Focault’s subsequent reimaginging of it have both been influential on photography studies. The space is also an interesting one to work in because it is so deeply uncompromising, with none of the usual methods used for hanging a show possible in an environment of concrete and tile walls and austere lighting. [Taking] Control is open each day from 10 am to 6pm and continues until November 8th at The Old Police Station. 114 Amersham Vale, London, SE14 6LG.

An Exhibition and Book Making Resource

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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.