To Recognize What We Were

 

Mother0013

Matthew Finn: From Mother

There are lots of accounts in photography of intimately close relationships.  Of course there are, since you could say simply that photography has become the ‘natural’ medium of affection.  Every family album is affection congealed in physical form.  Every photograph framed in silver then perched on a mantelpiece or a piano was an attempt to hold on to affection – even if only dutiful affection.  Usually these worked in the absence of the person photographed; occasionally as some more ideal version of that person than the flawed daily one of wearied familiarity.

At this usual, simple level, the photography seems to play a relatively straightforward role.  There was a relationship: this is what the people involved looked like when they were tidied up for the camera.  But sometimes the photographs in some way are the relationship itself as distinct from a record of it.

Ledare_MomWithMask_2002_151

Leigh Ledare; Mom with Mask, 1972. Leigh Ledare provides only an example among very many of the infinite complexity of tales which can be told or acted out in photographs.

No doubt Matthew Finn’s extraordinary set of pictures of his mother Jean fall into that category.  They were made over a period of very many years, and the fact of the pictures — the need to make them, the act of making them, the results of making them — must have changed the relationship between them.  She’s his mother; but she’s also performed for him the part of his mother.  He’s her son; but he also acted the role of the photographer.  Remember that in spite of the pictures, we actually know very little of their relationship.  We know that together they acted out a version of it, and that version was for our consumption.

Hockney's Mother

David Hockney; Mother, Yorkshire Moors, 1985

A number of years ago, David Hockney made one of the most tender of his ‘joiners’ as a portrait of his mother.  The joiners were collages – multiple photographs which mimicked the flickering way the eye moves over and around a subject.  Hockney wanted us to linger over the face of his mother as he had often done – and a single photograph would have been too easy to ‘get’ then dismiss as a single framed bit of information.  So he borrowed from Cubism the habit of looking from several points of view at the same time.  Hockney’s mother has three or four noses, three of four mouths; you see her head from the left and from the right. Yet none of that dodgy anatomy matters at all so long as you see her slowly.  That turns your glance into a caress and so allows you to reproduce some of the caress of Hockney’s own way of looking at her, his eye travelling gently over the many surfaces of her face.

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Matthew Finn; From Mother

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Matthew Finn. From Mother.

There is a lot in that notion that affection takes time to record.  Matthew Finn’s act of photography is moving partly because it took so very long.  If so much photography has the throw-away quality we understand by the snapshot, then surely its opposite might be true:  slowly made might imply great value.  And slowly made might be an invitation to look slowly, too.  Nicholas Nixon’s mesmerizing photographic project — The Brown Sisters, in which he photographed his wife and her sisters every year over a lifetime, and they age and change before our eyes like a flip book in slow motion — is another good example of the same thing. Matthew Finn’s mother ages and sickens through the photographs as she aged and sickened through time. Quite impossible simply to glance and go.

Jacob Israel Avedon 1972

Richard Avedon; Jacob Israel Avedon, Sarasota, 1972

Photography is complicated.  It’s by no means always just the slowness of the process which asks our attention.  Richard Avedon made a monumental series of portraits of his father across the end of the 1960s and the opening of the 1970s. Jacob Israel Avedon goes from business attire to hospital gown as the series develops.  His face becomes gaunt, his expression agonized like a medieval painting of a martyr. They’re simple pictures, close-to, no background, yet we can actually see the growing bond as the repeated performance took hold of them both.  Avedon wrote with emotion of the experience of making them — in a way which is perhaps relevant to Matthew Finn:

“At first my father agreed to let me photograph him but I think after a while he began to want me to. He started to rely on it, as I did, because it was a way we had of forcing each other to recognize what we were. I photographed him many times during the last year of his life but I didn’t really look at the pictures until after he died.

They seem now, out of the context of those moments, completely independent of the experience of taking them. They exist on their own. Whatever happened between us was important to us but it is not important to the pictures. What is in them is self-contained and, in some strange way, free of us both.”

Forcing each other to recognize what we were, he said. It’s a beautiful phrase, and one which says a lot about the misunderstandings between children and their parents.  Was Matthew Finn looking to recognize what his mother was?  Was he allowing her — in a reversal of the usual power relations between parent and child — to express herself as a mother?  Or was he trying to hold sand on a fork as time kept on sliding by?   We don’t need to know.

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Matthew Finn; From Mother

We don’t even know what to call this kind of photography.  It has in it something of autobiography, of course;  something of documentary; something even of performance or play.  There used to be something called ‘concerned photography’, a phrase long out of fashion now. It tended towards social issues more than personal ones.   Matthew Finn’s long collaboration with Jean is all of these things and none of them.  Do we mind which category it falls under? All we can see is the intensity of his looking.  He stared a long time like a hawk at his mother.  And she never blinked back.

 

 

Mother, by Matthew Finn, was shown at Francesca Maffeo Galery in Essex. I wrote this little text to accompany the exhibtion, and both photographer and gallerist have been gracious enough to let me reprint it here. The book of the series has recently (2017) been published by Dewi Lewis with an essay by Elizabeth Edwards under the ISBN 978-1-911306-14-6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Almost Forgotten by the Dwellers in Cities

The estuaries of rivers appeal strongly to an adventurous imagination.

Joseph Conrad, the Mirror of the Sea

N. Kander triptych from the Dark Line

Nadav Kander, from Dark Line – the Thames Estuary 2017

You wouldn’t think it, but the Thames is a secret river.  Great sandbanks which stretch roughly North-East–South-West defend its mouth from anything of much greater draft than a Viking longship.  Those banks have hard names that sailors fear:  Galloper and Shipwash and Long Sand and Sunk Sand and Kentish Knock and Margate Hook and Shivering Sand …  Separated by narrow swatchways and gats, and with ferocious tides made worse in particular wind directions, those sandbanks are the real secret of London’s wealth.  There’s something like a 24-foot rise of the tide at springs at London Bridge.  Bretons can deal with that, but not many others can.  There are few higher tidal differences in the world. If jingoist British historians used to boast that no-one had successfully invaded England since 1066 (barring such trifling visits as that of 1688, for which they could find easier names than invasion), it is really those shoals they had to thank.   For a low-lying harbour in a broad estuary, the Thames is ferociously well defended.

That estuary, by the way, is ill defined. Take a sensible view on a large-scale map and the greater Thames mouth stretches from the North Foreland, where the Kent coast bends sharply south, to Bradwell-on-Sea, where the Blackwater curls out around the Dengie Marshes or even to Walton on the Naze beyond Colchester.  That larger Thames includes vast areas of marshland: at Tollesbury, for example, or around Canvey Island, which gives perspective to a landscape today populated with out-of-town industrial development of all kinds.  It’s not properly a secret landscape, since so many people live and work there. Yet enterprising film makers keep on finding that people don’t really recognize large parts of it.  Go for a walk around Dengie and you aren’t in the familiar suburban outer London at all. I imagined for years that Dengie was so wet and wild that it had given its name to its own virulent form of temperate-country malaria, but the fever is spelt Dengue. Although it is certainly true that there were fierce malaria-like agues in the Essex marshes, it seems implausible that the two words are in any way connected. Yet the very real wildness of the marshes remains another of the defences at the mouth of the Thames, and another of the secrets it holds from those who go no further east than the Tower.

Of course, men added to those defences: you can still go and spend a windswept hour on the boulevards of the fort at Tilbury, a wonderful Vauban-like design of pointed bastions more romantic by far than its unpromising location in the flat riverside Essex marsh.  The present fort was built in bolt-the-stable-door reaction to a humiliating Dutch invasion of the Medway by a fleet led by Cornelis De Witt in 1667. John Evelyn called that  “a dreadful spectacle as ever Englishman saw and a dishonour never to be wiped off”. It was at the earlier fort on the same site that Queen Elizabeth, in the press of the alarum of the announcement of the Armada, gave one of the lauded speeches in the language:

 “I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.

I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King — and of a King of England too — and think foul scorn that Parma of Spain, or any Prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm. I myself will be your general, judge and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.

How many modern readers know what stories lies concealed in the three words there – Parma of Spain?  Parma’s not in Spain; we still know that much.  Parma was in fact Alessandro Farnese, the greatest of a great condottiere family, who made his career in the service of Spain.  It was Farnese’s campaigns that secured the Southern provinces of the Netherlands for His most Catholic and Hapsburg Majesty, Philip II (Grand Master of the Order of the Golden Fleece, King of the Two Sicilies, Archduke of Austria, Count Palatine of Burgundy…).  You could certainly say that it was thanks mainly to Farnese that Belgium remains a separate and Catholic country today.  As a historical figure, he’s extraordinary:  as a young man he fought at Lepanto; and as an old one was the nominal commander–in-chief of the Armada.

The Armada didn’t do its work; thanks more to those winds and tides and sandbanks than to any great sailoring. The great fleet was scattered: a wreck from it is one of the attractions of Tobermory, on the island of Mull, and there are others dotted around Ireland.  England remained Protestant.

Various other invasions have been thwarted by the skin of English teeth.  As late as 1939, a chain was stretched from Shoeburyness to Sheerness across the estuary to rip the keel off unwelcome visitors – and that chain was seriously considered for replacement in the 1950s to deter any Cold War visitors by submarine.

It may be odd to start thinking about the Thames in military terms.  It’s a great trading river, one of the great ones of them all.  The John Company ships, the Australia clippers, the cogs of the Hansa…those are the ships one should really think about on the Thames. But the trade relied on its military strength.  The great warehouses of the Pool are all inland from the great shipyards, at Chatham and Deptford, with the huge arsenal at Woolwich:  the Thames has its defensive ring, all right.

I said it was a secret river.  Fairly recently, a sensitive and leisured generation has opened up the Thames path, not only down the length of the rural stream through Oxfordshire and Berkshire, but right through London, too.  The river bank is now accessible, perambulable.  Bikes and baby-buggies can take the air along it.  Londoners can lean on a wall and watch baulks of timber racing down the tide.  Until recently, that was unthinkable, certainly in the great port city itself.  Every inch of frontage was a warehouse; with only the narrowest alleys between down to the foreshore.  You can still get a hint of what it must have been like in some relict streets of Wapping and of Rotherhithe and of Bermondsey.  The Thames was a filthy stream, and crowded beyond anything that we know of it today.  Only on exceptional occasions (the waterborne jubilee of the present Queen Elizabeth, the celebrations for the millennium…) has the river anything like the press of shipping it had every day until recently.

The Thames had the peculiarity – because of those same tides – of not being a city of quaysides.  Only in the nineteenth century, when the great docks were dug out (bigger and deeper and more recent, in proportion as they are further downstream from the city) did quays come to be a London thing as they are almost everywhere else.  The London docks were industrial spaces, working areas, and even had they not been hedged about with tall walls to keep goods in and pilferers out, they were neither respectable nor safe; no flâneurs there, and because there were no quays, no flâneurs closer to town, either. Until containerization and a series of dock strikes closed the inner docks and moved the trade to Tilbury (where the container port is on private land and therefore protected by laws of trespass as much against unsanctioned union activity as against theft) dockers used sometimes to walk from one side of the Pool to the other across the decks of ships: quicker than walking around by the bridge if there was work to be had.  But ordinary Londoners knew nothing of that, as they knew nothing of the lanes of Dockhead or Pierhead.

When Conan Doyle wanted to hide a Londoner in plain sight, as Poe hid his letter upon the mantle, he hid him as a beggar.  In The Man with the Twisted Lip, a seemingly respectable gentleman from Lee, in Kent, hides his true occupation from his family by going up to town every day and getting changed and made up into the appearance of a disfigured beggar, in which guise he makes more than £700 a year – a lot of money, then.  Where else to make his transformation but in the secret alleys of the riverside, less known to respectable persons than many places thousands of miles away?

Upper Swandam Lane is a vile alley lurking behind the high wharves which line the north side of the river to the east of London Bridge. Between a slop-shop and a gin-shop, approached by a steep flight of steps leading down to a black gap like the mouth of a cave, I found the den of which I was in search. Ordering my cab to wait, I passed down the steps, worn hollow in the centre by the ceaseless tread of drunken feet; and by the light of a flickering oil-lamp above the door I found the latch and made my way into a long, low room, thick and heavy with the brown opium smoke, and terraced with wooden berths, like the forecastle of an emigrant ship.

One odd consequence of all this this secrecy is that every Londoner has his or her own private gazetteer of the Thames. It has opened up a great deal. The Clean Air Acts have blown away the smoke and smog which used to be its daily cover and the water itself is much cleaner than it was. Seals are regularly seen at least as far as the Isle of Dogs in London, although the attempt to restock salmon seems to have failed so far. Salmon were once abundant in the Thames: eighteenth-century London apprentices went on strike demanding they be fed salmon no more than five times a week. Yet the Thames is still hardly a place of great public water frontages or promenades.  For every great palace on the river, for each of Greenwich and Somerset House and the South Bank opposite it and Hampton Court and the mother of Parliaments, there are miles and miles of undistinguished workaday frontage, still today.  Brentford Dock is a very Thames-typical place, to me.  The canal comes out there, quite far upstream of the twin cities of London and Westminster, through an untidy copse of boatyards and boatsheds, under a main road.  The towpath of the Grand Union canal, which has run all the way from Birmingham and beyond, stops a few hundred yards short of the Thames: a messy little bit of navigation for the commercial boatmen from the river to the first lock.  One of the last regular cargoes, once a week by water until the early 1970s, was the order of Seville oranges for the chocolate factory at Bournville.  So Brentford, surprisingly, for it is miles inland, was once a port of disembarkation – and there are still improbable Customs notices on the wharf to greet those touching UK soil for the first time there.

Thames lighters look like huge floating skips, really.  There survive a few, docilely towed by engined craft and picturesque enough in their way.  But the lighters used to be one of the great menaces of the London river. When carrying down the canal system from inland, it was quicker to continue down the canal to Brentford than to turn at Bull’s Bridge onto the Paddington Branch and the Regent’s Canal through north London. Cargoes were transshipped from canal narrowboats into lighters which drifted down on the tide to the seagoing vessels in the docks or the Pool of London.  The lighters had no engine, often had no means of steering beyond a huge steering quant; even when they did have a tiller and a rudder, without an engine they were helpless for anything but the stateliest of changes of course.  Going upstream, they were grouped and towed as we know today when they couldn’t ride up on the tide.  Downstream, they drifted singly, each bouncing its way through whatever shipping might be in the way. Lightermen acquired a reputation for exceptional toughness and the worst language, and small wonder.

When my friend John Cronk got divorced and wanted to stay near his children he bought a workaday houseboat moored by Kew Bridge. It had been a brothel at some point, and had far too many bedrooms, each in cheap pine cladding with a tele on a bracket up near the deckhead.  There was a bar, either presumably for the gentlemen to wait until their particular friend was available, or for them to muster up the grim cock-courage of liquor.   John got to know a lot of secret Thames people living there, some of them as established as land-dwellers, but many not: a curious shifting population of people unsettled in both senses, restless people, people up one minute and down the next, like the tides.

That great flat–bottomed converted steel barge needed maintenance every year or two; I can’t remember if they actually scraped its bottom, but I think that was the sort of thing.  De-rusting and re-waterproofing.  To do it, the boat had to be cumbrously unbolted from the side, floated off the steel cradle on a concrete bed that normally kept it level, and towed by a hired tug (or a dragooned friend) across to a Brentford boat-yard.  One year, a man working under her was killed when the boat shifted while this work was going on.  John, as the owner, seemed plausibly to be technically responsible even though the work was being done by a boatyard he had contracted with.  For quite a while he was worried that he might have to face some kind of charges. I don’t know how the story was resolved: an agreement between insurers, most likely.

That’s one of my secret places.  Eel Pie Island is another, with the ghost of its Eel Pie Hotel, one of the high places of British rhythm ‘n’ blues.  I never went there – it burnt down before I was old enough; but I went often to its less-louche cousin, the Bull’s Head in Barnes.  Eel Pie is hardly a great island.  Old maps call it an ait, which is more like it.  It still has an artist community, not exactly seedy, but definitely on the Bohemian side. As joke-Bohemian places like the mudflat moorings at Cheyne Walk became ridiculous (in price; in pretension; in people), a genuine London Boho would move upstream to Eel Pie if he could. I once ruined the engine in a Volvo 480ES by driving it along the tide-flooded length of Chiswick Mall.  I was in a queue of traffic, slowly wading through shallow water behind many other cars doing just the same.  Every other car made it just fine; but I didn’t know that the air intake of those cars was very low, between the front wheels.  I do, now.  So Chiswick Mall became a secret place of mine that day.  The Isle of Sheppey is a secret place of a different sort, a curiously beautiful little hill above the mudflats.  I used to like the stumpy surviving arm of the Grosvenor canal, under the distinctive chimney of the pumping station by the railway tracks into Victoria.  Pimlico Boating Station; the Dove at Hammersmith; the terraces of St. Thomas’ Hospital, Barking Creek and the Bow Back rivers, the Gallions Hotel…

All Londoners have associations of this kind with the river.  They may not see it for many weeks on end – because one can cross it on the tube without knowing it’s there.  But that sudden catch in the breath from the sheer breadth of sky above the water is familiar to all.  It’s not just Wordsworth who found the river startlingly beautiful when the smoke cleared by chance.  Monet did, too, and his studies of the light changing over the Houses of Parliament are ‘secret memories’ of many of us.  Bill Brandt’s seagull wheeling past the shipping is one of mine, too, and so are the long thin Whistler sketches.  Not all secret memories of the river are simply of actual places. Snatches of song count, too.  (When Ian Dury died, his family threw his leg-iron and one of his walking sticks into the Thames off Hammersmith Bridge). Books make plenty of memories, too: Magwitch out on the marshes.

Many generations before the canal system was built, the river had always been alive with small craft.  Quicker for almost any London journey of any length to go north or south to the river, take boat, and then go south or north from the nearest stair to the destination.  Read Pepys and he’s forever leaping into a boat – and not just because of his job.  He was a great naval administrator, and probably took a few more rides on the Thames than most, but everybody above the breadline did it from time to time. Now, in addition to the tourist boats, the fast connections to the investment bankers at Canary Wharf signal the reopening of a long history of the Thames as an efficient internal highway as well as the great external highway of the world.

The few surviving oarsmen, with their boathouses at Putney and elsewhere, are the last traces of one of the great outdoor leisure crazes, when late-Victorian and Edwardian Londoners flocked to the nicer bits of the river to learn the muscular habits of the watermen. If the Head of the River and the Boat Race are more or less absurd today, it’s peculiar to recall that they once drew crowds in the hundreds of thousands, when the river shed its working clothes and became an animated playground for the day. In the same way, the nearest London ground for the illegal bare-knuckle prize fights was at Moulsey Hurst, south of Hounslow, and Pierce Egan, the great pioneer sportswriter, often describes the crowds pushing their way down there to see Jem Belcher or Tom Cribb. Egan’s long written commentary (‘Key to the Picture of the Fancy Going to a Fight at Moulsey-Hurst‘) on Robert Cruikshank’s twelve-foot caricature of the crowd going down for one such match is a kind of early nineteenth century reality show. It’s there to entertain and to inform, but it is essentially true. The famous Globe theatre within a few yards of the river on Bankside was next to a bear-baiting ground, now less famous. Vauxhall Gardens, like the boxing grounds, was home-from-home to scallywags as well to fine gentry. The Thames ran through the middle of London’s entertainment as well as its trade; and every Londoner to this day has some association there, even if it is only an office party on a rented steamer.

I like the urban myth that the tidal flood alarm rings when the water level goes into the mouths of enough of the decorative lion’s-head mooring rings.  When it was originally told me, it was as an actual alarm of some kind.  Since then, I find no circuitry but a rhyme:

“When the lions drink, London will sink;
When it’s up to their manes, we’ll go down the drains;
When the water is sucked, you can be sure we’re all … in trouble.”

It sounds like an ancient vulgar London nursery rhyme – yet the lions can only have been put there after the Thames was Embanked by Joseph Bazalgette late in the nineteenth century.  And the thought of Bazalgette, of course, brings up the thought of the great sewerage system he built, with its magnificent cathedrals of shit at Abbey Mills and Crossness, still there in all their cod-Byzantine glory.  Bazalgette built the Embankment, essentially a hollow dam from Tothill Fields downstream.  The District Line trains run within it; and when fibre-optic cables were new, a company hired space through the hollow to run speedy connections to the city.

T.S. Eliot knew all about the secrets of the Thames.  In the Waste Land he talks of how ‘it sweats oil and tar.’  The Dry Salvages, the third of the Four Quartets, begins with a rich passage about the Mississippi, which Eliot would have known as a child growing up in St. Louis, and which is very Thames-like as he describes it:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river

Is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten

By the dwellers in cities – ever, however implacable,

Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder of

What men chose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated

By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

The river is within us….

 

Londoners will recognize that.  The river is within us. Perhaps the way to describe it as the subconscious of Londoners.  You don’t have to know of the buried rivers, the Neckinger and the Effra and Counters’ Creek and the Fleet which flow down to the Thames to understand how the river acts on Londoners as a mix of the individual and the shared. All Fulham fans know about the Thames at their backs; all Millwall and Charlton fans, too — although their bits of the river may not be quite so intimately close. Everybody whose car is lifted high on the giant QEII bridge between Queenhithe and Purfleet gets the view of the skyscrapers far to the west and the tankers moored almost on the mud below. Yet those very public vistas, the obvious ones, are not the ones that make up our own maps.

There is a story I like very much in Conrad. (There are lots of stories I like very much in Conrad, but it’s of this one that I’m thinking.) I’m sorry that it’s long, but Conrad likes to get his pipe well in between his teeth when he tells a story, even such a little one as this.

Behind the growth of the London waterside the docks of London spread out unsuspected, smooth, and placid, lost amongst the buildings like dark lagoons hidden in a thick forest. They lie concealed in the intricate growth of houses with a few stalks of mastheads here and there overtopping the roof of some four-story warehouse.

It is a strange conjunction this of roofs and mastheads, of walls and yard-arms. I remember once having the incongruity of the relation brought home to me in a practical way. I was the chief officer of a fine ship, just docked with a cargo of wool from Sydney, after a ninety days’ passage. In fact, we had not been in more than half an hour and I was still busy making her fast to the stone posts of a very narrow quay in front of a lofty warehouse. An old man with a gray whisker under the chin and brass buttons on his pilot-cloth jacket, hurried up along the quay hailing my ship by name. He was one of those officials called berthing-masters — not the one who had berthed us, but another, who, apparently, had been busy securing a steamer at the other end of the dock. I could see from afar his hard blue eyes staring at us, as if fascinated, with a queer sort of absorption. I wondered what that worthy sea-dog had found to criticise in my ship’s rigging. And I, too, glanced aloft anxiously. I could see nothing wrong there. But perhaps that superannuated fellow-craftsman was simply admiring the ship’s perfect order aloft, I thought, with some secret pride; for the chief officer is responsible for his ship’s appearance, and as to her outward condition, he is the man open to praise or blame. Meantime the old salt (“ex-coasting skipper” was writ large all over his person) had hobbled up alongside in his bumpy, shiny boots, and, waving an arm, short and thick like the flipper of a seal, terminated by a paw red as an uncooked beef-steak, addressed the poop in a muffled, faint, roaring voice, as if a sample of every North-Sea fog of his life had been permanently lodged in his throat: “Haul ’em round, Mr. Mate!” were his words. “If you don’t look sharp, you’ll have your topgallant yards through the windows of that ’ere warehouse presently!” This was the only cause of his interest in the ship’s beautiful spars. I own that for a time I was struck dumb by the bizarre associations of yard-arms and window-panes. To break windows is the last thing one would think of in connection with a ship’s topgallant yard, unless, indeed, one were an experienced berthing-master in one of the London docks. […] I answered him pettishly, I fear, and as if I had known all about it before.

“All right, all right! can’t do everything at once.”

It’s a properly London vision. Ninety days out of Australia, presumably with real danger to avoid. Conrad loved ships, and respected that a high spar goes around in a dancing circle of huge diameter on the sea. Half an hour in a London dock, and he’d forgotten. He might have knocked some panes out of a warehouse.

Well, I could go on but I’m warned away. Hilaire Belloc was a wonderful writer about water and the sea. His description in the Cruise of the Nona of sailing through the Portland Race is one of the great passages of descriptive prose that I know. Yet Belloc was dull about the Thames, his book about it no more than a piece of hack-writing. My own unconscious Thames sounds ponderous when dredged like this and brought to light. But what brought about this fit of river-gazing?

Nadav Kander has made a new series on the estuary, and part of it, at least, touches that same collision between private and secret with what appears to all. It is plausible to say that Kander’s greatest series so far is the one that won the Pictet Prize, on the Yangtze. It was a marvellous set of landscape photographs, but that was only its substratum. What the Long River is really about is how the little people are left behind in the new giant China, world power. Picture after picture shows huge infrastructure that the ordinary people cannot reach. A man washes a motorbike under a vast bridge with no possible way for him to ride along the top of it. There’s splendour; but also a fierce contrast between China, connected and powerful on the global scale; and its people, not yet riding the information superhighways even though they themselves are building them. It was a lot to get into a travel series, and not many photographers could have done it. But Kander did; he was already well-known by then, and for many interlinking skills; but his series on the Yangtze took him up another level. Complex thoughtful understanding expressed with great control and great harmony: it was fine photography by any standards. 

Kander St Michel 2002

Nadav Kander; Mont St.Michel, 2002

There’s another picture of Kander’s which carries a weight in this context, too. In 2002 he made a picture of the Mont St Michel which managed the amazing trick of seeing this much-photographed monument freshly. Kander’s St Michel rises in the distance above a flat wet plain, more like an illustration of John Bunyan than anything else. It’s a goal to be reached, almost a mirage. A drain winds toward it that might take us there; but it curls uncomfortably away and might not. It’s a mental vision more than a physical one, shimmering, almost at the edge of sight itself. For most of its history, this is quite precisely how Christianity has been seen. The church was almost always the highest building around, often the only one. It dominated, to be aspired to or feared. Le Corbusier cheekily noticed that grain silos in the US rose above the plain with the same kind of psychic dominance that churches used to have, and since then, buildings of many different sorts have grown far taller than any church.

In the new series, partnered with lower glances into the underbrush and into blurs of motion, Kander has done the same thing again. He has made quite a few pictures in which the vast skies of the outer Thames isolate but don’t quite crush the various buildings of the urban spread at its fringe. If I’m not quite convinced by Kander’s more nearly abstract pictures in this series nor by the companion studies of woodland, nor by his fairly routine studies of the big blocks of erosion protection – they have become fairly standard tropes of ‘accidental sculpture’ and were anyway done much better by Koudelka in panoramic format when he worked on the Transmanche Project all those years ago – then by contrast I find his pictures of buildings just on the edge of perception extraordinary.

N Kander, from a Dark Line 4

Nadav Kander, from Dark Line – the Thames Estuary 2017

N Kander from the Dark Line 2

Nadav Kander, from Dark Line – the Thames Estuary 2017

N Kander from the Dark Line

Nadav Kander, from Dark Line – the Thames Estuary 2017

N Kander from A Dark Line 6

Nadav Kander, from Dark Line – the Thames Estuary 2017

N Kander from a Dark Line 5

Nadav Kander; from Dark Line – the Thames Estuary 2017

You can think of these in the trendy vocabulary of the Anthropocene if you like – the name for the era in which the marks of man’s occupation have been left on the planet, slight at first, but more marked since roughly the start of the Industrial Revolution – but it may be better to think of them in terms of the subconscious of London. These are pictures where the superficial knowledge we have of the places we live – shared and mapped, and apparently perfectly logical – is challenged by a deeper knowledge which is personal and barely articulated: felt rather than thought. That buildings, big buildings on the scale of power stations, can disappear under huge skies is a subtle reminder of something we dare not forget, that for all the urban human history of the place, nature is still strong in the estuary, only a few miles from the city, even if sometimes our awareness of it is no stronger than the cry of a harrier far away on the marsh.

 

Tropes in Mind

Goalie, Brindley Road, off Harrow Road, 1956

Roger Mayne, Goalie, Brindley Road, off Harrow Road, 1956

Every so often, I publish a piece here that was published originally elsewhere.  This is a case in point, republished to coincide with the opening of David Campany’s exhibition A Handful of Dust at the Whitechapel Gallery in London ( June 2017).  It was originally published on Various Small Fires and is republished here with the permission of the editor of that site, Thierry Bal.

It’s called Tropes in Mind in echo of Trouble in Mind, the old blues song, best sung by Big Bill Broonzy, in accordance with a thought I have that tropes stay in one’s mind like music, there even when not actually playing.


 

A long time ago I wrote a book about goalkeeping. I tried to persuade the publisher to put on the cover one of the number of Roger Mayne’s street pictures which so eloquently describes the business of keeping goal in games of street football. The publisher refused, saying that something more like the commercial experience of watching sport in a stadium would sell more copies, but still allowed me to put one of Mayne’s on the back cover of the hardback issue[i].

Mayne’s pictures would fall comfortably into a number of the categorizations of photography. They are street photographs, documentary photographs, sports photographs, photographs of childhood… They have historical interest, social interest, a certain ethnographic or anthropological quality. If one were keywording for a picture library, they would also be filed by the superficial descriptions of the people within them, street names and the wider district, the date, perhaps the type of camera or film used. These overlapping descriptions would place them in a context of other pictures, more or less similar, more or less connected. We are used to this kind of external classification of photographs and use versions of it all the time. That’s how we search on Google, order our hard drives, label archives. It’s completely standard and while individual classifiers don’t always agree, the system itself is beyond question, like the Dewey decimal system for libraries or the SI units.

People write of ‘tropes’ in photography and that seems an extension of the same filing system. The tropes are external categorizations of pictures, even where they are expected (or analyzed) to have an internal, emotional effect. So, for a single example from something I was reading recently in another context, Marta Zarzycka discusses the functioning of visual tropes in regard to a particular picture by Samuel Aranda which won the World Press Photo Picture of the Year award in 2011 [ii]. The picture conforms to a Pietà-like pattern of a grieving or mourning mother holding a son and Zarzycka follows the general usage of the phrase when she writes that “Aranda’s image thus exemplifies the fact that photographic tropes, circulated as evidence of a common perspective or ideal shared by many, may force certain associations and prohibit others, neutralizing the local and the particular into the global.”

Since the trope is sometimes used to describe very broad patterns and sometimes very small ones, I often wonder whether it isn’t a word that might better be replaced by different ones according to the context. Trope sometimes means no more than a shared subject of a number of pictures, sometimes a ‘type’ of picture and sometimes a manner of photographing. It is even sometimes used interchangeably with the word ‘cliché.’ But a word which can be used equally in phrases like “the visual trope of the white UN Land Rover” [iii], and “She [Dorothea Lange] photographed African Americans with the same visual tropes she used with whites, representing them as equally hardy salt-of-the-earth farmers—part of the American yeomanry [iv]” is maybe not isolating a specific phenomenon with any great clarity.

But even if we can arrive at clear language to use, I find myself thinking that this isn’t the way we store photographs in memory and access them for use.

I believe that in addition to a substantial vocabulary of remembered photographs, filed somehow and accessible by their relevant file-tags, most of us also hold within our minds an architecture of access to those photographs which is the reverse of that familiar external system of classification.

There is no difficulty in the more usual system. If I need to recall a picture, say, of great achievement against long odds, I can effortlessly search my mental filing cabinets and come up with Sherpa Tenzing on top of Everest [v], or one of the versions of Khaldei’s view of the Russian soldier on the Reichstag [vi].

But that’s reducing photography, as it has so often been reduced in the past, to its role as illustrating tool. I think it’s much more. I think we actually think in photographs. At least some of the time, the tropes are not types or patterns of photographs so much as types or patterns of thoughts that we hold in photographs.

I was, in the past, a goalkeeper. That’s why I wanted to write about it. I was not at all good, but I was sufficiently committed to think like one. I still get into trouble at football matches for applauding the ‘other’ goalkeeper when I see a fine stop, even when all those near me are hoping to see a goal. I admire the athleticism and judgment of goalkeepers, their individuality. I have learnt to some extent to live by the negative scoring whereby a goalkeeper who does something of fearsome difficulty and skill has nothing at all to show for it on the score-sheet and can have it instantly wiped out. I acknowledge the whole complex of this peculiar sport within a sport. As a result, there are large numbers of situations which have nothing to do with goalkeeping that I understand in the terms derived from it.   Got to drive a sick child to hospital?   Want to make a ticklish presentation to a difficult audience? You’re briefly a goalkeeper, and anything less than utter success is total failure.   Member of a group, but not conformable to it? Goalkeeper.

Footballer Jumping, Brindley Rd, Harrow Road 1957

Roger Mayne, Footballer Jumping, Brindley Rd., Harrow Road, 1957

Footballer & Shadow 1956

Roger Mayne, Footballer and Shadow, 1956

Football, Addison Pl North Kensingtion 1956

Roger Mayne, Football, Addison Place, North Kensington, 1956

Gerry Cranham - John Hollowbread 1964

Gerry Cranham, John Hollowbread, 1964

But I don’t think of these things in terms of the words I’ve just written. I certainly don’t think of goalkeeping as furnishing a kind of super-metaphor for many circumstances. I think more in terms of a lexicon of pictures which add up to the metaphorical place that goalkeeping holds in my head.   At the centre of that lexicon will be actual pictures of the business itself: Gerry Cranham’s astonishing study of Tottenham goalkeeper John Hollowbread leaping all alone in the murk at White Hart Lane in 1964, Munkacsi’s various studies, the Roger Mayne series. A circle beyond those would be images that help me articulate my view that the world is understandable in goalkeeping terms. These would include studies of movement and grace, but also of despair and disappointment, self-possession, reliability, calculation, membership of a particular subculture, and so on. There is, in another words, not so much a trope of goalkeeping pictures in my head. There is a trope about goalkeeping which governs a certain amount of my thought and can be expressed in pictures.The point is that I don’t think I’m alone in this. The great difference in Barthes’ formulation of the studium and the punctum, after all, is that the studium is really public and the punctum is really private. We see a picture clearly on a subject or depicting a scene. But we react to it sometimes for reasons which the photographer could not have predicted, often encapsulated in a detail which means something to nobody but ourselves. The public subject and manner of the image, and its membership of a public type of similar images, are given meaning by the private framework into which it lands.

I find some version of this in many different places. David Bate, for example, blends to great effect his personal associations with the public ones in a discussion of Fox Talbot’s 1844 picture of the construction of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square and its effects upon him as a viewer[vii]. In effect he’s describing the insertion of the Fox Talbot image into a pre-existing complex of ideas of his own, and that I think is exactly what happens. To take another and much more elaborate example, David Campany’s A Handful of Dust [viii] is both a brilliantly exciting and unexpected collection of pictures which could only possibly be connected by that one individual through his own private resources; and at the same time a pleasing ballade through some of the best-known and most-discussed theoretical positions in twentieth-century photography. It would be grotesque to look for the entire intellectual contents of Campany’s magisterial exhibition and book in a glossary under the index-word Dust. Yet the process that Campany put himself through — of identifying a host of unmatched thoughts and experiences, many of them wholly personal, then ‘fitting’ them to the more public history and ontology of photography — is in effect the indexing of that section of the contents of his mind. The whole rich mess of ideas which I think of as the trope became, under his careful self-scrutiny, catalogued under Dust as its cipher.

Campany chose to open A Handful of Dust with this epigraph from W.G. Sebald: “A photograph is like something lying on the floor and accumulating dust, you know, where these clumps of dust get caught, and it steadily becomes a bigger ball. Eventually you can pull out strings. That’s roughly how it is. ”

So I’m complaining here that the word trope is sufficiently imprecisely used to mean not very much in photography (or at least to demand care in its handling), and yet I am adding in the same few lines still another meaning to the bundle. That’s absurd. As I wrote further up, I think that a trope is in effect the complex architecture of access to thoughts that individuals hold in memory in pictorial form. It is rarely articulated in words precisely because those words tend to make supple and fluid globs of feeling and memory rather more rigid. To thoroughly articulate a trope in words is to make the effort that Campany made in A Handful of Dust, impractical for most conventional references to the pictures in one’s head, even if not beyond the abilities of most. It’s like the phenomenon of the mental caption: when one can reduce a photograph to a single one-liner, a caption in mind, it becomes increasingly hard to remember the detail of the picture, since it is so much easier to file words in one’s head than pictures. Without a caption, we’re forced to keep the picture ‘live’ in memory, subject to re-evaluation and under constant challenge from the other ideas and pictures it comes up against. So the tropes that make up so much of our visual lexicon of the world. They exist. All of us have a number of them. Yet the minute they are indexed into clumsy single words, they lose their lovely flexibility and strength, and become planks or bricks — useful enough, but necessitating accumulation along predictable angles and lines.

 

[i] Hodgson, F., Only the Goalkeeper to Beat, Macmillan, 1998

[ii] Zarzycka, Marta, The World Press Photo contest and visual tropes, Photographies Vol. 6, Issue 1, 2013

[iii] Smirl, L., Building the other, constructing ourselves: spatial dimensions of international humanitarian response. International Political Sociology, 2(3), 2008.

[iv] Gordon, Linda; Dorothea Lange: The Photographer as Agricultural Sociologist. Journal of American History vol. 93, issue 3, 2006;

[v] The picture, by Sir Edmund Hillary, is credited to the Royal Geographic Society

[vi] I discussed this picture a little once for Bonhams magazine: Bonhams Magazine, Issue 41, Winter 2014, Page 38. Many other scholars have discussed it at greater length.

[vii] Bate, David, The Memory of Photography, Photographies, vol. 3, Issue 2, 2010

[viii] Campany, David, A Handful of Dust, MACK/Le Bal, Paris (and London), 2015

 

 

 

 

 

The Devil is in the Detail

No Man's Land by Larry Towell, signed titled and dated - Version 2

A particularly elegant version of the Signed-Titled-Dated authentication that has become common in photography. This one in fact comes from a book (Larry Towell’s remarkable No Man’s Land) and is used purely illustratively here.

 

It is often quite casually stated that the art market is the last unregulated financial market. The implication is of skullduggery and villainous malpractice, with the suggestion of lamb-like collectors fleeced by unscrupulous wielders of huge shears. There are indeed egregious practices all around the art markets, some of which are complex in relation to ethics, industry practice, or the law. These include such arcana as dealers refusing to sell particular works to individual clients who have the money and want to buy — on the grounds that they don’t represent a ‘good enough home’ for the art. There could be a wide discussion aimed at reform of the whole range of these in the interests of clarity and fairness, but with care taken to preserve the flexibility and fleetness of foot which is one of the strengths of the market.

Here, immediately after PhotoLondon 2017 and in advance of any such broader discussion, are two simple practices which could and should be written out of the lexicon of trading practices in art.

First:

There is no reason why prices should be difficult to see in an art fair. In the nature of a fair, buyers are circulating at relative speed, collecting information under some pressure. Some of them are carefully planning to spend sums likely to be quite high for them. In a fair devoted to photography, in particular, there are wide differences in value between images that may look similar. A recent print manufactured after a photographer’s death by mechanical means in high volume is of less value than an early print, perhaps made by the photographer in her own darkroom using high craft skills. Sometimes the same picture is offered for sale in different incarnations earlier and later, but even where different images are concerned, visible description of the process by which each was made, relevant dates (of the original image, and of the manufacture of the particular one offered for sale) should be instantly accessible to a prospective customer. The indication of value can be a shorthand for those things, or at least a category marker for a customer.

It is quite fair that images of many different sorts should be available to buy. But the lack of clear advertisement fosters confusion between them and potential wrong impressions to buyers. This is one case in which the doctrine of ‘caveat emptor’ needs a mechanism by which that buyer can be enabled to take precisely the care that is required.

In UK law, under the Price Marking Order 2004, it is stated that pricing information on goods must be plainly visible to a person of reasonable sight without that person having to ask for it. (Statutory Instrument 2004 No. 102; 7/1/c.). Certain allowances are made for catalogues and price lists and shop windows and so on, but in essence what this describes is clear labelling on the product itself or on the shelf upon which it sits.

Only a minority of the pictures at the edition of PhotoLondon which closed last week was so marked, and only a minority is so marked at any art fair. It is an industry convention that prices are considered a little vulgar and should be kept in the background. Customers who need price information must ask for it. But a familiar (and desirable) condition of any art fair is that a large number of the public circulates around a small number of gallery staff. Inevitably, staff converse with clients they already know, or with artists they represent or wish to. It can be difficult and slow to get an answer to a simple price enquiry. That delays or hinders the opportunity for the customer to see other pieces on other stands, and limits his potential for getting the very most out of the fair. It’s not vulgar to be clear.

Those are simple mechanical reasons for clear labelling on all artworks offered for sale. Outside the context of a fair, the mechanics are slightly different; but the logic is the same. Although any reputable dealer will be able and happy to explain why one picture may be more expensive than another, there is no reason for a ‘browsing’ customer to be made to engage in that conversation with a dealer if the browser is simply accumulating information.

So in my view, dealers should display prices plainly. Beyond simple transparency and efficiency, that would go a long way to allaying the recurring suspicion that prices in the art markets and in art fairs in particular have a tendency to fluctuate depending on such things as the sales of the day so far, the apparent well-heeledness of the customer, and the sheer brass neck of the dealers.

Artworks made in limited editions are frequently sold on a sliding scale of value, where the early numbers in the edition are sold for less, and the higher numbers, when there are fewer left to buy, for more. The logic is sound, and there is nothing inequitable about the practice if applied correctly. It rewards a daring early buyer, yet maximizes the income to artist and dealer from a successful edition. As the edition runs out, laws of supply and demand operate which make it quite fair that the price should be higher as fewer are for sale and more people want those few. But sliding scales have always been open to a specific abuse, which is that the later-numbered copies in the edition can be sold first, at the higher price, the false implication being that the earlier numbers have already been sold. Once enough of those have been sold, the price is adjusted so the earlier numbers are sold for the same high value, since they are now the rare ones.

Clear pricing is not a panacea; complex practices at the absolute edge of decency will continue to exist, and so, very likely, will outright abuse. But without clear pricing, the fact of inconvenience and the suspicion of bad practice will always be there.

Unfortunately, the Price Marking Order 2004 as it stands does not apply. There is a specific exemption in the case of works of art (Statutory Instrument 2004 No. 102; 3/1/b).   I’m quite sure that exemption was included after vigorous lobbying from the art world. But time passes and things change.

I am not a lawyer, yet I know enough of their workings to realize that nothing quite as straightforward as this ever comes to pass. It should be a simple matter to remove that exemption (and whatever parallel ones exist in other instruments) and insist upon clear description and pricing on art works to be required by law. That will be a benefit and one worth lobbying for in its turn.

Second:

While I was at the fair, I was reminded of another practice which has grown in recent years. It is now quite common for a photographic print in a limited edition to be replaced at the request of the client by another example bearing the same edition number. That is wrong, and should be ruled out of the system.

Many years ago, in the 1970s, the art market sought to reassure potential buyers of photographs-as-art that they could in fact be considered as such. Other mechanisms for buying photographs had existed successfully for many years, including buying them for private uses like weddings, commissioning into magazines or commercial uses, distribution by agencies and so on. There were difficulties with the market in fine prints, though: the markets were nervous. Photographs are machine-made, and how could a machine product be an artistic one? Photographs were infinitely reproducible — by reprinting from the negative as required — and how could something of such limited rarity be valued? Photographs were also exceptionally fragile: not only were the majority of them works on paper, and so susceptible to damage by fire and flood, by creasing and tearing and so on. Much worse, they consisted of chemically unstable compounds. By definition, the surface of a photograph is (or has been at some point in its existence) sensitive to the effects of light.

All of this was off-putting to buyers, and a variety of mechanisms were brought in to allay their fears. Some of these don’t now survive. It used, for example, in the 1970s to be common to cut up negatives when selling prints from them, and to attach a fraction of the negative to the back of each print. The idea was to guarantee that no more of them could be manufactured than advertised. That has disappeared from the fine photographs market. Quite apart from negatives themselves now being old technology, it was also felt that a photographer had every right to make a completely new artwork from the existing negative; it might be printed using different processes, or at a widely different size, or even included in a collage or montage which was clearly not a the same finished work.

But a number of those fear-allaying mechanisms do survive. The limited edition itself is almost universally common (although a handful of photographers refuse on principle to interfere with the complete reproducibility of their medium). Limiting numbers existed in other media before photography; I think of engraving plates wearing down with each impression, or of cast bronze losing a little of the sharpness of edge with every cast. There are plenty of markets in multiple works, and photography is one of them.

There has also grown up a fine mystique of terminology to define precise differences between one photograph and another: vintage, later, and estate prints, for example; or work prints, exhibition prints, press prints. Or photogravure, platinum, orotone and the rest of the names that specify process. The market was soothed; but there was nothing underhand about this language. It represented the growth of a connoisseurship appropriate to the medium; and if there were from time to time suspicions that customers could be blinded in those nuances, it has still been a long time now that high volumes of sales and high prices are achieved in fine photographs worldwide in a market which has justifiably had far more reason to be confident than fearful.

But one fear remains above all. Photographs do still fade when exposed to sunlight. They are not unique in that, of course. It is a problem that affects all sorts of pigments (watercolours and tapestries fade), and all kind of supports, too. The spines of antiquarian books fade, and so do antique textiles and so does the paintwork on valuable vintage cars. Collectors, and especially in the United States, have considered this a special affront in photography, where it seems to be regarded as much more serious than in those other areas. There has grown up over the years a whole industry in promising the impossible. One process after another – both black-&-white and colour – has been promoted as ‘archival’ or ‘stable’. That means no fading. The promise is of eternity. Spend a lot of money, and your picture will be there for ever.

It isn’t so. Keep a picture in the dark, under carefully controlled conditions of heat and humidity, and it might last a bit longer. But you don’t have a picture if you do that. You have a credit note.

It is in response to this that there has grown the particular habit to which I refer. I’m not sure it is reserved only for the fancy high price end of the market; but it is there that it is most visible. Big buyers of high status prints are increasingly demanding that their print be replaced when it shows signs of fading, as though the fading were a failure of manufacture like a pocket not stitched into your new suit or a clutch cable that breaks every hundred miles. And sometimes, to be fair, there may be an element of that. A badly made print is a badly made print. But by no means all prints which fade are badly made. It is in their nature to fade, and it is the nature of many of the processes we use to display them to damage them, too. Halogen lighting is bad for photographs. Daylight is worse. Sunlight even worse. Dry mounting onto Perspex looks lovely when new; but what happens when the Perspex begins to yellow and go brittle, as it inevitably will? And so on in a dizzying spiral of bad to worse.

All of this seems to me part and parcel of the business of collecting light sensitive materials. Specially so if those materials are made available in limited editions, where the decision to demand a replacement affects not just you and your collection, but the other buyers from the same edition, too.

Say there are five prints in an edition of a contemporary fine photograph. It’s fashionable, expensive, well branded, a status piece. It costs maybe £200,000. The one on the wall at Megacorp begins to be less luminous than it was, and the artist agrees to replace with a new one under the same edition number. Convention dictates that the damaged one be destroyed, and it usually is. (If it is not, that is a fraud and existing law should deal with that OK.) But I argue that the value of the other four has been sensibly diminished – unknown to their owners – by the replacement. For not only are they now the owners of an example from an effective lifetime edition of six (that have been made), where they were sold one of five; worse. There is now in existence, and therefore presumably at some point able to come to the market, a print substantially fresher than their own by the simple fact of having been made later and therefore been exposed to fewer air-borne pollutants and less light, having absorbed less moisture and mould spores and so on. If three of the owners can force the hand of the maker in the same way, suddenly we have an edition purportedly of five in which eight prints have been made and released. That doesn’t sound like an edition of five, to me.

Making limited editions is always a business based on trust. Young artists are rightly warned to keep accurate records of the prints they release, lest there should ever be a mistake in editioning which would make them look sharp or worse. No career can recover once it comes with that kind of reputation. But the sharpness now seems built into the system for the advantage not of the sellers but of the most powerful buyers.

Many museums now buy two prints for the price of one when they buy something which might potentially fade over time when exposed. They justify it by arguing that since they are obliged to exhibit at least some of the time, they know in advance that their prints will degrade. The artist and dealer selling have little on which to rely if they don’t like it; they’ll simply miss a museum sale – and a museum is almost always a ‘good home’. Private customers don’t often buy two at the outset; but they now have no compunction in insisting on the replacement.

My view is that the whole practice is plainly wrong. We value fragile art works in all sorts of fields, and sometimes the ones that survive are damaged. That is why we have conservators, and that is why we propagate and seek to improve good conservation practices among collections of every kind. Sometimes the marks of the passage of time upon a work are themselves valuable: marks of previous ownership, of very different regard in which the work was held earlier, of exhibition history or a hundred other such evidences of times changing as the work passed through time. I cannot see on what grounds a buyer can demand a ‘fresh’ version of something he knew from the outset would lose its freshness eventually. On the other hand, I do see that every time it happens, some other buyer is potentially disadvantaged in financial terms. The simple act of writing ‘1/3’ a second time is clear. If you’re writing it a second time, it’s 4/3 and shouldn’t happen.

In this case, it is harder to see how to legislate. There may be certain legislative provisions that cover the circumstance, notably the express warranties elements of New York’s Art & Cultural Affairs Law but by no means every legislation has equivalent provisions. The onus would always be upon the manufacturer of the replacement print to admit to having done so. My own view is that there should nevertheless be a succession of heavy legal actions for replacing prints. A lot of corporations and museums have in effect deliberately falsified market information to their advantage by demanding them. Squads of lawyers will have to determine what to claim for and under what laws, and I don’t much like generating future work for them; but it is plain that it is a practice which goes well beyond proper morality and falls into bad practice. Once a few heavy damages have been paid, the industry will soon settle down to a more proper regard for what is, after all, its own good reputation. You really can’t say, “There are only three of these in the world” and then quietly make the fourth and the fifth.

 

 

 

Curators on Skates

V and A E.1128-1989

View of the V&A by Bolas & Co., c.1909, V&A E.1128-1989

It’s not often, in the cash-starved world of UK photographic institutions, that there is major good news to celebrate. But yesterday the V&A announced ambitious and yet wholly realistic plans to expand its photographic activities in a range of impressive ways.

The catalyst for the advance was the arrival of the collections of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) at the V&A. The transfer last year of the RPS collections from the Bradford outstation of the Science Museum was shockingly badly handled (mainly by the Science Museum Group itself, but a number of other parties including the Arts Council and the ministry responsible, the Department for Culture Media and Sport, showed some pretty craven lack of leadership, too).

No doubt the tale of the former National Museum of Photography, Film and Television may need to be revisited at another time. But for now, the Media Space, the Science Museum’s attempt to get London attendance figures for its Yorkshire collections, will have the daily humiliation as it flounders of seeing its neighbour across the street make giant leaps forward in the business of collection-centred museum activity in photography.

There was a bit of a fuss about the abandonment (in effect) of the museum in Bradford. The V&A was presented with an incomparable opportunity to step up in the rankings of world photography collections, but it would need a certain investment to do that properly, and investment, in the UK cultural world, has often been the stumbling block. I hope and I also suspect — as one of those who fussed — that the to-do actively helped, in allowing the curators and developers of the new plans for photography at the V&A in laying out their claim for a chunk of the necessary money to point to obvious public concern.

Whatever the exact sequence, the arrival of the RPS collections has had a galvanic effect on the photography department at the V&A. And for that, credit must go first of all to Martin Barnes, the Senior Curator, who has quite obviously seen a chance and gone for it, big time. It was not, as he put it to me, up to him to judge the manner in which the RPS collections were allowed to leave the hands of the Science Museum Group. But when offered one of the great photographic collections in the world, he needed no second invitation. Why would he look such a gift horse in the mouth? There have been other important moments in UK museum management in the field of photography; but I have no memory of a department making such a well-judged expansion so very fast. In the terms of the usual shuffling trudge from report to committee to fund-raisers and back again, this has been a lightning strike. Barnes has done wonders, and he must have been supported at the very highest levels in the museum to be able to move so decisively. What a gift it makes for incoming museum Director Tristram Hunt: a major expansion in a field popular with and important to the public, dropped at his feet with nothing for him to do but smile politely and bask in the applause.

The incoming RPS collection of some 270,000 photographs compares to the roughly 500,000 the V&A already holds. For comparison, the website of the Museum of Modern Art in New York gives its photography collection as some 25,000 ‘works’; that of the Bibliothèque Nationale gives its own (supported by legal deposit) as nearly five million ‘items’. These numbers are not necessarily like for like, but they give orders of magnitude. The RPS collection goes far back in the history of photography and includes early material of great significance. It is complemented by many artefacts and documents which are not photographs, including for example, several thousand cameras.

Photographs-gallery

A previous exhibition of photography in the two galleries which will now again be dedicated to its display. Image courtesy V&A.

This is what is going to happen. The upstairs gallery of photography at the V&A is, in a first phase, going to double in size by expanding into the gallery parallel to it. A highly visible (not so say gaudy) piece of architectural branding, in the form of a ‘periscope’ full of cameras, will sign it from the ground floor – with an effect I imagine to be based upon the huge central column of books in the British Library, part storage and part advertising.

The V&A has already (!) equipped a new archive with fancy rolling shelves and climate control, adjacent to the Prints and Drawings Study Room, so the long tradition of open access to photographs will not only continue but be actively enhanced. I’m always amazed at how few Londoners avail themselves of the chance to see original photographs simply by turning up and asking for the box to be brought (you do need an appointment but you do not need to be recommended or in any particular research position); but for those who want to use it, that service is going to be improved.  It can’t be used less than the equivalent Insight space at Bradford, an echoing cavern of research not being done and pictures not being seen.

The first phase will also include a space for screenings and a clever space where the perpetual scanning that any modern museum must do will be on view to the public, so that we can see the increase in access to the collections being facilitated before our very eyes.

All of this will be ready by 2018; that, in the world of museums, is time-travel. You have to imagine your curators getting out of their grey flannel bags and tweed coats, and jumping onto rollerblades.

After that, a further second phase expansion will add a library, a sensible addition given how much of the dissemination of photographs has always been through books. This one will not merely be a collection; it is specifically intended from the outset to facilitate browsing on open stacks, so that pictures can do the work they have always done, of jumping out at us from unexpected angles. Further rooms, including teaching rooms and a darkroom for photographers-in-residence will complete a suite which will when complete add up to the entire first floor of the North-East wing of the V&A and represent in total something like four times the existing space devoted there to photography.  The expansion of activities that will radiate from this space will likely be on a logarithmic scale.

V&A 3294- 1954

View of the 1939 centenary exhibition of photography in gallery 73 of the V&A. V&A 3294- 1954

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View of the 1939 centenary exhibition of photography in gallery 73 of the V&A. V&A 3346-1954

This is an incredible achievement. It is being done for £8m. This is obviously a large sum, but not in the context in which it sits. The National Army Museum, for example, announced a few days ago (March 2017) that its re-development had cost £23.75m. The Financial Times cited £83m as the cost of the new Design Museum in the old Commonwealth Institute building in Kensington.

The RPS collections themselves were purchased in 2002 for the National Museum of Photography Film and Television with public funds, including the largest ever Heritage Lottery Fund Award for photography of £3.75m and £342,000 from the National Art Collections Fund. Since the V&A has paid not a single penny for the collection itself, we can see that in the context of a (favourable) 2002 valuation not far short of £5m, a 2017 cost of £8m to make the best possible use of the collection comes to look like very fair value for money. (The figure includes, I understand, some of the costs of digitization, although these are hard to quantify because they come under general costs the V&A already underwrites). In the context of the overall re-jigging of the V&A under the FuturePlan label, it’s a bargain. My memory is that the funding target to enable the London Photographers’ Gallery to move to its new building in 2012 was £8.7m; the cost of the V&A’s expansion compares with that.

All of this presages not only a world-class photographic research and display centre, but it also seems to come hand in hand with a steady rethink of what the museum can do. In particular, the V&A announces on the same day that the immensely distinguished historian of photography Professor Elizabeth Edwards has been appointed Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Professor at the V&A. At the same time, the Royal College of Art and the V&A join forces from September 2018 to launch a new history of photography course under the umbrella of the History of Design MA program at the RCA. The photography department, in other words, is taking the moment of its physical expansion as the moment of its virtual expansion, too. To seek to act as the focus of scholarship in the disciplines whose artefacts it cares for is precisely one of the things the museum should be doing, and these cascaded announcements suggest hope for a steady stream of scholarly material to come.

There is obviously (there always is, nowadays) talk of an expanded online offering in photography from the museum, reaching people off the site, or interested in things other than those programmed for any particular time. Also off-site, there are ideas of touring shows already in the air, in a reprise of the lamented Circulation Department of the V&A, which fell in a distant round of earlier cuts. The success of the Artists’ Rooms project by which (in England) the Tate manages the huge donation of Anthony D’Offay, has brought the obvious benefits of touring shows back into the forefront of planners’ minds.  There is going to be a boost to the Prints & Drawings Study Room. There will be space for more events across a range of types, from screenings to lectures to demonstrations and so on.

The new library will obviously have to work well with the National Art Library, which is not only in the same building, but actually forms a part of the same department – the Word And Image Department of the museum. But a new browsing library in photography can only serve to increase the numbers using the existing library; the photographs department was in part set up by the re-classification of objects in the National Art Library, so these close ties go back a very long way. In the same way, the rehoming of the collections will go some way to patching up the historical split across Exhibition Road between the scientific and art aspects of photography. Some individual artefacts will actually be reunited in the V&A, having been held together in the South Kensington Museum before it was split into the component parts we know. It is possible to express the hope that the commercial and industrial aspects of photography will not be left behind in the re-shuffle, aspects which have traditionally fared less well in the museum context.

There’s a lot to look forward to. It’s encouraging and welcome. Martin Barnes talks in the press release that announces the new Photography Centre of a “dramatic reimagining of the way photography is presented at the V&A.” He’s moved an elderly and sometimes rheumatic institution at quite remarkable speed in the direction he wants it to go. Just getting this expanded photography department to happen has taken strong leadership; he’ll have a lot of fun with it once it’s running. And as a result, so will we.

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Teenage Kicks

Tillmans Studio 2012

Wolfgang Tillmans, Studio, 2012                                        A pared-down reflection on what studio photography used to be. Black, and white, detailed in texture, and with an amassed heap of transparent greys adding up to all the tones of platinum or photogravure. All made of the simplest elements with total control.

Wolfgang Tillmans is a very lucky man. I happened to revisit his show at the Tate on the day Sotheby’s announced a record price for one of his photographs at the grand Evening Sale of the night before. As reported by the Art Newspaper, this represented more than just good business :

“The contemporary art market has proved itself immune to the perceived threats of Brexit and the election of President Donald Trump, judging by Sotheby’s performance last night. The auction house made £100.7m (£118m with fees), comfortably falling within its pre-sale estimate of £80.9m-£112.6m. The result is 70% up on last year’s sale.

German artists led the way, with more than a quarter of lots by artists hailing from the country. In his first appearance in an evening sale at Sotheby’s, Wolfgang Tillmans smashed his record set by Christie’s only the night before. At least seven bidders propelled the 2005 photographic work, Freischwimmer 119 (free swimmer 119), to £380,000 (£464,750 with fees), tripling its upper estimate.
….

Gordon VeneKlasen, a partner at Michael Werner gallery, … says there is a concerted effort to link artists such as Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Jörg Immendorff and Albert Oehlen. “They are a formidable group of the like not seen since the Abstract Expressionists,” he says.

The strategy is paying off for Sotheby’s. The 15 works on the block by German artists sold for a combined £48.1m (with fees) against a low estimate of £26.7m, accounting for 35% of the overall sale total. Richter’s 1982 Eisberg contributed £15.6m (£17.7m with fees), selling to a phone bidder from Asia.”

German Artists Capture Zeitgeist at Sotheby’s Contemporary Sale

By Anny Shaw for The Art Newspaper, 9 March 2017

 

I sulkily admire this attempt by Sotheby’s press department to make a coherent phenomenon out of the chaotic competition of the various dealers whose products are really in play here. I like the suggestion that art-Germans are collectively leading the way against Brexit and Donald Trump in a European cultured resistance against anti-European economic action. I even like that a dealer can be found to drop the strongly market-magic (and wholly un-German) label of Abstract Expressionist on the goods he’s trying to sell.

This German-branded subsector has been doing very well for quite a while. At Sotheby’s itself, much of the credit for the long harvest from the contemporary art markets has to be ascribed to two formidable Germans (both now both moved elsewhere), Cheyenne Westphal and Tobias Meyer. It’s been obvious for many years that Germany is the leading economy of the European Union. It was only a matter of time before its creative industries were seen to take their share of that lead.

How nice for Tillmans – a photographer – to be included among all this art-gold. How nice that the Tate and Sotheby’s work so conveniently hand in hand promoting each other’s stuff. The sums are big by any reasonable standard – although generating £460,000 of £48m raised by 15 names is not really carrying one’s share of the financial load. It’s more like hitching a ride. It’s been a long time that a record price below £500,000 has not been all that impressive in the scales of the contemporary art market, even at the lower levels available for an artist using photography. As usual, photographers are still the junior partners in these equations.

However the money works, and whether it’s in the background or in the foreground, here we have an artist granted his second large show at the Tate in less than fifteen years. I did notice that the Tate put out this phrase: “This is Wolfgang Tillmans’ first ever exhibition at Tate Modern ..” on its website — which is true enough if one chooses not to count the Turner Prize as an exhibition — but which also veils the fact that he had a “mid-career retrospective” at Tate Britain just a couple of miles up the river in 2003.  Tillmans is Wolfgang Tillmans, RA, too: a Royal Academician. For a combination of reasons, the Tate — like the Royal Academy before it, and a lot of other fancy names in the art world and the magazine world — is banking on Tillmans. He may still just about carry off his vaguely down-with-the-kids camouflage; but Britain is surprisingly good at making apparently unlikely people fully Established and this is membership of the Establishment on the grand scale.

I find The Tate show more than troubling. I think it’s vitiated in some quite serious ways.

Tillmans has made it his badge to be un-precious about what he photographs: he is one of those artists who photograph to understand, not to inform. But that doesn’t work on the huge scale that the Tate has awarded him. For this is a truly enormous show. Fourteen rooms, hung with Tillmans’ habitual elaborate mock-casualness (which ironises the hundreds of thousands of pounds the biggest of the pieces are now worth). As usual with him, some of the prints are simply stuck to the walls; many of the larger are hung unframed from bulldog clips pinned by nails to the wall. Hundreds of artefacts, including vitrine after vitrine crammed with printed stuff, his own and other people’s. High ceilings, and a handful of prints on a truly monumental scale. He shows us – and it is one of the genuine wonders in the show – a little weed in a badly tended garden which must be 12-foot tall at least. A very great deal of careful thought has gone into the arrangement of these things – it’s an installation as much as a traditional ‘exhibition’. The show reverts to many of Tillmans’ long-established enquiries; but he has lost control in the airy vastness of the Tate of the process of addressing a viewer. It’s not at all clear that the installation adds to our experience of the exhibition beyond the very coarse shock-and-awe of number and scale. The installation is in fact, in spite of a good deal of pretension, deeply meh.

Tillmans Weed 2014

Wolfgang Tillmans, Weed, 2014

As is well known, his subject matter is catholic. That previous show at the Tate was called “If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters”, which just about sums it up. He photographs with a kind of disorientating prolixity: people as portraits, people as fashion, people as economic data. Flying in to Port au Prince, he takes a picture. Landscape, still-life. Personal, professional. Finding a bloke in pink robes leaning on a purple car with Saudi number plates, he takes a picture. A hairy arse presents itself to him, straining upwards, the balls crushing down on the lino…he takes a picture and blows it up to 6 feet tall. He looks up; he looks down. The infinite sky; a drain in Buenos Aires. Camera-less photography, abstract prints, pixellated patterns… That enormous photograph of a weed, with drying dead hellebore leaves on the ground next to it, is very appealing. The little corner of a yard in which it has taken root is damp. Yet the thing itself is kissed by an ever-so-gentle London sunlight. What it means is up to you. What any of it means is up to you.

This is my trouble. The generosity of this vision is untroubled by any attempt to digest. We are in, effect, not seeing a show by Wolfgang Tillmans. We’re seeing an almost unmediated collection of sights, as we would do if we made the pictures ourselves, a click every so often, all day, every day. The editing part of the process has not been left out – of course not. But as Tillmans’ viewers, we are given no clue as to what he edits in or cuts. We don’t know what he’s editing for. Everything he sees interests him – and that’s fair enough. Everything I see interests me, I suppose, until I try to order my thoughts.

Tillmans has always been omnivorous; he used to be brilliant at it, too. Years ago, reviewing the 2003 show, the always-interesting photography critic of the Village Voice, Vince Aletti, found that “there’s nothing indiscriminate about this inclusiveness. Tillmans has mastered the tossed-off beauty of the snapshot and married it to a generous, optimistic, and politically engaged we-are-the-world sensibility”. He had, indeed. But this is not that any more. This is incontinence.

Before breaking the auction record for one of his pictures, and before starring in this overblown show, Tillman’s most recent high visibility had been in his campaign for Britain to remain in the EU. By designing and distributing posters and T-shirts, by pressing his friends to get involved, by enlisting urgent active support, Tillmans committed himself once again exactly as Aletti had said : generous, optimistic, politically-engaged. That was only a few weeks ago. But none of it is traceable in the Tate show except as loose threads. If you read the endless vitrines full (among heaps of other stuff) of political screeds, you can indeed track something of his interest in Europe. It’s vague; it’s shapeless. It’s more of a sense of belonging than any sense of understanding. As soon as you read the first line about him, you know as much about his European politics as he really reveals in this rambling, uncritical, vaguely shocked collection of snippets that have caught his eye. He’s a German artist of a certain generation (he was born in 1968, was about 20 when the Wall came down) who’s made his home in England. One can see that he’s concerned; active in defence of the various liberties he prizes. He’s photographed the gay scene in Russia, where that is under frightening threat. He’s vaguely environmentalist (although he seems to take an awful lot of planes). He values the liberties of his friends.

Compare all of that to the evolving but never imprecise enquiries of Paul Graham, say, and you are left scratching your head. The comparison is not at all unfair: Tillmans called a book Neue Welt in obvious expansion of Graham’s New Europe of a few years earlier. Graham has moved closer to the nebulousness of Tillmans in recent years; but in a long sequence before that which included hard accurate work on what it meant it to be poor under Thatcher, on the complex crises of Northern Ireland, and that brilliant scrutiny of the way the weight of history gets in the way of a shared European present, Graham  shifted through the gears: documentary; post-documentary; post-modern….Local, national, international… Just as Tillmans does, he threw the labels in our faces. It was hard to know what to call Graham’s pictures : it still is. Yet each time he committed to his viewers, committed himself to getting difficult messages across, even when those messages were doubtful, non-linear, complex, and sometimes even contradictory. Sure, Graham has – as Tillmans has –taken on the role of ‘a concerned photographer’ (the ancient phrase that used to be reserved for a certain kind of documentary in Britain that had not been commissioned by journals). But Graham has tried to know what he thinks. Tillmans has simply enjoyed wondering what the questions might be.

He is, by the way, absolutely ruthless at purloining the style of photographers he notices to be successful elsewhere: here is the sea à la Roni Horn. Here some abstractions à la Adam Fuss… That refusal to commit to a style of his own has been interesting in the past, a telling element in Tillmans’ view of the democratic equality of images. But on this enormous scale and within the wild visual incontinence of the hang, it becomes something else. It becomes just the artist’s brand. The vitrines within the show have a separate incontinence, a verbal one of the obiter dicta and press cuttings and internet detours he cuts out and keeps.

red headlight

Wolfgang Tillmans, Headlight (f) 2012

Yet none of this incontinence is accidental. Many of the pictures have been seen already. There are many fractions here of more numerous series he has shown in different ways before (a number of them already published as books). The vitrines have appeared in previous of his shows under the ponderous name of the truth study centre. There is, for example, one single example of his very striking series on car headlights, angular hostile little evolutions from the cheerful goggle-eyed round lamps we used to like on earlier cars. When he showed at Arles a few years ago, these things punctuated the show like a sour chorus, a plangent commentary upon the aggression of late capitalism. But to leave a single one in the new show? It’s just another picture (although admittedly a wonderful one). The actual design of the vitrines themselves is a re-make from a show he had at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 2012. He revisits, reworks, reconsiders, recombines. In the past he has done all of that with taut vigour. But at the Tate? Excess replaces tautness, and discord vigour.

Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza 2012

Wolfgang Tillmans, Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza 2012

Although he’s a prolific artist, I rather regret that other interesting art has been forced further down the queue at the Tate to make room for this stuff. It’s circumstantial. It’s trivial. It’s completely self-centred, but seemingly with desire neither for self-understanding nor for real self-revelation. Tillmans has been, like lots of other photographers (Juergen Teller; Corinne Day ; Nan Goldin, for example – with all of whom he bears close comparison, by the way) open about his own life for a very long time. His work is often formally autobiographical, and even when it isn’t, he is clear about his own closeness to each picture. His titles often refer to his friends by their first names alone. But if you were known as an autobiographical artist years ago, isn’t it incumbent upon you to have discovered something new about yourself by the time your next huge outing comes around at the Cathedral of Culture?

Tillmans made his name as a prodigious enquirer. He has been an excellent and brave curator himself, promoting art at his Between the Bridges project first in London and then in Berlin, that he thought needed more attention. His watchwords have always been equality and curiosity. Nothing that he turned his camera to had any ‘worthier’ or ‘higher’ interest than anything he might turn it to next. He seemed non-snobbish, driven, voracious, genuinely unchanged from environment to environment. He was against the mistakes of the past, optimistic about the future. He developed, in other words, the art of the teenager in a phenomenally more articulate form than most teenagers can. He worked for magazines, made music, made films.

The Tate show is credited in part to Chris Dercon, the recently departed Director of the Tate Modern. Short of asking Nicholas Serota to curate, there can be no higher accolade. Because Tillmans is a familiar of the Tate, he has been granted the right to turn almost a whole floor of one of the great art institutions in the world into his own pin-board or crazy-board. Truly like a teenager’s, it spills from portentousness to sex to music to good-times-with-friends to travel and back to sex. You could find just such a grouping on many phones of young people who hold no idea of calling themselves ‘artists’. One of the photographs, indeed, is of his own desk, a cluttered mess full of potential but with nothing complete upon it.

I think we are entitled to expect that an artist granted that second huge retrospective should have come to some conclusions, or at least that the curators working with him have identified a progression sufficiently capital to invite their public to consider it. With Tillmans there are still no conclusions. He’s still collecting material, still a giant teenager, still unable or unwilling to commit to anything other than his own enquiries, still convinced that whatever interests him is … interesting. This is the constant flow of pictures of Instagram, scarcely ordered, rarely revisited, with no step in value between deeply moving and shallow swill. Social media has often been compared to a river. Pictures flow past us, never to be thought about again once the next thousand or hundred or even ten of them have gone by. You can never step in the same river twice, if you remember your Heraclitus. I can see why the Tate’s people want to show art of the Instagram generation in this way. I can see that Tillmans is a careful, concerned and still skilful exponent of it. As a talker or a writer, I’m sure he has a lot to say. But he hasn’t marshalled his thoughts for the biggest exhibition of his life so far, and that’s a huge let down to those of us who hoped that he might.

Solipsism is not necessarily a great vice in an artist. But lack of discrimination is, and this is a show absolutely jam-crammed to its elegant rafters with evidence of that.

Tillmans once pronounced orotundly to the Art Newspaper that he found no trouble in being contemporary. I think that the biggest achievement, in a way, is to be of your time, because you cannot program timelessness. I was never afraid of being contemporary.” Which is a teenage sentiment if ever I heard one.

One of the last sections in the show is a series of musings about time. These are of quite mind-bending banality – the sorts of perceptions we all have from time to time, but that stoned kids think are somehow profound. “The end of the Cold War is now as long ago as the end of World War II was in 1970.” Somebody – preferably the artist, but a curator, a friend, an electrician fixing the lights in the gallery before the opening – somebody should have taken Tillmans aside and just checked whether he was sure he wanted all of this stuff in there, whether he didn’t think that the littlest teensiest editing might be a good thing.

There is something about the incontinence of his show at the Tate which diminishes Tillmans. Here he is, completely co-opted into the twin Establishments of the art market and the art museum, jetting all over the world having trivial thoughts, and being taken completely seriously.

It’s a shame, because in all of this eructation of undifferentiated hot air there are a number of really important themes that Tillmans touches upon, and there are also, as there always have been with him, occasional pictures of true brilliance.

CLC-800-dismantled-a_2011

Wolfgang Tillmans, CLC800 dismantled (a) 2011

He has a very rich interest in the production of images. In among his more identifiable studies, he makes blank images of various kinds. He’s interested in light-sensitive paper itself, in blur and movement, in ‘mistakes’ and illegible details. He’s interested in the distribution of pictures, the degradation of imagery through successive reproductions. There is a pleasing picture of a dismantled colour printer, the very one, we learn, that he acquired with the money from his Turner Prize in 2000. This thing doesn’t look like those studies of pots of brushes that painters have always included by their elbows in self-portraits: but it has the same function. It shows how much the business of making images relies on hard practical material effects. It reminds us to think of pictures as made objects, and not just the temporary visions it’s so easy to think they are. Coming from Wolfgang Tillmans, that’s interesting.

At the very beginning of the show, a carpeted downslope in an airport undergoing refurbishment leads to “Rest of the World Passports.” It’s a modernised version of those signs that make us giggle on motorways in Britain, which simply say The North. In these times, of Trump and Brexit, and all the forced movements of people, there’s no doubting Tillmans’ concerns at the effects of globalisation.

lampedusa 2008

Wolfgang Tillmans, Lampedusa, 2008

These are vast and various themes. To have explored either one of them (or others of several like them that he touches) with precision and feeling and detail and skill would have been a great exhibition in the hands of a photographer like Tillmans. But he doesn’t do such a thing. Instead, he’s content to be vague. He invites us to the Tate, in effect, to scroll through his phone. Vaguely interested, vaguely troubled: and that’s disappointingly little substance in this explosion of imagery.

 

 

 

 

 

Any Surface You Like: Unseen Fair, 2016

Christiane Feser, Partition 48, 2016  ( Detail )

Christiane Feser, Partition 48, 2016. Represented by Anita Beckers. This is an angled detailed view of a work that is cut, layered and built well above the plain surface. One of many pieces deliberately shown for the first time as an Unseen Fair Premiere.

It’s a rare thing – for those of us in the business of extrapolating tendencies from the amorphous bulk of any creative activity – to see an unmistakable trend. I’m sure the fashion writer who says “Roman legionary sandals will be in this year” worries that no such sandal will be seen again. For once, at the Unseen Photo Fair in Amsterdam, there was no mistake. It’s not quite a rule, because there are still plenty of exceptions, but it’s all-but a rule: You want to be taken seriously as an artist using photography? Any surface you like so long as it’s not flat.

 

The varieties of finished result that this allows are many. But the essential tendency is definite. Flat pictures are what you get on screens when you make image searches. Flat pictures are what you get when you are asked to view a fact or a purported fact. Sportsman scores. This is what our tulips look like. Mimi has graduated. The managing director shakes hands. I was at the Victoria Falls. Those kinds of pictures are curiously neutral. Nobody who uses them cares very much what the photographer thought about what was photographed. In the jargon of art theory, they are transparent: they act as a time-shifter, to get you to a place where you were not. In the end, it doesn’t much matter who made them; and in most cases the viewers don’t ask and don’t care. Those pictures are viewed fast, and normally not viewed again. Can you remember the lead picture in the newspaper yesterday? You probably didn’t even buy the paper, but you did walk past it. The picture had a function, yesterday.

 

For artists, this is all complete anathema. Artists want you to care what they feel, and are not so much bothered by the facts of what they saw. They want to engage you for long enough that you are in their way of working — and by extension, their way of feeling — for a moment. They want to reach you with a packet of thoughts and prejudices and opinions and emotions. They want you to be persuaded by their argument and moved by their appeal.

 

For me, who have been watching these divisions for a long time, Unseen 2016 was the first time it was completely clear that there is an actual schism here. For me, factual photography is camera operation. It is sometimes made on machines which are incorporated in other machines (mobile phones, usually), sometimes by super-sophisticated systems for getting pictures from the real world they allude to into the distribution channels through which they will be consumed. If you go to a football game today, where camera operators work in public, you can see that the vast bulk of the labour is in captioning, editing, and otherwise equipping pictures with metadata, and then above all, getting them away down the airwaves as quickly as possible. There is very little labour in really getting across the emotion of the scene, the operator’s thoughts about it, or anything else so weak as feeling. The schism has happened: there is no room for any of the imagery which results from this kind of activity at a fair devoted to art photography. Artist-photographers rather despise camera-operators and undervalue the skills they deploy. Camera-operators have a tendency to be dismissive about art, and to overvalue the technical. But audiences like both, use both, and respond to different elements of each. I have not yet met a person who collects art photographs and doesn’t look at Facebook or at sports pictures or at the pack-shots in magazines which make him want to buy stuff.

 

Camera-operation is by nature un-self-conscious. If you’re making pictures for rapid consumption, you can’t much care about the culture of imagery that went before you. Selfie? Low-end commercial job photographing pizzas and kebabs to be stuck on the window of a fast-food place? Hard news from Mosul? However skillful you are, however learned your background, you make those pictures for what’s in them, not for allusion or comment. That stuff has a tremendous vitality.   Exclude it from your entire narrowed conception of photography and you exclude more than the machine way of seeing. After all, a very great deal of the new self-conscious photography of the art world is anchored in re-editing or otherwise re-working precisely this kind of vital, fast, vulgar, energetic photography that went before.

 

Nothing wrong with rethinking things, of course, and nothing wrong with an art that looks to its own roots for the well-springs of its content. But there is something uncomfortable in the way new snobbish self-conscious photography is ferociously consuming old vulgar vigorous photography while at the very same time despising it for its … vulgarity.

 

I felt this more strongly than before at Unseen this year.

 

katrien-de-blauwer-jump-cuts-1-2015

Jump Cuts 1, 2015, by Katrien de Blauwer, represented by Filles Du Calvaire

Some galleries took so literally the new orthodoxies that they showed almost nothing on a plain flat surface at all. Filles Du Calvaire, for example, from Paris, showed an artist who sticks pins in pin-ups, another who embroiders over dismembered nudes, and a third who makes collages. This third is the only one of the three worth a damn: Katrien de Blauwer, who makes rather small collages of salvaged black and white imagery. At first sight they look simply like design work – book covers, say, in which two simple elements make an allusion together. They are not complicated things, but de Blauwer plays them with great virtuosity. Often mounted on thick card of a buff or manila colour, with some pleasure taken in the material seaming and matching of the images, they add up to very much more than the sum of their parts. de Blauwer muses autobiographically in these pieces, which are elegant and light but not trite for all that. She is visibly different to all those artists who find a technique (it may well be as recognizable as hers), but use it to brand themselves in a highly competitive environment, forgetting (or not being able) to have anything to say in that technique or any other. Of course the message needs to be expressed in a medium that suits it; but it does help to have some kind of message in the first place.

 

alma-haser-from-cosmic-surgery

One from the series Cosmic Surgery by Alma Haser. Represented by The Photographers’ Gallery

 

There are ways and ways of making surfaces, of course. Embroidering photographs has been a thing for perhaps too long, now. Maurizio Anzeri made such exciting things a few years ago when his stitching added sharp bite and wit to the reading of character in the (found; vernacular) portraits that he brought so startlingly to life. Today at Unseen the London Photographers’ Gallery showed him succumbing to a tired but doubtless lucrative formula in a series of landscapes overstitched. The technique adds nothing to the pictures. They look like telegraph lines have been allowed to wander over the view. Or just doodles, done in thread rather than in felt-pen, but not more interesting for that. Just down the wall, the Photographers’ Gallery also had the work of Alma Haser, who builds curious origami structures into portrait photographs, challenging our assumptions of how we read a photograph or read a face. This is a career that has been developing interestingly for a while; there is certainly a danger that such an idiosyncratic technique will become formulaic, but it hasn’t yet. The origami shapes obscure the middle of the face, but are clearly made up of folded sheets of the same portrait. There is a cubist quality to the unmaking of anatomy, but also an endearing one. The folded paper must have been very gently stroked into shape for quite a while in each case, and those caresses remain folded in to the finished portrait.

 

The Unseen organisers are good at keeping their functions in view. It’s a show dedicated to new work. Galleries don’t always play the game, though. I came around a corner face to face with one of Araki’s horribly jaunty bondage scenes, for example. Araki is an incontinent artist, and those bondage pictures don’t get more interesting on the hundredth or thousandth viewing. If the special point of Unseen is new work, then showing tired old work (and specially,  bad tired old work) should be considered a definite loss of cool for that gallery. Reflex, Amsterdam, do take note.

 

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Trompe L’Oeil 2012, by Jonny Briggs, represented by mc2.

 

Araki had a show at FOAM (the Amsterdam photo museum which collaborates closely with the Unseen fair) a few years ago. That may be why he was shoe horned into the fair. The British artist Jonny Briggs won a FOAM award for emerging talent a couple of years ago. So in his case it is entirely appropriate that he should be included in a gallery display by the mc2 gallery, from Milan. Briggs is definitely in the no-flat surface camp: he is endlessly and wittily inventive in the kinds of damage he can do to pictures, but endlessly successful in re-thinking them, too. He sometimes cuts framed family snapshots (frame, glass, mount, backboard, picture and all) on a diagonal and shoves the two parts along the fault line until one head is on somebody else’s body. These sound awful described like that, but a thoughtful family-dynamic or family-history scrutiny emerges which is not at all unlike what one finds in a certain kind of literary fiction. I liked a piece in which Briggs had recreated a corner of his grandmother’s sitting room, and spray-painted every detail in the kind of ‘magnolia’ house paint that was the more genteel version of white a few years ago. Briggs left just enough unsprayed (one grape and a little bit of tablecloth, since you ask) to stop the thing being simply a horrible off-white sculpture. There is a sculptural act behind it, but it remains wholly a photographic gesture. Better still, it comments with controlled melancholy on the monochrome tradition of respectful photography that makes up a part of every family’s history.

 

Briggs has also found a way to re-use the little trick the film maker Chris Marker used a number of years ago, of crumpling portrayed faces, re-smoothing them, then re-photographing the sheet (Marker used the name Crush-Art to refer to these pieces). The wrinkles and creases add a layer rich in meaning to the otherwise smooth picture. Marker’s ones came from magazines, and the creasing told of the throw-away culture, of consumerism, of the way your face might not be your fortune in a month or a year once the wrinkles had grown. Marker worked brilliantly around photography (his masterpiece, La Jetée, is a film made of sequenced still photographs) and it is interesting how the ideas he pioneered, including changing surfaces, but including also harvesting and re-working imagery from largely unpretentious sources, are now so central to the language currently in use.

 

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John Hilliard. Lakeland Palette 1, 2016. Represented by Kopeikin Gallery.

Not every treatment of the surface of photographs is a physical change like collage or creasing. John Hilliard’s Palette series (shown at Unseen at the Kopeikin Gallery from Los Angeles) is a self-conscious and formal exercise in testing perception. He samples the colours from a scene, and then includes blocks of those colours in it. The blocks are large enough to prevent us seeing the scene itself. This works much better when he does it to paintings or photographed views than it does when he picks colours from the spines of books in a library. In paintings, he makes us see just how much of the emotional effect comes from specific choices of colour. But with the books, where there is no overall emotional effect in question, nothing much happens.

 

Interestingly, a hipper, updated, but much less rich version of this process was also on show in the fair. Jan Rosseel’s current series on the Aesthetics of Violence does not much more than remind us that if you search on Google images for James Foley, say, you will get a lot of one particular orange, that of the jumpsuit in which prisoners of ISIS are executed. This seems a dead-end, although the series is only just begun and may develop.

 

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Elina Brotherus, Bedsheet, 2014, from the Annunciation series. Brotherus was represented at Unseen by Camara Oscura, from Madrid

Sometimes, the play with surface can be wholly included within an image.  Elina Brotherus’ Annunication series, about her own inability to have a child, is powerful for all sorts of reasons.  But there is one print within it in which she is seen shadowy through a bedsheet hanging on a line. Here the sheet – in addition to its more usual lexicon of references, to domesticity, to conception, to wrapping corpses and so on, also takes the form of a photograph: a creased and not very square photograph showing a ghostly figure.  You could say that as a print, this does simply have a flat traditional photo surface.  But you can’t help but notice that with the figure on the sheet, it has been given another layer within that.  It doesn’t always have to be a miniature sculpture or the record of an installation.

 

Unseen promotes a number of associated activities around the fair. There are talks (often interesting), a photo book market (de rigueur nowadays at photo fairs, and often not interesting), an associated festival. The Dutch photographer and film-maker Anton Corbijn was asked to curate a show in the (wonderful) Het Schip museum, around the corner from the site of the fair. As if to cement his perception of the rift away from camera-operators who make flat prints, Corbijn chose to make a show (Touched, it’s called) on a sample of hand-working processes and techniques. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking pleasure in the creases and stamps on an old picture from an archive, sometimes a self-consciously antiquarian revisiting of archaic processes. Some of the things Corbijn has chosen are marvellously beautiful, others less so. I worry about a banally sexist picture of a girl on all fours licking the wheels of a car, turned into a huge cyanotype by Thomas Mailaender. It is not the less sexist because he’s a well known curator and plainly knows how sexist it is; nor does the fact that it’s made in a (not very well mastered) nineteenth century process make it ironic. That was a bad miss.

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Detail of an untitled pinned xerox by Adam Jeppesen from Anton Corbijn’s Touched show at Het Schip in connection with Unseen.

Adam Jeppesen put long steel seamstresses’ pins in murky Xerox landscapes. The heads of the pins make points of light, exactly similar to the little glittering point of light that one sees in a real landscape – from mica, or moisture, or just shiny surfaces catching the sun. The shadows of the pins in the bright gallery lighting look like rain across the view. So by a simple manipulation, Jeppesen has given mystery and charm and wit and an element of narrative to a view that would without his pins have been rather…flat.

 

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Day 79, from the White Rabbit series, by Maija Tammi. Represented by East Wing.

 

The best single display in the whole fair is a gallery display, though. East Wing, an interesting gallery from the Gulf, has taken a big risk in putting on a real show of loosely connected photographs on environmental themes. Here is where photography overlaps most obviously with sculpture, and therefore where the remove from flat prints is at it most distinct. Caleb Charland makes a variant of that school exercise where you make a battery from a lemon, by lighting a lamp from apples still on the tree. It’s an environmental piece of some seriousness, but it’s also absurd. Maija Tammi has made thoughtful work about the culture of cancerous cells, about death itself, and about our industrial relationship to it, and she has included camera-shaped boxes which you have to hold in your hand to peer and peek. Mandy Barker’s work on plastic has been developing for some time. In its latest advance, she looks at micro-particles of plastic as a species of a lunatic plankton, floating about the sea, and she has included a rather wonderful pastiche book of old-fashioned science as a way of getting us in to her subject. Yann Mingard has made a clever but unpretentious series of paired images comparing the ‘damaged’ light of Turner (it seems Turner’s famous skies were much affected by volcanic activity in his lifetime) with the hazy effects of pollution on skies in China today.

All four of these could easily be research projects in environmental science or in sustainable development. All four artists have the rigour, the search for evidence, the other careful habits of science. But all four thankfully have the wit and confidence to find ways of expressing themselves somewhere on the border between photography and sculpture. They jostle each other across the crowded walls of a gallery booth in an art fair, and no one who sees it leaves unmoved. It will take institutional buyers to buy such things, but it was good of East Wing to try it.

 

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Of course, not all attempts to make new surfaces are interesting. There is plenty of room left for the pretentious, the idiotic, and the meretricious. It wouldn’t be an art fair if were not so. This is one from the series of Paint Rollers, 2016. By PUTPUT, represented at Unseen by Galerie Esther Woerdehoff

 

So there you have it. There’s plenty of room for pretention and foolishness. It wouldn’t be an art fair if there weren’t. But it’s also clear that a new generation of photographic artists are developing who quite knowingly want their messages to be read slowly and with thought, and who will break up that flat skiddy surface of the photograph we know so well to do that.

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Diamond Prox, from the series Teen Spirit Island, by Joscha Steffens. Perhaps the exception that proves the rule. One of a glorious series of portraits of professional (and very successful) gamers, this really is a traditional flat print. It’s lit by the light from the screen only. It is usually shown as part of an installation (so that may be how it qualifies for non-flat, not-fast photography) that reflects on the twilight world of these highly sponsored superstars, who burn out in their early twenties as their reflexes get too slow to play.

 

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