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.

Arles 2016 Dispatch #5: Overall Impressions

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Girl from Contact Sheet 2 (Darkroom Manuals), 2013.
Courtesy of the artist, Foxy Production, New York, and Cooper Cole Gallery, Toronto.

This week I’ve been in France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. Like last year I’ve been posting a series of rapid fire posts summing up some of my festival highlights. First I looked at Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which examine ideas about European history, race and empire in different but complementary ways. Next I discussed two conflict exhibitions, Don McCullin’s Looking Beyond the Edge and 9/11 focused the group show Nothing but Blue Skies. For the next post I focused on two more humorous exhibitions, Fabulous Failures and Camarguais Western. For my penultimate post I looked some of the ten photographers shortlisted for the the annual Discovery Award, and for this final piece I thought I would sum up my general feelings about the festival this year and mention a few final exhibitions I didn’t have time to discuss in previous posts.

In summing up the 2015 festival my chief complaint about Recontres Les Arles was that it’s exhibitions and displays all concieved of photography in a very traditional way and gave little space for new ways of thinking about the value of photography or the ways in which it might be manipulated and displaued. Despite the new director Sam Stourdzé’s proclamation that the festival is not a museum, there was little in 2015 that challenged prevailing thought about what photography is, thought which remains rooted in the idea of it as something which exists in isolation as a discrete object, which be held, bought, sold. While this conception of photography might be comforting for photographers and artists, it is far from the reality of photography as it is experience by the majority of people in the world, for whom the medium become something binary, networked, both ever owned and ownable, and constantly prone to being mutated or changed. That absence was perhaps was understandable last year since it was a moment of transition for the festival, so the 2016 festival is maybe a better opportunity to test the extent to which the festival and it’s new director are loyal to the present as well as the past of photography. Certainly new practices were noticeable in the numerous exhibitions of the 2016 festival, whether in the anarchic multiple projections of Christian Marclay’s Pub Crawl, in the distorted scans of Sara Cwynar (pictured above), in the fragmented pixel and Photoshop art of Nothing but Blue Skies, or in the 3d meshes of Hito Steryl’s computer generated video The Tower, part of the Systematically Open exhibition which has inaugurated the new La Mecanique Generale building in Parc des Ateliers. These types of works were though were still relatively few and far between, and where it occurred the focus was invariably on experimental work by relatively safe, collectible, name artists rather than younger or earlier career photographers.

One thing which was very noticeable this year was the sheer number of exhibitions, and their scale and opulence. Looming over Parc des Atelier this year was the LUMA foundation’s new premises, a twisting tower block, ten stories of concrete and steel which looks unforgivably out of place on the very traditional skyline of Arles with it’s red roofs and innumerable church spires. The tower seems like an apt symbol for the problem with many of the exhibitions I saw, which were overlarge and sometimes staged in ways which felt unsympathetic to the work. This was the case of Yann Gross’s The Jungle Show, installed in a darkened space on a series of massive stacked light boxes, the installation was superficially compelling but did the work no favours. In other cases, it was simply a matter of scale, with many exhibitions which would have been utterly engrossing if they been half the size, but which scaled as they were instead only encouraged fatigue in a viewer. Sincerely Queer, a potentially fascinating exhibition of historic photographs of transvestites would be an example of this, with twenty fairly similar photographs often used to illustrate each of the curator’s ideas, when five carefully selected images would have done the same job and given a viewer the breathing room to really study each image. Similar issues abounded in more contemporary issues like Yan Morvan’s Battlefields, which was an interesting if conventional documentary work on battlefields around the world, but was again just too big to properly enjoy or to engage with the extensive and detailed wall texts. I could list quite a few other exhibitions this year which in photographic terms felt like an all you can eat buffet, when what I and many I spoke to at the festival felt a hunger for was more like nouveau cuisine. In terms of complex staging, Eamon Doyle’s End was one of the few that I felt justified it’s elaborateness, with a cleverly thought out use of large wall vinyls combining with a freestanding Family of Man style grid of images in the center of the space which caused wall and grid to align with each other in intriguing and unexpected ways as a viewer moves through the space.

A large part of what made the 9/11 exhibition Nothing but a Clear Blue Sky stand out for me was that rather than filling a massive space with a vast number of images on a loosely connected theme, this show essentially asked visitors to engage with just one image, that of the burning twin towers, but to do so repeatedly and in way which was cumulative across the breadth of the show. While there were certainly things I didn’t like about this exhibition, this key difference felt hugely refreshing and it is one of the reasons this is one of my top exhibitions of the festival. Similarly the small display of Maude Sulter’s Syrcas series was engaging in part because with so few pieces on display it felt manageable to really spend time with each one and study the subtlety and thought that went into their making. This same problem of scale was also really evident with the book awards. Last year a relatively small number were on display and it was feasible to look through each one, and to look through some of them in depth. This year not only has the number of prizes expanded to include a new Photo Text award, but also the system of displaying shortlisted works has gone out of the window and there were such a quantity of books on show (shortlisted and not) that it would probably take most of the week to look through them, hence why I have not attempted a best of the books post as I did last time. Amongst such scale there were also some appalling mistakes, including some books installed cover down to the reading tables. As I wandered through the vast space of the Grand Halle of the Parc du Ateliers I did start to wonder whether the problem with the penchant for art exhibitions in such mammoth disused industrial spaces is that the curators feel the irresistible need to fill every inch of them.

In conclusion, Recontres Les Arles continues to stage consistently strong exhibitions, which are generally well curated and which are almost always executed to the high standards of display you would expect from a permanent, professional gallery. Photography is well represented both in terms of historically significant art works, archival and vernacular photography, and in certain forms of contemporary photography, but I feel the festival needs to run faster to keep up with the way photographers and artists are employing digital forms of image making, and even moving beyond these into employing technologies and methodologies which might be a hard sell to describe as photography. The money and venues keep coming, but what the festival needs far is more thought about what it means to show the work that it does in that way that it does, and also a careful consideration about the experience it wants visitors to have. The problem is with such a considerable amount of money clearly flowing in from sources like the LUMA Foundation these questions may be difficult ones to ask, let alone answer, and with all those massive spaces to fill it may continue to be overwhelmingly tempting to commission shows which are oversized and initially eye catching, but which was in curatorial terms weaker than they might have been. Above all what is really worth pondering is what happens to the festival if that flow of money on which it seems now to depend should ever comes to an end.

My attendance at this event was supported by London College of Communication, University of the Arts London’s Continuing Professional Development fund.

Crystallisation or Simplification: World Press Photo 2015

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A man passes a baby through the fence at the Hungarian-Serbian border
in Röszke, Hungary, 28 August 2015. © Warren Richardson, Australia

Warren Richardson has won the World Press Photo of the year for his photograph depicting refugees crossing a razor wire border fence as they travel deeper into Europe. This grainy, blurred image shows a man, his face drawn from apparent exhaustion, passing an equally limp child under a stretch of razor wire to hands outstretched from the gloom beyond. Describing the making of photograph Richardson writes that: ‘They sent women and children, then fathers and elderly men first. I must have been with this crew for about five hours and we played cat and mouse with the police the whole night. I was exhausted by the time I took the picture. It was around three o’clock in the morning and you can’t use a flash while the police are trying to find these people, because I would just give them away. So I had to use the moonlight alone.’

Immediately noticeable is the blurring and camera noise evident in the photograph, which to sideline as being simply the consequences of a technical restrictions created by the environment is to overlook it’s significance in shaping how this image might be read (particularly in the light of recent World Press rule changes). The technical ‘imperfection’ of this image brings with it the idea that it’s selection might be an intentional rupture with the past, a contrast to previous winners which have often stood accused of being over polished, even the extent of willful and dishonest manipulation. Richardson’s picture is shown warts and all, with the high ISO camera noise imprinted on to every part of the photograph like a digital fingerprint. Of course that’s not to preclude the potential for manipulation even in this sort of photograph, only to observe that the technical nature of this image brings with it the subtext that nothing here is hidden or contrived. To paraphrase and adapt Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, within the grain is imprinted the messagethat photographic beauty has been sacrificed in the name of veracity.

As soon as I saw Richardson’s winning image it strongly called to mind two other photographs. Most immediately it reminded me of Tim Hetherington’s 2007 World Press winning photo of an exhausted soldier at a US army outpost in Afghanistan. Part of that similarity is again in the compromised aesthetics of both images (I used the word compromised loosely here since blur and grain have an aesthetic beauty of their own which isn’t often enough acknowledged). It’s also the pose and expressions of the two men in these two photographs. Both are caught in a moment of thought numbing exhaustion, and both also caught in the fine but irresistible strands that link us as individuals to the geopolitics which shape our world, processes beyond what an individual might hope to understand, let alone influence. The exhaustion they exhibit might just as easily be read an exhaustion with the implacability of the huge events that shape our lives, as much as simple physical exhaustion.

There is a weird sense of circularity between the two images for me, a powerful sense of the way news events are far more connected than is often acknowledged (a sentiment which also appears in the Broomberg and Chanarin essay referenced earlier). It speaks to me of how the misadventures of one war far away in Afghanistan might be connected to wider regional instability and the flight of thousands of people across European borders lined with razor wire. This interconnectedness is something which feels increasingly vital to bring to the fore in the way we discuss any important issue in the world today. However it is also one that traditional news reporting, and photojournalism in particularly, feels to me to be ever more ill equipped to probe and explain. Apart from those rare and brilliant projects (I think for example of Allan Sekula’s still unrivalled Fish Story) how often can photography be said to think so globally?

The second photograph that Richardson’s image made me think of is Nilüfer Demir’s photograph of Alan Kurdi, the toddler drowned and washed ashore on a Turkish beach while fleeing with his family from the conflict in Syria. Part of the resonance is obviously in the shared focus on the humanitarian disaster breaking on the shores of Europe, and which European governments seem unwilling to respond to in a way which is either coherent or which reflects the supposedly shared values of the continent. The similarity also lies to an extent the pose again of the man in Richardson’s photograph as he carries the limp body of a child. But above all the resonance for me lies in a recognition that there is an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism in both images, something heightened in the case of the Kurdi photograph by the unspeakable awfulness of what is being seen, and in Richardson’s photograph I would say by the aesthetics of the photograph. His viewpoint on the other side of the wire, and particularly the grain and blur which might once have spoken much more to the idea of compromised visuals in the quest for truth, now speaks to me much more of the voyeuristic public production of photographs.

This might be a photograph from a bystander’s smartphone, a comment which is somewhat obvious and prosaic at a time when in fact that’s exactly what so many news photographs are. But in the process of us all becoming photographers or potential photojournalists I wonder if we’ve also bought into the photojournalist’s mistake of believing that witnessing is resolving, and that photographing these events is anything more than a form voyeurism if it isn’t followed up by a proactive use of those photographs to drive some sort of meaningful response. The possibility of publishing images and getting them seen is open to more people than ever before, but the act of publishing a photograph which offers to reveal the world’s misfortunes seems less able than ever to catalyse change. To be clear this isn’t intended as a judgment of Richardson, but a thought about professional and amateur image production more broadly, nor is it to accept the tired argument that photographs are incapable of changing the world, as the Alan Kurdi photograph shows, they still do.

Lastly, and at the risk of sounding cold after a discussion of child drownings and mass exodus, it does seem odd to me to be talking about awarding the photograph of the year in the age of image overload. Does the superabundance of photography that we face today make singling out specific images an ever more important activity or one which is increasingly anachronistic? Do these massive events like the refugee crisis tangibly benefit from this sort of reduction to single images, or does it make them feel understandable, and perhaps therefore manageable in a way which is unhelpfully reassuring, which defuses our responsibility as citizens to get angry that our governments are allowing people to drown in their thousands in our seas. With ever more urgency I think we need to consider careful when this sort of photography is crystallisation, and when it is just simplification.

(Critical transparency: In 2015 I participated in a focus group on revisions to the WPP rules.)

Mute Witnesses: Pentagon Releases Detainee Abuse Photographs

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After over a decade of legal wrangling the United States Department of Defense has finally released a tranche of nearly 200 photographs documenting the abuse of detainees during the Bush administration’s war on terror (see here for the whole set). The American Civil Liberties Union who have fought for this release since 2003 continue to push for the publication of another 1,800 images which are still being withheld. The released photographs are reported to document abuse which took place at a number of sites around Iraq and Afghanistan, and may also include photographs from locations in other countries. But what’s most noticeable about these photographs is the mute banality of so many of them. They feel very much as if they’ve been selected for how little they show and say. In many cases there is little or no visible trace of the injury that is apparently being documented, in others it looks as if there is no injury being recorded at all, and what has been released are in fact grab shots taken at other stages of the detainment process, for example on initial arrest. Almost all of the photographs are rescans of bad print outs, and have been copied or reproduced so many times that there is little information which can be gleaned from them.

The actual muteness of photographs positioned as being of great relevatory value is certainly not a new issue in photography and it’s something I often talk to students about in some depth because it has particular implications for a practice like documentary photography, which hinges so much on showing things which the camera is often actually very poorly equipped to reveal. We place expectations on photographs which we have been primed to view as evidence, expectations which often cause us to extrapolate and imagine (apt word) things that the image itself is sometimes not really able to show, or which in some circumstances it’s creator is unwilling to really reveal. Photographs are mute without some form of external context and explanation, which are noticeable in this collection of photographs for their total absence. Very few of the photographs include anything by way of explanation, and even those that do are often noticeable for their obscure and non-specific language. As a result these photographs offer frustratingly little sense of the cause of injuries, chronologies, locations, or other information which might actually shed light on the opaque system of detainment and torture which there release was intended to push further into view. In this sense I would say this release of imagery has been masterfully curated, to meet the demands of the courts, without really giving much of anything away.

The release instead only seems to shed a little light on the systems of image creation and management that operate (formally or not) within governments and their constituent agencies like militaries and intelligence organisations. They are examples of the state seeing for the state, and the way that this seeing is adjusted, filtered and censored when the time comes that we ask to see what the state has been seeing (and more importantly doing) on our behalf. They are examples of how the selection and exclusion of certain types of imagery can create meaning even in a set of images as mute as these. The visual language of the released images predominantly use the codes and conventions of crime scene investigation, the inevitable implication of this being that while bad things might have happened, photography has been used here to investigate it, the authorities are on the case, and no further disclosure is required. In this sense these images bare comparison to two less carefully managed precedents for the release of torture imagery. Self-evidently to the release of amateur photographs taken of abuse at Abu Gharib prison in 2003, photographs which have unintentionally gone to become as symbolic of the war on terror as grainy stills of attacks on 9/11, and which offer a sort of coda to that opening salvo of this most unconventional of conflicts. Perhaps less obviously though I also find myself thinking of the photographs leaked by Caesar, the Syrian military photographer who documented the deceased victims of the Syrian government’s torture program as records intended to confirm that those who had been killed were indeed dead. This is not to bluntly equate these different programs of torture and abuse, or the governments that sanctioned them, but only to note the similarities and differences in the closed circulation of imagery, and the importance of the circumstances by which they enter our view and the context they come with for the way we ultimately derive meaning from them about the things they purport to reveal.

Picking up the Pieces

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Deutsche Börse 2016 Shortlist

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

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

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

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

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

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

In his brief write up of the shortlist, the Guardian’s photography writer Sean O’Hagan proposed a couple of names he would have liked to see on the list, and while I think O’Hagan’s suggestions aren’t really relevant to the prize’s remit of rewarding artists pushing the medium’s boundaries I think the act of highlighting what was missed is a worthwhile one. In vain I have wondered before, and I continue to wonder, what it would take for a body work to be shortlisted which asks difficult questions about the system and problems that this prize’s sponsor is very clearly part of. Work which focuses on capital, exchange and austerity like that by Mark Curran for example, photography which attempts to get inside and reveal the insidious innards of global finance in much the same way that Paglen has done with global surveillance. How badly we need this, and what a gesture the inclusion of work like that would make. But I doubt it would be a welcome inclusion on the wall of a plush Frankfurt boardroom, and lest we forget, ladies and gentlemen, that is probably what really counts.

Review – Predator by Jean-Marie Donat

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Critical transparency: review copy purchased myself)

Arles 2015 Dispatch #6: Overall Impressions

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Markus Brunetti, Facades

For the first time I’ve taken some days out from the summer to head to the south of France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. I’ll be posting a few pieces over the coming days highlighting some of the festivals highlights. I’ve already highlighted the best of the Discovery Award, the great exhibitions of historic photos in Vernacular and Spirits of the Tierra del Fuego People and the very interesting but not entirely resolved Dark Tourism and The Heavens, Annual Report exhibitions. I’ve also looked at the excellent Souvenirs of the Sphinx and Alice Wielinga’s North Korea, A Life Between Propoganda and Reality, and rounded up some of the great books I encountered in the various book awards. In this, my final post, I sum up some of my overall impressions of the festival as a first time visitor.

As you can probably judge from my previous five posts, the photography, curation and discussion that I found at Arles was almost all of a very high quality. But what was being displayed and discussed was also photography of a very specific sort. That is the sort of photography which has been practiced more or less constantly since the medium’s invention, the type of photography that involves a person operating a camera, taking photographs of things which are physically in front of them, and then arranging the resulting images into linear sets to be displayed on a gallery wall. And yet few would deny that the excitement of photography lies in the fact it is becoming vastly more than this now, and all those once concrete certainties about meaning, authorship, and even the definition of the medium have broken down.

For the most part I did not find this brave new world represented, or even very often discussed. Even where the work on show had the potential to raise these sorts questions, it felt as if these issues were brushed aside as if they were slightly embarrassing or even a little vulgar. While I wasn’t particularly keen on Markus Brunetti’s Facades series, the composite nature of the work raises interesting questions about the integrity and limits of the digital photograph, questions which were relegated almost to a footnote in the exhibition’s text. Beyond the conceptual conservatism of quite a few of the shows, there was also what felt like the usual preponderance of white, American and European male photographers on display.

There were moments where the festival branched into more innovative and international terrain. The Discovery Award was a notable example but it was equally notable for being an award with a shortlist selected by five independent curators unattached to the festival. Talking to people with a few more years of Arles trips under their belts than me the judgment seems to be more varied. It is hard to get a sense if this is just an off year, or par(r) for the course. This year’s festival is notably marked by a change of festival directorship, and under those circumstances the temptation might be to play it safe rather than take the risk of trying to make a mark or a statement. And yet new director Sam Stourdzé made a very public statement that ‘a festival is not a museum’, a sentiment I fully support but which seems not to have been realised this year.

Looking back I have to acknowledge that I maybe went to the south of France with unrealistic expectations. For successive years before my trip I had heard Arles talked up by friends and colleagues who had been and come back with glowing stories about the festival, and I may have taken these too much to heart. Socially the festival was great, and for some that might be enough. I was hoping though to come away feeling inspired about the possibilities of photography and energised to make new work, but that feeling never quite developed. All the same I’ll certainly be going again next year and it will be interesting to be able to compare the similarities and differences that I find. Here’s hoping that even if we still don’t quite manage to escape the museum, that we at least get a little closer to the exit.

Arles 2015 Dispatch #5: Best of the Books

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Jana Romanaova’s Azbuka: The Alphabet of Shared Words

For the first time I’ve taken some days out from the summer to head to the south of France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. I’ll be posting a few pieces over the coming days highlighting some of the festivals highlights. I’ve already highlighted the best of the Discovery Award, the great exhibitions of historic photos in Vernacular and Spirits of the Tierra del Fuego People and the very interesting but not entirely resolved Dark Tourism and The Heavens, Annual Report exhibitions. In my last post I looked at two small but wonderfully formed exhibitions, Souvenirs of the Sphinx and Alice Wielinga’s North Korea, A Life Between Propoganda and Reality. For my penultimate post I turn to some of the photobooks I encountered at the festival.

To start off with the Luma Book Award, there was a host of interesting books on show. Daniel Mayrit’s You Haven’t Seen Their Faces immediately stands out from the crowded tables, both for it’s simple materials and bold cover, and for the way it wears it’s politics clearly on it’s sleeve. Emulating the grainy CCTV photographs released by the Metropolitan police of looters in the wake of the 2011 London Riots, Mayrit employs the same strategy for the one hundred most powerful political and economic leaders in the City of London. Many of these images are then scrawled with hand written notes revealing the subjects complicity in dodgy dealings and criminal cases. It’s a nice example of the broader trend of great books emerging from Spain at the moment, many with an unashamedly political slant which stands in contrast to the photobook scenes in other countries.

Aptly Mayrit’s book is located right next to Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s The Heavens, Annual Report which corresponds to the festival exhibition of the same name. Where I felt the exhibition sometimes fell short on revealing the links between tax havens and the world’s problems, the added space and possibilities of the book goes helps to ameliorate this and slightly better reflects the vast complexity of this topic. I still feel that slightly more abstract visual strategies might have been better suited to a topic which is so abstract, but still I would definitely recommend checking this book out.

A diminutive book which caught my eye was Jana Romanaova’s Azbuka: The Alphabet of Shared Words, and it’s title and form called to mind Zdnek Tmej’s bleak and brilliant Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness. Like many other photographers, Romanaova travelled to Kyiv from her native Russia during the Euromaidan protests to make portraits, but her approach differed in that she asked each of her subjects to think of an object with the same name in Russian and Ukranian, before photographing them with that thing. The resulting book is open to multiple interpretations, whether viewed as a reminder that Russians and Ukranians have more in common than in difference, or perhaps more problematically as a suggestion that Ukranians are underneath it all basically just Russians. The book itself is beautifully fragile, composed of tissue paper and delicate inserts, hardly a thing one can imagine being born in the smoke and fire of Independence Square.

From the Luma Dummy Book Award (disclaimer: I had a book in the shortlist) a few titles caught my eye. First of all the winner, The Jungle Book by Yann Gross is a competently photographed and constructed documentary work which explores the contemporary Amazon. Although I think not ground breaking in topic or execution it’s not hard to see why it won because it’s well made in every respect. Two former students of mine also had work in the shortlist and although I’m clearly biased I recommend checking them both out. Carl Bigmore’s Between Two Mysteries is a great dive into an almost absurd Lynchian vision of America where everything hovers between reality and fiction, while Miriam Stanke’s And the Mountain said to Munzur: You, River of my Tears is a powerful account of the remote and trouble fraught Turkish region of Dersim.

For reasons I’ve sometimes discussed here, I’m generally not keen on books that are overly complex in form or design, but Alma Haser’s Cosmic Surgery has to be mentioned as a remarkable piece of book construction. Featuring a series of complex paper pop-ups, the portraits within burst off the page in ever more surprising ways. Lastly Mark Duffy’s Vote No.1 is almost the opposite of Cosmic Surgery in that the book construction is ridiculously austere but perfectly suited to the subject matter. Consisting of rephotographs of politician’s portraits as they appear on their campaign posters (complete with unplanned additions like flies and staple holes), the book is a funny jab at the unjustified self-importance and fleeting lifespans of politicians and political hopefuls.

Arles 2015 Dispatch #4: Souvenirs of the Sphinx and North Korea

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Wouter Deruytter, Souvenirs of the Sphinx

For the first time I’ve taken some days out from the summer to head to the south of France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. I’ll be posting a few pieces over the coming days highlighting some of the festivals highlights. I’ve already highlighted the best of the Discovery Award, the great exhibitions of historic photos in Vernacular and Spirits of the Tierra del Fuego People and the very interesting but not entirely resolved Dark Tourism and The Heavens, Annual Report exhibitions. In this post I’m looking at two small but wonderfully formed exhibitions, Souvenirs of the Sphinx and Alice Wielinga’s North Korea, A Life Between Propaganda and Reality.

The first exhibition is fittingly housed at the Arles Museum of Antiquities, a little walk away from the town but also playing host to an exhibition of Walker Evans photographs which makes it worth the walk. Curated by Luce Lebart, Souvenirs of the Sphinx draws on the collection of Wouter Deruytter, a photographer who has amassed an extensive collection of photographs and drawings of this ancient monument. Starting with rather fantastical pre-photographic illustrations presumably made by artists who had not seen the Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza first hand but only heard them described, the exhibition then traces through the advent of photography and into the modern era, concluding with several of Deruytter’s own photographs of the Sphinx and it’s interior.

What is consistent in the exhibition is  obviously the desire of those who witnessed the Sphinx to make a recording of it, invariably with themselves in the frame. It is maybe not surprising that a monument which had stood impassively in the desert sands for nearly fifty centuries would make an impression, it is like a physical embodiment of history, a structure which wears the damage of time, and is periodically threatened with being engulfed by the sands that surround it. To stand on the Sphinx must have felt like standing on history, and one senses from many of the photographs that the subjects were making one of two statements. Perhaps simply attesting that they were here, and in sense this exhibition is an apt one to visit before or after seeing the Dark Tourism exhibition discussed last week. Or perhaps more complexly in photographing themselves with history these explorers, soldiers and tourists sought in some sense to claim it for their own.

The second small exhibition I want to highlight is Alice Wielinga’s North Korea, A Life Between Propoganda and Reality, which is really one of the few bodies of work I saw during my time in Arles which really made me feel excited about photography. For this piece Wielinga combines her own photographs taken during an extended trip through North Korea with socialist realist propaganda paintings of fierce soldiers, noble workers and idealised Korean landscapes. Digitally manipulating the two together, the result is a perfect mix of painting and photography, one which much like traditional propoganda demands viewers take time and engage in careful investigation to separate truth and fiction from one another.

What I think is particularly clever about the work though is the way that by taking two forms of propaganda (the paintings, and her own photographs, inevitably staged managed by government minders) Wielinga manages in effect to short circuit them both. By revealing the incongruities between these two images she reveals the bizarre fiction that is North Korea’s public image, and hints at the bleak reality that lies just beneath the surface. The work is also being projected in a remarkable venue, a damp husk of an old church, but really the detail of the images is such that they need to be seen printed and viewed close up, and although the multimedia piece on display offers some interesting insight into the production of the work it dosen’t provide the same resolution. The high quality images on Wielinga’s website are a good alternative though for viewers keen to see these images in the detail they demand.