About Francis Hodgson

Writing About Photographs

Like A Toothbrush, It Does the Job – Don McCullin

homeless irishman near spitalfields 1969

Sir Don McCullin – Homeless Irishman Near Spitalfields, 1969

Sir Don McCullin was the marquee name at the 2016 edition of PhotoLondon. (He wasn’t  knighted, as a matter of fact until the New Year Honours list of that same year, a few months later.)  I was asked to write various texts in that connection, including the words to go on wall panels for a very fine one-man exhibition that Hamilton’s – his gallery for many years –  put on in his honour.  I wrote two more general pieces at that time, which I reproduce here in advance of his retrospective show opening at Tate Britain in 2019, which will once again put his name in the headlines. That will run 5 February – 6 May 2019.

The first of them is a curiosity – the formal address I was asked to make to mark McCullin’s being appointed the PhotoLondon Master of Photography for that year.  He was embarrassed to hear it, and I was more than embarrassed to give it.  I was a sweating, stuttering wreck, to be honest.  Who could possibly enjoy giving such a speech in front of the man it described?

The second was a catalogue piece to accompany the Hamilton’s exhibition, a more usual format for me, which was published (a slight variant) in the PhotoLondon guide for visitors.  Neither is easily accessible for most people. Together they both make the point which I still think worth underlining, that McCullin was never only a photographer.  He was always a tremendous journalist – who happened to use a camera as most traditionally used a typewriter and some sometimes a tape-recorder.  There is a kind of snobbery in isolating McCullin by the tool of his trade which limits our appreciation of his high talent.

These pieces overlap as I repeat myself across the pair of them.  I hope that doesn’t matter too much as they add up to a whole.

early morning, west hartlepool, 1963

Sir Don McCullin – Early Morning West Hartlepool, 1963

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is customary on these occasions to make an introduction.  But I can hardly introduce you to someone you all know.  Don McCullin is with good reason the best known name in British photography, and if some of you don’t know the person before you here today, you all know the work almost intimately well .

I hardly need to bring to your mind that there is no end of places in the world where cruelty is allowed to flourish for advantage; and that there is still a very large number of photographers who make some part of their living by showing us the manifold horrors to be found in those places.  For most, I’m afraid, it is simply a question of getting to the site of whatever famine or war or other crisis, making pictures without seeing too much and getting away.  Increasing evidence suggests that those pictures have little or no effect upon viewers.  Call it ‘compassion fatigue’ as some do, or call it mediocre photography, as I do; either way you have a vast pool of pictures from the bad places in the world, spread before us to consume as part of our varied media diet, but which do nothing to persuade us of injustice or cruelty.

Don McCullin set himself apart from that way of working many years ago.  He has said many times that his emotional commitment to what he photographed was always the thing that mattered.  He has been open in discussing his motives, his frame of mind.  But in the end he remains impatient with the hairsplitting.  He acknowledges that he made for many years his living and his reputation out of the suffering of others. No, he doesn’t ” hide behind the camera”.  Yes, he knows the truth when he sees it. Yes, he knows that great pain and fear and damage and squalor slide onto light-sensitive paper just as easily as grace and joy.  He knows, in other words, that photography changed for ever our notions of truth and beauty.   He was one of the people who did that, and that, difficult as it is to accept, is why we honour him today.

Don McCullin was born shortly before the Second War and raised in modest circumstances in Finsbury Park in North London, the son of a father who was too ill to work much, and who diminished and died in front of McCullin’s young eyes.  He had as a youngster a tough evacuation during the War, which involved among other things being separated from his sister.  His mother had a great love of music, and even had a few 78s ; she owned the Ink Spots, of course, but her real love, although nobody knew where she had found it, was opera.  McCullin told Roy Plomley on Desert Island discs in 1984 that she had saved money to take him just the once to Sadler’s Wells, where he felt out of place.  He heard La Bohème.  McCullin won a Trade Art scholarship to study art at the Hammersmith School of Arts & Crafts at Lime Grove, but had to pass it up to earn his living after his father died when he was 14.  He got a job:  working on the dining cars on the railway – sleeping, he recalled, in incredibly crisp sheets at the staff hostels where some kind of imperial splendour of service still somehow prevailed.  Perhaps some of his dandyism comes from those starched sheets, or perhaps from his next job, as a messenger and colour-mixer for Larkins – film animators in Mayfair.  He has described his education in ‘the beautiful’ coming from the windows he passed on Mayfair streets, notably Moyses Stevens’ flower shop in Berkeley Square (the window display was described in the 1920s as “a veritable Chelsea Flower show every day of the year”).

He did his military service, becoming what he called a “broom-wallah” in the RAF, and being sent in the end to Kenya, where he bulk-processed film of the jungle before it was bombed.  On leaving the RAF he pawned a camera bought on his RAF money, having no great mind then to make it the tool of his trade. He wanted a 500cc Norton Dominator rather more.  Indeed, he famously said later that he used a camera as he used a toothbrush; it did the job.   Yet he was beginning to see all the same that he had a gift for pictures and that they gave him a certain power denied to others.

An early successful sale to The Observer – of a gang in his home district he had posed in a bombed-out building some time before one of their number was charged with killing a policeman outside Gray’s Dancing Academy in the Seven Sisters’ Road – netted him more money than he had ever earned before.  That was encouraging.  He took a risk. When he heard that the Berlin Wall was going up he spent all the money he had, everything, on a throw of the dice.  He paid for his own trip in 1961, with no commission, while more established journalists waited to see what would develop;  he made brilliant pictures;  and his career was on.

The Observer sent him to Cyprus, and he found he could manage in war zones.  From then on for many years, there was hardly a hot spot in the world to which he was not sent.  Mark Haworth-Booth, the distinguished curator of photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum called the pictures that have resulted ” part of the furniture of all our minds.”

He moved from The Observer to The Sunday Times.  He worked there first in 1966, and had a contract from 1969-1984.  The peculiar blend of the British Sunday supplements owes a lot to many people:  to Michael Rand, the picture editor of the magazine, to Harold Evans, the editor, as well as to many precursors such as Stefan Lorant who had edited both Lilliput and Picture Post a generation before.  But it was Don McCullin who nailed the business, week after week, of putting the unspeakable in front of the public in images of such exquisite beauty that there was no hiding from them.  I should underline, too, that he was by no means a specialist in the far-flung places.  His reports from the deprived corners of a Britain exhausted in the war years, and losing one by one all the industries upon which its nineteenth-century fortunes had been made, are every bit as burningly urgent as the better-known work from elsewhere.

So he became – with neither hyperbole nor any chance of being contradicted – one of the greatest war photographers there has been.  It is an odd footnote that the three greatest photographers working in Vietnam, one of the periods when McCullin was at the height of his powers — who did so much between them to change public attitudes to violent colonial adventures overseas — were all British (the others were Larry Burrows and Philip Jones Griffiths).   It is another odd footnote — and one rich in ironies —  that it was McCullin who made the photographs for Michelangelo Antonioni’s famous Blow-Up – in spite of the hero being a fashion photographer.  The originals, and the eponymous enlargements were made by McCullin, probably introduced – we can ask him – to Antonioni by Francis Wyndham, his colleague on The Sunday Times.

Don McCullin’s motives were complex.  David Cornwell, who proved in his great series of novels under the name of John Le Carré what an acute judge of character he was, felt that ” McCullin was peace-weary before he ever went to war.  He arrived at the battlefield with open wounds and he has bitterly refused ever since to let them heal.”  There’s probably something in that: but it was written in 1980, and McCullin has made huge efforts to look for healing since then.  By developing his career in landscape photography, in particular, he has made himself a great master in an area which uses wholly different skills to the ones we know he excelled at way back when.

McCullin was a very angry photographer. He has said so many times. His background in poverty made him angry, and so did his work.  When you read his description of coming to a hospital in Biafra in which 800 had died, children and women among them, you can see why.

Were Don McCullin passing through the education system today, he would most likely be diagnosed dyslexic.  He certainly had a quite exceptionally retentive mind yet found great trouble absorbing information from books. He was also, curiously, colour-blind to some degree, a condition which affects more men than women.  As an adult, he has understandably and openly admitted suffering badly from what we can only call post traumatic stress.

Yet you can’t be fuelled by rage as a landscape photographer.  You can’t even necessarily hope to tell the truth.  All you can do is try to say who you are.   McCullin still itches to go to war; I suspect that he has a visa for Syria in his pocket right now.  But his friends will try to stop him.  He’s slowed down, and he’s let some of that anger go. He shouldn’t go back. He’s told us what he has to say about war.  He has a magnificent new career, making long careful sequences of pictures, first about the landscape where he has found some solace, on the low hills of Somerset, and later a major work around the margins of the former Roman Empire.

If ever a man was self-made it has been Don McCullin.  The career, the reputation: both are stellar.  It goes without saying that he forged those alone and against long odds.  He also no longer speaks or dresses like that boy from Finsbury Park.

I opened by saying that it was absurd to introduce a man of this calibre to you; you know him already for his great skill as photographer and printer of photographs; for his refusal to drop below high standards of honour; for his insistence on speaking the truth to large corporations or governments; and above all for the great dignity he has always given to those suffering in the most violent or catastrophic moments of man’s inhumanity to man.  But I want to make a slight introduction all the same.  We know Don McCullin as a photographer.  That’s what we call him: the great war photographer.  He was that, of course, but I think the title does him a disservice.  He was more.  In honouring Don McCullin today, I don’t think we are honouring only a user of cameras and lenses.  Don McCullin was one of the great journalists of his generation, a great reporter, a communicator of genius.

Don, I speak formally on behalf of PhotoLondon, but also informally on behalf of many, many others, when I say thank you for all that you have done.

east wall 8

Sir Don McCullin – Vietnam View, n.d.

unemployed men gathering coal, sunderland, early 1970s

Sir Don McCullin – Unemployed Men Gathering Coal, Sunderland, early 1970s

Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin 1961 by Don McCullin born 1935

Sir Don McCullin – Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin 1961

Gangs of Boys Escaping C.S. Gas Fired by British Soldiers, Londonderry, Northern Ireland  1971, printed 2013 by Don McCullin born 1935

Sir Don McCullin – Gangs of Boys Escaping C.S. Gas Fired by British Soldiers, Londonderry, 1971

A Young Lebanese Christian Woman Throwing a Hand Grenade from the Holiday Inn Hotel 1976, printed 2013 by Don McCullin born 1935

Sir Don McCullin – A Young Lebanese Christian Woman Throwing a Hand Grenade from the Holiday Inn Hotel, Beirut 1976,

 

If — and you should —  you listen to Richard Dimbleby’s icy broadcast of 19th April 1945 on the BBC from the newly liberated Belsen concentration camp,  you will hear him say quite calmly “I passed through the barrier and found myself in the world of nightmare.”  He then goes on to describe appalling suffering, in which death is vilely cheap and even cannibalism necessary to survive.  Don McCullin has passed that barrier many times.  Like Dimbleby, but not necessarily like other war reporters, McCullin seemed also to remain calm in the very face of man’s worst inhumanity to man.  Wounded, flung on a truck in Cambodia among the dead and dying, he took his mind off the pain and the fear of what might happen next by struggling in the fading light to get his exposures right.  Another harrowing set of pictures was the result.

Everybody thinks they know Don McCullin.  His face is known, his name almost a shorthand for that place where photography meets conscience.

Part of the reason for that has been his subject matter.  He volunteers to see such cruelty, such pity and shame, that where we see those things it’s not hard to associate him them.  But that’s only part of the reason.  For while McCullin been able to survive (and with his eyes wide open) in places most of us would flee, he has also done a great deal more. We tend to forget it because we think that a reporter like him can only tell the unvarnished truth.  We have to hope that what he shows is never a trick of photography.  It isn’t a trick.  But that doesn’t mean it’s naïve or neutral.  Don McCullin has in fact been a great stylist.

He is a wonderful printer, a great one.  Today, he spends a lot of time in his darkroom, getting his prints miraculously right.  That wasn’t always so; inevitably he sent many rolls of film back from the field to be printed by someone else.  But he was always a great technician, of the cameras and the film, even when the final print was by necessity made elsewhere.  I remember him telling me once, years ago, that he used to carry a length of lavatory-chain as part of his kit.  I wondered why, as he expected me to.  Some kind of arcane tool of self-defence? In fact, he used to screw it into the tripod socket under his cameras, and then brace his elbows tight into his ribs while jamming the lower end of the chain under his foot.  That extra tautness gave his camera a little more stability; and that in turn gave him a stop, perhaps two, of exposure.

Those sunken pools of black and glistening greys of McCullin’s are not accidental, in other words.  There is a gulf between making pictures and taking them. McCullin’s great images are made and worked at even though we see in them circumstances so fast — and often so appalling — that simply to have pressed the button at all would have been enough for most. Under the most appalling stresses, McCullin remained a virtuoso.  His compositions bear careful examination; the tones of his prints are exquisite.  For balance and harmony he equals Ansel Adams.  Only to see that, you need sometimes to abstract the photograph from what it shows.  For his photographs — it’s a word which is troubling in his contexts, and one with which McCullin has quite naturally wrestled for years — are beautiful.  Part of his greatness lies there, that in spite of everything, the language that he chose to address us in was the language of art.

There are a number of public visions of Don McCullin which are only partly true at best.  First is the myth of Don the straightforward antique hero in a safari jacket.  McCullin has been brave as a lion.  He has gone where angels fear to tread. In a long career witnessing horror on our behalf, he has more than earned a number of clichés of that sort. It is perfectly true that McCullin rushed to the car in which Nick Tomalin died in the Golan Heights in the vain hope of saving his colleague and friend.  He knew full well as he did it that he would be in clear gunshot and did it anyway.

Clearly, there is in Don McCullin something of the hero.  But he is far too intelligent to be a classic hero.  He has never been blithe, or insouciant, or nonchalant.  In the face of the terrifying, he has often admitted to being terrified.  The classic hero does his duty, patriotic or romantic. Although he may have an Achilles heel, he does not engage in moral ambiguity. Don McCullin has never disengaged from that.  He has been an actively moral person, with all the complexities that implies.

This shades into a related myth: Saint Don.  This was most clearly seen in a retrospective show put on by the British IWM, the former Imperial War Museum, under the title Shaped by War.  In this extraordinary tribute, McCullin’s work – his pictures, whether seen as individual images, or gathered together on the pages of the magazines as thev were first seen – was not enough.  That show surrounded the work with relics, actual relics, whose clear function was to add a kind of moral aura to the man behind the pictures.  There were passes and letters allowing him to various hell-holes.  There was his military issue bayonet, a weapon of war used presumably only to open tins of food.  There was above all the camera damaged by a bullet which would otherwise have damaged the photographer.

There exists an extraordinary picture of Don McCullin in 1964 (it was made by John Bulmer, then working for The Sunday Times while McCullin was still working for The Observer) carrying an old lady in his arms to safety.  That was useful to the museum’s view of the reporter-saint.  So was the fact that our own Ministry of Defence refused him permission to go to the Falkland Islands embedded with the taskforce:  it’s traditional for saints to have their truths denied by authority.

Don McCullin has indeed carried many wounded. He has shared privation and desperate danger with hundreds of victims of war or civil war.  He has suffered dreadfully, not just in terms of wounds to his body, but in terms of what we would now call the Post Traumatic Stress which he has described searingly in himself.  His relations with people, his family foremost among them, have suffered as a result. But he isn’t a saint.  His motives have been professional or personal like all of ours, his actions sometimes frankly wrong.  He is a person.  A person of exceptional gifts, certainly. But it is wrong to caricature him even in a complimentary way.  Hero, saint; these are nice labels, but they are also ways of avoiding understanding.

Don McCullin wrote that he was a “product of Hitler. I was born in the 1930s  and bombed in the 1940s. Then the Hollywood people moved in and started showing me films about violence. ”   As a young man, he was poor, and he was dyslexic, and his father died when he was fifteen.   He had to give up then a scholarship he’d won, to Hammersmith School of Arts and Crafts.  No need to be a subtle psychologist to see already that there were causes of great anger there.   His brother made a thirty-year career in the French Foreign Legion, and McCullin might easily have done the same.  He did do military service, in the RAF, and won a campaign medal for service against the Mau-Mau in Kenya.  But he realised early that the military life was not for him.  We are immeasurably the richer by that.

There is no need to caricature Don McCullin.  He remains – perhaps oddly for such a great traveller – a devotedly English Englishman.  He loves India, and many other places, too.  But he has no wish to pretend to be other than as he is, still less to abandon himself and remake himself differently.  He had not much to start, but he made himself a really great journalist.  That requires no caricature.  He believes in finding out the truth, in part by deep and serious reflection, and then telling it with energy, clarity, and beauty.  When his employers changed, and wouldn’t afford him doing that any more, he left them and found another way to carry on doing the same.  He has made pictures just as telling in Bradford as in Biafra:  he is not only a foreign correspondent, a war reporter, or even perhaps a photographer.  He is a powerfully gifted communicator with important things to tell us. ” I only use a camera like I use a toothbrush”, as he put it once.  “It does the job.”

It isn’t extraordinary that a man who found it difficult to read should have found such sophisticated virtuosity in communication. It should not still have to be said, but the message has still not sunk in: A photographer of the calibre of Don McCullin is a great communicator, fully the equivalent of a great songwriter or film director or novelist.  He does not merely illustrate the words his pictures are often published alongside; he does not ‘merely‘ do anything.  He expresses in his pictures his arguments, beliefs, prejudices, judgments as well as the bloody facts of each case.  You can no more misunderstand McCullin on war than you can misunderstand Primo Levi or Wilfred Owen.

Don McCullin has spent his life in showing us that wars are not accidents; the suffering he has seen has not been a by-product.  Policy; doctrine; profit; even economy or system….these words sound so abstract, so remote. The child’s ditty is simply wrong.  Sticks and stones, they do break bones.  But those words end up hurting, too.

 

 

La Luz de la Mente, by Luis González Palma

Gonzalez Palma 1624

Luis González Palma. 1624, from the series La Luz de la Mente, 2005. Película orthocromática y láminas de oro.

 

One of the perks of working at Sotheby’s is that you can keep works by your elbow a certain time as you put them through the cataloguing and valuing process.  Some years ago, I kept by me a print from this series in just such a way and christened it the Underpants of Christ. I have wanted one ever since.

La Luz de la Mente is a series of re-creations of the loincloth of the crucified Christ in pictures by artists including Velázquez, Zurbarán, Murillo, Bellini, Rubens, Guido Reni, El Greco and (more surprisingly) Eustache Le Sueur. It is a mad idea: the devout obsession of a small boy used to praying in the presence not of a painting or a carving, but – as the church insists –  in the actual presence of Christ.  In González Palma’s hands, it is not so mad . He has taken pains to recreate the drape and fold of each painter’s version of the loincloth, and he shows us his workings in the bits of string that hold his arrangement together.

Making this sculpture is slow careful work of the kind thought particularly apt to the greater glory of God.  He photographs it as a rich devotional object in its own right.  The print is about 1 metre wide and high, which makes the loincloth more or less life-size. Most of the series are (as this one is) kodalith prints with gold leaf and resin, a few are kodaliths with silver: rare processes with precisely that same intention of giving richly to God as the original paintings.

I am hazy on the doctrinal implications, but there may be a thought that the loincloth has importance as the only bit of Christ’s equipment left behind at the Resurrection.  (A recurring medieval dispute pitted against each other competing owners of the prepuce — the foreskin — of Christ, a relic to be venerated for precisely that reason, as the only part of Christ’s person known to have been removed while he lived. You can see that anybody who claimed this relic would dispute anybody else who did.  There can only have been one.)

González Palma is a contemporary Guatemalan artist much of whose work has revolved around the strange hybrids of race and culture that add up to Latin America.  This series was shown at the Venice Biennial in 2005, but has not sold particularly well at auction.  That means nothing.  I love the twisty way this picture is both a heartfelt religious object and at the same time a reflection on the depiction of religious objects. It’s gorgeous, too.

 

Here’s another one:

Gonzalez Palma 1580-1585

Luis González Palma. 1580-1585, from the series La Luz de la Mente, 2005. Película orthocromática y láminas de oro.

 

 

Iago, or Study from an Italian – by Julia Margaret Cameron

iago1

Julia Margaret Cameron           Iago – or study from an Italian 1867       Science Museum Group collection

What follows is the next instalment of my re-posting of the various pieces that first appeared in the Financial Times in early 2013, in my discontinued series Hodgson’s Choice.  I have had some misgivings about this one, not because of any doubt that the picture is wonderful – it is, and my insistence on having it in my ‘collection’ is unchanged.  But re-posting reminds me of the deficiencies of my own scholarship – and nobody much likes that.

Once it appeared in the FT, I was contacted – very civilly – by Scott Thomas Buckle to point out that some weeks before, he had published a long and detailed piece of research updating the rather older research by Colin Ford upon which I had based myself here – to the effect that the model used by Julia Cameron pretty certainly was not the one I wrote about, but another.  I simply hadn’t read his article.  According to Buckle – and his view will not, I think, be displaced as the orthodox one in the future – the model for the great Iago was not Angelo Colarossi but a member of another family of professional models connected to his, Alessandro di Marco, who posed, among others, for Frederick Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones and the sculptor Sir William Hamo Thornycroft.  I don’t doubt that Scott Thomas Buckle is right.  But I don’t want to re-write the piece because I’m reposting the series as they were.  I hope that the gist of the little piece I wrote is not too badly affected by having the wrong name, because the new sitter proposed was another professional model – a rarity in Cameron’s portraits. The best I can do, I think, is to acknowledge my error and Buckle’s careful research.  If anybody wants to follow in his tracks – and you all should, for it’s a fine piece of detective art history – his article is to be found here :

Is this the face of Alessandro di Marco?  The forgotten features of a well-known Italian model, by Scott Thomas Buckle.  The British Art Journal, Volume XIII No.2, Autumn 2012, pp 67-75

And with that mea culpa, here’s what I wrote, warts and all.

 

What a piece of work Mrs Cameron was ! Eccentric, name-dropping and unbelievably pushy; absolutely incapable of taking ‘No’ for an answer, she would have been a handful in any society.  But as a grand Anglo-Indian administrator’s wife in High Victorian England, she was amazing.

Here’s her niece Laura Gurney casting back her mind:  “Aunt Julia appeared as a terrifying elderly woman, short and squat, with none of the Pattle [her maiden name] grace and beauty about her. Dressed in dark clothes, stained with chemicals from her photography (and smelling of them, too) with a plump, eager face and piercing eyes, and a voice husky and a little harsh, yet in some way compelling and even charming… No wonder those old photographs of us, leaning over imaginary ramparts of heaven, look anxious and wistful.  This was how we felt.  ‘Stand there’, she would shout, and we stood for hours… ”

Her grand-niece, Virginia Woolf, found her pretty odd, too.  Here she is: “I must note for future use, the superb possibilities of Freshwater [on the Isle of Wight, where Mrs. Cameron lived], for a comedy.  Old Cameron dressed in a blue dressing gown & not going beyond his garden for twelve years, suddenly borrows his son’s coat & walks down to the sea.  Then they decide to proceed to Ceylon, taking their coffins with them, & the last sight of Aunt Julia is on board ship, presenting porters with large photographs of Sir Henry Taylor and the Madonna in default of small change.”

For years after that departure to Ceylon, Mrs. Cameron was treated as not much more than an eccentric amateur dabbler.  She was an easy target.  Her imprecision offended those for whom photography was above all the careful following of recipes. Even today, her deep, deep sentimentality grates with many, and while everybody today acknowledges the portraits as the towering, pioneering achievement they are, there are still many who find her illustrations of Tennyson, her religious allegories, and many of her pictures of children too mawkish – impossible to bring back across the gulf of taste between then and now.

This is one of the very few pictures she made of a professional model.  Detailed research by Colin Ford identifies the sitter as Angelo Colarossi, a member of (in effect) a dynasty of professional models. Colarossi posed for Lord Leighton and John Singer Sargent and G.F.Watts among others, and his son posed for Alfred Gilbert’s Anteros, the memorial to Lord Shaftesbury that gets moved every few years as new traffic schemes alter the shape of Piccadilly Circus. The Académie Colarossi, run by a relative, was an art school in Paris, whose students included Amedeo Modigliani and Alphonse Mucha.

It’s important that the sitter was a model: it took skill to sit for the agonizingly long exposures that Mrs. Cameron required.  As a result of Colarossi’s professional patience, this portrait has less of that over-excited blur that Mrs. Cameron sometimes went in for, and more control than she sometimes achieved.  It’s partly because Colarossi could bear the exposure time that the picture is so startlingly modern.  I’ve also, on the other hand, felt it a slight shame the sitter was a model.  Given what she did to Thomas Carlyle it would be wonderful to think this a literary or cultural figure whom we could imagine we knew better through the portrait.  There’s so much expression in that face it deserves to be associated to a character rather than merely to a professional mien.

Still.  Can’t complain.  It’s as strong a portrait as anything Nadar ever made. It’s a beautiful print, too, luckily, because there’s only one known print of this portrait, in the Herschel Album which was ‘saved for the nation’ in the mid 1970s.  It’s now in the Science + Media Museum in Bradford.

The Red Bustle, by Nick Knight

Nick Knight Red Bustle for Yohji Yamamoto 1986

Nick Knight            The Red Bustle, 1986

The colours of a bullfight as the sun finally goes down. It’s not complicated. The elements of this photograph are controlled with a curious mix of indulgent austerity, and it remains seductive long after the clothes it was made to sell have passed into the archive.

The picture comes from early in the series of clothing catalogues Nick Knight made for Yohji Yamamoto and is dated 1986.  The model was Sarah Wingate and Knight was an outsider. He’d made a documentary series about skinheads (the disaffected right-wing youth movement which was both scary and deeply fashion-conscious) and a series of exaggerated portraits of a new London in-crowd of the early 1980s in a commission for i-D magazine. Still not thirty when the Yamamoto commission came his way, his collaborations with graphic designer Peter Saville and with art director Marc Ascoli were relatively new.

The catalogues were an experiment in how these confident, even arrogant talents could work together, and they were a departure for the client, too. It is always a wrench for a fashion house to publish pictures which give no very clear idea of the garments.

These pictures were a reaction against a period when fashion had been for a while even more overtly all about sex than usual. They are deliberately non-sexy in the same way that a Mohican and a pair of Doc Martens had been a few years before. They have technical brio. Knight flirted between flat representation and three dimensional: almost all of the girl, her cap, her long coat, most of her shoes are in inky black silhouette.  It could have been drawn with a Rotring.  The bustle that flares out behind her is glittery translucent pink net, and every pleat catches its full complement of zinging highlights and dark shadows.  The pool of shadow on the floor reminds us that this is a person, not just a graphic.  The little highlight on the heel is important: that’s where the flat blankness finally begins to curve into relief, and it’s the only place which shares something of the rival qualities of a map (on the left) and a sculpture (on the right). There is originality here, but there are debts, too, most obviously to Erwin Blumenfeld, the great innovator. It’s a cultured picture as well as a brash one.

Later in the same series of catalogues, Knight made a set of four pictures of Naomi Campbell in a red coat, the shapes as full as the sails of a J-Class yacht.  Those are perhaps better known than this one, but in the Red Coat, Knight made a formal error which jars badly:  he cut the girl off at the ankles, and in one version, at the top of the head, too.  This is better.  There is no slippage here.  This is a collision of punky daring with a very British Puritanism.

L’Accordéoniste de la Rue Mouffetard, by Robert Doisneau

The Accordionist Rue Mouffetard

Robert Doisneau                                      L’Accordéoniste de la rue Mouffetard (1951)

I like a bit of French humanist photography as much as the next man, and often for very simple reasons. But they’re not always simple pictures. Brassaï was an intellectual, a writer and a thinker as well as a snapper, whereas Robert Doisneau is thought of as an instinctual, reflex, photographer. He certainly had prodigious reflexes. A picture like this has to be rapidly seized. But that by no means implies that it need be slight. The elegant complexity of what is going on in this charming street scene still takes me by surprise. Never underestimate a great photographer.

The nominal subject of L’Accordéoniste de la Rue Mouffetard  (1951) is a musician. He is facing us, but his eyes are a dark bar across his face, a clear indication that he cannot see. As if that were not enough, he has a very visible white stick. Above his head, a No Entry sign looks for all the word like a blindfold on a child’s drawing of a face. A blinded smiley would look just like that. It acts as a graphic shorthand of the whole picture: a visual title. So we have three separate, very clear suggestions that this cute picture is not about street life or music but about blindness.

Let’s go on: the group on the left are all looking with concentrated attention at something, but we cannot see what. The lady on the right, too, is staring at something, but in her case it’s out of shot. Between them, a very obvious “frame” in the panelling of the shop front is empty. Where we might expect an advertisement or a trade-name, there is only the varnished grain of bare wood. So the frame is “blind”, too. Only one figure is caught looking with attention: the sturdily poised artist square on his feet, drawing. We can’t see his page: too far, and protected by the angle of his pad. We can guess what he’s at, though. He must be drawing the blind accordionist. And then it finally dawns: he is drawing the musician, certainly. But he’s drawing him in a scene just like the one we’re looking at. And the only person looking intently back out of that scene, into the picture that Doisneau has made, is you. It’s a cheerful enough scene. But the joke is on us, the viewers. We are the only ones in the whole equation who are not seeing anything of what all the others are looking at. We are the blind viewers of the Rue Mouffetard.

It’s still cute, full of lovely period details like the baggy trousers and the battered soft hat. But it isn’t just cute, by any means. It is a beautifully crafted essay on the business of looking. As such, it’s amazing.

Engineers’ Blue

Henry Peter Bosse : US Dredge 'Phoenix' 1885

Henry Peter Bosse : US Dredge Phoenix 1885

In 1890, a year after the Oklahoma Land Rush, the great race by 50,000 settlers to claim previously Seminole lands after a starting gun was – literally – fired on April 22, 1889, the director of the US Census declared that the frontier was closed.  “There can hardly be said to be a frontier line.” He meant it in a specific and technical sense, that the line which divided population densities of less than two persons per square mile from heavier settlement was now impossible to trace.  Three years later, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner expounded at the then-new Art Institute in Chicago his influential doctrine that the character of American democracy had been formed by the frontier.  At that time, a few miles away, crowds were flocking to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (known also as the World’s Fair).

World's Columbian Exposition Chi 1893

World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago, 1893. Made by the Chicago Bank Note Company.

windmills at the Fair (uncredited)

Display of Windmills at the Chicago World’s Fair, 1893 (No photographer credited)

Tesla demonstrated the lightbulb and Westinghouse the alternating current generator (and George Ferris built the Ferris wheel and somebody displayed a chocolate machine so impressive that Milton Hershey switched from making caramel to chocolate). Theodore Dreiser was one of many visitors who had cause to remember the Fair: I think he met his wife there.

Chicago may well have remained a wild, wild town in its mores for some years longer (as bears witness Upton Sinclair, in The Jungle, which dates from 1906); but after the 1893 Exhibition, it could hardly be thought a frontier.  The great rail-head, the focal point of all US trade, it had been sited where it was partly because it was so close to the Mississippi watershed.

One can argue with Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis at all sort of levels, and many historians have contested bits or the whole of it.  But the double myths of the West – of the wild lands being ‘civilized’, and of civilized townies getting a bit of the wilds in them, have become recurring tropes of the American view of America. America has been looking for new frontiers – including Space, famously, the ‘final frontier’ – ever since.  And conversely, the cults of outdoorsmanship remain undimmed, including guns and survivalism for some, or building self-sufficient communities off-grid for others.

the-grand-canyon-of-the-yellowstone-1872.jpg

Thomas Moran, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872.

The myth of the West was strong even as the frontier was being declared closed.  Among paintings, for example, Thomas Moran’s Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was exhibited at the 1893 World’s Fair.

Numerous government agencies showed the photographs they had commissioned, many of them of expeditions west of one kind or another. Timothy O’Sullivan’s and Eadweard Muybridge’s pictures of the west were shown at the Fair, and so were William Henry Jackson’s, who had accompanied Moran to Yellowstone.  Jackson’s and Moran’s pictures are arguably what made it a national park – a literal taming of the West.   Jackson also made numerous photographs of the fair itself.  In other registers, Eastman showed there, and there were representatives from abroad, too. Among them all were a number of pictures by contributors from the Corps of Engineers, including Henry Peter Bosse (he’s pronounced Bossy, I think).

Bosse was a draughtsman mapmaker on the upper Mississippi, assigned to that branch of the Army Corps of Engineers based at Rock Island, Illinois from 1878 until his death in 1903. As an Englishman, I had to look up where Rock Island is.  I’d only ever heard of it in the context of Leadbelly’s classic Rock Island Line – reworked a number of times, including a version right in the far recesses of my memory by Harry Belafonte.

Bosse’s story is a wonderful one for a number of reasons. To start at the wrong end, it has a number of bad endings which almost scupper it. A large number of his glass negatives, for example, almost all of them, were dropped and smashed in an office move. He himself, come to think of it, could have survived longer.  He died at 59, poisoned by improperly canned asparagus. Bosse’s work, like that of so many photographers, could simply have not survived.

In the early 1990s, a number of dealers (including Denise Bethel, not yet head of the photographs department at Sotheby’s) became aware of some of Bosse’s pictures.  Prices were discussed, a few collectors were alerted, some sales were made.  John Anfinson, a historian attached to the Corps of Engineers, was contacted about Bosse.  He ferreted around and found a photograph of the cover of an album that had not yet appeared. “Presented to US Dredge William A. Thompson by Mrs. William A. Thompson.”  (Dredge is the Americanism for what British people call a dredger.  It’s a type of boat. In English English, the dredge is specifically the mud-digging or mud-sucking apparatus on the boat.)

The Corps of Engineers has the pleasant habit of renaming its boats after long-serving employees: Thompson had been a colleague of Bosse’s.  (Bosse got one of his own: after his death, the Vixen was renamed Henry Bosse in 1908, but unfortunately that one capsized in 1913.)  Anfinson checked, and sure enough, there was still an album on the Thompson:  it had been chugging up and down the Mississippi in the captain’s desk drawer for something like 50 years.  Miraculously, it was undamaged by damp or dust, by bugs or boatmen. That album was valued high ($4.5M high) and Bosse’s place in photographic history was made secure. As Wellington said of Waterloo, it was a damned nice thing…the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.  There are now Bosse pictures online, museums have Bosse holdings, there’s plenty of Bosse scholarship (some of which of course I acknowledge here with thanks).

In a blog of this kind, it is all too easy to write disproportionately (much and often) about that tiny part of photographic activity which has overt claims to art.  It is salutary sometimes to underline that photography makes its own art.  The great master photographers take their habits, their working methods, their interests and prejudices from where they find them. Bosse wasn’t an artist.  He was a jolly amateur cartoonist, a dab at lettering, a prince among cartographic draughtsmen.  He became a brilliant photographer. For the ten or so years that he photographed up and down the Mississippi, he was a state employee (he worked on the river much longer, but seems to have photographed only between about 1883-1893). It was work.  Important work in the national interest, to be taken seriously. To say that Bosse would not have considered himself an artist doesn’t imply that he was visually illiterate or naïve. He had artistry; even genius. But that’s not what he was selling.

His subject was the taming of the Mississippi – one of the notoriously incontinent rivers of the world – into a usable commercial highway.  The Mississippi is a great sluggish beast chock-full of silt, and it has the habit of flooding and violently changing its course.

Arkansas City, Arkansas, flooded by the Mississippi River, April 27, 1927

Mississippi Flood at Arkansas City, Arkansas, April 1927.

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Harold N. Fink for the Army Corps of Engineers. Map of the historical changes of bed of the Mississippi, 1944.

Taming the river was not just a question of civic pride.  Until the expansion of the railroads, the Mississippi represented the likeliest trade route for a country that was beginning to demonstrate its insatiable appetite for trade.  It had been a major trade route surprisingly early: by the 1820s the river was churned by steamboats as far north as Minnesota, enough of them in fierce competition that it was cheaper to send goods East by going down the Mississippi and around the long sea passage than to send them over the land route through the Appalachians – even though the land route is ten times shorter.

The Daisy Belle Taking the short cut after a Mississippi flood. Morris

Morris (Maurice De Bevere). The Daisy Belle Taking a Short Cut after a Mississippi Flood. The Lucky Luke books by Morris (later Morris and Rene Goscinny) are often based on real events. Here the famous 1000-mile race between the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez in 1870 forms the basis of the story.

The Army Corps of Engineers has long been tied to huge projects that might elsewhere be given to civilian contractors.  Among these are national parks, road and railway construction, and of course a huge programme of working with water – for irrigation, navigation, flood-protection, and later, hydroelectric power.  After Bosse’s death, the depression-era programme of kick-starting the economy through public works was partly carried out by the Engineers, responsible for such all-American monuments as the Fort Peck Dam – whose very Socialist representation by Margaret-Bourke White appeared on the cover of the first issue of Life in 1936.

In Bosse’s day, the Engineers had funds to create a channel of a certain depth up the length of the upper Mississippi.  At first, that was four feet six inches; later more money was found and a channel depth of nine foot was aimed at over the entire length of the river above St. Louis.

Bosse was interested in a number of specifically river structures: weirs, locks, wingdams, levees… (a wingdam is a carefully angled obstruction built deliberately to speed the current to scour out a particular shallows). He was interested in a number of specifically river effects: rapids, floods, meanders…He was interested in the possibilities of bridges, docks, wharves.  And he spent his working life on boats: snag-boats, tug-boats, dredgers, workboats and so on.  That might have remained the working environment of Abraham Lincoln, who had spent a while as a flatboatman on the Mississippi, completing at least one journey from New Salem, Illinois, to New Orleans. It did remain Bosse’s working environment his entire working life.

Henry Peter Bosse :Wingdams Below Nininger, Minnesota

Henry Peter Bosse : Wingdams Below Nininger, Minnesota

Henry Peter Bosse : Wagon Bridge at Winona, Wisconsin, 1892

Henry Peter Bosse : Wagon Bridge at Winona, Wisconsin, 1892

Henry Peter Bosse : Wagon Bridge at La Crosse, Wisconsin, 1891.

Henry Peter Bosse : Wagon Bridge at La Crosse, Wisconsin, 1891.

Henry Peter Bosse : US Steamlaunch 'Elsie' towing brush, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : US Steamlaunch Elsie towing brush, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Old Ponton Bridge at Prairie du Chien, Wisonsin, 1885

Henry Peter Bosse : Old Ponton Bridge at Prairie du Chien, Wisonsin, 1885

Henry Peter Bosse : Mechanic's Rock, Low Water, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Mechanic’s Rock, Low Water, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Front Street, Davenport, Iowa, High Water, 1888

Henry Peter Bosse : Front Street, Davenport, Iowa, High Water, 1888

Henry Peter Bosse : From Bluffs at Fountain City, Wisconsin, Looking Upstream, 1885

Henry Peter Bosse : From Bluffs at Fountain City, Wisconsin, Looking Upstream, 1885 . You can see a raft of lumber in the channel – just what Bosse worked to make safe, fast, and cheaper.

Henry Peter Bosse : Entrance to Guard Lock, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Entrance to Guard Lock, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Closing Dam in Otter Chute, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Closing Dam in Otter Chute, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Below the Falls of St. Anthony, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1885

Henry Peter Bosse : Below the Falls of St. Anthony, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1885

Henry Peter Bosse : Bar in Front of La Crosse, Michigan, 1891.

Henry Peter Bosse : Bar in Front of La Crosse, Michigan, 1891.

The reason his pictures were (usually) made as cyanotypes was severely practical:  he worked for the Corps of Engineers.  Cyanotype was a sensible, relatively sturdy way to make cheap copies of diagrams and plans. Bosse could mix cyanotype chemistry even in a cramped cabin on a boat. But there is every reason to believe that as well as the stench of Mississippi mud, Bosse had poetry in his soul.

Engineers’ blue is a type of brick, made of heavier clay than the standard, more nearly waterproof, even less easy to crush. It was used by Victorian builders where great strength was needed, but because it looked so different, it also provided a simple vocabulary for (restrained) decorative fanciness. That is exactly how I feel about Bosse’s blue. It’s a tool, but one which allows a hint of flourish. Nothing gaudy, certainly nothing sensational. Bosse remains a steady working man. But that blue becomes his metre, his idiom. Time and again he puts little figures in the foreground of his pictures as Moran put them on a rise in front of Yellowstone. Do they represent the enormity of the task that he was tackling?  Human frailty in the face of the river gods?  Or are they there as a surveyor’s ranging rod, to give scale?  I’m sure Bosse had both in mind.  He was a practical man – and a practical man is the epitome of the American dream.  But he was also a photographer, making images to be dreamt over as well as merely read.

Surely that’s why he chose to make his pictures oval in the presentation albums that he took most care over.  The oval signified a view.  The oval was the shape of the eye: in French (which I have absolutely no reason to believe Bosse knew, but still) there is the expression a coup d’oeil, meaning a glance or look.  The oval represents that, a deliberate eyeful of the Mississippi, to be contrasted against merely sighting some bit of the thing. The pictures are superbly composed.  They are river views in the same way that Peter Henry Emerson was making river views in Norfolk at about the same time.

Emerson The Bridge publMarsh Leaves 1895

Peter Henry Emerson, The Bridge, from Marsh Leaves, published 1895.

Emerson thought of himself as making naturalistic photographs; as far as we know Bosse didn’t trouble himself with such things; they are just photographs.  They are records, statements of belief, elegant graphical shapes, mnemonics, arguments, totems, invitations all at the same time.  Too complicated?  That’s what photographs do; they smash our flimsy divisions between different kinds of thinking. The oval is the shape of fancy mounts in photographic company catalogues: this may be a factual view of an iron bridge, but it puts that bridge in its proper context, of the glorious triumph of the taming of the river – itself a big part of the taming of the West – by doughty engineers attached to the citizen Army of the self-identified most exceptional country in the world.  It isn’t fanciful to think of Bosse’s Mississippi as a kind of watery history painting.  Here was destiny.  Only in Bosse’s world, it didn’t have hussars bravely galloping through cannon-smoke. It had a four-and-half foot channel to clear.

Henry Peter Bosse : Construction of Rock & Brush Dam, Low Water, 1891

Henry Peter Bosse : Construction of Rock and Brush Dam, Low Water, 1891

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Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea, 1983 by Richard Misrach

Richard Misrach, Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea 1983

Richard Misrach: Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea, 1983. Richard Misrach is represented by the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, California.

As a co-founder of the Prix Pictet, awarded since 2008 for images on the theme of sustainability, I have thought a lot about environmental photography. I know that Richard Misrach takes his place in a long line of predecessors, from Carleton Watkins through Ansel Adams and the New Topographics. I know that both irony and the sublime had been found in the landscape many times before him. I’m British, and know well that tradition of engaged landscape photography represented by Fay Godwin and before her by Bill Brandt. But somehow, for me, it always goes back to Misrach, who was born in Los Angeles in 1949. Nobody else has made such a sustained political enquiry into our maltreatment of the wilderness in a vocabulary of such exquisite beauty.

 

This 1983 view of a flooded campsite, “Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea, California”, is so simple. Yet it goes so far. Misrach’s big subject for some 40 years of photography at the very highest level has been the complex relationship between man and the environment. Much of that work takes its place in his huge Desert Cantos, which is mainly a catalogue of dreadful abuse, although the occasional noble moment intervenes. As his projects accumulated, it began to seem that here we had someone whose scope and range were as monumental as the area he worked in, the deserts of the south-western US. As sustained serial works go, the Desert Cantos are on the scale of Balzac. One of the Cantos is on the subject of a mysterious pit in the desert, full of dead horses and cows. A nuclear accident? An epidemic of some sort? Misrach’s point (or one of them) is that the whole mythology of the West was centred on those beasts: the 1,000-strong herds of cattle driven to the railheads, the cowboys on horseback. Suddenly Misrach was looking down at John Wayne and the Marlboro Man, caricatured in a pit full of dead beasts. He photographed them with the twisted agony of Goya or Géricault.

 

The Salton Sea was created in 1905 by bad management of irrigation waters from the Colorado River. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was substantially enlarged by more mismanagement. It is, in other words, both a part of the larger story of the struggle to bring water to the arid West, and a symbol of the chronic failure of that intervention. Misrach offers us this rare watery tourist spot in the desert, turned sour. Yet his camera is not so very different from the tourists’ cameras that would have pointed the same way before the water level changed. We gaze, as sightseers, at a sight no longer fit for sightseeing. There is blame to be ascribed, fault. Yet it is photographed with Misrach’s particular genius for light, caressingly.