Who Says it’s Good?

Frank Brangwyn,  Preparatory study for the Skinners' Hall Murals, c.1905.

Frank Brangwyn, Preparatory study for the Skinners’ Hall Murals, c.1905.

In photography we have no or few shared standards. The camera club virtues (perfection in the craft skills of photography at the expense of any or every notion of expressiveness) are not by any means to be mapped to the virtues aimed at by the members of World Press Photo, artists working in photography, or professional wedding photographers.

It is not, in general, a very controversial thing to say that “we have standards”. It is not awkward to expect that some jobs are better finished than others.

Try to get a little more specific than that, though, and standards are fiercely difficult to apply. In photography, as in many art forms, we resort to the crude ways of keeping the score of the hedge-fund or the investment bank: numbers and particularly currency numbers. Platinum records, best-seller lists, highest-grossing film releases… The great auction houses routinely spew out press releases announcing the breaking of this or that ‘record’. Their diligence must have contributed a lot to the fashionable notion of art as an investment area. Do note that they never send out releases announcing unsold works in a sale or a price well below that expected. To get those figures calls for investigative reporting, and that, for complicated reasons, barely exists anymore.

Photography — although not immune to that kind of lowest-common-denominator boosting system (see for example the self-promotion of the Australian landscape photographer Peter Lik, who claims on his website as at September 2015 “to now hold four spots out of the top twenty most expensive photographs ever sold” ) — has not so far succumbed wholly to it. We can still see that lots of good or excellent pictures have not sold many times or for high digits, and also that lots of money continues to be made by pictures plainly junk.

Drifiting Shadows by Peter Lik.  My spellchecker unkindly offered YUK as a suggestion for the name of the photographer.

Drifiting Shadows by Peter Lik. My spellchecker unkindly offered YUK as a suggestion for the name of the photographer.

To rank any artworks higher or lower by more subtle gauges than those of the stock exchange ticker is to invite contradiction or dispute. People quite naturally disagree with rankings, propose alternatives, scoff at comparing what they consider non-equivalents… If it seems probable to me, say, that Pat Barker is a “better” novelist of the Great War than Sebastian Faulks, (which it does), am I immediately looking for a punch in the mush from some outraged fan of the opposite persuasion? I could make arguments to back up my claim – starting with the coarse circumstantial one that Faulks, former books editor, male, and fully paid up member of the London literocracy, has had a number of advantages in generating favourable attention that Pat Barker has not had. I could add a few more of these broad contextual strokes, and then dance into the texts, and so make my case.   But why would I? What does it mean to invite comparison between one artwork and another? How does the unexceptional thought that there are standards become transformed into bellicose or at least provocative dispute as to what exactly they might be or where they might precisely be found?

I don’t exactly know. But I do know that the weaselly pretence that all art in any domain must be equally good is just a flight from a difficult series of questions. Without shared standards – which some artworks must almost by definition fail to achieve – we can only be subjective. Aside from the question of all those photographs with good pretensions to excellence but no pretensions whatsoever to art, you might well feel that in the criticism of photography we’ve had quite enough of that. Subjective judgment is the rule not the exception, and no attempt to systematize that seems ever to have got much traction. My feeling is that this is not a flaw but a natural consequence of some of the central elements of the medium.

Several modes of criticism quite routinely cohabit. Which is the same as saying that a number of separate standards are in operation. There is what we might call the style of the late Sir David Frost – in which everything is “Super, Super”. By that standard, the work under consideration is always excellent. Good things that went before – and most especially better things that went before – have no place at the table. This is the standard of the press release, and the press release is a form of writing which has grown exponentially during the ‘information age’ of fast digital communication, and whose influence, I think, has grown much more in the art world than is easily realized.

I can’t say I have lived through the invention of the press release. US sources routinely credit Ivy Lee with that, for the controlled way he managed news of an Atlantic City railway crash in 1906. (Upton Sinclair, in his novel The Brass Cheque – in which Sinclair gave an account of Lee’s corrupt handling of the press on what became called the Ludlow Massacre, a mining strike in 1914 which escalated into violent reprisal ­– scathingly dubbed Ivy Lee “Poison Ivy”.)   I suppose there have been people detailed to claim the attention of the press from the art world as long as there have been mass media. But the role has grown and spread and drawn little comment in doing so. Now we’ve reached a point where even the tiniest arts organization has a PR person – or an account with a PR firm. Individual artists have PR people, all furiously spinning away. Public cultural institutions spend tax-payer’s money on PR, wads of it. There has grown up and flourished a kind of art-writing which is no more than reheating the press-releases that these people pack up and pump out, and it sometimes is pretty disgraceful.

In photography, notably, where there are very few specialist critics, one can trace press releases right through into general acceptance. As a person in the business I receive a lot of press releases and I can often see large chunks of them appear in finished articles over the name of a supposed ‘reviewer’ or ‘previewer’. Even when that isn’t quite so, even when the words are altered, I can see the point of view of the release unquestioningly reproduced with no more than a shift of expression. In an era when deadlines are tight, and when ‘content’ is so often no more than space-filling, when pay for arts journalism has barely increased since the 1980s and journalists are under more pressure to produce stuff than to make it interesting (or right), one can have a certain sympathy. What is a writer to do, asked to produce three hundred (or seventy-five!) words on an artist they’ve barely heard of in a field whose very Peles and Maradonas are all-but unknown? That’s what the press release is for. But perhaps what comes out of that system shouldn’t be called criticism. It’s something else: puffery if you’re feeling nasty, background information if you’re feeling generous. Reheating a press release may let a reader or a listener know what’s going on; but it will hardly inform her or him.

I can’t prove it, but I think one could say that there’s more writing in the information age, and less reading. People read fast, they are satisfied with the surface reading, they don’t use much detail. Whereas the production of texts rises and rises. Many of them are produced to sell something, only it doesn’t necessarily appear so in the final context.

That’s the world of press releases. It cannot be discounted in seeking to understand what standards apply. Photography is the area I know, but I doubt it’s very different elsewhere. Culture is made to fit into the system we operate, and is divided up to be sold as product. A great deal of what purports to be criticism is too close to marketing for comfort.

But not all. Some still argue that technical perfection is the only standard worth achieving. A ‘good’ photograph then becomes a well-executed exercise in doing what cameras and computers can do[1]. A lot of people sneer at that: it brings to mind camera-club contests in which producing even curves in Photoshop is more important by far than having anything to say. I’m the first to say that I’m not specially interested in ‘perfect’ pictures of ‘perfect’ drops of water falling off the very end of ‘perfect’ rose leaves. But sneering is no good. A great deal of the photography that we are most influenced by is made along precisely those lines. Much more commercial photography is made like that than perhaps we notice. Car pictures – ever so shiny. Travel pictures – no politics. Fashion – has to show the clothes. Portraiture, lifestyle, below-the-line, art, sport… The rules by which serious and experienced professional people judge photographs in their particular neck of the photographic woods are often particular, sometimes absurd, and not always tenable in the abstract.

A Weasel Rides on a  Woodpecker, by Martin Le-May, 2015.  This picture 'went viral' and one can see why.  Nobody who saw it had ever seen such a thing before.

A Weasel Rides on a Woodpecker, by Martin Le-May, 2015. This picture ‘went viral’ and one can see why. Nobody who saw it had ever seen such a thing before.

Even news photography, which you would have thought has to confirm most of all to the grim hurly-burly of the real world, is often made according to a series of arcane rules about what it is or is not acceptable to do to a photograph between capturing it and letting audiences see it. The recent and ongoing kerfuffle at the World Press Photo about manipulation is revealing[2]. I attended one of the meetings and was shocked by the almost religious inflexibility of a certain kind of working photojournalist, who really believes that his or her pictures somehow tell pure truth, and not only that, but that he can recognize such a thing when he sees it. There are still news photographers – plenty of them –who are convinced that truth is to be measured in pixels unaltered in a file, but not — say — in the editorial stance which chooses which horrors are newsworthy and which to be ignored[3]. The very notion that the in-camera and in-computer algorithms without which their pictures don’t exist might themselves build-in certain distortions away from Truth is unthinkable. Not to mention the ‘human algorithms’ of media owners and editors and marketing people…

Photography can and does deal in certain moderated versions of truth; but the virtues which aim at that are hard to reconcile with those that aim at winning hearts and minds to a sale or a belief, or making persuasive autobiography, or inviting viewers to share subtle or otherwise nearly-unattainable emotion. Historical evidence would tend to show that photographs have been asked to do many things, and that ways have been found to do all of them exceptionally well. There is not much evidence that we all recognize the same virtues when we call a picture ‘good.’

We can sneer at camera club rules by all means : the prissy precision, the lack of tolerance for doubt or ambiguity, the rejection of metaphor and wit, the preaching only to the like-minded… but if we do, we have by the same token to sneer at lots and lots of photographic activity which is usually deemed more important, more interesting, or more influential than that.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander ( The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ), photographed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino.  Famous, famous photographer.  shall we be charitable, and say simply that everybody is allowed an off day?

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander ( The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ), photographed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino. Famous, famous photographer, but the picture?  Shall we be charitable, and say simply that everybody is allowed an off day?

I continue to believe that we are less confident in arriving at shared standards (however modifiable or temporary) in photography than in any other cultural activity I know of. I don’t hear people hesitating to rank pop songs or movies or books. Yet we commonly really hesitate to say “this is a better photograph than that”. Or when we do, we fall back on absurd mechanisms to justify it. One is the one I mentioned further back: if we leave a space in applying standards because we don’t quite know which standards to apply, the whole press release industry will be quick to step in to the void.

The other is related, but slightly different. It’s the grim culture of name-checking. Annie Leibovitz worked for years for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair and so on. She has had books published by such eminent publishers as Jonathan Cape and Random House.   Good galleries have sold her prints. Does any of that make any particular picture by Leibovitz any good?   It does not. Do people cite these things as though it did? They do. This speaks to me of a lack of confidence in those making judgment.   We are too far along the many roads of photography ever again to think pictures good merely because they are sold at White Cube or Gagosian, shown at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, or written about in the Journal of Visual Culture.

From Be Bold With Bananas, published by Fruit Distributors Ltd, Banana Importers of Wellington, New Zealand .  Undated but 1970s. I seem to have come to this amazing book later than many others.  I was pointed to it by Rudi Thoemmes.

From Be Bold With Bananas, published by Fruit Distributors Ltd, Banana Importers of Wellington, New Zealand . Undated but 1970s. I seem to have come to this amazing book later than many others. I was pointed to it by Rudi Thoemmes.

Photographs are often given their importance by someone other than the photographer. I am beginning to think that a fine ‘receiver’ of photographs can make any photograph ‘good’, whatever its previous status. More than that: I find myself wondering whether I have ever known a photograph to matter at all until it has been granted the extra heft of somebody somehow receiving it and giving it its position in the world. Receiver of photographs? Well, a number of roles centre around receiving photographs carefully: picture editor, internet harvester, lawyer, curator, creative director, collector, art director, critic, historian, designer … I’d like to add photographers; but their inclusion confuses the issue.

Fundamental among them, however, are what used to be called laymen, who are sometimes now called the general public (the contempt for their not being specialists is barely concealed). It is among those who don’t make the pictures but who read them or use them with care and culture that I think the standards are set. Many of those people are not ‘image-professionals’ in any real sense. A trivial family snapshot, recovered a generation later by strangers, is not much without the simple accolade of a plain caption of place and date. But much can easily be made of it. Think of the novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs[4]. This odd best-seller was apparently written in part around the vintage photographs which dot its pages like milestones. The pictures are anonymous, salvaged. They were nothing. Now they are something. Riggs treated them as material for his book, in the same way that he treated his own memories, odd facts about places (like Wales) and so on. That doesn’t necessarily give them excellence. But it does take them straight from their pre-Riggs indifference to something which only a very small proportion of the floods of photographs ever acquire: once they’ve been in the novel, they are interesting. You could look at them in detail. You could write about them. You could start to work out stuff about their puncta and their studia.

I think this counter-intuitive idea of pictures acquiring whatever importance they have later in their existence is important. We are used to thinking the opposite: that pictures conform to a pre-photographic pattern whereby they are either pregnant with importance or not from the outset.   You are commissioned to paint the walls of one of the Scuole in Venice. The job will be important; you can depend on it that future members of the guild will ascribe to the pictures the importance that they have from the outset. Art historians and curators and others could add to the lustre, but probably not create it outright. That was the usual pattern in the days when pictures were rare, and the pattern which we thought would not change as they grew more common. But everybody is a picture editor, now. My 12 year-old son pointed out the absurdity of an advertisement on TV in which a computer-generated time-lapse medieval town growing at speed was shown on a landscape which anachronistically contained an unmistakably twenty-first century wind farm. The CGI needed a base, he said, with neither any great sense of showing off, nor any great wonder, and the base hasn’t been properly cleaned. The customer is an experienced editor, now, even when he’s twelve.

This corresponds to a wider shift. All over the intellectual landscape, mandarinate and professional specialism are having to share space with broader and unmediated access to knowledge and opinion. Interest in history has been shifted from professional historians to a wider group coming at it from angles in ‘heritage’, genealogy, town-planning, tourism, and so on.

So in photography, all sorts of people are now routinely in a position to grant to pictures a status they did not have before. We can no longer assume that pictures are important just by virtue of being pictures. Grant them a modicum of thought, of emotion, of context, however, from whichever angle, and they can be given that importance at any stage in their trajectory. Find a way to tell the story of pictures and they become more than they were. I even wonder whether the great shift towards multiple readings and alternative but equally valid positions which is such a mark of the intellectual colour of our time, at least in the more-or-less liberal West, did not in fact originate in photography .

A number of the better histories of photography consider ‘alternative’ pictures (those which had no place in the previous formal history) and give them leave to elbow themselves into contention. A fine example of this is Ian Jeffrey’s ReVisions – the magisterial catalogue of the first exhibition at the (former) National Museum of Photography Film and Television in Bradford after a major rebuild and rehang in 1999. Jeffery talks about ‘homeless’ pictures – those which don’t fit comfortably into whichever plodding conventional value system dominated at their time. But it is hard to ignore that it is his own attention granted to them — often a hundred or more years after they were made — which in fact finds them a home. The minute they found a way into the show and the book they weren’t ‘homeless’ any more. Photography seems to be cumulative in a paradoxical way: as soon as sustained attention is granted to a photograph, it becomes capable of bearing sustained attention.

A magazine sub-editor writes a caption about a topical sports picture; and the picture which was one of twenty or a hundred under consideration to occupy that particular space on a page, has suddenly acquired a context. It’s gone from being graphic ‘noise’ – we might almost call it a potential picture – to being a whole picture, with a modicum of meaning, history, value and so on. A lot of photography is recovered through the internet, edited into modern versions (or parodies) of the old cabinets of curiosities. Just as it wasn’t obvious that the stuff in the Wunderkammern was interesting until it was just there, with just those other objects to left and right, just that owner, and just that audience, so it seems that pictures are often nothing until they are given a place in the world and in our thinking. That place may be granted formally or informally, but the granting seems always to have to take place. A hard drive full of images is neither a work of art nor a research database nor a ‘collection’ until somebody says why they’re there, or why she thinks they’re there, or suggests something one can take from their being there. A single picture held to a refrigerator by a magnet may well be a more telling piece of communication; it very likely is. At the very least, somebody has chosen it over others to occupy that place where it is to be seen. The Dutch curator Eric Kessels recycles old, often anonymous pictures from flea-markets into something that matters much more than it ever did when the pictures were still part of the life-baggage of the original owners. Who then is the real source of the meaning and mattering in the pictures – anonymous and unconscious photographer, or active and deliberate curator-creator?

From In almost Every Picture No. 9, collected and edited by Erik Kessels.  A brilliant book about a family's inability to photogpraph their black dog.

From In almost Every Picture No. 9, collected and edited by Erik Kessels. A brilliant book about a family’s inability to photograph their black dog.

I look around and I see the same phenomenon everywhere. Crap pictures from stock libraries enormously enlivened by a smart context in advertising. In many books by W.G. Sebald, the pictures are a ‘source’ for the text, but even as they inform the writing, they are granted by it a status they didn’t have before. I once spent a considerable amount of time researching a carte-de visite of an unnamed young man. It remains probable (but I was never able to prove) that it was the earliest known photograph of Vincent van Gogh. The photographer didn’t particularly care: a client. The various owners whose hands it had passed through didn’t particularly care: a picture. If I had been able to join up the dots, though, it would have been a historical document and no doubt quickly a well-known one. A nothing photograph becomes a something photograph at an unpredictable point in its continued existence, and the transition from nothing to something is by no means always along predictable lines. That is the lesson we learn. The root sense of the word curate is to take care of something, and by extension, to care about it. Taking care of photographs seems to be in a very real sense the crowning element in creating them. Only occasionally is the extra mattering granted to the pictures by the same person who made them.

That throws a rather different light on criticism, of course. Because if I’m right, and pictures are more usually dead until somebody’s act of caring breathes life into them, then criticism ( in the widest sense ) makes the pictures. They may never have said or contained what the critic claims they say or contain until after he or she has written. But nothing can take that content out of them afterwards.  Seen in that light, well-known pictures are in some way the accumulation of the various intellectual and emotional positions that have been held about them; less well-known ones have less of that heap of ancillary content, but if they’re under discussion at all, they have the beginnings of it.

I understand that all this might sound like special pleading on my own behalf.  I have never been a photographer, after all, and have certainly been a receiver of photographs in one role or another for many years.  What could be more natural than that I should argue for the primacy of my role and for understating of the role I have never had?  All I can say is that I think the argument has validity notwithstanding my own position and in spite of it. Put simply, I think we all finish photographs in our own ways;  I just happen to represent that more specialised type who has tried to make a living at it.  That’s only a question of degree.

How does this get us to the question of standards in photography?  It seems that photographs are hardly finished until they are ‘cared for’ – which may be as simple as pinning them to refrigerators, as it may include writing scholarly catalogues of them. The caring does not require any special language, does not presuppose any particular purpose, and nor does it have to address an audience self-identified as having any special aptitude.   I have described this elsewhere as finding or granting to photographs whatever ‘mattering’ they might be said to bear.   It may well be that this extraordinary attribute, of being incomplete until under interpretation, lies at the heart of our historical difficulty in finding shared standards in photography. It may be mildly depressing to have to admit that there is no such thing as a good or great photograph – only a good or great response to it. But it is also an extraordinary confirmation of many of the central strengths of photography.

Photography is portable, transmissible, transcultural, available to almost everybody to make and receive. It has an intimate proximity to reality and yet is separate to it. It has always been vernacular. It is a kind of time-machine. It is capable of triviality beyond endurance and yet is the main visual literacy of all of us and many of the various truths we know we know through photographs.   If no photograph is fully made until someone confronted with it finds that it moves him or her to a reaction, then photography is even more pliable and supple a thing than we knew.   It has no standards of its own. It merely challenges us to refine our own standards in the face of it. To receive photographs well then becomes to keep one’s own relevant standards in mind, to keep them ready for revision or refinement, and to hold the photographs up to them so that the light of each shines on the other.

I cannot tell you what particular intellectual equipment must be brought to bear on any photograph. Any one of them may need historical, moral, scientific, visual, social, sexual, verbal, mythical sensitivities or others, in combination or together. But they do need some of those things to be engaged if they are to be more than dumb slices of reality on a page or a screen. No engagement (I’ve called it no ‘caring’) means no mattering. Under the system I’m describing, photographs not only remain capable of analysis – which they must do if they are to be treated as plain ordinary cultural objects like any other – they actively need it. However rudimentary or vernacular that analysis — it may be no more than the choice of a place — it is that which makes a photograph complete.

We can conclude that pictures are not made just to be seen. They are made to be thought about. The question then shifts. It is not mysterious that different people judge photographs by different standards. The question is no longer how good is the picture, but who says so, and how good are the standards that they apply?

[1] Few of us realize how far the technology is ahead of any real control, however. For just a flavor of this, cf. Stephen Mayes, The Next Revolution in Photography is Coming, Time, Aug 25, 2015. http://time.com/4003527/future-of-photography/

[2] The Integrity of the Image, World Press Photo Report by David Campbell, November 2014, available online at http://www.worldpressphoto.org/sites/default/files/upload/Integrity%20of%20the%20Image_2014%20Campbell%20report.pdf

[3] I wrote the first draft of this in the days immediately after a number of Western tourists were killed in an Islamist attack at a hotel in Sousse, Tunisia. In the UK coverage (a number of the victims were British) no mention was made of how very odd – I almost use the word provocative – it is to remove almost all of one’s clothing in public in a Moslem country. Yet that is what many of those who were killed had done. The truth is not limited to their corpses in the sand. It would have been difficult (but I insist it would have been possible – if only because so many ‘impossible’ pictures have been published before) to make pictures which addressed this question of the colonialism of mores. Selective distortion of this kind is the norm in photojournalism; don’t let any photojournalist tell you that her truth is The Truth.

[4] I am grateful for this reference to my fellow-critic Colin Pantall, who I think liked the book better than I did. But he had read it when I had not yet heard of it, and kindly passed it on.

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.

W.G.Sebald – Not so Great with Pictures

On 14 November 1997, W.G.Sebald, in a beautiful but curiously frustrating interview with Christian Scholz, answered a question put to him as follows:

WGS:  Strange things happen when you aimlessly wander through the world, when you go somewhere and then just want to see what happens next.  Then things happen that no-one is going to believe later. And what comes next is very important: it is necessary to somehow capture and document these things.  Of course, you can do this through writing, but the written word is not a true document, after all.  The photograph is the true document par excellence. People let themselves be convinced by a photograph.

He went on to describe a particular night at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam:

WGS: I have actually found myself in this situation on several occasions. Again and again there are situations where you think that this is impossible, that it cannot be, [situations] where you would really have to take this snapshot. For example, it happened to me recently at the Amsterdam airport; when I had to sleep there overnight because the entire airport was fogged in and none of the planes could take off, after midnight everyone was stretched out horizontally on these sofas on the upper floor of the departure lounge. They were covered with the kind of thin blue blankets provided to the campers by KLM. An extremely ghostly scenario – human beings that, laid out like the dead, were lying curled up on their side or very rigidly on their back. And outside, through the windowpane, was the mirror-image of the interior.

From such constellations arise possibilities about which you can then reflect. And they can be verified only through an image that was taken. Otherwise, you think , oh well, that’s yet another extravagance of this writer, who came up with it,  who extends the line of what  happens in reality in order to get something out of a work with a certain meaningfulness or symbolic value. But these images are actually there.

Elsewhere in the same interview, Christian Scholz asked him:

CS: Does that mean that you see the image only as a fragment of narrative?

WGS:  Yes. It can be a landscape, a person, an interior. But that’s something that drives me to look more carefully into these things. For me it has an effect that is familiar from my childhood: there were these ‘Viewmasters’ into which you could look. You had the feeling that with the body you are still in your normal bourgeois reality. With the eyes, however, you are already in an entirely different place: in Rio de Janeiro or at the passion plays in Oberammergau or whatever else could be seen at that moment. I always have the feeling with photographs that they exert a pull on the viewer and in this entirely amazing (ungeheure) manner draw him out, so to speak, from the real world into an unreal world, that is the world of which one doesn’t exactly know how it is constituted but of which one senses that it is there.

CS: Or at least that it was there.

 WGS: Correct.  But the fact remains: each image interrogates us, speaks to us, calls to us.

 So he went on, meandering around and saying these oddly banal things. Yes, sometimes you see things that one wouldn’t quite believe without a photograph to confirm them.  It’s a cliché that witnesses to exceptional happenings frequently fall back on “It was like a picture” or it was “like a film” to underline the exceptionality of what they saw. Yes, a picture can set off a train of thought.  Yes, of course, a picture can transport one in imagination….Sebald said some mildly interesting things about Kafka and pictures, and he said one really very odd thing about how the grey areas in pictures, neither black nor white, represented purgatory, this vast no-man’s-land where people “were permanently wandering around and where one did not know how long one had to stay there,  whether this was a purgatory in the Christian sense or just a kind of desert that one had to traverse before one reached the other side.”

Apart from that outburst, it was banal.  And yet.  In that interview (which I have only just read) Sebald confirmed something that I had long noticed in his books, but never quite put my finger on.  Sebald’s use of photographs in his texts seems so exciting, when you discover that the poorly reproduced, apparently captionless picture you’ve been wondering about has in fact been captioned by several pages of text. But Sebald had consistently removed authorship from photographs.  Pictures were either his own (as several are acknowledged to be in his books) or they were just grist.  No matter what the provenance, no matter that the author (or a probable author, a near-identified author) was actually known, Sebald preferred his pictures anonymous and would strip an author away from them if they weren’t.

Look again at the various passages I’ve quoted above (I’m sorry they’re so long).  They’re amazingly, stultifyingly, conventional.  It’s a revelation.  Sebald, who in his writing with radical grace blurred the distinctions between novel and memoir, history, travel writing and journalism, that Sebald, the insouciant funambulist between fact and fiction, could be, when it came to photographs, a plodding bore.

The interview is in a dense and intermittently interesting book[i] whose subtitle is Photography after W.G.Sebald.  It’s a given. Sebald was a wizard with words so it stands to reason:  he must have changed the way we deal with photographs, too.  Only it’s false.  He did nothing of the sort.  He’d read his Barthes and that’s about it.  He used pictures as unattributable gobbets of fact upon which to hang the whirling tangos of his written allusions.  The very idea that a photographer might himself have been able to make metaphors escaped him completely.  Because in the end, even for a writer as free as W. G. Sebald, the superiority of the writer over other artists is inalienable and needs no proof.

I have a paperback of John Berger’s The Shape of a Pocket.  It’s a collection of essays, not quite Berger’s finest, but containing – as you’d expect – a lot of very good stuff.  The cover (it was published by Bloomsbury in 2002) shows a picture by Peter Marlow.  I did a little double-take when I saw it: it’s cropped, and clumsily.  You expect that from publishers.  They treat pictures, as Sebald does, as grist.  But to crop this one, here, that takes some doing.

I’m not a blind fan of Magnum, an institution whose glorious left-wing shirt is getting threadbare.  Magnum now is not so exceptional, a commercial picture agency with a rich archive, but all the same… Whatever the corporate failings, it still does have more than a few photographers who know their arse from their elbow, and Marlow is one of them.  Marlow has been President of Magnum more than once.  He’s a craftsman and an artist and a man who has found ways of saying important things in photographs. For a commercial designer at Bloomsbury simply to crop one of his pictures badly is one thing:  it must have happened to Marlow before, and it will happen to him again.  But on the cover of a book by Berger?  That same John Berger who in dozens of essays has honoured photographs as so much more worthy of reflection than his generation had realised?

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, Primrose Hill, London 1999.

The picture is called The Eclipse, and it was made on Primrose Hill, in London, in 1999 when there was a full eclipse of the sun. The same Primrose Hill that nearly saw an eclipse in 1963 when Bill Brandt had Francis Bacon walking down it, when the three little park lights could only just hold their own against one of Brandt’s darkest skies

The Berger book contains eight details culled from Marlow’s photograph, scattered as ‘frontispieces’ to various essays in the text.  Again, the cuts are made with a kind of numbness that slightly beggars belief.  I hope – I really hope – that neither Marlow nor Berger made them.  But I can’t believe that either could have done.  Not all essays get one. There seems very little direct reference when they do. None carries a caption;  you have to search in the boring ‘legal details’ at the front of the book for a tiny credit that covers them all.  None necessarily refers to – let alone illustrates – the text it accompanies.  This is “photography after Sebald” with a vengeance.  The pictures, made not by a photographer but by a designer using him only as a supply of raw material, are allusive, but only ponderously so.  A very largely white crowd, obviously waiting, with odd episodes of blurred movement or interesting collisions if you look closely. Opposite a page entitled Michelangelo is a blurred figure more obviously connected to Francis Bacon than anything Michelangelo ever did.  A dullard in a black tee-shirt videos him. The faces, and sometimes the bodies, are turned in various directions.  This is the kind of incidental interest you get if you look with attention at any busy photograph, perhaps a little more closely than usual, or perhaps with a lens.

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 1

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 2

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 3

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 4

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 5

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 6

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 7

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 8

They are nice enough, these slices taken from the larger picture. It’s a good crowd scene, no doubt about it, well made and well seen at a time of cross-tensions and cross-purposes. It’s never a bad thing to look more carefully at a good photograph. This one reminds me a bit of that other crowd-scene, also on a hill, that Robert Doisneau made in 1947, Cyclo-Cross at Gentilly. The skyline is made of the same human palisade.

Robert Doisneau. Cyclo-Cross at Gentilly, 1947.

But you know what?  They wouldn’t have used Marlow’s (again and again in the same book) if it had been called ‘Crowd waiting for the off at the Derby’ or ‘Crowd waiting for the anti-Blair, anti-Iraq war demonstration’.  They wouldn’t have used the Doisneau, come to that. It is pathetic, but there is something about the cheap ‘cosmic’ meaning of an eclipse which is supposed to add a little pepper to the Berger book. As a matter of fact, you can’t tell by looking at it that it was made before an eclipse. Marlow’s title, The Eclipse, is never given in Berger’s paperback.  But the smell of the eclipse is purported to linger on it. The whole crew of designer, editor, publisher, and perhaps author, who all knew the title, felt its magic still. That’s the legacy of Sebald, if you like. It is so reactionary it’s appalling:  it’s a photograph being chopped up and used not for its (very interesting and skilfully achieved) visual content but for the cheap scent of its title lingering on. Blimey, Mr. Berger.  How ever did that little demonstration of contempt for photography go out over your name?

This is visual Muzak.  It’s using the barest bones of Marlow’s work – an expectant crowd – to offer a gentle pause between the supposedly arduous heights of Berger’s sensitivity.  At the very most, it makes some oblique claim that all of us, every member of every crowd, are implied or addressed in Berger’s critique of the visual. Dozens of people have reworked photographs with more zest and sparkle than this.  At the high end, look only to Gerhard Richter or Thomas Demand or John Stezaker or Maurizio Anzeri or Julie Cockburn.  Or look on any teenager’s bedroom door.  Pictures do get another life when found, graffitied, snipped, decorated, jammed up against unlikely neighbours.  Even W. G. Sebald admitted as much.  But they don’t get that life simply because the title alludes to something which might have rich metaphorical content.  Pictures are pictures, not shorthand for words.



[i] ‘But the Written Word is not a True Document’. A conversation with W.G. Sebald on Literature and Photography, by Christian Scholtz, translated by Markus Zisselsberger.

Published in Searching for Sebald : photography after W.G. Sebald. Edited by Lise Patt, with Christel Dillbohner, Institute of Cultural Inquiry, Los Angeles , 2007.