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 ) (accessed 19th June 2016)
[6] Hans Haacke, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (accessed 19th June 2016)
[7] The Elephant In The Room: New report on UK media ownership (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 (accessed 22nd June 2016)

Arles 2015 Dispatch #1: Discovery Award


The Shilo Group/Vlad Krasnoshchok, Sergiy Lebedynskyy and Vadym Trykoz

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 the festivals highlights. To kick off, The Discovery Award is something I’ve heard people rave about in past years and so it was an obvious early point on my itinerary. The award tasks five curators with choosing two artists each who they believe deserve more recognition for their work. Here I pick out five of them that I think are particularly worth a look.

I’ve already written at length about Lisa Barnard’s book Hyenas of the Battlefield, Machines in the Garden, and it was nice to see it included in this award. I rate the work for a number of reasons, partly because of the politics that lie behind it and also because of the visual strategies Barnard uses to try and make those visible. Perhaps mostly I like it though because of all the artists making work about drones, Barnard is one of the few who’s work goes beyond purely mechanical observations about the technology. Given the complexity of the book the display for the discovery award packs an enormous amount into a relatively small space.

Robert Zhao Renhui’s A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World was another nice inclusion. Renhui’s project blurs the line between fine art photography, scientific research and perhaps also advocacy, by creating an extensive account of species which have been altered by mankind. This ranges from fish purposefully bred or coloured to give pleasing appearances, to bees which have spontaneously developed an addiction to soda. Viewed together these examples make for a rather damning indictment of man’s effect on the planet and it’s other inhabitants. Perhaps inevitably given the subject and appraoch photography is very controlled, even rather cold, which for me rather limited the amount of time I wanted to spend with it.

Pauline Fargue’s No Day is another display worth mentioning (and since writing Fargue has won the Discovery Award). The display consists of a series of a number of Fargue’s notebooks, produced over a span of twelve years and which function as places for her experiment with images and text. Within these books she cuts and pastes photographs, blending them with text and drawing and in the proccess producing a beautiful and inspiring body of work, modest in scale but and epic in scope. The work touches on no epic issue of the day, and the method employed is very simple, but as a meditation on photography and writing in one of it’s most intimate forms the work is very powerful. ‘Let no day pass without a line’ wrote Walter Benjamin but, he concluded, ‘there will be weeks’.

The Shilo Group (Vlad Krasnoshchok, Sergiy Lebedynskyy and Vadym Trykoz) are a Ukranian collective who’s work responds to the current state of their country and their display consists of three bodies of more or less inter-related work. Negatives are Stored consists of a series of crudely overpainted old photographs ‘restored’ as the collective put it, through the addition of surreal drawings some of which are varyingly touching, funny and entirely crass. The second project, Euromaidan, was published as a book last year and might be the group’s best known work. It documents the protests in Kyiv’s Independence Square in grainy black and white photographs, reminiscent of the photographs of 1970’s Japanese protest photography. Lastly ATO does similar with the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and is for me the most problematic of the groups work given it’s allusions to photography of the Second World War’s eastern front.

The final space is occupied by A Kind of Display by The Cool Couple (comprising Niccolo Benetton and Simone Santilli) and deserves recognition if only for the performative side of it. Their work, which focuses on the political, cultural and historical dimensions of the beard, includes a barbers chair and live barber offering visitors free shaves in the exhibition space. Aside from this their display consists of a series of beard photographs printed on barber’s smocks and three 3D printed heads of historic beard wearers. A little disappointingly the display itself rather fails to live up to it’s promise and doesn’t penetrate very far into what could be a very interesting (if masculine) topic.

Ruin Nation: The Ruin in Art and Photography

Paul Nash, Pillar and Moon 1932-42

‘One knew of places in ancient Greece, where the way led down to the underworld – A land full of inconspicuous places from which dreams arise’.
– Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

Assumptions about the past are rarely wise, but it seems safe to say that the ruin has been with man since he first learnt to craft structures to suit his needs. The aesthetic appreciation of these derelicts is however a comparatively, and perhaps inherently, modern preoccupation. Ruin Lust, a new show at Tate Britain co-curated by Brian Dillion, looks at the figure of the ruin in European art from the eighteenth century, when the intellectual revolution of the enlightenment imbued these sites with entirely new symbolic meaning. As a philosophical movement which very clearly compared itself to what had come before, the ruin was an important icon of past cultures, both their successes and failures.

Ruin admirers like Giovanni Piranesi and J.M.W. Turner helped to foreground these relics, moving them from aesthetic backdrops to a central and multi-faceted symbol in western art. This fascination with the ruin continued through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth with artists like Paul Nash and John Piper responding to the unprecedented material, human, and moral ruination the resulted from the Second World War. More recently the likes of Jon Savage and Rachel Whiteread have in turn examined the decay of the utopian architectural visions that emerged from Piper and Nash’s ruins, the cities in the sky of post-war housing estates, themselves in time brought to their own violent ends.

As the Dillion notes in the introduction to his edited volume Ruins, it is partly the paradox of these architectural remains which make them attractive. They are both the substance of a lost past, and at the same time they are necessarily here in the present, and in many cases will last on into the future long after the viewer has succumbed. With this in mind it’s interesting to note that while many artworks crystallise ruins at a single moment in time as if they were immortal and unchanging, in reality ruination is a dynamic process marked by erosion, growth, slow shifts, sudden collapse. Writing in 1911 Georg Simmel described ruination as an equilibrium between architecture and nature, a fleeting period where neither has the upper hand, before nature’s irresistible force inevitably prevails.

The camera seems particularly drawn to ruins, indeed tracing back into photography’s earliest history the ruin appears frequently. Even before the recognised moment of the invention of photography, artists like Simone Pomardi and Edward Dodwell were employing camera obscuras to draw the shattered remains of ancient Greece with near photographic accuracy. An often overlooked early pioneer of photography, the fantastically named Gaspard-Pierre-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière, was the first to photograph the Athenian Parthenon in 1839, mere months after Daguerre’s first demonstration of his method to the French Academy of Sciences. A relatively early photographic inclusion in this exhibition are several beautiful photographs taken in the 1870’s by the idiosyncratic Society for Photographing Relics of Old London.

This choice of subject for early photographers was perhaps partly pragmatic. Ruins are static and outside, affording an ample supply of time and light, the two things desperately required by early photographic processes. Equally the established status of the ruin in fine art must have made it a viable commercial subject at the time of photography’s invention. At the same time I find myself wondering if some of these early photographers – so many of whom were after all artists or associated with the arts – also felt in some way that ruins were an appropriate subject by which this strange new medium might demonstrate it’s status. Not apart, but part of an existing artistic lineage.

Jumping from photography’s distant past to its very present, while ‘ruin lust’ is an approximate translation of a German word it also calls to mind the unpleasant internet-ism, ‘ruin porn’. Pejoratively applied to photographs of dereliction produced by curious amateurs (no porno pun intended) and hard-core urban explorers alike, ruin porn is often empty, both literally, visually and also morally, philisophically. The abandoned city of Pripiyat in the exclusion zone of Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, is a case in point. A place so often photographed that it has become a defacto site of pilgrimage for photographers, oblivious or indifferent to the basic cruelty of returning as a tourist to a place from which so many remain forcibly excluded.

Perhaps the camera’s magnetic attraction to these sites and sights of desolation reflects the fact that the photograph itself has something of the sense of a ruin about it. A temporal paradox of sorts, the photograph is always a trace of the past which lingers on into the present. The decay it faces is less clearly physical (particularly in the age of digital media) but rather is interpretive. When viewing certain photographs I am often overwhelmed by the sense that I am looking at an impossibly incomplete fragment of something, a remains or leaving which can never be completed or restored, and the understanding of which will only erode further as time passes, and more knowledge of the thing depicted is lost.

The ruin then is an artistically and intellectually rich seam. The Tate’s show covers much ground but unfortunately sheds less light than it might have. It is for example hobbled rather by museum’s remit, which makes this predominantly an exhibition of British artists drawn from the Tate’s collection. Jane and Louise Wilson’s photographs of the bunkers of the Atlantikwall for example are no substitute for Paul Virilio’s earlier, more nuanced visual and textual musings on what J.G Ballard described as the leavings of ‘a race of warrior scientists, obsessed with geometry and death’. There is relatively little of the interpretation that Dillion can be so good at, and a rather random approach to curation, with some artists reoccurring almost to excess, others dissipating after one or two small pieces. Tacita Dean, for example, is afforded an entire section of the exhibition in a way which rather implies her work is a form of ruin itself.

It seems fitting though, if a little ironic, to focus on this subject matter in a city like London. On returning to city after the Second World War the travel writer H.V Morton evocatively described a conurbation composed almost entirely of ruins, inhabited by children who had only ever known it as such. For a surprisingly long time these derelicts persisted, the sites of bomb destroyed buildings remaining empty amongst rows of houses sometimes even for so long as to come within my own short living memory. The city’s recent development boom has seen the disappearance of probably all of these, and even of those great ruins that were long considered too complex or costly to demolish or develop are in danger. The monumental shell of Battersea Power Station, a mere bend of the river away from Tate Britain, is a case in point. After decades of dereliction it will in a few years be converted into a luxury block of flats. The ruin itself is being ruined.

Ruin Lust is on at Tate Britain until May 18th 2014.

The Limits of Editions

Detail showing Famine from Albrecht Dürer’s ‘The Revelation of St John: 4. The Four Riders of the Apocalypse’ woodcut, 1497-1498

Editioned prints are the norm in the art photography world, and are increasingly available from documentary photographers and even photojournalists. Despite this widespread use I find it a little troubling how few photographers have a rationale or explanation of why they practice editioning (besides the generally unspoken reason, that of money). Equally most that I’ve spoken to have very little sense of  the history of this practice. This post then is both an attempt to provide a little context and background, and also a little whinge at its ubiquity, a call for photographers to think twice, and to question the limitations of limited editions.

We tend to conceive of the mass production of art as a modern thing, something perhaps a couple of centuries old. The reality is not so, technologies for mass producing art have existed for thousands of years. Bronzes are perhaps the earliest art objects that could be created in significant quantity, woodcuts were another rather more recent method of reproduction, appearing in Europe around the twelfth century. Indeed in his oft quoted essay on the subject Walter Benjamin noted that it was possible to reproduce almost all works of art by hand, and that for a long time painters practiced this as a way to make more money, and to train apprentices.

The invention of printing technologies in the late medieval and early modern period offered a quicker means of reproducing two dimensional art than was possible by manual copying . Already mentioned were woodcuts, but from this came more sophisticated techniques like etching, engraving, dry point and finally lithography. These innovations drastically improved the quality of mass producible art works, from something which was a clear copy or evidently part of a larger production run, to something which was in some cases difficult to distinguish from the original artwork it was copied from.

As quality became an increasingly important element of the printing process it was recognised that there was a physical limitation on the number of good quality prints that could be made from a single plate. As a print was pressed it wore down and damaged the plate, reducing the fidelity of the image. Editions became important to preserve the integrity of the print quality, in other words to make sure printing ended before the plate become too worn, and numbering of prints was relevant because lower numbers in an edition were often likely to be of better quality, while higher ones were made when the plate was at its worst condition. The edition was enforced by the nature of product and production, not arbitrarily introduced by the producer.

Photography in some of its earliest formats (like a Daguerreotype or tintype) was as unreproducible as say an oil painting, it was a one off piece. Talbot’s negative process was an important exception. Technical and chemical innovations gradually made the photograph increasingly reproducible, to the point that this trait came to be regarded as one of the medium’s special abilities, alongside the way it seemingly sampled its image directly from the world itself. This reproducibility obviously came with its own problems, including arguably the loss of the aura that Benjamin suggested was possessed only by works of art that were one of a kind and impossible to reproduce.

This reproducibility has if anything become even more total than Benjamin could have imagined. One might be able to attach a limited lifespan (in a very broad sense) to a photographic negative, which however carefully kept is still prone to damage, loss. The same can’t be said of the digital equivalent, which undergoes no wear and tear, which can exist simultaneously on a thousand storage mediums and which will produce exactly the same print every time. It seems to me editioning at its most acceptable is just a rather futile attempt to counteract a technological trait which if anything ought to be embraced.

As I noted at the start the other, invariably unspoken, rationale is I suspect rather more sordid. It’s a question of money. I don’t really need to explain how this works, anyone with half an understanding of investment will know that people who invest want to put their money into a known variable, which is unlimited edition isn’t (it shows how far economic concerns have proliferated into the art world that even the most casual collectors are often seen as just that, investors). Again editioning only offers a rather illusory safeguard in this respect, the recent court case between William Eggleston and a major collector demonstrates that a number scrawled on the back of a print is a guarantee of nothing, and short of destroying the original source file or negative, all editions have the potential to be ‘reopened’ at a later date.

I appreciate that even considering the points I’ve made here, many photographers will still see editioning as key to the way they make and market their work. I should also say it’s an approach I still occasionally employ (although the last time it was on a project that was editioned because it was such a nightmare to make I wanted to make sure I didn’t have to produce too many). As ever I just wish there would be more consideration, more questioning of the status quo, and less of an assumption that ones work somehow stands in complete isolation from the preceding three thousand years of history.

In Praise of Writing


Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, Pieter Claeszoon, 1628

A few people have contacted me lately to ask for advice on getting started with writing and blogging, and I thought I might put a few thoughts together by way of response. It always surprises me how many people feel awkward, uncomfortable, and even excluded from writing, something I suspect lingers from the experience of being forced to put pen to paper at school. I want to offer some brief tips and ideas on how to restart writing if you have stopped, how to employ it as part of a creative practice, and also a small eulogy in praise of its amazing power to augment and develop your ideas.

I think the first and most important question to ask is why you want to write? This will shape so many other elements of what you do. For me it was first about escaping the tedium of a 9-5 job for a little while each day, it allowed me to think about the things I was more interested in, to engage in photography even when I was spending most of each day at a desk in a goldfish bowl of an office. Since then it has developed into a reflective process whereby I can sit down with ideas and issues that are occupying me, research them, question them, work through them, and hopefully come to some new understanding about them.

If you intend to publish (and you needn’t necessarily) another question is what your format will be. Blogging is preferable for a range of reasons (cost, distribution, potential audience) but equally has disadvantages in that the competition is similarly enormous, it’s a slow road to building an audience and it must be assumed that anything you write will be publicly accessible for the rest of time, so make sure they are not things that you might regret. Again with a blog the questions of why and how you write will help to shape the nature of what you post, the routine and myriad other factors. Even if you don’t intend to publish, it’s always worth showing what you produce to others to get feedback, identify what works and what doesn’t and incorporate this into future writing.

When it comes to actually writing, my recommendation would be to find a working space that suits you, and a soundtrack that does likewise. Again this is all very subjective, I find I often have my best ideas on public transport (so I always carry a notebook) and do my best writing first thing in the morning at my desk. In terms of background soundtrack I find perfect silence a bit of a nightmare, like standing in an anechoic chamber one is able to hear all one’s thoughts with a little too much clarity. Equally any sound with identifiable words can have the opposite effect, clouding and muddying thoughts and interfering with the process of writing. Instrumental music or the incoherent gabble of public spaces usually works best for me, see what does likewise for you.

The actual process of putting one word in front of another is again very much a matter of trial and error, a long term process of developing an authorial voice and a set of methods of inquiry that work for you and for your subject matter. Write for an audience real or imagined, tailor language and tone accordingly. Don’t be needlessly complex but equally don’t be afraid of using difficult language,  I’ve talked before about the danger of conflating needless pretentious, complex writing with writing which is legitimately difficult. Always be wary of the former, but never of the latter. Revel in words, get to know each of them and their unique shapes and nuances, read dictionaries, use theasarui, but equally remember a synonym is almost never a direct exchange for its apparent equal, and even functionally identical words often have different origins, associations, which play into how they are ultimately understood.

Reread and reread what you write, I’m terrible about this, but it’s the only way to pick up mistakes. In my experience writing rarely emerges fully formed, refine structure and generally try to improve a piece with each revisit. Similarly read and read, observe how other writers use language and construct arguments and allow their styles to influence you. Find writers who inspire you, who you can retreat to for confidence when times are difficult and inspiration is lacking. Reading what other writers have to say about writing can also be illuminating, for example Walter Benjamin’s thirtreen theses on writing are very much worth a read. They’re all brilliant and useful, for example number five ‘Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens’. But perhaps my favourite is the brilliant last one: ‘The work is the death mask of its conception.’

Most of all enjoy it. Writing should never be a chore, but as I said in the introduction I suspect the reason many people feel awkward about doing it is a husk of memory of having been forced to do so at school. I had a similar experience, and for a long time after I finished university I felt that I never wanted to write again, it was in fact part of the reason I decided I wanted to be a photographer. Gradually though the desire to write became unsuppressable, and in time it has become the invisible but vital skeleton that runs through all my practical work, informing and shaping the photographs I take long before I even reach for my camera. I hope you find it similarly useful.

The Right to Copy

Raoul Hausmann, Elasticum

This is part one of a double post on copyright, curation and photography, part two here.

The issue of appropriation art and copyright is one I’ve mulled on a lot, probably because it’s a device employed by many of the artists I admire, and because it underpins quite a sizeable chunk of my own creative practice. From the photomontages I made when I was first getting into photography through to my recent rehashing of Brecht’s much mutilated Kriegsfibel, I’ve always found something devilishly enticing about borrowing and reworking existing material, twisting it this way and that in order to make a new point.

And yet I’ve also found it devilishly problematic, because I’ve also had my work appropriated (although always by people trying to get a few hits or score a quick buck, not make an artistic point) and I know how unpleasant it can be to lose control of something you’ve created. Not long ago I wrote a short piece on this dichotomy of being both victim and perpetrator, and underlying this piece was the question of whether there are ever circumstances where it is acceptable to break copyright and use another person’s work without permission, an idea I want to explore a little more coherently here.

Most photographers I’ve spoken to seem to consider appropriation inherently wrong, that to use another person’s image without permission is never acceptable. By contrast appropriation as a creative technique is rather more readily accepted in the fine art world. I’ve pondered whether this might stem from photography’s innate reproducibility making any appropriation a greater challenge to the original ownership of the work. Where a painting or collage including appropriated material exists as a discrete object, and copies are usually quite obviously copies, the same perhaps cannot be said for a photograph that includes appropriated material, particularly where that material exists intact and unaltered.

It probably also reflects the fact there is more of an accepted tradition of appropriation in fine art, going back a century or more, of which the Dadaists are amongst the earliest and best known. In his 1931 essay Photomontage, Raoul Hausmann defined Dadaism as a form of cultural criticism, an interesting way I think of viewing all forms of appropriation, akin to quoting from visual culture as one quotes from a book. Equally from a moral standpoint I think somewhat similar rules should apply, where viable some degree of referencing should take place, credit should be given where it is due (although I’m not advocating that appropriated artworks should come with a mandatory bibliography).

In the art world there also seems to be rather more legal clarity about the acceptability of appropriation. Although I normally rather dislike TED videos (this is a pretty good summing up of the reasons) I stumbled across this rather interesting one Copyright and the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction given by Eric Doeringer, in which he makes the distinction between derivative and transformative appropriation. Derivative appropriation is rather straightforwardly enough where no significant change is made to the work, where profit is sought from the work as it already exists and where it’s final use evidently impacts the ability of the original creator to profit from their work. This is fairly self-evidently wrong.

The definitions of transformative appropriation are more unclear, but broadly speaking it is appropriation in which the work is changed to some extent. In the video Doeringer suggests Richard Prince’s appropriation of photographs from Patrick Cariou’s Yes, Rasta project as an interesting example of tranformative appropriation where the acceptability is muddy. In the ensuing court case Prince cited a defence of fair use, that he was making reference to Cariou rather than plagiarising his work. He was ruled against but subsequently appealed and won, setting what looks to be an interesting precedent. Legally speaking this case, and this video is in an American context, but it still looks to be an example worth noting for anyone working with appropriated material, wherever they are based.

The issue also with derivative versus transformative appropriation is that the distinction may not always be at all obvious, i.e. no transformative process might have taken place. The context in which work is placed can have as much bearing on the transformative quality of the appropriation as any physical alteration (Duchamp’s Fountain is an obvious example of this). Doeringer cites his own work, specifically The Bootleg Series, in which he produced cheap knock off versions of works by famous artists. Damien Hirst facsimiles that sell for a few dollars rather than thousands for example. The work is not substantially changed, but the idea of selling these prints on roadside stalls ‘like the guys selling fake Louis Vuitton handbags’ is central the the transformative aspect of his appropriation.

The title of Doeringer’s lecture is apt, but also misses a trick. We live not so much in an age of mechanical reproduction as one of electronic reproduction, and for photographers this fact is far more problematic than for non-digital artists. The need to maintain a certain level of profile in the online world, is offset by the ease with which one’s photographs can be downloaded and reused by someone else (the backlash over a recent government bill which seemed to relax copyright on ‘orphan’ photographs demonstrated just how contentious this is). In such a context I rather feel we are left with two responses. The first is a clampdown, to lobby for stricter copyright legislation, to sue digressers and punish them mercilessly. The music industry tried that and well, we know how that worked out.

The other option is to accept that the notion of rigidly enforced copyright is in some respects increasingly anachronistic, and to pursue copyright not in terms of a principle but in terms of practicalities. Some are already doing this, at Magnum’s recent AGM they announced they would no longer be chasing web users who posted Magnum copyrighted photographs on blogs. I’ve called on anyone who wants to download and appropriate my appropriation of someone else’s appropriation. We live in an age of constant rehashing, referencing, appropriation and jamming. Photographers are in many cases lagging behind this, and need to wake up and smell the copydex.

The Victory of Entropy

Accompanying my project about the reawakening of memory and history in the context of the Euro crisis is an essay consisting of twelve chapters on subjects ranging from the origins of nationalism to the nature of chance. Individually dealing with disparate subjects, the idea is that together they combine to pose questions about the nature of memory, history, photography and time. They are designed to be printed as separate unbound chapters, which can be shuffled and read in any sequence, further underlining the idea of chance and synchronicity in our understanding of the past. Here is one of several I will be publishing on the blog.

The Victory of Entropy

‘…knowledge comes only in lightning flashes,
the text is the long roll of thunder that follows’1
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

Ryounkaku tower, Japan’s first western style skyscraperTokyo 1923

Ryounkaku tower, Japan’s first western style skyscraper
Tokyo 1923

A key principle of modern physics is that, as time passes, disorder in a closed system increases irreversibly, the level of this disorder is known as entropy. Entropy can be reduced in an open system, for example by the act of arranging historical facts into chronological order entropy is reduced compared to if those facts were left unordered. However the act of ordering an open system only increases entropy in a bigger closed system, for example the universe, because the ordering those facts uses energy, creates noise, heat, produces waste and so on. This concept strangely both seems to confirm the view of time as linear because it rests on the concept of ‘the arrow of time’ that is that time is irreversible2  and at the same time seems to undermine the ideas of progress and order that are implicit in historicist views of linear time by refiguring time as a process of relentless decay.

Photography is an interesting example of some of these principles in action. Photography appears to offer a way to record and order the events of a seemingly chaotic world, but in doing so it increases that disorder. Photographic film is in a state of low entropy, but exposing it and developing it increases entropy through the expenditure of energy required to perform this act and because the relatively ordered physical structure of the film is replaced with the more disordered, silver halide crystals that appear as a result of the developing process.3  Similar issues effect a digital image, which although requiring less expenditure of energy produces vast quantities of information, perhaps thousands of pages of data per photograph. This effect becomes more profound over time, as image making proliferates and the volume of images increases. It has been estimated that as many photographs were taken in the whole of the nineteenth century as were taken last year.4

Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, a vast work on nineteenth-century Parisian shopping arcades, left incomplete at his death, offers similar insights into entropy and history. In writing The Arcades Project Benjamin was seeking to bring together the ‘refuse and detritus’5 of history and to explode ‘the nineteenth century’s conception of history [as] an endless series of facts congealed in the form of things’.6– In leaving the work incomplete he almost achieved this aim more effectively than if he had finished it, leaving behind him a work of a thousand pages of fragments, the remains of an unparalleled literary edifice, the very embodiment of the chaotic historical scrapheap he alluded to in his earlier works.

1 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Boston, 1988) p. 456
2 Huw Price, The Thermodynamic Arrow: Puzzles and Pseudo-Puzzles, accessed 3rd November 2012, available at
3 Robert Wright, The Entropy Distinction: or the Heat of the Moment, published 16th September 2006, accessed 6th November 2012, available at
4 Jonathan Good, How Many Photos Have Ever Been Taken? Published 15th September 2011, accessed 10th November 2012, available at
5 Foreword in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Boston, 1998) p. ix
6 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Boston, 1998) p. 14

The Scrapheap of Progress

Accompanying my project about the reawakening of memory and history in the context of the Euro crisis is an essay consisting of twelve chapters on subjects ranging from the origins of nationalism to the nature of chance. Individually dealing with disparate subjects, the idea is that together they combine to pose questions about the nature of memory, history, photography and time. They are designed to be printed as separate unbound chapters, which can be shuffled and read in any sequence, further underlining the idea of chance and synchronicity in our understanding of the past. Here is one of several I will be publishing on the blog.

The Scrapheap of Progress

‘Woe to the vanquished’1
Livy, Ab Urbe Condita

Göring, Heß, von Ribbentrop, and Keitel on trial Nuremberg, 1945-46

Göring, Heß, von Ribbentrop, and Keitel on trial
Nuremberg, 1945-46

History in the west has tended to be conceived of as a linear path of events progressing inexorably towards the future, an idea traceable at least as far back as ancient Greece.2 This view of history was attacked by Walter Benjamin in his essay, Theses on the Philosophy of History, written shortly before his death in 1940. In particular he criticised the tendency of historicists to use this view of time as progressively improving as a justification for death, destruction and suffering in the present as a necessary price to be paid for a future ‘paradise’.

Benjamin called for a return to a more metaphysical conception of history, using the Paul Klee etching Angelus Novus as a visual metaphor for the angel of history Benjamin wrote that, ‘Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet’.3  The Angel would like to reconstruct and make whole this destruction but ‘a storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress’.4

At the time this was read as a critique of the historical narratives deployed by totalitarian states, but the strength of Benjamin’s writing is that its crypticity allows it to be constantly reinterpreted and reinvented, for Benjamin’s ‘admonitions to come to life they must be critically rethought’.5 Baer for example reads the Theses as an ‘exhortation to rescue the dead from the clutches of the victorious’.6 A more literal reading of Benjamin’s metaphor might be that the scrapheap of history is just that, an almost meaningless pile of facts, their order and their very survival no evidence of their historical significance.

Historians, in turn, are like tinkers scavenging through the remains for anything that appeals to their individual fetishes. The scrapheap is still subject to the relentless storm of progress, which as well as continuing to pile on new material, potentially burying earlier strata of time, is continuously altering the substance and meaning of what is already there. A historical fact or artifact unearthed today is almost always viewed in an entirely different context to that of its making, and while historians attempt to understand these objects in terms of their past, elements of that context will be irretrievably lost or distorted by the knowledge of the present.

1 Titus Livius Patavinus, Ab Urbe Condita, Book V, avaliable at
2 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 3
3 Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt (London, 1999) p. 249
4 Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt (London, 1999) p. 249
5 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 128
6 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 128