New Exhibitions – Very Now and City of Dust

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I have two exhibitions opening in London today.

Very Now opens today at London College of Communication with a private view on Tuesday 12th July. Curated with my colleague Max Houghton to coincide with the college’s Festival of Art and Journalism, Very Now draws together pieces by a series of artist and photographers working at the intersections of art and journalism. From Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave, which reenacts a key clash in the 1984 miners strike, to Laura El-Tantawy’s In The Shadow of the Pyramids, a highly personal account of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, these works illustrate and reflect on the exciting possibilities of hybrid practices. Alongside these works are displayed a series of reactive projects produced by groups of UAL students, working with disparate ideas and approaches, from reworking the documents of the Courage Foundation’s Edward Snowden Archive, to using mapping and public data to consider the changing face of the local area where the college is situated.  More information is available on the college website, and Very Now continues until 12th August.

City of Dust opens at Westminster Reference Library today with a private view on Wednesday 13th July. An interim exhibition of a project which I have been working on gradually over the past four years, City of Dust looks at London as if it were a living memory palace, an imagined space scattered with symbolic objects each resonant of a different aspect of the city’s past. In the proccess the work ruminates on the relationships between walking, memory and urban space. Like my previous book Metropole, City of Dust offers a commentary on the pace of change in the city, the destruction of the past and the gradual transformation of London into an amnesiac metropolis. Alongside the exhibition a newspaper based on the show will be available free for visitors to take away and there will be a reading table of books from the library’s collection. More information is available in the press release, and City of Dust continues until 23rd July. It would be great to see some faces, familiar or otherwise, at both of these events so please do come on down to either.

For more information on either of these you can contact me through my website.

Metropolitan Consolidation Eclipses Regional Distribution

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Insect Wings, c.1840, William Henry Fox Talbot © National Media Museum

Big changes are afoot within the United Kingdom’s photography collections with the move of the Royal Photographic Society’s archive from the National Media Museum in Bradford to become part of the photography collection of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. This archive constitutes around a sixth of the National Media Museum’s collection, and once the move is complete it will make the Victoria and Albert Museum’s photography holdings ‘the single largest collection on the art of photography in the world.’ There are two ways to read this I suppose, one is that given the remit of the Science Museum group (which the National Media Museum is part of) and the remit of the Victoria and Albert Museum, this change maybe makes some sense in that it might allow both institutions to more clearly focus and specialise. Although that argument is also a little problematic, since particularly with very early pioneers like Fox Talbot, the line between the scientific and artistic aspects of his photography is a blurry one at best, and Pete James is right in making this point about photography more generally. How useful is it to hive off the medium into such polarised, but also rather clumsy categories?

It’s also a setting back of the clock, since parts of the collection which will move was originally held in London at the South Kensington Museum in the nineteenth century, although considering this was the height of empire and a time when London was the metropole not only of Britain but of much of the planet, I’m not sure how much this is a precedent that advocates of the move should be harking on. And that’s because many are rightly crying foul that this is another example of London, the metropolitan heart of the UK, eating up collections, archives and funding which would benefit other parts of the country far more. London is a city already bloated with culture, museums and collections and whatever prestige the move might mean for the city and for the Victoria and Albert Museum can’t be anything comparable to what it would have meant for Bradford to have it remain there, to say nothing of the wider region. Likewise returning to the idea of monolithic national collections for things like photography might be economically appealing but it would seem to me like something of a step back to the nineteenth century and the imperial ambitions which first gave rise to many of the South Kensington museums.

It’s also something of an irony that a collection like this is being removed from a regional museum partly because of funding issues and relocated to a museum currently facing accusations of undergoing a stealth privatisation through its new recruitment policies which apparently allow the Victoria and Albert Museum to hire new staff on much less secure terms. If the new home of the Royal Photographic Society collection is taking an increasingly hard-nosed financial attitude, does that pose worrying questions about the institutions commitment to creating long term posts to conserve and manage the collection, or about the future accessibility or maintenance of this material. The example of the collections at the Library of Birmingham which has experienced savage cuts in accessibility and jobs will be foremost in many people’s minds. The model employed by the Science Museum group whereby this and other enormously important photographic material would reside in Bradford but be available for exhibition in London at the Science Museum’s dedicated Media Space seemed like a very strong one, which emphasised the benefits of distributing culture across institutions and throughout the UK, while at the same time making that culture available to audiences across multiple regions. This change I suppose throws this approach into doubt, despite it being a model that institutions like the Victoria and Albert Museum and the country more generally would have benefited greatly from rolling out more widely.

Metropole at Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design

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I’m excited to announce that an exhibition of my series Metropole opens tonight, Thursday 3rd December at the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design, London Metropolitan University.

Metropole records the consequences of the booming value of property in London by using double exposures to document the city’s numerous new corporate and luxury residential buildings as they are constructed and occupied. As the photographs progress these structures merge and overlap, becoming increasingly disorientating and threatening, emulating the feeling of finding oneself lost in a once familiar city. Finally the photographs come to rest on the dark heart driving this urban degeneration.

Metropole was first published in March 2015 and chimed with a widespread feeling that London has become an increasingly oppressive, unaffordable and unequal place to live. The book garnered international attention, being published by sites and magazines across Europe and as far afield as Los Angeles, and rapidly selling out. This exhibition is the first to feature the majority of the series, and includes several images which did not appear in the book. To coincide with the show a reprint of the book is also now available from my online store along with screen prints based on images from the series.

Metropole is open to the public and can be visited daily until January 15th 2016 at the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design, Central House, 59-63 Whitechapel High St, London E1 7PF. You can also download a press release for the exhibition and read more about the Metropole project on my site.

A Photobook Manifesto II: On Design

war primer 1 and 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Photobook Manifesto I: Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Project – Metropole

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‘Elephant I’, from Metropole

In a recent piece I suggested that at least part of the reason for the lack of documentary work about the ongoing effects of recession and austerity are the difficulties of representing issues which are often so intangible and abstract. My latest photographic project, which is now available to buy, is partly a response to these difficulties.

Metropole is the result of dozens of walks taken through London, recording new construction sites and high rises which have arisen throughout the city in recent years. These structures typify the influx of capital and the development boom which has transformed the metropolis, in the process making it ever more unequal, unaffordable, and unfamiliar to it’s long term residents. As the book progresses the initially calm and dream-like photographs become increasingly confusing and nightmarish, warping into complex and aggressive overlapping patterns, reminiscent of the abstractions of Vorticist paintings. Finally the images return to normal, coming to rest on the financial centre of the city, the dark heart driving this change.

Historically the ‘Metropole’ was a term used to describe London in its relationship with the British Empire, a relationship deeply hierarchical and profoundly unequal, with power radiating out from the metropolitan centre, and the resources of the dominions radiating back in return. Today the old empire is gone, but in its stead a new world power, that of international finance, has installed itself here, on this axis mundi of global trade.

From tomorrow an image from Metropole will be on display on the London Arts Board, at the corner of Peckham Road and Vestry Road, near South London Gallery and Camberwell College of Arts. The London Arts Board itself resides on land destined for future redevelopment, making it a more than fitting venue for the work. The Metropole book is available in limited numbers as a black and white publication, and also as a special edition, oversized version. A small run of silk screen prints based on the series and printed by yours truly are also available to buy. All of these things can be viewed and purchased from my online shop and more information about the project is available on my site. I’ll also be signing copies of the book on March 15th 2015, from 6pm at The Bear Free House, 296 Camberwell New Road, London, SE5

Metropole book Lewis Bush (1)

Metropole London city architecture book Lewis Bush (4)

Metropole London city architecture book Lewis Bush (10)

Metropole London city architecture book Lewis Bush (11)