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.

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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.

 

 

The Sort of Thing They Like

 

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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review

“For those who like that sort of thing,” said Miss Brodie in her best Edinburgh voice, “That is the sort of thing they like.”
― Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

 

I have recently been writing quite a lot about how we could possibly set standards by which to judge photographs. It is not just a recent preoccupation; it’s one I’ve been gnawing away at for a long time. Put very simply, I recognize the absurdity of applying any one family of criteria to all photographs (and the arrogance of any one person setting themselves up to do that). But do we really have so little common ground in judging them, torn between all the hundreds of different criteria that could apply, that we have to make a profound revelation of ourselves as users of pictures before we can make even a moderate assessment of the pictures themselves ?

I strongly feel that photography should be capable of analysis and should not simply be offered and received as a mere system of visual construction, incapable of bearing profound meanings beyond its surface connection to ‘reality’. Or worse : incapable of bearing profound meanings except as the visualization of something which takes its proper, finished form elsewhere, usually in a text. If it is to be capable of analysis, then some more meaningful scale of value must apply than the old one of mere badging. “Great” and “crap” can only get us so far in sharing ideas about photographs.

Photography loses much of its point if it is treated as free-for-all, unmoored in the broader culture. A picture out of context is often not much of a picture at all – until a curator or editor or somebody acting as one of those things comes along to give a new context. Although context is not everything, I do note how difficult it is ever to treat a photograph as ‘nothing’ or ‘nothing much’ after reading detailed analysis of what it is and where it comes from. On the other hand, I am more and more dismayed by that form of photography (being practised specially by that odd subsection of photographers who are academic researchers) in which the utter neutrality of the pictures, in a style derived from late post-modern post-documentary, amounts to an admission of defeat. Those pictures convey nothing at all without the words.   Much academic photography is in fact merely the prop or scaffold for academic writing. It gives up on all the rich forms of expression in photography and falls back to its humble function of … illustration.

I suppose in my role as a critic of photographs, I spend my time trudging between the more nearly closed image (made by the photographer, distributed by publishers of various kinds, sold, copied and Instagrammed … ) and the more nearly open one seen by viewers. By the first, I mean those pictures which are doing the work expected of them, functionally. By the second, I mean that viewers come always (in theory) to every single new picture in a state of hot tension in case that picture might be the one which might bring wonderment or some kind of truth or any one of the dozens of strong emotions photographs can carry. I have argued for years that there is an imbalance between the lazy garbage that many photographers and their distributors are happy to release over their names, and the heightened alertness viewers bring to photographs for the fraction of a second it takes to see if they deserve that concentration. We receive photographs like cricketers in the slips, muscles tensed in advance, ready to move high or low. More often than not, we might as well have relaxed.

Photography is almost always an applied art first. Pictures have traditionally moved from the world of work to the gallery, where they have rested. If a small (recently, an increasing) minority has been destined direct to the esoteric (and in many regards incredibly old-fashioned) world of the collector and the dealer, that minority is still just that. The analysis of art provides many clues as to ways of making sense of photographs; but photography is bigger than art as it is bigger than journalism or advertising or police evidence files.

Pictures commonly do have jobs to do. The connotations are mildly snobbish, still today. Think of the words traditionally tied to photography: socially disparaging like craft or trade, technically disparaging, like smudger or snapper, or simply mildly contemptuous, like hobby or pastime. Don McCullin rebuked one of the journalistic colleagues he once travelled with (I think it was James Cameron) who introduced him as my photographer. It is not remarkable that McCullin had to correct him. But that Cameron could say such a thing would be incredible if it didn’t happen every day.   The disparagement exists because users of photography still, after it being so vital and so dominant for so long, have not settled on meaningful standards by which it can be judged. Or they have — but only within the tiny subsets in which they each operate. Good gardening picture. Bad wedding picture. Good picture to show how rich I am. Bad picture to illustrate the massacre that took place last night. Good picture of our logo. Bad picture for.…

We need to learn to be sensitive to disparagement of photography, maybe in the same process as we need to learn to be sensitive to photographs themselves. Because photography, whether you like it or not, is not confined to those subsets. Photography is the literacy of all those of us who are no longer ‘well-read’.

My friend and erstwhile colleague Stephen Mayes talks with fervour about how stock photography – disparaged, despised stock – can drive societal change in ways that we haven’t yet begun to codify. If the stock industry begins to show same sex couples raising children – and it does because customers are there to pay for those pictures – then that becomes the social norm whether there is a hinterland of disapprovers or not. Stock is an incredibly powerful influencing system; yet we think of it as a lowly trade practice, far beneath analysis. Popular music and film act as the literacy of those who are no longer well read, too. There are occasional outbursts of contempt for those things, yet it is rare for the industrial consumption of tunes or movies to be treated with the disdain so customarily reserved for our industrial consumption of imagery. Pictures do good or bad work, all over the place, all the time. And as a society we have simply not equipped ourselves to work out how they do what they do.

So I keep worrying away at this question of standards. One argument goes like this: If it’s an applied art, maybe the standards of the application override or overrule the standards of the art. How would that work? Is a crap photograph capable of being a good fashion photograph? Maybe it is. Indeed, I do believe that is a very fair assessment of how it can work. If – as I, following many others – have written in the past, photography changes status very fluidly as the individual image moves from context to context, then maybe the standards by which to assess it have to be fluid, too. And maybe they do. I am gravitating to (and have published in various forms) a notion that a good user of pictures, acting as an editor or curator or collector or just a kid pinning an eclectic group of pictures to a bedroom wall, can give sense and context to pictures which had none at all before her intervention.   The logical consequence of that is inescapable: that it is the user and the use to whom and to which standards of quality apply, and not the photographic raw material. The very same picture would then have different standards applied to it in the varying contexts in which it falls. That is our experience of pictures; it feels right.

 

I want to keep gnawing.

It is a truth (if not universally, then widely) acknowledged that whatever Nigel Shafran does is very good. As a matter of fact, I’m among those who acknowledge it, or very largely so. He makes sequences of compelling emotional order. A very great majority of what he chooses to release really is very well seen, very well expressed, of interest and so on. A smaller proportion is even better than that: choose your word. Shafran is certainly capable of making great images – leave aside for a moment whether that actually means anything at all in the context of the paragraph above – and has proved so many times in my view. I have long been a fan. I also know him a bit and like him very well as a person. In fact we shared a pint of beer and half a dozen oysters only the other day. I need to state all of that unequivocally here, at the outset. Because I want to take Shafran to some extent as my guinea pig. I want to enquire here into how we get our certainties about what makes or unmakes a good photograph; I want to pick away at easy words like good and great as they are applied to pictures.

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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review


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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review


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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review

 

Shafran last summer (2015) had a few pictures included in an exhibition at Somerset House which had been curated by Martin Barnes, of the V&A. Called Beneath the Surface, and drawn from the V&A’s own holdings, the exhibition (among other things) mounted a clever and convincing argument that to read pictures only for what they show is often to miss the point; that every picture in the V&A is there for reasons, and those reasons add up to a rich extra narrative intimately connected to the pictures but also stretching far beyond them. You could, if you liked jargon, refer to the metadata behind the pictures, or more plainly to the backstory of how they came to be where they are and what they are. You could talk in terms of material culture in this context, too.

A few years earlier, Barnes had commissioned Shafran to make some pictures for the V&A’s annual review, and his group of pictures in Beneath the Surface came from that commission. Shafran published those as Visitor Figures: Out-takes from the V&A Museum Annual Review 2012-13. (It’s an odd subtitle. They are not, properly speaking, out-takes. Of the nine pictures chosen to illustrate the V&A Annual Review, six reappear in the book. )

Notice that the inclusion of Shafran’s group in the Somerset House show is not neutral. It is (or it could be taken as) a vindication by the curator of his earlier decision as commissioner.

There is at first glance nothing particularly odd in the V&A commissioning Shafran – commissioning any photographer – to illustrate its own internal documents. The V&A is the national treasury of the art of photography; its collections are second-to-none and its curatorial concern has been high-level and constant for many years. Of course it should commission photographers to do stuff, every year.

Lots of organizations think they are vaguely daring in asking a photographer to work on their annual review who might not be quite limited to the awful standard annual-report vocabulary of process-and-people; suits-and-high vis; discipline-and-creative freedom — all presented in totally spurious cahoots. Not everybody who reads this will have seen an annual report. Take it from me, the majority of them are as miserably unimaginative and cheap in their photography as they are in their prose, leaden porridge of commercial cliché and caution and convention. Collectively, they add to the wholly justifiable despair one can have about the management function and the functionaries who perform it.

But consider. Shafran is not apparently a corporate photographer. It is obvious that it took some courage for Martin Barnes to commission him. Shafran is a notably independent minded photographer; one of the tribe who think of themselves as artists and not as craftsmen. He might have been disinclined to toe whatever management line was laid out for him to toe. Even worse, in corporate terms, he might have been … unmanageable. Also – much more surprisingly – the other way. It took a great deal of courage for Shafran to accept the commission. Imagine if by the mere mischance of having been mistaken for the kind of artist who could put artistry aside for the length of a corporate brochure, he had happened to sour relations with the major museum in his discipline for ever. That can happen. It has happened.

But this was not, as it happens, Shafran’s first commission from the V&A. A number of other pictures were commissioned from him in 1999 to celebrate Lord Armstrong’s completion of his tenure as Chairman of the Board of Trustees.

Nigel Shafran, After Gillian Varley's leaving party, 1999

Nigel Shafran, After Gillian Varley’s leaving party, Victoria & Albert Museum, 1999

So maybe there was considerably less risk involved than appears. Maybe Shafran — who was a high-flying commercial photographer in the youthful fashion-lifestyle end of the business before he was ever an independent artist, and who now judiciously manages the commercially-driven aspects of his work to take advantage of the energy and reputation that flows from those of his personal projects which have no very heavy commercial outcome — is a “safe pair of hands” (how uniquely British that phrase is, deriving as it does from cricket, the mysterious game which now makes its second appearance in these lines). If that’s so, we may need to rethink the pictures. Maybe getting Shafran to do your annual review pictures is precisely the corporate norm as geared to the V&A rather than a widget maker, profit taker or corporate shaker. And if that is so, in turn, then maybe we need to look again.

What does the V&A need to show? A number of its values are set. Since the Blairite formulation of culture – that it had to pay its way in societal terms – which has been wholly accepted by the Conservatives-with-Blairite-DNA who run Britain now, the agenda for national museums has been completely clear. Budgets are going to be cut every year (because the people who rule don’t really believe in culture in spite of ample demonstrations that it actually brings real benefits), but they will be cut harder if the mission statement cannot be shown to be met. Culture needs to be accessible and inclusive, to be devoted to (and a successful partner in) education. It needs to show value for the national pound spent on it, and to demonstrate herculean efforts at raising money commercially so as not to look like it might be scrounging. It needs to show high-level scholarship on the international level and leadership in as many as possible of the fields in which it operates. It needs to host blockbuster manifestations, if only to keep a profile next to others in creative industries for whom blockbusting is the only aim they own. It needs to be a considerate employer, devoted to the principles of equal opportunities, health and safety, and so on. Everybody who has ever tried to earn a living in the cultural fields will recognize that these employment ends stop short of actually paying decent wages, of course. Culture is supposed to be a great gift for the people who consume it, and the people who work at it are supposed to enjoy it so much that they can routinely be exploited for unfair or uncompetitive rates of pay.   But that is a separate question. Its political masters judge the V&A by the way in which it meets this agenda. Culture needs for ever to prove that it is paying its way, and a great museum never loses sight of that.

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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Selected for the V&A’s Annual Review


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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Selected for the V&A’s Annual Review


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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Selected for the V&A’s Annual Review

So Nigel Shafran’s pictures for the annual review had a lot riding on them. That his style is notably informal (I mean that he does not tend to use any set-up by which he has total control over his subject matter, in the matters of lighting or excluding accidental elements) should not obscure that. Informal pictures can still perform a very formal role, as advertisers, for example, know very well.   Take the Shafran pictures included in the final edit of the V&A report: we have specific views of the conservation process, of scholarship in action, of education, of the wide visitor profile, of the appeal of the blockbuster exhibitions… We even have, in the last picture used, a view of the Madejski garden crowded with visitors on a winter’s evening for some performance or event, a picture of the impact (it’s a jargon term for the number of people you reach and how you affect them) you can achieve through private funding.   This is a remarkably on-message selection of pictures for a radical photographer. They’re good or bad in other terms, and that can be discussed. But in corporate terms, which after all, are the terms under which they were commissioned, made and selected, they are very good. Or — to put in the terms I suggested above — these pictures were applied to the V&A’s purposes, and in the terms of that application, they were good.

V& A annual_review_201213 p54

Pages 54 & 55 of the Annual Review of the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2012/13. The little tiny not-very-inspiring corporate portrait in the upper left (of some executives executing something or other) is, rather surprisingly, by Nigel Shafran. Are there any standards other than those of the job in hand by which this is a ‘good’ picture ?

Shafran has had, as any successful photographer must have had, a succession of relations with picture editors and editors, with gallerists and curators, with publishers and critics and commercial clients. Maybe the manner in which he has run those relations is more important than the actual content of the pictures. That is a quite shocking thing to say to people who believe that the pictures are very fine and do their work irrespective of other considerations. But it is true in every business that what one might call the ancillary skills are vitally important. You need to be on time, to be personable, to be on budget and on message, to be civil, to be flexible to the needs of the customer, to be discreet, to be prepared to put up with a certain amount of executive bullshit and so on. These are skills which we try and persuade our sons and daughters to develop and maintain, whatever business they intend to pursue.

In something like photography, where very, very few people trust their own taste in the primary activity itself — where few can really confidently tell a good picture from a bad — it may well be that the ancillary skills hold more weight in the judgment of quality than in a business where more widely shared standards apply. The crudest standard is simply money. I forget which titan of the Thatcher era said “money is the way we keep the score”, and the barbarism is quite plain. Yet there is an element of truth there, too. A photographer who earns good money must be a good photographer, no? It rather depends what you mean by good.

If coming to a judgment on the primary activity is difficult, then the same few half-judgments will be carried much further. That is certainly true in photography, where the absurd replacement of individual judgment by the crudest reliance on name checking is very common. White Cube represents him: must be good. Michael Mack publishes her: must be good. He is in the collection at MOMA: must be good.   She went to the Royal College of Art; must be good… These (although they exist everywhere) are not the kinds of judgments you hear so much in creative businesses which have a functioning shared vocabulary of standards. A properly weighty CV for a film-maker might impress you; but if the last documentary she made is crap, you have every confidence in identifying that, and if you are in a position to hire such people, you might well hire another.

In photography, where there is so much choice of practitioners, and where an acute compiler could use such a vast range of forms of expression, timidity and conservatism are the rule rather than the exception. There are adventurous and confident editors and curators and publishers and art directors; but they are outnumbered in the thousands to one by those with little knowledge of the antecedents, narrow ambition for any set of photographs, and zero confidence in their own eye. They are the ones who will keep coming back to the ancillary skills since they admit they can make nothing of the primary ones. Being able to do business with a photographer comes to be not a complement to finding the pictures strong or moving or original or well expressed, but something that stands in place of those things.

I said loud and clear: I admire Nigel Shafran and think him a fine photographer. He has (deftly understated) technical mastery, great reflexes, a powerfully original sense of what is worth noticing in photographs. He has an old-fashioned sense of beauty coupled with a post-modern feel that beauty will be found in whatever you look at beautifully. He has acute moral antennae, becoming modesty, humanity, wide-ranging curiosity and culture. But I don’t think that the judgments which brought a group of his prints to the lower floor of Somerset House in London in the summer of 2015 are really derived from any of that.

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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review


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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review

 

It doesn’t in the end matter to the V&A whether the pictures they publish in their annual report are in any profound sense good pictures. Those pictures had work to do in their original guise. Then they reappear ten or a hundred times bigger, as fine prints in a major exhibition, and it begins to look as though somebody is asking us to take them seriously in contexts beyond their original one. But that somebody is the same as the person who commissioned them in the first place, who inevitably has something invested in how we regard them. Shafran then republishes them in a self-published book, and it looks as though he is making the same transition: the pictures are moving from ‘job’ to ‘work’.   Some time in the future, somebody will start to hold those pictures up to others, to compare what they are and what they do, and will come to conclusions about their cultural weight and worth. But long before that has happened, they will have been described as good or even great pictures, and I don’t think we know that they are yet.

We don’t have the habit of assessing photographs in the round. We don’t tend to share a vocabulary by which we can agree in describing their route from ‘a good job well done’ to anything more general than that. It may be impossible to arrive at such a vocabulary. But it surely is worth trying to keep an eye for one. And maybe it starts by asking what the job they were doing was and what it is.  It’s no good being snobbish about ‘applied art’.  It’s no good being snobbish, like Miss Jean Brodie, about the sort of things people like. It’s photography : it’s working at something or it isn’t worth a damn.

 

 

Post Scriptum:

I reviewed Beneath the Surface at the time for Photomonitor:

http://bit.ly/1BQpF48

You will see that the thoughts I develop here were not quite developed there: but it does no harm to admit to thinking about the same pictures for more than the immediate purpose at hand. One of the things we don’t do, I think, is give pictures the chance for the second and third and nth reading.

Paola De Pietri and the Effort of Memory

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

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

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

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

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

Two Small Boys on Their Whirlybird, Washington DC, 1963

Two Small Boys on Their Whirlybird, Washington DC, 1963

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

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

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

Paola de Pietri - Piccolo Colbricon, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Piccolo Colbricon, 2009 – 2012

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

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

Paola de Pietri - Forcella Fontanegra, 2009 -2012

Paola de Pietri – Forcella Fontanegra, 2009 – 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paola de Pietri - Monte Ermada, @009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Monte Ermada, 2009 – 2012

Paola de Pietri - Forte Verle, 2009 -2012

Paola de Pietri – Forte Verle, 2009 -2012

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

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