Three Cheers for Mr. Yo Kaminagai

 

Open platforms were a civilizing influlence, too

Open platforms were a civilizing influence, too

A little while ago I published here a little musing about the elegant human-scale double-ting that Paris buses make when in proximity with pedestrians. Today, the letter that I print below arrived, and I think it’s a delight. I’m grateful to Song Phanekam for taking the trouble to write, and to write so well. I like the way the blog has actually done what the internet js supposed to do, which is put people in touch who might otherwise not have any connection.

I must admit, I’m also amused that such a little thing as a double-ting is just as worthy of thinking about as weightier design.

So much so, that I propose, if somebody will sponsor it properly, to start a prize. It will be in honour of Mr. Kaminagai, and it will be awarded to designers or engineers who make or have made big improvements to life with very small inexpensive but thoughtful adjustments.  Because you know what?  A bus that modestly tings pedestrians out of its way is a civilizing influence on the city, and we need more of those.

 

Enjoy the letter; the author has kindly given me the go-ahead to reprint.

 

 

 

Dear Francis,

I just ran into your website after doing some research on Google about sound design… and I read your post <http://francishodgson.com/2013/11/18/small-noises-designing-for-people/>

Actually, I am in charge of the sound design of the automated audio passenger information systems at RATP. Reading posts like yours encourages me to keep RATP on that track!

I do agree with you, the small details in design can make the difference, as long as they have a purpose! Often, people would think that my job is to add sounds everywhere! Actually I screen every request in order to put the most appropriate sounds at the most relevant moments. And the most important thing: giving a sense of storytelling!

In many transport agencies, the audio announcements are way too numerous. For instance, I do love the London Tube, but the constant announcements is somewhat annoying and irritating… Based on many observations throughout the world, we came up with a very simple solution that you described very well in your post.

We have also banned unnecessary announcements such as ‘the next station is…’ (of course it is the next station, it will not be the one after that) or even any interchange information! We have quickly realised that most passengers have planned ahead their route: they know at which station to get off (to exit or to change). Therefore, the station name was considered as the most valuable information: hearing its name is enough to remind someone to alight.

And next time you will visit the Paris metro, you will notice that the voice you can hear on board is not the same depending of the line you use. As each line is color coded, we found that it would be adequate to have a different voice for each line. A way of creating a strong sound identity for each line, helping the visually impaired (and finally everyone) to recognise their favourite routes.

Regarding the bell designed for the bus, I have nothing more to say, you perfectly captured the meaning of that specific design!

Again, thank you for your article! I have added in cc. Mr Yo Kaminagai, who had first the idea of the station announcements with two inflections and the bus warning signal when he was in charge of design management at RATP. You have now the answer to your final question of your article!

Best regards,

Song Phanekham

Corporate visual identity | Corporate sound design

RATP

 

[The RATP is the Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens, the Paris transport authority]

Making It Up Is So Very Hard To Do

 All people know the same truth. Our lives consist of how we choose to distort it.

Woody Allen, Deconstructing Harry

It may be eccentric to draw attention to a show that has been open some time; all I can say is that the show Making It Up: Photographic Fictions has got remarkably little coverage and deserves plenty.

Making It Up is apparently no more than a pleasant little show in the old photography display space at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It brings together images from the museum’s own holdings of every period of photography which – as its title indicates – either aim at something other than the ‘truth’ or use non-‘true’ methods to make their points.  So we have a number of beautiful mainstream pictures:  a classic Gregory Crewdson, for example, called Temple Street (2006) in which a woman pauses chopping wood in the snowy dusk of a suburban clapboard community.  The lighting (electric light just beginning to hold its own against the darkening night), the snow, the slightly menacing stare of the woman who looks at the camera as at an intruder; all these add up to a suggestion of a story.  More than that: the very fact of the photograph suggests there was a story worth telling.  Crewdson’s trick is to invite us to dive headlong into a picture on the assumption that there must be a story where there may be no more than our own desire to see one.

Gregory Crewdson, (Temple Street); Beneath the Roses, 2006.

Gregory Crewdson, (Temple Street); Beneath the Roses, 2006.

In Victorian times, both the methods and the purposes could be very different.  Artful posing, liberal use of the dressing-up box, and leadingly significant captions were the standard tools of such ‘allegorical’ photographers as Clementina Hawarden or Julia Margaret Cameron.  Collage in its various forms is largely present in this exhibition, as one might expect.  Beyond the simple fiction of an untrue caption, it makes the plainest kind of non-true photograph. The sumptuous moralizing multiple-negative confection of Oscar Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life is here, in a later (1876) copy by Robert Crawshay, complete with its ponderously virtuous caption.  When (in 1986) Andy Weiner collaged his own face onto a number of mildly comedic scenes, he made his own Rake’s Progress from pub to bed.  Weiner made no pretence at seamlessness:  we are asked to share the joke, not to be taken in by it.  To that extent, Weiner had then much in common with such non-photographic artists as Graham Rawle or Glen Baxter.  They, too, put themselves alongside their viewers, to laugh at the absurdity of the world together.  In photography, it is the very habit of realism which makes anything unrealistic so seductive.

Graham Rawle, Lost Consonants #876, 2004

Graham Rawle, Lost Consonants #876, 2004

So the great photographic storyteller Duane Michals is represented here by a little 1972 narrative in six parts.  Two men cross in an alley.  Each looks back at the other as they pass, but they do so at different times and no meeting takes place.  We think we are seeing a report; it even looks (in modern terms) as though it could have been made by the regular rhythmic discharge of a security camera.  But it’s a fiction, as neatly made as a Borges short story, and just as tantalizing at the end.

Duane Michals, Chance Meeting 1972

Duane Michals, Chance Meeting 1972

So the exhibition goes on, piling non-truth upon untruth in profusion.  There is a moderate suburban corner which looks just not quite right.  It’s a (2000) paper model by Oliver Boberg of a very non-space kind of space, Notown, Nowhere, photographed to look like a real place.  The connections with that other great model-maker, Thomas Demand, are obvious; but the connections with a whole register of pop music or film may be more important.    Contrast it to a photograph of a developer’s model of some new flats by Xing Danwen (2005).

Xing Danwen, Urban Fiction #23, 2005

Xing Danwen, Urban Fiction #23, 2005

The artist has digitally inserted herself on the balcony nearest us, hurrying her nude male visitor away over a wall as a gentleman who might be the husband appears in the dark street below.  Here’s a changing room by Bridget Smith (1999) with a couple of squash rackets on the wall, a different kind of neutral space.  You have to read the museum caption to discover that it is in fact a set from a pornographic film.

Bridget Smith, Glamour Studio (Locker Room), 1999

Bridget Smith, Glamour Studio (Locker Room), 1999

False readings, false suppositions, false extrapolations; sometimes people simply make false photographs, too. A few of those are here, including a famous set of salt prints made by advertising photographer Howard Grey in response to a commission from The Connoisseur magazine in 1981, purportedly to ‘test’ the connoisseurship in early photography.  The V&A’s own Mark Haworth-Booth was taken in by those, at least at first.  Howard Grey worked closely with the painter Graham Ovenden, and the Hetling fakes which they concocted together are closely allied to the group of Howard Grey images here.   Roger Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death certainly wasn’t a fake; a famous picture from the Crimean war (1854-5) showing just how absurd it would have been to try to ride horses through a rain of cannonballs; but like the American Civil War photographers of the same period, Fenton was not above moving the elements of the picture to make his point the stronger.  In this case, there are known variants of the picture with the cannonballs and without.

There is wonderful variety in this exhibition, of intention as well as of technique.  There’s a photographic Chinese scroll by Wang Qingsong, complete with red signature-stamp in the corner.  Jan Wenzel makes lightning rearrangements in a photo-booth and then builds the strips up to a coherent whole.

Vik Muniz, Action Photo I (After Hans Namuth) - Pictures of Chocolate, 1997

Vik Muniz, Action Photo I (After Hans Namuth) – Pictures of Chocolate, 1997

Vik Muniz’ 1997 action shot of Jackson Pollock (after Hans Namuth) is made in chocolate sauce, and his sheer virtuoso confidence in that most unusual of media is itself staggering.  Tom Hunter’s use of heavily romantic imagery taken from art history to portray a marginalized group of Londoners is a complex play of allusion and reference far, far from simple reportorial fact.

Tom Hunter, The Vale of Rest (2000), from Life and  Death in Hackney.

Tom Hunter, The Vale of Rest (2000), from Life and Death in Hackney.

Jeff Wall is more like a theatre director, Hannah Starkey perhaps closer to a balladeer.  Cindy Sherman’s strange mixture of self-portraiture, social anthropology and sheer good humour is as compelling as ever.

H Starkey, Untitled, May 1997

H Starkey, Untitled, May 1997

These artists and photographers don’t necessarily have all that much in common. And that’s the point.  There has for nearly a hundred years been an insistence that a certain kind of objectivity is the proper stance for the camera.  A modernistic look, stripped back, emphasizing by isolation and by composition, and adhering purportedly to a version of the truth.  It was a political stance at first, a reaction against the failed mannerisms and mawkish sentimentalism of Pictorialism, and it was intimately tied to a view of the world in which the documentary was properly a tool of the Left.  But here’s a splendidly vigorous exhibition which reminds us that it was never the whole picture.

Photography can be and has often been as mannered and as Rococo as any other art form, and that on its own is no reason to reject it.  I saw in a recent paper that the great and sometimes austerely modernist composer George Benjamin had just got another rave review for his opera Written on Skin; nothing inherently modernist about opera, you would have thought.   There are good, even great Rococo photographs just as there are wholly meretricious modernist ones.  Photography certainly can deal in fact and science and truth.  But it can also deal admirably in opinion and allegory and metaphor.  It’s that side of photography that we saw so much of at the latest edition of Frieze, for it’s back in the ascendant again.  Was it this year or last year that I became so enthused by Marcus Coates’ wonderful British Moths?  They’re factual, sure enough.  But also so much more than that. Come to think of it, there seems to be something in the wind. Just now, we have Hannah Höch showing at the Whitechapel, Mari Mahr and William Burroughs at the Photographers’ Gallery.  Bits of their pictures come from bits of the real, no doubt.  But not one of them would deign to limit themselves to that.  Great photographers don’t, and why should they?

Mari Mahr, From Presents for Susana, 1985

Mari Mahr, From Presents for Susana, 1985

We’ve had the rise and rise of John Stezaker, Maurizio Anzeri, Julie Cockburn… Capital fiddlers, all of them. The most successful photographers in Britain at the moment are probably Gilbert and George, for whom the plain photographic fact has never been more than a jumping off point for the stories they want to tell.

It has always been possible to fiddle about with photographs; more than that, NOT fiddling about has in the past always been a self-conscious and political gesture.  Hence the (often spurious) claims to objectivity of such as the f64 tendency.  But something has changed.  Because millions or billions of unvarnished pictures are made and uploaded every day, their selective and expressive content very much limited to when to fire the camera and in what basic direction, it has become imperative for photographers to reclaim the act of photographing.  It comes down again to a distinction I have mentioned here before.  Simply to go to a party with an iPhone and take pictures and post them on the internet does not make you a photographer.  Nor does using a camera every day to record people parked on yellow lines. We need another word for that, and I’ve been using the expression ‘camera operator’.  Photographers are different.  They want to use photography to say whatever it is they have to say. It’s not always the truth that photographers tell; it’s their truth.  Increasingly, the camera operators are the ones who are content for the picture to say “it was so”.

The photographers have reclaimed the territory that was always more fertile, of reference and argument and persuasion and imagination and narrative, not to mention poetry and allusion.  “Maybe it wasn’t so, but this is what I want to say about it.”  That’s a wholly proper photographic sentiment, just as it has always been perfectly proper in every other medium. It is because it tracks that sentiment so well and so far back that this unassuming little show in a back gallery at the V&A is so important.  Marta Weiss, the curator, may just have pointed out that a tide has changed without our noticing.  It may just be that merely to tell the truth in a photograph has finally become as worthy and as ultimately dull as merely to tell it in any other way.  Every truth has been told.  The truth is no longer enough.

A lot of art students over the years have unearthed Diderot’s message to the artist (not least because it was quoted to telling effect by Walter Friedlander, in a book so famous that even some art students still read it, David to Delacroix): “First move me, astonish me, break my heart, let me tremble, weep stare, be enraged – only then regale my eyes”.  You could reshape it now for the generation who want to be photographers beyond merely posting stuff online as it comes out of some image capturing system: “First move me, astonish me, break my heart, let me tremble, weep, stare, be enraged – only then tell me the truth”.

A Near Approach to Greatness: Meet Victor Albert Prout

Victor Albert Prout. Pangbourne, Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Pangbourne, Before 1862.
Courtesy Hulton Archive.

A few months ago I had again the pleasure of spending a day at the Hulton archive in West London, the former Hulton Picture Library, long since a part of Getty Images. There I was introduced by Sarah McDonald, the curator of the archive, to a series, unfamiliar to me, of panoramic views of the Thames by Victor Albert Prout, a photographer I’d heard of but only barely. A single picture from the Thames series is reproduced in the first volume of Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s the Photobook: A History[i], for example. I’d seen that and vaguely remembered having done so and it was easy to find again. But I liked the pictures in the Hulton Archive very much and kept them both in mind and on my iPhone. So I was pleased recently when the British Photographic History blog carried a small announcement that Joan Osmond, a direct descendant of Victor Prout, had produced a biographic volume[ii] which would shed more light on the little-known author of this fine series of pictures.

The Thames From London to Oxford in Forty Photographs was published by Virtue and Company in London in 1862. There was a second issue with only thirty-six images. A number of odd pictures exist which clearly relate to the series but were not included in the edition, among them the illustrated picture from a lot offered but unsold at Christie’s New York in 2002[iii], which itself seems to be perhaps the one Mrs. Osmond describes as “recently come to light in Australia[iv]“. A number of private and institutional holdings exist with variant collections, and Mrs. Osmond has published a partial list of these. I was surprised that she makes no mention of the Getty holdings, but then she makes no claim to the completeness of her listing.

Victor Albert Prout. Water Oakley, Near Windsor, Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Water Oakley, Near Windsor, Before 1862.
Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout Twickenham, before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout
Twickenham, Before 1862.
Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout. Marlow, Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Marlow, Before 1862.
Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout. Hampton Court, Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Hampton Court, Before 1862.
Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout Henley-on-Thames, Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout
Henley-on-Thames, Before 1862.
Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout. Day's Lock, Before 1862. courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Day’s Lock, Before 1862.
courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout. Boat House, Park Place, Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Boat House, Park Place, Before 1862.
Courtesy Hulton Archive.

There was apparently a time when it was possible to think that these pictures might be by Roger Fenton. Mrs. Osmond has unearthed a piquant correspondence between Roger Hannavy, Gail Buckland, and Roger Pratt from 1974, in which the authorship of Prout is definitely established. This is in part because a Mrs. Eleanor Andrews gave a set of forty of the prints to the Royal Photographic Society in 1973. Mrs. Andrews was Mrs. Osmond’s mother, and her dry account is simply this: “In the autumn [of 2010] I went to Bradford to the National Media Museum to see if their album was the one my mother had given away (without telling any of us) and, as I expected, it was[v].” Out of such lasting family resentments are things like biographies made.

It has to be admitted in the first place that the Thames views are by far the most successful pictures by Prout to have survived. A series on Westminster Abbey and another on some jollities at Mar Lodge, Braemar, in 1863 are decent in their way but not scintillating. A number of cartes-de-visite and theatrical studies make up the rest of the Prout oeuvre from Britain and these hardly step out of the middle rank. The public clearly thought so, for Victor Prout in spite of some periods of success, had a restless commercial career and appeared a number of times in the bankruptcy courts. In Australia (for Prout emigrated there like his father, although both came back after a time) he still found great success elusive – his work is traceable but hardly distinguished.

That might lead to a question in its own right. How does a photographer rise above his own level to produce something once in a while of greater merit? For the Thames From London to Oxford really is a very good series of pictures. Parr and Badger put it this way: ”While their possible technique is of interest, what is much more important is how good they are as pictures. … Thanks to the incessant horizontality of its banks, a river is an ideal subject for the panoramic photograph, yet although the picture form is there ‘naturally’, so to speak, Prout still had to make the best of it. And it can be concluded that he did, usually managing to find a vertical element just where he needed it to counteract the ruthless horizontal[vi].” Parr and Badger go on to use the expression “consistently attractive” to describe these pictures and they are.

Some of the clues are in Joan Osmond’s new book. For if Victor Prout is a notch below the greatest photographers by genius or by subject matter, he presents a very powerful study in links and connections. His great-uncle was Samuel Prout, a fine watercolour artist of whom Ruskin was a considerable fan. “Sometimes I tire of Turner, but never of Prout” Ruskin is supposed to have said[vii]. His father was John Skinner Prout, a landscape painter who emigrated to Australia when Victor was a child. It does seem that landscape is the stuff that Victor Prout knew best.

Skinner Prout was not just any landscape specialist. Back from Australia in 1850 he had exhibited a diorama of his travels at the Western Literary Institute in Leicester Square. Joan Osmond quotes the Art Journal: “A series of views from sketches made in Australia by Mr. Prout…. They comprise the principal points of attraction in the Colony and show the peculiar features of its landscape scenery which in some instances is very characteristic and beautiful. The views of the penal settlements exhibit the peculiarities of convict life in all its distressing forms, and the anecdotes with which the lecturer enlivens his local information tend towards the clearer comprehension of the same phase of society[viii].“ The diorama may seem lame entertainment now, with our all-singing, all dancing fully interactive immersive entertainment – although I like the idea of the whole auditorium turning slowly as a single operative cranked a handle to make the spectators face a new part of the picture, or a part already seen differently lit. But you only need to cast your mind back to the popularity of slide shows as late as the 1960s to get some idea of how successful a diorama might be. The most famous diorama man, at least to modern audiences versed in the history of photography, was Daguerre himself. His circular building in London remains between Regent’s Park, the Euston Road and Albany Street, and the showy lettering announcing it is still legible on a high pediment in Park Square East. There is an excellent description of the working of the London Diorama in John Timbs’ Curiosities of London[ix].

Skinner Prout had to perform his diorama, a cross between a master-of-ceremonies and a voice-over, twice a day and it ran for six months in Leicester Square. From 1852 he reprised it at an address of considerable significance: 309 Regent Street. This was the address of the Royal Polytechnic Institute (founded 1838) which contained a number of interesting attributes, including a suite of photographic studios originally set up by Daguerre’s licensee Richard Beard. Again, Skinner Prout had to be physically present at every performance. A colleague of Skinner Prout’s there was a cousin, Samuel Prout Newcombe. And he’s another interesting connection.

By the census of 1861, three Newcombe brothers were earning their livings as professional photographers[x]. It’s not such a famous name any more, but the Newcombes were close to the centre of the boom in photography in the London of the 1850s. Samuel Prout Newcombe owned a chain of photographic portrait studios, and also owned several branches of the London School of Photography, including the headquarters which were at that very same 309 Regent Street address as the Polytechnic. His brother, Charles Newcombe was first assisted by and then a partner of Victor Prout’s brother Edgar, who eventually bought out [Charles] Newcombe’s share in their Regent Street studio.

The Prouts and the Newcombes, a numerous clan of largely Kentish Town, Camden Town and Islington minor entrepreneurs, were intimately connected by family and by financial links, and they were right at the core of the boom that took place when Richard Beard’s patent on the daguerreotype ran out in 1849. That release, plus Eugène Disdéri’s invention of the multiple-lens camera which allowed the full exploitation of the carte-de-visite format (from 1854, a little later in England), plus Frederick Scott Archer’s collodion process of 1851 together made all the difference between photography remaining an interesting operation for amateur gentlemen and becoming the roaring world-wide trade that it did. To quote David Simkin again: “At the time of the 1851 census, less than a dozen inhabitants of London described themselves as professional photographers (described variously on census returns as ‘Photographer’, ‘Photographic Artist’, ‘Daguerreotype Artist’ and ‘Talbotype Artist’). By 1855, there were over a hundred establishments in London producing photographic likenesses. An analysis of the 1861 census returns for London revealed that there were 284 persons working as photographic artists in the capital[xi].” Many of these were up and down Regent Street (indeed the street now called Glasshouse Street is said to be so named because of the large number of daylight studios built on the roofs in this period to satisfy the burgeoning demand mainly for portraiture.) Right in the eye of that hurricane, taking risks and learning new tricks that they hoped would sell, were a cluster of Prout and Newcombe cousins, allying with each other or separating as the vagaries of family history and trade dictated.

Victor Prout was 15 when he assisted his father in working the diorama in Leicester Square. Between then and his early twenties, photography looked like a business in which it might be easy to succeed (although we know that dozens in fact failed). If one had no artistic talent he might get by on technical improvements of one kind or another, or might simply move to territories less overcrowded with photographic establishments than Regent Street. Victor Prout did both of those things.

Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, contemplating the curious shape of Victor Prout’s Thames pictures, said this: “The origins of photography lie in the world of the diorama, a cross between art and spectacle where the world was depicted in what today would be called a ‘wide-screen’ manner. Many panoramas were created simply by photographing consecutive images and joining them together, but there were also attempts to make cameras that would produce wide-vision images using a lens that swung round and ‘scanned’ progressive sections of the picture plane…It is not certain whether Prout used one of the ‘Pantoscope’ panoramic cameras patented by John Johnson and John Harrison that same year [1862] but they were not ‘joined’ panoramas. They display the kind of perspective that that suggests that they were taken with a swinging lens ­– that is to say, a genuine panoramic camera[xii].”

Yes, indeed.

It turns out that Prout was more than a little inclined to invention. Mrs. Osmond reprints Patent B1009 of 8th April 1865[xiii], in which Prout protects his improvements in the matter of panoramic cameras. A clockwork timing mechanism seems neat but not necessarily essential. But Prout seems also to have worked on improving the shutter mechanism to control the exposure given to various parts of the plate, and notably to have turned his mind to a system of screens designed to allow the sky and the foreground to be exposed together without overexposure of the sky. The date is after the publication of the Thames pictures, but the patent makes it perfectly clear that Prout’s experience of panoramas had led him to certain advantages which he wanted to defend against others. The suggestion is less that of an artist wandering along the banks than of a commercial operator seeking to press home his Unique Selling Point.

Later, in Australia (he had accompanied his parents to Australia from 1840-1848, and returned there on his own account from 1866 – 1875, during the first part of which period he was associated with the Freeman Brothers photographic firm of Sydney), Victor Prout is credited with introducing both a type of enamelled photograph and the autotype to Australia[xiv]. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald announcing his arrival in Australia in 1866 said this of the Thames pictures: “the tranquil side-angle views were made with a special panoramic camera made for Prout by London opticians Ross & Co.[xv]“ It is hard to see who could have furnished that detail in Australia other than Prout himself. He even fiddled with that camera, it seems: the Photographic News some years later, in 1886, described the panoramic views made by Mr. Prout “by means of an instrument recently invented by that gentleman, the novel principle of which is that it travels on a central point, so that a much larger range of vision can be included than by ordinary photographic apparatus.” Again and again, in a career with notable variations between success and its opposite, a technical advance was not to be overlooked if it could lead to a commercial advantage. That last improvement, described only nearly ten years after Prout’s death, seems to be the nearest we will get to Parr & Badger’s conclusion from the prints themselves that Prout used a true panoramic camera.

So a picture is beginning to build up, of a man connected by family both to the old artistic trades, and to photography, the booming new upstart in the visual arts. A man quick to make business decisions and partnerships, and a man for whom success was perpetually just around the corner. Energetic, optimistic, technically bold, prepared to go where the money led, Victor Prout seems to me to have more of the enterprising, even pioneering spirit about him than we are used to associating with commercial photographers. That was then, of course. The whole business was a pioneering one then.

Victor Albert Prout. Halliford (detail). Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Halliford (detail). Before 1862.
Courtesy Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum

Victor Albert Prout. Hampton Court (detail). Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Hampton Court (detail). Before 1862.
Courtesy Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

Victor Albert Prout. Iffley Mill (detail). Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Iffley Mill (detail). Before 1862.
Courtesy Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

Victor albert Prout. Pangbourne, Second View (detail). Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor albert Prout.
Pangbourne, Second View (detail). Before 1862.
Courtesy Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

Victor Albert Prout. Windsopr (detail). Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Windsor (detail). Before 1862.
Courtesy Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

The river views are pioneering in their way. It turns out that Victor Prout devised a darkroom-punt and propelled himself about in that. It can be seen in many of the pictures, a curious vessel with a curved roof, like a shepherd’s hut with water where there are more usually wheels. That seems pretty original and daring. It recurs in enough of the pictures that it becomes almost a character in the journey up the Thames. It is often accompanied by a less idiosyncratic skiff which seems to have been the lighter, more manoeuvrable runabout on the trip. A number of people recur, too, and Joan Osmond had good fun trying to identify who they might be.

Yet the river views are only pioneering in one sense. The Thames has been an obvious subject for as long as London has been a city. Even the peregrination upriver, which became so popular a weekend outing in the last years of the nineteenth century, as recorded, for example, in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, was by no means a new thought when Victor Prout made it. Turner, that most watery of artists, was seemingly forever wandering up and down the Thames. Several of the great sketchbooks in the Turner bequest are on the river, incredibly light, fast sketches of the trip down river from London to the estuary, or upstream on occasion, too. And of course, the natural shape of Turner’s sketchbooks is a landscape format, not quite panoramic, but it fits the river very well.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 1851)  Thames at Richmond From Thames Sketchbook,  Turner Bequest CCXII Date c.1825 Courtesy Tate

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 1851)
Thames at Richmond
From Thames Sketchbook,
Turner Bequest CCXII
Date c.1825
Courtesy Tate

Prout would not have known Turner’s sketches. But topographic views of the river scenery were not rare, and presumably he felt that they represented a market. A commission that came to nothing first suggested the notion to him: according to Mrs. Osmond, he was invited to provide the illustrations for a Thames book that was eventually published in 1859 with no contribution from him[xvi]. He must have been working on the river at the same time as Whistler, whose early beautiful Thames views date from 1859 (although, again, Whistler wasn’t able to publish them until 1871).

James McNeill Whistler. Thames Warehouses, 1859. Reproduced from Cooke, Gordon, Whistler on the Thames, Fine Art Society, 2013

James McNeill Whistler.
Thames Warehouses, 1859.
Reproduced from Cooke, Gordon, Whistler on the Thames, Fine Art Society, 2013

James McNeill Whistler. Old Westminster Bridge, 1859. Reproduced from Cooke, Gordon, Whistler on the Thames, Fine Art Society, 2013

James McNeill Whistler.
Old Westminster Bridge, 1859.
Reproduced from Cooke, Gordon, Whistler on the Thames, Fine Art Society, 2013

But the long thin format applied to the river was nothing new.

Thomas Stothard, Battersea Reach, no date.

Thomas Stothard, Battersea Reach, no date.

Blake’s friend Thomas Stothard’s lovely view of Battersea Reach is undated but the artist died in 1834, before Victor Prout was born.

So Prout may not have been wildly original. Yet he manages to find enough variety of composition never to become dull. His horizons are always neatly broken up, and the river is never merely a pale plane in the foreground. There is an anecdotal charm in the pictures beyond mere topographical grace; they look like a sequential narrative. As viewers, we want to be moving upstream with the artist.

Victor Albert Prout. Kew Ait, Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Kew Ait, Before 1862.
Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Only one of the Thames views departs from the supple formula of the river view that Prout managed so well. In Kew Ait a pensive mid-Victorian gentleman sits on the gunwale of a trading barge aground in the middle of a wood. No sky, no dreamy river in the foreground, no tops of trees to animate the scene, no attractive villas or bridges to distract the eye. It’s just a boat going nowhere. Exposures were long then; surely this is Prout himself, hurrying in front of the camera and allowing himself just one moment of self-awareness in his headlong search for a place and a business and a medium to call his own. Poor Victor Prout, a boat going nowhere.

With these river views, Victor Prout so nearly made it. That they are charming and technically able no one disputes. That they surpass anything else the artist managed is an oddity, but they do. Mark Haworth-Booth wrote a whole book[xvii] about one of Camille Silvy’s river views and that led him many years later to write another book making quite large claims about the artist’s whole career. I don’t think we can without hyperbole place Victor Prout that high. Silvy was an industrial success far beyond Prout – selling, for example, 20,000 copies of a carte-de-visite of the soprano Adelina Patti. He was also a more varied and frankly more successful artist. But the parallels are there all the same: Silvy, too, was an improver/inventor of photographic processes, and he, too, found the going very hard at the end of the boom in cartes-de-visite towards the end of the 1860s. There is a sad personal parallel, too. Camille Silvy was prostrated at the end of his life by some kind of psychosis and spent many years locked under supervision. Victor Prout came back from Australia raving so badly from the madness known then as General Paralysis of the Insane (the tertiary stage of syphilis) that he had at one time on the voyage to be tied to the mast of his ship. He died in April 1877 at the Sussex Lunatic Asylum in Haywards Heath. In the Thames pictures he left one high quality series, the one of his life. It’s enough.


[i] Parr, Martin and Gerry Badger, The Photobook: A History, published by Phaidon, London, 2004. Vol 1., p.67 and ill.

[ii] Osmond, Joan, Victor Albert Prout; A Mid-Victorian Photographer 1835 -1877, published by J& J Osmond, London, 2013

[iii] Christie’s New York: Tuesday, February 19, 2002 , Sale of Photographs, Lot 00607

[iv] Osmond, op cit, p. 87.

[v] Osmond, op cit, p. 14.

[vi] Parr & Badger , ad loc cit

[vii] Quoted by Joan Osmond at p. 22 from Lockett, Richard, Samuel Prout 1783-1852, p. 94

[viii] Osmond, op cit, p.31

[ix] John Timbs, Curiosities of London, first publ. 1855 by David Bogue. Cited in a later edition by Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer, (London, 1868), where the relevant passage is at p. 307-8.

[x] I am indebted for this fact to Photohistory-sussex.co.uk. David Simkin’s amazing repository of facts about photography, which stretches far, far beyond the name in its original remit.

Cf Photohistory-sussex.co.uk/Hastings_Newcombe.html, [accessed 4 November 4, 2013], for full details on the Newcombe photographic clan.

[xi] Simkins, as above.

[xii] Parr and Badger, ad loc cit.

[xiii] Osmond op cit p. 235

[xiv] [Webb, David] The Database of 19th Century Photographers and Allied Trades in London: 1841-1900, accessed via the PhotoLondon website on 4 November 2013. http://www.photolondon.org.uk/pages/details.asp?pid=6308

[xv] Osmond, p.79.

[xvi] Mr. & Mrs. S.G. Hall, The Book of The Thames From its Rise to its Fall, Charlotte James Publishers, 1859. Osmond, op cit, p.65.

[xvii] Mark Haworth-Booth, Camille Silvy, ‘River Scene, France’, Getty Trust Publications, California, 1992

Hey Charlie – Harry Cory Wright and the Localist Tradition

Harry Cory Wright.  The Field, 2012.

Harry Cory Wright.
The Field, 2012.

The story is really very simple. You either get it or you don’t.

Harry Cory Wright’s mother died and the family decided they could not hold on to the house she had lived in. So a fifty-year connection with a place was severed, and Cory Wright (or more properly, all the mind-map of people connected with his family and with the house) would have to make do with frozen aging memory instead of the constant refreshment of a place that changes each time it is revisited.

But Harry Cory Wright is one of the great landscape photographers in Britain now. His commitment to place is far stronger than that of most of us. He understands the world and comments on it mainly through his sensitivity to place. No doubt there is something in that fifty-year anchorage in one particular spot that nurtured in him a confidence that place mattered. Perhaps it was just something about the place in question. It was a house called Tilhill, on the River Wey, near Farnham, in Surrey. I know that because Cory Wright has posted it on his blog, Sense of Place, where he has been tersely but movingly clear about this present series of pictures.

The blog is much more intimate and much more revealing than the essentially non-textual booklet that accompanies the show. I was surprised, because I thought of Cory Wright as a Norfolk photographer, and so he is. But the place we call home is not necessarily the place we live. It is perfectly easy to identify and gurn and gawp at the house itself on Rightmove (a property website) and to zoom and pry by Google satellite view over the very clearings and curves of the river that appear in the pictures. I wouldn’t have done it had I not known the house was sold. But landscape photography used to be about places we hadn’t been nor could easily get to. Now, inevitably, whatever else it does, it contains also an invitation that we can take up without leaving our chairs.

Cory Wright used to work only with vast cumbersome plate cameras. I don’t know if his were proper old-school things of mahogany and brass, but they were certainly the descendants of those. Those are slow machines, and Cory Wright was a slow-picture man, a man prepared to wait all night in a winter marsh just in case the dawn did something important as it lightened. Now he can use digital like everybody else, but he prefers the method which allows pictures to seep into the camera one very slow view at a time. A man like that was not built to leave a place that mattered so much to him and for so long without doing something about it.

Hey Charlie is the result.

Harry Cory Wright. First Smoke Flare into Alder, 2012

Harry Cory Wright.
First Smoke Flare into Alder, 2012

Harry Cory Wright Fishing Bend and Candlelight, 2012

Harry Cory Wright.
Fishing Bend and Candlelight, 2012

Harry Cory Wright and his brother Charlie and a pyrotechnics expert called Bryan quartered the ground he knew so well setting off sparks and flames but mainly smoke. Sparks are up and down, gone at fast, fast shutter speeds. But smoke is another matter. Smoke has been used for years in the theatre and cinema to convey something which translates appropriately as ‘atmosphere’. It writhes and roils and lingers a long time. It becomes a sensible transcription of the thickness of the air itself. It’s in books, too. You can’t imagine the Hound of the Baskervilles or Pip Gargery on the marshes terrified out of his wits by Magwitch without curling tendrils of wet smoke. Fog, murk, haar, mist… we have a lot of words for that stuff in our little island in the Atlantic, and not surprisingly so. All of them imply a shifting relation with place. At sea, particularly, but also on moors, the fog plays eerie tricks on the mind.

Surrey is not what you’d call wild moorland, though. Tilhill is half-way between Farnham and Aldershot, in a zone too far out to be suburban but only just. It’s the gin-and-manure belt, formerly the home of numbers of military gentlemen from the times when the army liked having large areas of scrubby heath to play in, but within reach of London in case of any Gordon rioters or similar needing a sharp set-down. Harry Cory Wright has been to wild places since growing up, plenty of them. But these meadows and thin woods supplied the wilderness before the possibility of travel. They make me think of A. A. Milne, finding a whole world in the Hundred Acre Wood (itself not so very far from Tilhill, if memory serves) for Christopher Robin and his friends. These are real alders and poplars, right enough. But isn’t the real wood that is being sent up in flames; it’s the imaginary one.

Harry Cory Wright. Rose Grenade, 2012

Harry Cory Wright.
Rose Grenade, 2012

So what is Harry Cory Wright doing with his smoke and flames?

Part of the answer is simply that he’s playing one last time in the fields he’s always played in. Nothing complicated or art-critical about that, and nothing wrong with it, either. It was exciting and sad to set these fireworks off in that place and it made a great send-off, and it would have been a fine thing even with no camera anywhere near.

I think the other answer is to be found in the relationship of different speeds of action. They’d called Tilhill home for fifty years, but the sparks behind the poplars are gone in a matter of seconds. They’d played in the field for whole seasons at a time, yet the smoke breaks up and is gone in minutes, even on a still day. There is, in other words, a more complex weaving of time in these pictures than there would be with the ordinary vocabulary of landscape. We’re used to simple indicators of time: water smoothed out at slower exposures, foliage in motion, the almost sports-photography blur of a background behind a pin-sharp kingfisher doing its stuff. But here something else is going on: the deliberate acknowledgement that time and place together add up to more than either of them alone.

That has been a concern of photographers before. I think most clearly of Fay Godwin, who always came back to photographing places that had once been far more important to people than they were when she got there.

Edwin Smith, Limetree Cottage, East Hagbourne,1953. (Chris Beetles Gallery)

Edwin Smith, Limetree Cottage, East Hagbourne,1953.
(Chris Beetles Gallery)

I think of Edwin Smith, that most elegiac of photographers, whose pictures at one and the same time ask us to regret the past and yet take mellow pleasure in its passing.

These Hey Charlie pictures are like that. They may have an element of regret. But they have fierce pleasure, too. There is something of the Viking funeral about them: Harry Cory Wright is setting fire to the trees and the river bends of his childhood and pushing them out to sea.

Harry Cory Wright. Harry, Bryan and Central Poplars. Smoke and 130 ft Mine, 2012

Harry Cory Wright.
Harry, Bryan and Central Poplars. Smoke and 130 ft Mine, 2012

In all of this, Harry Cory Wright takes his place in a large shift which probably now has enough momentum to be thought of as a movement.

It used to be obvious that the great landscape thinkers went elsewhere and brought back visions of the stuff beyond. Richard Burton struggling to Salt Lake City or Wilfred Thesiger in the Empty Quarter or Eric Newby in the Hindu Kush. Even Jan Morris in Venice.

The real picture was never quite so. In Britain, at least, with its peculiarly rapid changes of landscape from mile to mile, you don’t need to go far. It may even be denser and more complex for your readers or viewers if you stay close enough to home that they know in detail what you have not said as well as seeing clearly what you do. There has been in Britain for a long time a large group of writers who stay very close to home and whose exoticism comes from the microscope not the telescope. Adam Nicholson, who inherited the Shiant Islands and wrote about his experience in Sea Room (and who also made an early and rather good book on the Somerset Levels – Wetland – with the photographer Patrick Sutherland). Richard Mabey, perhaps the most radical of all the great localists, who could make a whole ecology out of railway embankments and waste ground. Robert Macfarlane and his friend Roger Deakin. Oliver Rackham and Thomas Pakenham, content to study the landscape often one single tree at a time. Sometimes the same writer does distant then local in successive books: Nicholas Crane, who wrote a marvellous book about the high places of Europe and then wrote a better one limiting himself to a stripe of England two thousand metres wide

I’m no specialist, but even to me there are a number of fundamental texts in this movement. There’s W.G.Sebald, constantly tying the local here to the local elsewhere through the memories (or false memories) of the people who came from one to the other. There’s the other W.G., W.G.Hoskins, whose Making of the English Landscape pioneered in the 1950s the business of looking at the landscape as a text, to be read and unravelled almost as a palimpsest. There are two obsessive books about birds, J.A.Baker’s The Peregrine (1967), and T.H. White’s The Goshawk (1951). (Neither is really about birds; that’s just where each of them starts.) T.H. White wrote a more complex book, too, called England Have My Bones, which I love in spite of its constant tone of railing stressy anger. “When London Bridge has tumbled down, and the sewers of the hive have ceased to pollute the waters, there will be salmon opposite the Imperial Chemicals building, but no Imperial Chemicals building opposite the salmon.” White described learning to fly in England Have My Bones (in the 1930s) but he also went ferreting and allowed the grass snakes to nest behind Aldous Huxley on his bookshelf.

Grass Snake.  Illustration by TH White from his own England Have My Bones, 1936 " A female is pouring from behind the sofa. As the floor is of polished wood she gets a poor grip of it ( she prefers the hearth-rug) and elects to decant herself along the angle between wall and floor.  Here she can press sideways as well as downwards, and gets a better grip." How local can you get? A natural history of one's living room.

Grass Snake. Illustration by TH White from his own England Have My Bones, 1936.
” A female is pouring from behind the sofa. As the floor is of polished wood she gets a poor grip of it (she prefers the hearth-rug) and elects to decant herself along the angle between wall and floor. Here she can press sideways as well as downwards, and gets a better grip.”
How local can you get? A natural history of the author’s own living room.

There are marine versions of the same effect, too, where the fiercely local fully understood and minutely analyzed has the value of anything anywhere. Read Hilaire Belloc’s wonderful Cruise of the Nona (1925) for whatever you like, including a dyspeptic misanthropism fully the equal of White’s. While you’re reading it, you’ll be taken around the tough tidal conflicts of Portland Bill in a passage of nautical writing as thrilling as any ride around the Horn. Yet Portland is so close to London that it’s where much of the stone for the ponderous grey official buildings came from.

There is one fundamental text of British localism that is neither really watery, nor yet really not, which is L.T.C. Rolt’s Narrow Boat, first published in 1944. Rolt – who was also capable of the strongest dyspepsia – was an engineer, and his rediscovery of the canal system not just for its physical qualities of ditch and bridge, but for engineering and architecture and the culture of the boatmen and the economic changes wrought by the canals is a major source for much British thinking since. Rolt’s passion led to a preservation movement, and that then operated in tandem with the responsible government department and coloured it over time. That pattern became a model in Britain for such things as the Victorian Society and even the National Trust. It doesn’t always work quite so well in every field but the canals now see more use than they ever saw in their commercial heyday, and much of that use is by holidaymakers and retirees who may look like nostalgic pleasure seekers, but many of whom are active lobbyists and skilful and knowledgeable local specialists. The former British Waterways Board in the end took on so many of the arguments of the preservation societies that they had only budgets to fight, not policies.

In photography, much the same thing has happened. The respect for previous uses and the wisdom acquired through deep intimacy with the particular have been a different song to the louder one of further, weirder, rarer. Susan Derges’ lyrical exploration of small stretches of water or Jem Southam coming back again and again to the same dew-pond are not so very different to Roger Deakin swimming in wild tarns. You could make an argument that the whole career of John Blakemore was a movement from large to small, until he was making virtuoso studies of wilting plants Sellotaped down on tracing paper on his kitchen table: pale on pale. There is a brilliant series of pictures of fish frozen in blocks of ice by Calum Angus Mackay: oddly abstract things until you learn that the photographer lives in the Outer Hebrides where fish are culture and diet and money and all.

That concentrated local knowledge is what Hey Charlie is about. Fireworks displays often mark the opening of something or other. Not here. These fireworks mark the end of a lifetime of getting to know a piece of the land with intimacy and precision and emotion. That’s always worth doing, and it’s a bit sad when it’s done. It’s no coincidence that there lies very close in Cory Wright’s blog to the Hey Charlie pictures an unmistakeable study of one of the uprights from Stonehenge, a grave marker as plain as could be.

Harry Cory Wright. Stonehenge, 2012

Harry Cory Wright.
Stonehenge, 2012

There’s a post-script, though. Harry Cory Wright and his brother Charlie sold the house and most of the land. But they kept a field. And they have (or can get) camper vans, and go back to the field as often as they like. It’s theirs.

Hey Charlie is on show at Eleven in London until 7th September 2013.

The Quizzical Chamois – Irving Penn’s Cranium Architecture

Chamois, Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Chamois, Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

A number of weeks ago I was asked by Hamiltons Gallery in London to write a catalogue text on a group of pictures by Irving Penn which are less known than many, but seemed to have interesting characteristics of their own.  I was glad to write it, as I find that the scholarship of Penn seems a little unchanging.  I hoped that by treating these pictures exactly as though they were made today, and reacting to them as if they were a recent offering by an artist at his peak, I might bring a little freshness as well as appreciation. The catalogue is beautifully produced and is now out as the show has opened.  It runs at Hamiltons throughout the summer, until 13 September 2013. This means that a large number of visitors to London have the opportunity to visit these less known but high-quality pictures, and to purchase them as may be. The catalogue is a very limited edition, and – as bloggers do – I wanted to reach as large a number of people as possible, so I have asked for permission for the catalogue text to be reprinted here.  I do not often reprint texts published elsewhere: I’ve enjoyed writing it: that’s why it reappears here. The text is as published (without the notes).  The illustrations are fewer by far.

I owe thanks to a number of people: to Tim Jefferies and David Peckman of Hamilton’s Gallery, to Vasilios Zatse and Matthew Krejcarek and their colleagues at the Irving Penn Foundation, and to Sandra Klimt, who produced the book. All of these people made it possible to work at breakneck speed and yet to high standards.  My thanks to each one.

––

Critics and historians of the work of Irving Penn often note that he was attracted to the memento mori genre, otherwise known as vanitas. A number of the conventional markers are there: broken jugs or the frequent appearance of all-too-human bits of debris in otherwise idealized still life pictures and portraits. There is even an elegant intimation of mortality in the subtle way that the frozen block of beans in Frozen Foods with String Beans (1977) is just beginning to thaw.

This connection to vanitas can be seen in examples of Penn’s work over a period of many years. Colin Westerbeck noted that Penn’s groups of non-commercial still lifes are all intimately connected to the theme of vanitas: the Cigarettes, the Street Material, and specifically the series of memento mori studies that was published as Irving Penn: Archaeology. A 1941 image, Funeral Home, published in Passage: A Work Record, Penn’s major retrospective book, depicts the shop front of W. S. Watkins & Son, Embalmer. Even in Venice in 1945, the young Penn was making studies of the scummy surface of the canal in deliberate opposition to the Ruskinian glories just above. Those images of foul water describe grassy stalks directly reminiscent of some of the Street Material from thirty years later, and of the fibrous shards that poke out of the Cigarettes.

For an artist with such an enduring interest to go on to make this astounding series of studies of the skulls of animals, Cranium Architecture, might seem quite natural. Penn was interested in death, goes the argument, perhaps as a counterpoint to his professional career working (both at Vogue and for his commercial clients) with people obsessed with youth.

Mouth (for L’Oréal), New York, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Mouth (for L’Oréal), New York, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

In Passage, a book made very much under Penn’s detailed control, the first of the cranial studies, Black Rhino (1986), is presented on a spread opposite Mouth (for L’Oréal) (1986). This is not a coincidence. Mouth (for L’Oréal) is a powerful picture, not least because it is one of the most violent in the whole of Penn’s canon. The lipstick in eight clashing colours is smeared in purposeful affront to the anatomy of the mouth. It has a thick, lardy impasto a million miles from the smooth refinement that Penn knew (better than anybody) that lipstick was “supposed” to convey. Several of the colours have metallic flecks in them, and if that reminds you even for an instant of car paint, you are suddenly in a world close to the horrors of J. G. Ballard’s 1973 novel, Crash. Penn was the master of a beautifully understated sexuality, in which respect and admiration fully control desire and, by controlling it, flavour it. But by 1986, at least some of the vanity of the commercial beauty business had turned very sour for Irving Penn. Mouth (for L’Oréal) is harrowing.

The rhinoceros skull image on that spread is in striking contrast, a calm tribute to the serene way that evolution proceeds about its business, contrasted to the futile panic against ageing, against rejection, of our daily hunt for esteem. The surfaces of the girl are, for once, far from lovely. The patinated bone of the animal, very old, but tenderly preserved, not only shows its own elegance but proves by its very existence the love that curators have spent upon it. Being stripped of flesh, it comes close to revealing its own essence.

Photography has a long (and now mainly forgotten) relation with phrenology and physiognomy, those pre-Victorian branches of science which promised to identify specific characteristics in a patient or subject from the detailed shape of the head. Physiognomy is discredited as having uncomfortable connections with eugenics, but in its day it was considered a science and not a parlour game. Its high point came precisely in the decades preceding the boom in photography.

I argue that physiognomy survived “underground” within photography. We still “read” character from photographic portraits in a way that has no relation to logic at all: her eyes are “too close” together, so we don’t entirely trust her; his “fleshy lips” make him look a libertine; her square jaw tells us she’s determined and reliable. We still expect, in other words, the surface to reveal quite impossible information about the interior. We do so a little in real life, but almost constantly in photographs.

Irving Penn knew about this. He is quoted as having said: “Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world. Very often what lies behind the façade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows and dares to believe.”This is a rich thought to underpin his various photographs of skulls. For if the skull is simply a head stripped of its façade, then to photograph it is less to enquire into aspects of death than to look at the fundamentals of expression and character. To photograph a skull might then be to get to the bare bones—quite literally—of character.

Penn photographed a number of skulls before the concentrated energy of the Cranium Architecture series, and it is far from clear that their primary reference in his mind was to death. Two of them are of particular interest.

The Poor Lovers, New York, 1979 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

The Poor Lovers, New York, 1979
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

The Poor Lovers (1979) is a peculiar picture of two skulls, one balanced on top of the other. One is twisted mildly to the right, the other mildly to the left. The bone of the upper one has darkened appreciably more than that of the lower, leaving a sensation that the two skulls descend from different races. It bears a mild, almost dilute memory of Man Ray’s classic study Noire et Blanche (1926), in which both the mask and the living sitter are depicted with eyes closed. The Poor Lovers is not legible as a study of any aspect of death. There is Penn’s characteristic detritus on the surface below, and the skulls are noticeably battered, but they are not in any real sense a study of decay or of mortality.

A few pages on in Irving Penn: Archaeology, we find A Cry (1980), a study this time of a single skull. Here Penn has deliberately imparted a twist to the expression by arranging the upper points of the lower jaw in asymmetry, the jaw “hinged” before the cheekbone on one side and behind on the other. So this is formally quite clear: here is a search for expression. That twist—impossible to miss—is viewed from directly in front. Reading the expression is more difficult, but we can see that whatever else it is, this is most certainly not a scientific picture. Neither is The Poor Lovers. Nor is either of them wholly or solely about death.

In reference to Rag Face (1975), part of Penn’s Street Material series, Colin Eisler writes: “The photographer’s progress on his pilgrimage of counter-vanity is made clearest in his least-known works . . . works conceived beyond purchase or fashion. . . . This new outlook, this liberation, allowed Penn to express his sense of fun as well as morality, his sense of adventure, of spontaneity. It even allowed Penn to get ugly.” Eisler had emphasized the connections to the vanitas traditions, making the point that grisaille, that nocturnal painting in black, white, and grey, frequently seen along with the vanitas in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, prefigures the tonalities of black and white.

But these studies are not only vanitas studies; they can be read just as sculpture. That may be what Eisler had in mind in talking about Penn’s sense of fun. Penn was a private man, not much given to the modern conception of “sharing” his inner thoughts about his work. His sense of fun—it has to be said—is pretty much unrecorded anywhere. Alexander Liberman once put it in the plainest English: “Penn is not easy to work with. . . . Penn seldom squanders his intensity.”

The timing is important. The 1970s had perhaps been a difficult period for Irving Penn. For the first time in a long career, he no longer had the studio supplied by Vogue and all the help that went with it—not merely in assistants and budgets, but in the roster of art directors and editors who had protected him from the coarser rigours of the magazine market and had encouraged him to try many of the ideas that became his most successful series. While Penn never fell out of favour, he certainly had a quieter commercial period in the 1970s. And that is what propelled him to his great affair with platinum printing, which ushered in exhibitions of his work at the Marlborough Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art. In the 1970s, Penn had perhaps little choice but to put his artistic proclivities in the foreground.

Among those proclivities was sculpture. Penn had always been interested in the history of art; he drew, painted. But in the late 1970s he was experimenting in photography with shapes that were interesting in their own right and not merely as the most recent descendants of the venerable traditions of the vanitas. There is an immediate parallel with Alexander Liberman, Penn’s close associate and perhaps the only colleague approaching an artistic confidant.

By the late 1970s, Liberman had been a sculptor for a long time, and he was notably proud of his monumental constructions. A piece called There (1973), of enormous steel cylinders welded together, is a rendition of the fallen columns of a giant temple. It looks the blood brother of some of Penn’s photographs of piles of bones, or ingots, or machine parts. It is impossible not to believe that they evolved together, in constant conversations as well as in meetings with the artists all around. Vogue, as Liberman himself underlined, was a very serious art magazine in his time, even if he did once have to get Cecil Beaton to photograph fashion in front of a Jackson Pollock in order to get the painting included in the magazine.

So it begins to be possible to draw a picture of Penn, evolving his artistic practice in the late 1970s, turning his mind, in the wake of his great friend, to sculpture. Years before, in the introduction to Penn’s Moments Preserved, Liberman had written: “In a time when the unclear is too often used to cover up the absence of meaning, Penn’s steadfast adherence to definite statement has given his work a ‘visibility’ that few have been able to match.”

Other elements are discernible, too. As Irving Penn himself put it: “Sometime in 1964 I realized that I was victim of a printmaking obsession, a condition that persists today. . . . Over the years, I must have spent thousands of hours brushing on the liquid coatings, preparing each sheet of paper in anticipation of reaching the perfect print.” Penn was a supreme printmaker, and the print itself is an essential part of the astonishing tango between perception and representation that all the great Penn
images add up to.

Again in Penn’s own words, we are shown another element: “In 1979, I acquired an early twelve-by-twenty-inch banquet camera and had it altered. A five-foot track was made and a long bellows substituted for the original short one. I found a number of excellent long lenses. My intention was to make a platinum printing negative twelve-by-twenty inches right in the camera.”

Penn used the banquet camera for the Archaeology series and an 8 x 10 view camera for his Cranium Architecture. American art critic Rosalind Krauss noted that use of the banquet camera gave Penn the same format as the double-page commercial spreads of which he was a master. Krauss observed that “for the last several years [Penn] has produced a series of still lifes . . . that in format, disposition of objects, frontality of composition, and shallowness of space is identical to the memento mori images of his own aesthetically tagged platinum prints. The work Penn has done for Clinique cosmetics, . . . elegant, shallow, luminous still lifes of bottles and jars, . . . is the visual twin of its conceptual counterpart, the platinum work that speaks not of perpetual youth, but of death.”

It is important to note here that the Cranium Architecture prints are not made in platinum — that is to say, they are not in the medium at which Penn had made himself supreme, although it is possible he intended them to become so later. Instead, they are the most subtle, most sensitive, selenium toned silver prints that one could ever ask to see.

Westerbeck observed that Penn was more than a little taken aback at the reception his Street Material series received when the photographs were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in 1977. It seems that a number of critics were offended at the idea of expensive materials (platinum, essentially, palladium and a little iridium) being used in the depiction of squalid junk. Although those critics missed the point, that reception set Penn back a little. After that date, all the major shows until the first exhibition of the Cranium Architecture at the Pace/MacGill Gallery in 1989 were retrospectives, including one at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984. That cannot be a coincidence. He did publish the Flowers as a book in the period, but that, too, is a retrospective, the images dating for the most part from the late 1960s and early 1970s. It adds up to a caesura, a lessening of forward progress.

So now, perhaps, we have a number of elements in place to see the Cranium Architecture a little better.

Tapir, Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Tapir, Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Roe Deer, Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Roe Deer, Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

The negatives of these incredible pictures were made in a matter of a very few days, in the National Museum in Prague, between June 16 and 20, 1986. Photographs of the work in progress by Lennart Durehed, a former studio assistant who acted as Penn’s principal assistant in Prague, indicate that the conditions were very simple. The skulls were moved and handled by the photographic team, the support was an ordinary desk, the camera an 8 x 10 view camera. Twenty-one skull images, made in an exquisite matt-finish silver print, were chosen for the show at Pace/MacGill. Penn had hardly worked with silver printing since he first started experimenting seriously with platinum in 1964. Yet he came back to it as a virtuoso. He used all that he had learnt in platinum to make prints of a subtlety that rivals what he achieved in platinum itself. The majority of them are in the landscape format, not quite in the proportions of a double-page spread, but the orientation is significant for a photographer whose previous work had been mostly square or in the portrait orientation.

 Boar (Domestic), Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Boar (Domestic), Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Camel, Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Camel, Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

One part of me says that these skulls are pure modernist masterpieces, delayed only by Penn’s commercial career. When that paused, he made these studies with a clarity of vision and a directness of purpose that is the precise equivalent of that shown by Edward Weston making the Peppers or the Nautiluses.

I see, in addition, the contribution of the vanitas picture, and I do believe that there is an element of truth in the idea that Penn had found horror in the constant demands of the beauty industry that he had served so well and so long. But there are two further readings of these great pictures that are perhaps a more personal view.

I see the Cranium Architecture as a collection of super-portraits or para-portraits. They are the direct descendants of the physiognomic tradition, and the direct successors of Penn’s many years spent trying to make legible truths appear from the lineaments of a face. They seem to search for real truths of character in the act of peeling away the skin. By that I do not mean that Penn crudely expected to find a mandrill charming or a lion sardonic. And yet—when you look at the chamois, do you not see the same combination of quizzical embarrassment that I see? Does the tapir not say, “ Oh, well, what the heck,” to every viewer? These are caricatures of human expression, found in the skulls of dead animals, by an artist who had perhaps come steadily to disbelieve the confident legibility of his own great portraits.

He was making a gift to his viewers. There is none of Penn’s debris here, none of the stage-setting and scene-building that would help us come to any “right” reading of these expressions, and which he himself had developed as such a sophisticated technique. I see in these pictures an invitation for us to look with rigorous attention, to see how much of what we think about character is in fact gleaned from the false promises of phrenology and physiognomy, still buried deep in our photographic habits.

Then finally, I see them as sculptures. There is something so compelling and seductive about the cavities and declivities of the skulls, so brilliantly described. That comes not from photography’s habit of flattening the world but as a counter to it. The magisterial controlled gleam of the silver printing is as pleasing to the eye as bronze or wood have always been to touch.

They are great things, these skulls made in a few days in Prague. Like so much of Penn’s work, they encapsulate the thinking of years. They stand by the sheer perfection of their making: they are so carefully seen, printed with such virtuosity. They have none of the tense social meaning of the Street Material images that precede them, none of the commentary on consumer culture perhaps seen in the Cigarettes series. These Cranium Architecture pictures make no comment: they are as nearly universal as any photograph can be. Their genesis is intimately tied—as I have suggested here—to the artist’s development and his changing concerns. As two-dimensional sculptures, they are to be read almost as abstractions, for the pleasure of the surfaces so minutely detailed. I like to think that’s why Penn thought of them as “Architecture”: a reference to the kind of thinking he wished his viewers to pursue.

I keep being reminded of Penn’s great portrait of Miles Davis—The Hand of Miles Davis (1986). The skulls, exactly like that, invite reading far beyond what they themselves depict. They are perfectly solid things, known beasts preserved. But they are also the start of limitless chains of metaphor and allusion.

30 and Out? The National Media Museum Under Threat

Work in Progress at the Media Space in London.  The Media Space was planned to improve the visibility of one of the great photographic collections in the world.  Photographed by Kate Elliott

Work in Progress at the Media Space in London. The Media Space was planned to improve the visibility of one of the great photographic collections in the world.
Photographed by Kate Elliott

There is now no effective state policy for the provision of the culture of photography to the nation. There is today no specialist photography officer at the Department for Culture Media and Sport. There has only ever been one Photography Officer at the Arts Council, Barry Lane, and his tenure finished many years ago. The Arts Council is itself on its knees. Its homologue, the Museums Libraries and Archives Council, which was supposed to deal specifically with those institutions that held collections, has recently been abolished. The only serious national touring programme of photographic exhibitions now takes place under the umbrella of the Artist Rooms programme, administered by the Tate from the donation of one man, the art dealer Anthony d’Offay.

No need to go on. Photography exists as the most popular and most important sector of the visual arts in an administrative and institutional framework which has badly let it down over many years. It suffers from serial widespread long-term institutional failure of strategy and of personnel. Small wonder that we have now reached the point where the National Media Museum – which, in spite of its inadequacies, remains the home of a world-class collection of historically important photography – is facing imminent closure.

There should now be a considerable palaver in the UK about the future of the dependent museums of the Science Museum. These include the former National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in Bradford, whose shift of emphasis away from its collections was clearly signalled when it was restructured and renamed the National Media Museum, a change endorsed by (the then) Culture Minister David Lammy and former BBC director-general Greg Dyke, who said:

“Twenty-first century Britain needs a media museum reflecting the importance in all our lives of TV, radio, film, photography and of course the internet, new media. There’s only one place to have it – and that’s Bradford.”

That was then.

Among many others The Guardian reported the situation on 5th June 2013 in these terms:

“The Science Museum Group may be forced to shut one of its regional museums as a result of the government’s squeeze on budgets, its director has claimed. In addition to major cuts in funding for the Science Museum in London, Ian Blatchford said one of the group’s outposts may have to close its doors.”

The group runs the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, the National Railway Museum in York and Bradford’s National Media Museum. Blatchford said the prospect of a further 10% cut in funding meant that one of these would almost certainly have to go.”

Mr. Blatchford made his comments in an interview with the BBC’s Radio 4’s World at One. Various BBC News channels on that same day carried this further thought:

“A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said it would be inappropriate to speculate on the outcome of the Spending Review which will be announced later this month.

He said: “This is an operational matter for the Science Museum Group who has [sic] to address a large projected operating deficit from 2014 onwards and is [sic] assessing a range of options to address this situation.””

Beyond the laughably poor grammar coming out of the ministry of culture, a number of things are pretty clear. There is obviously going to be a huge shortfall in centrally provided income to the Science Museum Group. It is also obvious that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is not in a position to defend its dependent institutions. The weakest ministry of culture in Europe seems quite happy to stand by and let the various funding axes fall. Culture is a major industry in the UK, but its lobbyists are assumed to be feeble luvvies and are brushed aside by competing claims on government funds. Cultural policy in Britain is made on the hoof and unmade on a whim.

In that context, photography suffers, yet it should not.

Photography, which touches everything and everyone, easily meets all those criteria of social utility which were the Blairite vision of how culture should pay its way in society (and which the present government has inherited faute de mieux). Photography is our literacy and our art. Photography in any institution appeals to the full diverse range of population. It is accessible to all (from junior Key Stages in the curriculum to adults, and from every profession or walk of life). Photography is transnational and transcultural and doesn’t necessarily take place in any one language. It carries information and opinion equally, and represents the shared vocabulary of all of us. Photography includes high art and low commerce, and to be intrigued by photographs means potentially to be interested by anything at all. Photography is the only medium whose history is a history of continuous boom: photography has moved into every field, and convulsed each. It is also a remarkably cheap medium to treat, being relatively unaffected by transfer to digital formats in which everybody can store and send its products.

Photography, in other words, is the one cultural activity that presses all the buttons. Let alone its fundamental cultural importance, as the forerunner of cinema and digital imaging and everything visual in between. Many of the governing ideas of our society were first articulated in photography. Photography is demotic and vernacular and at the same time high-art and high tech.

Photography showed you things but didn’t always explain them: it was in photography that it first became possible to be exposed to any kind of argument without analysis. A thousand things developed from that. Take the sound bite, for example, so standard a part of our media-habituated world – what is the sound bite? A photograph in which visual is translated into verbal. We learnt to accept such things and work with them in photographs. Same for a hundred tics and tropes in half a dozen other fields. Photography is fundamental to a host of large industries which have developed around it: fashion, pop music, video gaming, even the tourist industry and sport… Photography is one of the engines that have pulled us out of the age of manufacture into the service age. It’s as important as that.

Photography is the fundamental core of contemporary art, too: you could put it in a nutshell and say that those artists who haven’t run to it, have run from it.

So the already weak provision to the nation of institutional coverage of this most vital – and most popular – field is threatened.

This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the foundation of the Bradford Museum. When it opened, many people questioned its location because culture was then even more concentrated in London than now. But they also questioned whether there should be any such museum at all: photography was shown much less than it is now, and many wondered whether there was either demand or reason for such a museum. And photography was from the beginning the core of the museum. Its first Head was Colin Ford, perhaps the only UK curator of photographs who one could have imagined at the Harry Ransom Center or MOMA or the Bibliothèque Nationale or any of the other really proper photographic collections. As somebody (not from photography circles) said to me the other day: “The thing about Colin Ford is that we all knew who he was. I haven’t a clue about any of them that followed.” When Ford opened Bradford, it had something like eight galleries, showing everything from emerging photographers to the most established. It was in an odd place as far as London culture-vultures were concerned, but it really was the national museum of photography. After his departure, a lot of that concentration was diluted.

Let us recall that the absorption of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) collections by the Bradford Museum in 2003, after a relatively rapid negotiation, was the moment at which the Bradford collections in photography became truly world class. But it was also the moment at which the policy division between the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum was most visibly and publicly flouted. Officially still today, the V&A holds the national collections of the art of photography, and the National Media Museum the national collection of photography, which also includes art photography. Photography not being a discipline that lends itself particularly to tight categorisations of this kind, it has long been obvious that there are large and problematic areas of overlap. Still, once the RPS collection went to Bradford, it was then abundantly clear that (in photography, at least) the great museum fiefdoms were fighting each for itself and that no overarching policy existed to control them.

One of the main players in the transfer of the collections from the RPS to Bradford was Amanda Nevill, who became Head of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (as it then was), after being head of the Royal Photographic Society. Many other names are involved in this story, but let us just hold on to that one.

It might be a good time to ask some very old-fashioned questions: Cui bono? Who benefits if the National Media Museum should close down?

As Doris Day put it:

Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours, to see
Que Sera, Sera.

Still, let me draw out a plausible map of what might happen, and then let us ask the people in charge of our cultural institutions to explain the position.

The National Media Museum has been for a certain time in trouble. You could argue that it has done a miraculous job for the city of Bradford, acting as the main cultural focus in a city that badly needed something of the sort. But it has done a less good job for photography nationally, even if that is for reasons which are partly not the Museum’s own responsibility: chronic underfunding; lack of a resounding mission; lousy train services from elsewhere in the country (making it hard to get to); diminished curatorial staff and diminished spend on the collections, with a correspondingly high proportionate spend on fund-raising and marketing and all the ancillary functions of a museum. The position has grown so bad that the Museum has advanced a long way in its plan to open an out-station devoted to showcasing the photography collection in the Science Museum in London; a peculiar plan whereby the daughter-house will implant a branch within the mother-house. This, as I have written elsewhere, [ Photomonitor : Media Space at the Science Museum, by Francis Hodgson ] is a very public admission of the failure of one major part of its remit. The great collections of photography in Bradford’s care are not being properly shown to the nation.

But consider what might plausibly now happen.

The National Railway Museum in York and the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester both serve cities with a far heavier lobbying punch than Bradford. Manchester is arguably the founding city of the industrial revolution, and York has built up a huge tourist industry in the business of heritage and history. Neither will give up their museums easily. It will look possible to concoct an argument by which Bradford loses its own simply because one of the three has to go under the cuts.

If that should happen, it will become necessary to rehouse the collections. Manchester is the city to which large parts of the BBC has been moved over recent years. Granada was always the best commercial franchise; add the BBC and it becomes plausible to think of Manchester as a specialist television town. What could be easier than to make the argument that the television collections from Bradford should go there, and even perhaps to the Museum of Science and Industry?

Similarly for film. The BFI (British Film Institute) already exists, is in London, and would perhaps happily stake a claim to accommodate the relevant Bradford collections. Although the BFI has been rationalising its technical collections.  It set a line in the sand when it closed the Museum of the Moving Image in 1999 and might be unwilling to reverse that decision. But the Director of the BFI is that same Amanda Nevill, mentioned above, who might welcome with open arms a chunk of the collection she better than almost anyone knows the value of.

There remain the great historic photographs collections. The Media Museum has been inching towards London anyway, in the proposed ‘Media Space at the Science Museum’. How convenient would it be for the whole collection to have to move back to London, where the Media Space is already earmarked for its display?

No more talk of the supposedly vast cultural importance of archiving websites and social media and so on. But the British Library is quietly making great strides on that score anyway, as it quite properly should.

Get rid of the Bradford Museum, to the great detriment of the city of Bradford, but to large savings, and suddenly the national collections under its control fall into convenient slots, separated by medium.

You know what? It could all have been planned that way.

As a matter of fact, it is impossible to see UK arts administrators competent enough to have engineered such a complicated dance towards an outcome. It is more likely the standard UK fare of botched job and muddling along and yielding to pressure. This much is clear: the UK national photographic institutions are in a mess which is likely to get a whole lot worse. Whatever happens, it shouldn’t happen without proper debate and without proper planning.

Harlequin Without His Mask

Rankin, Life Mask of Ian Rankin, 2013

Rankin, Life Mask of Ian Rankin, 2013

I have been indifferent to Rankin. I’m not a follower of fashion, and have never had much interest in which brand he has favoured with his efficient but derivative image making. I’ve been to a number of his exhibitions, but can’t remember ever reviewing one. Rankin is one of those photographers whose style is the absence of style. When you see a single picture of his, you can’t tell it’s by him, and when you see a number of them together, you can’t tell whether he was deeply involved in the subject or merely contracted to it.

Rankin has often, for example, exhibited his pictures of his partner, the model Tuuli, and I have consistently been unable to see any special affection in the pictures that might distinguish his treatment of her to that of his other models. To be precise, I don’t mean merely pictures in which the model happened to be his wife: it might be quite wrong for those to have any legible trace of their private relationship. But Rankin has exhibited pictures specifically as a love story, and those come out looking just like any other nice clean cheerful safe pictures of a woman. Rankin can certainly supply you with a pout, a smile, sultry come-hither eyes or what have you. Bags of what looks like energy or charm. But there is something mechanical in his photography beyond which I have found it difficult to get to anything more interesting.

No doubt precisely that contributes to his very considerable commercial success.

If you want conventional unchallenging studio photography which presses simple emotional buttons with no great demand upon the viewer (and that is exactly what a large majority of commercial clients think they want), Rankin may well be your man. He is not, I find, particularly interested in trusting the pictures to do his communicating. He is happy for his pictures to take their overtones and undertones from the words which accompany them. The pictures are just-so; they do an excellent job. But they never challenge you to rethink your world, never ask to draw upon deep reserves of memory or understanding. Rankin does not weave complex patterns of ideas, of the kind which photography weaves so successfully out of allusion and quotation and reference. He does not dance that constant lovely edge between what we are made to see and what we know already.

In the terms I have used earlier in these pages, he may not even be a photographer at all, although there is no doubt of his mastery as a camera operator.

Or so I thought.

I went a few days ago to Liverpool, to see the various manifestations of the Look/13 Festival. Rankin is showing at the Walker Art Gallery, a very ho-hum sort of exhibition entitled ALIVE: in the Face of Death. It tells heartening stories about the drive and vigour that some people can show under tough medical circumstances, and most of the pictures are relentlessly jolly. The majority are portraits of the patients or former patients themselves, with a few footnotes (such as a group of professional Ghanaian mourners) thrown in. It’s not at all a bad idea to speak in public of death more than is the norm in Britain, and the Walker is to be applauded for that. A few visitors will indeed be heartened by the show, and will take away from it a mental picture of resolve or gaiety or some similar linear characteristic. Most of the pictures are nothing more than illustrations of the thesis and they are completely missable. Yet in among all that, I confess to my considerable surprise, Rankin has put a group of astounding portrait studies which not only make the show worth seeing but also made me wonder if I should begin to rethink the photographer.

Rankin, Life Mask of Sam Clafin, 2013

Rankin, Life Mask of Sam Clafin, 2013

Rankin calls these portraits life masks, and I had thought that they were no more than a rendering of a still face by one photographic technique or another. But it seems they are not: in April of 2013, The Scotsman published Ian Rankin’s (the novelist’s) own pictures of his face being moulded in plaster, presumably for the sitting with his namesake photographer. They really are pictures of life masks.

The first thing I liked was how universal the people become under these circumstances. A degree of difference is maintained by the sheer age or youth of skin: the model Abbey Clancy plainly has a smoother mien than Ian Rankin. But all these heads photographed exactly the same way become studies of mankind as well as just studies of people.

They are, of course, a typology. You can photograph any number of variants of an object the same way, and hope to find some revelatory common ground between them. That is an idea so tired it has not much left to yield. But life masks go right back to the very beginning of photography on at least two counts.

To have such a cast made – even with quick-drying plaster – demands the kind of stillness that has not really existed since the long exposures of the very early days of photography. Daguerreotypists frequently used a head clamp, to enforce stillness. Real stillness is not merely a technical matter: it changes the psychology of being portrayed.

That stillness does things to the face being photographed, and to our reading of it. W.M. Hunt has amassed an entire collection (published in The Unseen Eye) of photographs in which the eyes of the sitter are closed, or masked in some way. He has a particular affection for pictures in which the eyes are masked by a chance effect which then gives an extra something to the photograph. He explains that this gives some reading of the unconscious, and he may be right: certainly it is by the eyes that we most usually engage with each other. Masked eyes automatically mean that some engagement less than usually direct is going to be involved.

Weegee, Arrested for Bribing a Basketball Player, 1945.   This is one of the accidental masks reprinted in WM Hunt's brilliant Unseen Eye, Thames & Hudson 2011

Weegee, Arrested for Bribing a Basketball Player, 1945.
This is one of the accidental masks reprinted in WM Hunt’s brilliant Unseen Eye, Thames & Hudson 2011

One of Brassai's graffiti series. Undated between 1935-50.   Also from WM Hunt's Unseen Eye.

One of Brassai’s graffiti series. Undated between 1935-50.
Also from WM Hunt’s Unseen Eye.

The second reason I say life masks go right back to the earliest days of photography is that photography absorbed some of the main ideas of physiognomy, ideas very current in the decades before photography which survive within photography even though substantially discredited elsewhere.

Masking is intrinsically challenging. One part of photography’s appeal to most viewers is a strange element of voyeurism. Not that all subject matter is looked at with sexual eyes, but that there is a recurring pleasure in being able to take more time to view with intensity and concentration than is afforded when looking at things in vivo. Look carefully in the real world, and you are always out of time before you can have fully grasped what you see. Look carefully in a photograph and things (physical and associational) appear which seemed to have been hidden. That produces a pleasure in seeing: it provides its own rewards by revealing more or revealing otherwise. Masks both repel that kind of scrutiny and invite it. I defy anybody not to look harder at a mask than they do at a face. It’s almost as if the mask carries within itself the invitation to unmask if you dare, to unmask if you can. Look hard enough at a mask and it might just dissolve.

One of the grid of 24 self-portraits masked in shaving foam that make up Marcus Coates' British Moths, 2011

One of the grid of 24 self-portraits masked in shaving foam that make up Marcus Coates’ British Moths, 2011

I wrote on these pages not long ago of the shaving-foam masks of Marcus Coates, in a piece called British Moths 2011, which continues to intrigue me. On that same occasion I mentioned Erwin Blumenfeld, who used masking as an absolutely central weapon in his armoury. Blumenfeld would mask the model in an amazing variety of ways, including using strobes with a telescope attached that allowed him to use light itself as a mask. But he also used bobbly glass, venetian blinds, heavy shadow… The new (May 2013) exhibition of Blumenfeld’s fashion work at Somerset House in London contains a number of masks or images dependent on masking, and some of them are very close in conception to Rankin’s series at the Walker.

Erwin Blumenfeld, Mask, Paris, 1936. Blumenfeld was obsessive at masking and felt that hiding was an invitation to reveal.

Erwin Blumenfeld, Mask, Paris, 1936.
Blumenfeld was obsessive at masking and felt that hiding was an invitation to reveal.

A catalogue of masks in photography would certainly be enormous, ranging over factual anthropological studies, a host of make-up effects in fashion, various kinds of sport, and the unwitting masking of the kind that W.M. Hunt assembled in his book. S&M masking is a subject in its own right. The humble pair of dark glasses may be no more than a sketch of a mask, a request to be viewed as though masked, and therefore a plea to be unmasked.

I’m interested by the idea that the face is only one small remove away from a mask all the time. By a minimum of manipulation, a photographer can turn a face into a mask, and by doing so redouble its compelling force to be viewed. That manipulation can be through a physical process of mask making, as by Rankin. It can be by a manner of photographing, as for example by the German modernist photographer Helmar Lerski.

A page of Helmar Lerski facial studies, from Florian Ebner's Metamorphosen des Gesichts (with thanks to Bernhard Schulz).  Lerski achieves a close approach to Gothic statuary.

A page of Helmar Lerski facial studies, from Florian Ebner’s Metamorphosen des Gesichts (with thanks to Bernhard Schulz).
Lerski achieves a close approach to Gothic statuary.

One of the great successes of the Tate’s 2007 exhibition How We Are, curated by Val Willams and Susan Bright, was the fresh impetus given to the beautiful portraits of destroyed faces by Percy Hennell. Hennell was a technically inventive specialist in colour photography who worked in the Second war in a number of Royal Air Force hospitals. Many of his pictures of the reconstructive surgery undergone by patients (often after severe burning) are in the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons. We stare at a Hennell sitter with a terrible mixture of pity and fear and relief that such a thing has not happened to us. We also stare hoping against hope to find legible marks of character behind the disfigurement. In Hennell’s pictures, the mask is often of a peculiarly extreme kind. It is a still a mask, but made of flesh itself. And that, oddly, seems to be not so extreme after all. It seems that all faces are masks when seen in a certain light.

Percy Hennell, Wartimne injury of the left eye which has been removed and replaced with a flap of skin taken from the scalp or forehead which is bandaged, n.d.

Percy Hennell,
Wartime injury of the left eye which has been removed and replaced with a flap of skin taken from the scalp or forehead which is bandaged, n.d.

The phrase at the top of this page is from Thackeray’s English Humorists, where he writes in the chapter on Swift: “Harlequin without his mask is known to present a very sober countenance, and was himself, the story goes, the melancholy patient whom the Doctor advised to go and see Harlequin”.

John Ramsden – Everyday Life Continued

The independent Museum of East Asian Art in Bath, England, has a terrifying time-line on its website:

“In recent history, Hanoi became the capital of Vietnam, when the North and South were reunited at the end of the Vietnam War (1955 – 1975).

During the 1980s, Vietnam was recovering from years of turmoil – not only from the 20 year war that had just come to an end, but also the preceding French-Indochina War (1946 – 1954) and Sino-Indochina War (1979).  Although still locked in a series of conflicts throughout this time with Cambodia (The Cambodian-Vietnamese War 1975 – 1989), everyday life continued.”

There must be name for the figure of speech in those last three words – it’s not quite bathos, is it? Whatever it’s called, it’s savage.

The reason I was browsing the website – indeed the reason the timeline is there – is that in 2010 the Museum of East Asian Art showed a number of pictures from a remarkable archive.

John Ramsden – from Hanoi, 1980 –1983

John Ramsden – from Hanoi, 1980 –1983

John Ramsden – from Hanoi, 1980 –1983

John Ramsden – from Hanoi, 1980 –1983

John Ramsden was posted to Hanoi between 1980 – 1983 as a senior British diplomat there, Deputy Head of Mission. He was a wholly amateur photographer, but the fact that he was able to photograph there at all was extraordinary.  Film was in very short supply, and he had no easy access to a darkroom: all his films had to be processed on occasional trips to Bangkok. More than those logistical problems, relatively easy to solve, was the fact that there were very few Western people on the streets then, and that inevitably, as Ramsden himself puts it, he ”stuck out like a sore thumb.”  Yet he encountered no opposition to his presence or his camera, even when he photographed such things as the local power station, which one would have thought an obviously sensitive subject in an excessively poor country whose infrastructure had just taken the mother and father of all beatings.

John Ramsden – from Hanoi, 1980 –1983

John Ramsden – from Hanoi, 1980 –1983

Ramsden made something close to 2000 pictures in his time in Hanoi, just walking or bicycling the city and the outskirts, and he has begun to find that they strike a rich chord most notably with the young generation of Vietnamese people.  A recent brief exhibition in London was put up with the help of two UK organisations of Vietnamese professionals, and the hope is that they will be able to raise funds to send them to Hanoi later this year.  The pictures will then have come full circle.

When you meet John Ramsden he is quietly bowled over by the gentle resilience of the Vietnamese.  The toughness of those young people in London he has got to know through the project to get the pictures seen strikes him hard: many of them arrived very young in London to study, with neither relatives here nor the English language.  That throws him back to his experience in Hanoi in the early 1980s, when he found nothing but kindness and interest despite, as he acknowledges, the great majority of local people hardly being expected to tell him from an American, the nation which had until so very recently being straining every sinew to wipe Hanoi off the map.  But then, he adds, they did win.

A once-famous picture by Tim Page shows a Cobra helicopter pilot at Dau Tieng in 1969.  He is in silhouette, faceless, just the necessarily animate part of the war machine. A row of those droll stickers that Americans affect, like bumper mottoes, to advertise their places in the grand scheme of things are just legible down the side of his helmet. “Bomb Saigon Now”, says the upper one. “Bomb Hanoi Now”, the next. “Bomb Disneyland Now”, the third.  The punchline? “Bomb Everything.” People in Hanoi knew what that meant, all right, and it wasn’t a joke.

Times change, and John Ramsden finds that many, perhaps now a majority, of Vietnamese people are flabbergasted to see what Hanoi was like in 1980.  It had been mauled by war for years – that timeline again ­– but it hadn’t been mauled by globalization.  When you look at these pictures, you see a poor city but one built at the human scale.  Ramsden clearly liked it very much as a city, as well as liking the people who gave it its character. Hanoi is unrecognizable and I’m not sure it’s so easy to like the raging metropoles of Asia any more.  All over the world, people have flocked to cities in the hope of ‘making it’.  I forget the date – it has either just been or it’s just about to pass – when more than half the world’s population will live in cities.  1980 is not that long ago, but it’s a generation.

There is a footnote.  There are more photographs than we know what to do with.  Staggering volumes of pictures are uploaded to social networks every day, far more than anybody could ever need or be able to see.  Pictures are taken for no reason, ‘shared’ for no reason, stored for no reason.  The vast majority of them are just digital noise, a background roar of visual stimulation which gets in the way of clear seeing. John Ramsden was a modest photographer of no great pretension. He used the camera to get to know the city, perhaps also to shield him a little as he exposed himself to it.  Yet it is important that his pictures have survived because they can do a job for people who were all-but deprived of photography for a long time, and that time is long enough ago that memory of it is beginning to fade.  His pictures might simply have sat on hard drives, as they had no doubt sat (before he scanned them) in boxes or envelopes. Rescuing them and getting them seen adds to the number of published pictures.  But these are not just noise.

It is the fact that it is Vietnamese people themselves who are driving the project to get these pictures seen that is striking.  I’ve written it before but it bears repeating that the full content of pictures is just as much made by those who see and use them as by the photographers (or camera operators) who did the original practical business.  Pictures only really acquire any importance when they have something to do. Here is a fine example of a group of pictures which have found their purpose.  Call it what you like: documentary, memory, perhaps even something tending towards conscience.  Between a former diplomat with gentle eyes and a new generation of people who are hungry to be shown what they cannot recall, these pictures have quite suddenly become something.  They’ve become an asset and a collection of stories and an invitation to understand more clearly.  That’s what we call an archive of photographs, and it matters for all sorts of reasons which were not predictable when the pictures were first made.

John Ramsden – from Hanoi, 1980 –1983

John Ramsden – from Hanoi, 1980 –1983

John Ramsden – from Hanoi, 1980 –1983

John Ramsden – from Hanoi, 1980 –1983

John Ramsden – from Hanoi, 1980 –1983

John Ramsden – from Hanoi, 1980 –1983

John Ramsden – from Hanoi, 1980 –1983

John Ramsden – from Hanoi, 1980 –1983

John Ramsden – from Hanoi, 1980 –1983

John Ramsden – from Hanoi, 1980 –1983

John Ramsden – from Hanoi, 1980 –1983

John Ramsden – from Hanoi, 1980 –1983

More information on John Ramsden’s photographs from Hanoi can be found on the website

http://www.hanoispiritofplace.com/

 

Caught in Transit: James Newton’s To / From

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

I liked these very much at the Format Festival in Derby, running in March and April 2013.

In humdrum fact, if you can’t quite identify them, they show fingerprints and hand marks on the rear doors of Ford Transit vans.

People who are reading this from outside Britain may be mystified, so it is worth explaining that White Van Man became a stereotype of all that was rude and boorish and xenophobic about the British working man.   He was a kind of recidivist Thatcherite, not the self-interested bourgeois that Baroness Thatcher thought she was addressing, but the thuggish know-nothing she appealed to in practice. The idea was that any lout could set himself up in business if he could only equip himself with a van:  no skills or aptitudes needed.  The Sun newspaper, itself the natural reading of White Van Man, ran a column for some years in which (real or imaginary) White Van Men sounded off about the topic of the day.  White Vans became a staple of comedians and sub-comedians of the Top Gear kind.  Bores and pundits on the radio and TV routinely generalised (often in incredibly ignorant and prejudiced ways) about what White Van Man thought or felt or did.

So it is witty of James Newton to have sent all this snobbery packing.

In less humdrum ways, these become quite evocative.  They are a merciless send-up of Alfred Stieglitz’ Equivalents, for a start.  Stieglitz was not really pretentious.  He didn’t mind a bit of urban squalor at all.  He just came over a bit that way when he turned his camera up to the clouds.  Here he is at the end of a piece called How I Came to Photograph Clouds (The Amateur Photographer & Photography, 1923, Vol. 56, no. 1819, p. 255.): “My aim is increasingly to make my photographs look so much like photographs that unless one has eyes and sees, they won’t be seen — and still everyone will never forget them having once looked at them. I wonder if that is clear.”  Well, actually, Alfred, not very, although I think I’m trailing along some way behind.

More often than not, though, Stieglitz was on the right side.  When it mattered, his opinions were both plain and sound. “Seeing needs practice — just like photography itself.”   He put that it into his “Twelve Random Don’ts”, published in Photographic Topics 7 (January 1909), p. 1.  Both of these quotes from Stieglitz, by the way, are here thanks to the fine critic of photography A.D.Coleman, who put them on his Photography Criticism Cyber Archive, from where I copied them some time ago.

The Newton pictures, beyond their elegantly cumulonimbic or cirriform shapes, are in fact plainly members of two photographic sub-groups.  They are documentary photographs, which make some reflection upon the way that even ultra modern man, Samsunged up to the eyebrows, still has a manual relation with his tools (for the White Van, as a vehicle, is only a sophisticated development of tool).  One of the many memorable passages in Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects is when he describes a hand-axe from the Olduvai Gorge (between 1.2 – 1.4 million old): “ For most of human history, there was only one thing that you really needed in order to travel – a stone handaxe.  A handaxe was the Swiss Army knife of the Stone Age, an essential piece of technology with multiple uses.  The pointed end could be used as a drill, while the long blades on either side would cut trees or meat or scrape bark or skins.  It looks pretty straightforward, but in fact a handaxe is extremely tricky to make and, for more than a million years, it was literally the cutting edge of technology.”

Well, James Newton has found a piece of equipment that goes back all that way. It is still the hands which have to get in the van at some point and get a hold of something. It is by the hands that Sherlock Holmes could most certainly tell the profession of everyone that he met.  White Van Man might not know what to do with an Olduvai pattern handaxe, but he has the same basic obligations.

Handaxe from the Olduvai Gorge.

Handaxe from the Olduvai Gorge.

The second sub-group these deceptively simple little pictures belong to is more obvious:  they are plainly a Typology (I’ve given it a capital because it’s a word that seems to occur mainly in the context of endlessly similar photographs).  We know what a typology is: the visual identification by photographs of some recurring pattern not deliberately imposed by any author, but that crops up as the shared solution of a given set of variables.  Crowned head typologists, of course, were Bernd and Hilla Becher, who showed that industrial structures needing to achieve the same compromises between function and cost often took on remarkably similar forms even when no architect was involved. But typology has become a little corrupted in photography:  too many photographers have trawled the world making the same photograph again and again without really stopping to consider which variables they had found or whether they were worth finding.  It is a mistake, for example, to claim to make typologies of people in uniform.  The reason those conform to type is not because they represent equal solutions to parallel problems, but because somebody designed the uniform to make them look the same.  Some of what Sander did, some of the Bechers, many others are wonderful eye-opening discoveries of pattern and conformity.  But that shouldn’t give idiot photographers a licence to pump out photographs by formula:  heaven help us, there are too many pictures in the world as it is.  But James Newton has found a real typology:  these little marks are not planned, and they are telling.

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

The smoky patterns could easily be a captured representation of the pollution that all White Vans cause.  Indeed, in perfect fact, they are.  For the grime on the door panels is certainly for the most part the particulate matter that all those diesel engines throw into our city air.  We live in a system that requires the rapid transport of materials and goods to satisfy absurdly urgent needs for consumer gratification.  It is not at all rare in Britain for a certain kind of person to change their kitchen every two years.  And to do that, they summon fleets of White Vans hither and yon.

It’s fun to find all that in handful of pictures of dirty doors.

James Newton can be found via www.highchair-editions.co.uk/, where he sells prints and books of photographs, including one of the To / From series.  These pictures should be snapped up immediately by anybody who likes the way photography can be both exquisitely particular and abstract at the same time. I hope they look lovely printed in the book (I haven’t seen them) but I would really like to see them printed as photogravures.  There is something about that register of flat dirty greys which just begs for top-class photogravure printing.  Stieglitz would have understood.

Paola De Pietri and the Effort of Memory

Fay Godwin, Markerstone on the old road from London to Harlech, 1976

Fay Godwin, Markerstone on the old road from London to Harlech, 1976

Years ago I formulated a serviceable description of the great British landscape photographer Fay Godwin as being largely interested in places that had once been more important to people than they now were.  It didn’t apply to everything she did, but it was a start.  Fay was never interested solely in what the land looked like.  She was interested, if one can put it this way, in what the land meant.  She read landscapes for their old palimpsests: the layers and layers of stories each of which had left a trace to be unearthed by an eye as sensitive as hers undoubtedly was.  It was archaeology without spades.  She photographed drovers’ roads knowing that half the population today aren’t quite sure what droving is, let alone where its roads had to go.  She photographed the great stone circles at places like Callanish, knowing that there is nobody alive who knows quite how they worked, whether as giant calendars, or as cathedrals or what.  See those things well enough, Fay felt, through her photographs, and you had a chance of reading stories there you never knew before.

There are several British photographers who have inherited some of Fay Godwin’s passion for the traces of the past on the land.  Photography always has a smell of history about it: you photograph that which you know will change faster than the picture.  That’s why, in a world where absolutely everything seems to be photographable and photographed, the odd things that escape are those which are just so familiar that it seems inconceivable that they might change.  We photograph our holidays, and have done for many generations.  But how many of us find once we move house that we have never photographed our neighbours, the nice guy who runs the corner store, the commute to work, even our own front door?  The corollary is true, too: that pictures which are stumbled upon which have a particular redolence of a past we thought had gone have a hard emotional effect like a blow.

As a small child, I used to share with my brother something we called the Whirlybird.  No idea if that was what it was really called, but it was a kind of pushme-pullyou, self-propelled roundabout or carousel.  Pull the handle, push with your feet, and it span.  We lived in Washington DC then; I assume the thing was American. I live in England now.  I’ve described this thing to many English people and they shrug. The other day, I found a picture.

Two Small Boys on Their Whirlybird, Washington DC, 1963

Two Small Boys on Their Whirlybird, Washington DC, 1963

There is the machine itself, a fact proven to be rightly remembered. But it’s a photograph, not just a datum.  I can’t resist that date-stamp on the picture margin, as much a part of my childhood as the Whirlybird itself.  And of course, any self-respecting childhood memory should have that dappled sunlight, the suggestion of great heat in the minimal clothing and soaking children.  Photographs are intimate historical things.  It’s not just that they preserve; they suggest or assert, they correct where memory was fogged or wrong. We react to them each according to the complex of our own cultural baggage.  That was not a Whirlybird; it was my Whirlybird.  You need the understanding of the past and the picture to work in tandem: the picture does not simply supply that understanding ready-made.

Fay Godwin understood that with deep conviction.  A moor, a bridge, even a peat bog were things that meant something hugely different to a person who had walked them than to one who had not. You read the landscape, at least in crowded little Britain, where every mile bears traces of man’s activity, with your feet as much as with your eye.  Fay was President of the Ramblers’ Association for a period – she started walking because a doctor had told her that her health might benefit from it, and she became a monster pedestrian, always laden with cameras, frail but indomitable.

I see the same combination of drives in the fantastic pictures from Paola de Pietri’s To Face.  These are not new: The project won the Renger Patzsch award of the Folkwang Museum in Essen in 2009. Some of them were in the (brilliant) multi-artist show Topographies de la Guerre, at Le Bal in Paris in late 2011. Steidl published them last year and the book has, I believe, already sold out. But they are being shown at Milan’s Museo di Fotografia Contemporanea from 1st March 2013, as part of the Milan Triennial, and anyway, there’s no season for good photographs.

Paola de Pietri - Piccolo Colbricon, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Piccolo Colbricon, 2009 – 2012

Paola de Pietri - Cason D'Ardosa Monte Grappa, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Cason D’Ardosa Monte Grappa, 2009 – 2012

Paola de Pietri - Forcella Fontanegra, 2009 -2012

Paola de Pietri – Forcella Fontanegra, 2009 – 2012

I called these pictures fantastic not in the teenage sense of unmitigated approval, although I like them very much, but in the older sense of having to do with phantasms.  There is a haunted quality about these pictures which is what strikes me first about them.  Some of them have fog, sure enough, or at least strange effects of dense air which blot out the farther slopes to leave the nearer isolated and as if suspended.  De Pietri has rightly judged that wreaths of semi-substantial fog are the right material to describe a haunting: a thousand movies have seen to that, and plenty of books before them.

Haunting is the point.  For these are pictures of the terrain of one of the maddest wars ever fought, the trench warfare between Austria and Italy that took place in the First World War at 2000 metres in the Alps and the Prealpi and in the Carso. These are places where it is hard enough to walk a few miles, leave alone kill people in large numbers.  Even when de Pietri’s light is deep and crisp and even, like the snow in the carol, there is a haunting in the visible traces of the structures of warfare.  Here a trench, there a cavernous opening to a bunker.  The core reaction to these pictures is the same for everybody: what were they thinking of?  What madness was this? The effort of shifting rock at that altitude, to make warfare more like what people expected in the plain, may be incomprehensible to anyone who is not a ranking officer graduated from strategic school.  These pastures and escarpments, beautiful by all the standards of aesthetics since the eighteenth century, were killing fields.  Thousands and thousands of young men perished here.

No doubt a different kind of photographer would have found a different kind of evidence.  I can imagine – indeed a very moving text (published in the Steidl volume) from 1967 about these places, by the fine Italian writer Mario Rigoni Stern confirms – that one could find smaller bits of evidence by lowering one’s eye to the ground.  Bullets, preserved bits of metal from uniforms or equipment, even bits of bone.  All the routine jigsaw pieces that archaeology uncovers when it is done with a spade.  I have in mind for example, the Forbidden Forest, the terrifying series made by Jonathan Olley on the theme of unexploded ordnance still cluttering the area around Verdun, another horrific First World War battlefield in another country.  Olley wandered around with his head down, finding amid foliage the bright orange painted warnings on rusty bombs that are still so numerous that they will take dozens of years to find and make safe.  The Great War is nearly a hundred years ago.  But its ghosts are still pretty active.

The only really close parallel that I know is the series of pictures of the Angolan border by Jo Ratcliffe, about the territory of a much more recent war, and much more obviously personal.  If I remember, friends and acquaintances of Ratcliffe’s had gone to that war as conscripts in the South African army, and part of her motivation was to understand what had damaged them so badly but that they spoke about so little. It isn’t a neutral kind of imagery, even though the gore and the horror have been removed.

Roger Fenton - The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855

Roger Fenton – The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855

Think back many years to the birth of war photography and to Roger Fenton’s (still) incredible Valley of the Shadow of Death, from Crimea.  I have seen it suggested somewhere that he may have had assistants move the cannonballs to be closer to the camera.  He may:  there are certainly suspiciously few of them at the farther reaches of focus.  But still, nobody can contemplate the density of those things on the ground without seeing that it must have been impossible to live while they were falling. It’s a picture of a hail storm of red-hot, very heavy cannonballs, each not only deadly, but deadly in peculiarly cruel and dreadful ways.  It’s as horrific as anything James Nachtwey or Susan Meiselas or Dmitri Baltermants or George Rodger or Don McCullin would produce. Yet in the whole of Fenton’s valley, there is not a corpse or a bloodstain, no writhing figures (à la Beato in the Indian Mutiny or the Opium War). It’s one of the great metaphorical photographs.  We can’t help but think of the horror, without having it thrust in our eyes.

And that is another point.  Paola de Pietri’s series is not merely a neutral chronicle of a historically disturbed patch of ground.  It is a series that will have deep personal echoes to all sorts of people, starting with herself.  For whatever reason, she must have walked those steep slopes with heavy equipment.  I don’t believe that you can do it any other way.  And in doing that, the photographer was echoing the weary trudging of the soldiers who built these crazy fortifications.  The soldiers may have had mules: de Pietri maybe had colleagues, for all I know.  Still…

Paola de Pietri - Cason D'Ardosa, Monte Grappa, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Cason D’Ardosa, Monte Grappa, 2009 – 2012

It reminds me of those pictures one sees of Machu Picchu, always from slightly above to get a bit of valley in as well as the ruins.  As though the very act of constructing in the mountains were mad.  Do Italians feel about De Pietri’s pictures as Scotsmen feel about the valley of Glencoe?  Do these still, high places carry a burden of loathing and of guilt which we outsiders cannot grasp, looking maybe at a computer screen or a nicely produced art publication?  They do.  I’m sure they do.  But like Fay Godwin’s pictures, they are good enough that by seeing, we have a chance to understand at least some of it.

Paola de Pietri - Forcella del Col Del Bos, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Forcella del Col Del Bos, 2009 – 2012

‘Traditional’ mountaineering photographs go long on two things.  They emphasize the sublime grandeur and wilderness of the mountains.  And they concentrate on the athleticism and daring of the climbers.  Other things – including the increasing negative effect that climbing has on the environment, not least in the appalling litter climbers think nothing of leaving behind on the very mountains they wax so eloquent about – are not part of the canon.  Here, Paola de Pietri has made a vocabulary peculiarly well suited to her very different tale of the mountains.  It’s in part of vocabulary based on looking for clarity and finding it not so easy to grasp. No long views anywhere, even though we are 2000 metres up.  Absolutely no wilderness, if wilderness means untouched by man. Odd patches of snow sit in dips like the temporary cloths men put on new graves or even like the marble of grave stones.  Physically quite small alterations to the landscape carry large suggestions: an embrasure big enough to poke a machine gun through is not a very big hole. I find myself asking: does every soldier digging a foxhole know that he is digging his grave? Always she shows that haunting, by shrouding vegetation or by the closing in of the clouds.

Paola de Pietri - Col Formiga, Monte Grappa, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Col Formiga, Monte Grappa, 2009 – 2012

In some of them, I admit that I don’t know exactly what I’m looking at.  Some of the little constructions could be the work of shepherds, sheep cotes or shelter.  Some could be natural, the result of frost and water, normal erosion. Are those rocks shattered by shellfire?  Is that more level platform a former camp? I don’t need to know every detail to get the message.  You could imagine a film maker putting a classical Agnus Dei – maybe the great distressing one from Haydn’s Mass in Time of War – over these pictures.  They reek of the cruel idiocy of man to man, and nearly a hundred years later, they speak gently of the long, slow recovery as memory fades imperceptibly into history.

Paola de Pietri - Monte Ermada, @009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Monte Ermada, 2009 – 2012

Paola de Pietri - Forte Verle, 2009 -2012

Paola de Pietri – Forte Verle, 2009 -2012

An English king’s body was identified the other day, Richard III’s, lying under a car park in Leicester.  There was a certain amount of civic pride, a little talk of how wonderful archaeology was, with its high-tech comparisons of mitochondrial DNA and its super accurate carbon dating.  A few, a very few voices were raised in the media shouting “Hold on, stop !  This man very probably murdered two young potential threats to his power, and he died a hideous death in battle. ”  He died in 1485, shortly before Columbus sailed to America.  Many of Fay Godwin’s scratches and markings on the land are as old as we can reasonably go back, Neolithic things, among the earliest traces on our country of all. Those traces, high in Paola de Pietri’s mountains will slowly become even fainter.  But we have the pictures, and they are great monuments.  We have the invitation to understand.  We don’t necessarily have understanding itself.