The Premise is Simple; the Tone is Jolly

The fact is, it seems, that the most you can hope is to be a little less, in the end, the creature you were in the beginning, and the middle.

Spoken by Molloy, riding his bicycle – Samuel Beckett, Molloy, 1951


John Grierson’s group of public-information film makers at the Empire Marketing Board – often identified as the acorn from which grew the whole of British documentary film – were scattered when it was closed in 1933. Many went with Grierson himself to the GPO, the Post Office. Edgar Anstey was one of those who made that move, and then moved on.

Anstey eventually became, in 1949, the head of the film unit set up by the British Transport Commission.  Under Anstey, British Transport Films, like the GPO before them, and like several private-sector equivalents at firms like Shell, made hundreds of films promoting public transport – including British Railways, nationalised in 1948 and the inland waterways, nationalised in 1947. Their tone, inevitably in the economic hard times after the Second war, was very much ‘make do and mend’ – persuading the public in lots of ways that the long-lasting austerity of the post-war exhaustion was good for the nation. Remember that the good times did not simply magically get switched on after VE day.  Food rationing – which we apprehensively wonder about in these days of the coronavirus – did not end until 1954. It is perfectly plausible to argue that prosperity didn’t really return until twenty years after the war ended (and then only for some) –  and that the Swinging Sixties was when the nation at last began to let its breath out. Those films were internal propaganda in hard times – to be situated somewhere on a spectrum between the Reithian BBC and Beaverbrook’s Daily Express.

One of these films, made by a team under Anstey, is a relatively well-known and very enjoyable one made by British Transport Films in 1956 called Cyclists’ Special.  It gets Tweeted and Instagrammed periodically as somebody new discovers it. You can see it (free, through the good graces of the British Film Institute) here :

Cyclists Special, 1956, via BFI

The premise is simple; the tone is jolly.  The idea is that British Railways would tack a few freight wagons adapted to carrying bikes (the adaptation stretched to rubber-covered hooks to hang the machines by their front wheels) on the back of an excursion train from Willesden Junction or Watford to Rugby, thus allowing people to get out of the city and ride loops around such joys as the monument to the battle of Naseby, with cheery stops in the pub on the way. It’s an interesting piece of film history and social history in its own right, and in my view (but I’m very ignorant of film) these public service films are under-appreciated.  But that’s not the only reason to bring this particular one to your attention.

I notice the bikes, beautiful and now probably very classic British lightweights for the most part, and I notice the people on them.  Those people are rangy and tough, certainly, and their average weight far lower than we’re used to seeing today.  But they are also quite a wide cross-section in age: some are young, some much older.  Many of them carry cameras, too.  The camera and the bike share many things in common, from their nineteenth century origins and mechanical consistency through the years, to the powerful democratising effect they have both had.  Although the bikes in the film are lighter than the heavy roadsters many would have used around towns, they have remarkably little special equipment to distinguish them from an ordinary commuter. The cyclists were recruited for the film from among members of the venerable touring club the Cyclist’s Touring Club, founded in 1878.  There are still occasional CTC badges to be seen on the youth hostels or cafes or pubs they approved, dotted around the country in a manner exactly parallel to the rather more common AA badges that offer assurances for the quality of service in hotels for motorists, for long before the AA, the CTC was a members’ organisation of great reach and importance. It still exists, oversensitively rebranded as Cycling UK to avoid excluding those who take no interest in touring – for the old CTC took the Touring part of their title seriously. They made maps, published routes, they ran meetings which included strenuous gallops of many tens of miles.

This film dates from pretty closely the same time as the Rough-Stuff Fellowship, founded in 1955, which was a sort of offshoot or sub-set of the Cyclists’ Touring Club. It gives you a wonderful chance to see what these people looked like.

The Rough-Stuff Fellowship still exists, a very distinctive (and almost caricaturally British) association of cyclists whose particular relish is to go where it’s not really possible to bicycle at all. While the machines used by the members have changed a little, the spirit has really not.  They still like routes arduous to the point of impassibility, and they still share an ethos of non-competition in which brewing mugs of tea in wild locations acquires considerable importance.  They make adventures for themselves, and are changed by their adventures.  In 2019, The Rough-Stuff Fellowship Archive appeared, a book devoted to them, part tribute, part lifestyle guide.  It’s also fully a photographic book, and a very interesting one.  This is about that book, and although it’s taken me some words to get here, most of the pictures that follow come from it.

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According to Mark Hudson, the archivist of the Rough-Stuff Fellowship, “a gentleman called Bill Paul was inspired by the writings and lantern shows of a chap who went by the name of Wayfarer, a keen advocate of tracks and the lesser trodden path. Bill put out a series of adverts in local and national press to see if there was interest in starting a club for similar minded folk. There was an immediate and positive response. Around 40 people turned up for the inaugural meeting, and quickly the membership grew into the hundreds.”  Remember, this is in the mid-1950s, long before the invention of mountain bikes and mountain biking.

Illustration for The Open Road, Wayfarer's lecture given under the auspices of the CTC on December 8th 1921 in Liverpool.

Illustration for ‘The Open Road’, Wayfarer’s lecture given under the auspices of the CTC on December 8th 1921 in Liverpool.

Somewhere a Road is Calling Patterson Cycling Mag 1919

Somewhere a Road is Calling. Frank Patterson cover for Cycling Magazine, 1919

Frank Patterson,  Westmorland Wanderings, 1931

Frank Patterson, Westmorland Wanderings, 1931

The ‘chap’ whose influence they acknowledged was Walter MacGregor Robinson, a Liverpool insurance agent who wrote of riding the mountains of North Wales for Cycling Magazine in the period immediately after the Great War, and whose lectures on cycling were immensely popular.  They tapped into something of the same feeling of the greatest of all cycling artists, Frank Patterson, whose illustrations were in the same journal, that an idyll could be found if one put the miles in.  In modern terms, no doubt they were right, too.  Plainly, for people actually damaged in the war, either in the trenches or at home, or for people whose world-view had been badly shaken up by the post-war world, plain outdoor exercise would have helped recovery, physical or mental.

A much later – and also a hugely popular advocate of bicycling as a refuge of sanity in an otherwise over-hasty, over-consuming world, Richard Ballantine, was to be influenced by precisely the same thinking and always paid his tributes to off-road cycling, to MacGregor, and to Patterson. Richard’s Bicycle Book, as it was called, first published in 1972, was maybe responsible for a similar resurgence in interest in bicycling.  And there’ll be another one along soon. Bicycling ‘lost’ a huge battle of public relations to the motor lobby in the early twentieth century, notably in the United States. But its basic attractions, of expanding the human range (and maybe individual freedom) at low cost, of a mechanically extraordinarily effective machine which can go a hundred miles or more on two bananas and a few throatfuls of water, tend to recur in the public imagination every so often.

It is slightly hard to throw one’s mind back.  Sometime in the 1990s, perhaps a little earlier, outdoor activity of all kinds became a consumerist arena, and the particular marketing ploy that became its driver was subdivision. It wasn’t enough to have a rucksack, for example.  You had to have a bag allegedly specific to your kind of activity.  Look in your own cupboards now, if you don’t believe me.  You have more rucksacks than you need, maybe several more. Same with sports shoes, which have morphed into a zillion variants, with coats, even with leggings and such apparently sport-indifferent kit.  The proliferation of bikes and bike gear, became so absurd that even the shopkeepers could no longer tell you the differences between machines marketed into ever tinier niches.   Cyclo-cross?  Hard-tail? Oh, no, Madam, you’ll be wanting a gravel bike.

Rough-stuff predates all that. It predates the Rough-Stuff Fellowship, too, come to think of it.  There must be many Clarion clubs that cycled rough roads long before the 1950s. The early Tour de France went up goat tracks. Rough-stuff riding involves a degree of hardship, an avoidance of cossetting. It definitely involves no-nonsense knees, of any gender, exposed in any weather. It was something that ‘ordinary’ people did on more-or-less ordinary bikes. It had something of the ethos of the Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout, in 1932, described once by Roy Hattersley, the former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party as “the most successful direct action in British history”. The Mass Trespass formalised the wide popular appeal of rambling over the countryside and led directly, in 1951, to the establishment of the first National Park in the Peak District. That was only a few years before the launch of the Rough-Stuff Fellowship. Rough-stuff was outdoor leisure of a similar kind to rambling, similar to the tough non-pricey sailing that was contrasted to the very different business of ‘yachting’, similar to climbing, even perhaps with something in common with Scouting.  It was for working people, whatever their line of work. They made their own entertainment, often around a camp fire.  They stayed in Britain, at first, because mass jet-travel had not yet arrived.  Rough-stuff riding involved camping, basic cooking, mending one’s own machines. Those riding rough-stuff might well spend a (relative) lot of money on a machine marketed as a tourer by Mercian or by Holdsworth or by Ellis Briggs, or they might even try going up mountains on what was called an Audax bike (there’s the beginning of specialisation for you – it just meant a lighter ‘fast touring’ bike) but it wasn’t really a shopping activity.

cycling Super-Nomad

The Bertram Dudley Nomad, 84/- in Gaberdine, 116/6 in Poplin

Which is not to assume that hours and hours of highly technical conversation weren’t a part of the joy of the thing: I’m sure they were. The great jacket of those days – or at least the one that all the nostalgia fiends looking back claim was the one – was called a Greenspot Nomad, made by Bertram Dudley of Cleckheaton in Yorkshire. It was made of a tightly woven gaberdine, and apart from pockets designed to hold an Ordnance Survey map and pockets in that position (beloved of cyclists) over your kidneys reachable while riding, it also had a zip that stopped well short of the hem, to allow free movement for thighs pedalling.   But look carefully at the pictures in the book and you’ll see as much non-gear as gear.  Ordinary flannel shirts, windbreakers, even town shoes of whichever kind worked OK on the bike. Almost all the saddle bags in the pictures are Carradice – also canvas, but much stouter, almost unbending canvas, like something from the heavier end of the sail locker. That’s still made, in Nelson, Lancashire, where CLR James and Learie Constantine played their cricket for a while in the 1930s.  But second-hand army stuff was pretty good for a lot of kit.  I took a while to work out what the circular brass fitting was that hangs off the top tube of a lot of bikes in the RSF archive book; but the RSF Instagram sorted me out in the end. It’s a Primus stove with a special bike attachment called a Terry clip. As I say, I’m sure gear of all sorts was part of the pleasure; but I don’t think the Rough-Stuff people were particularly worried about shopping.  Old and worn and proven seems to have been better than new and not quite tough enough. Look at those people in the film.

Archivist Mark Hudson has got together with writer Max Leonard, founder of a specialist outdoor and cycling publisher called Isola Press, to produce the book (Isola Press, £28.00).  Many of the reviews have centred on the eccentricity or quirkiness of the Rough-Stuff people, and there’s something to that.  I myself used the word caricatural a few lines ago. Yet I don’t think it’s the caricature that’s the most important thing here. Sure, one can laugh at the stoic qualities displayed – often in the rain.  It’s very noticeable that in the whole book there are far more pictures of people pushing bikes than riding them (because if you do choose to ride on narrow tyres on unmade roads there will be many miles that you simply can’t ride.)  I enjoy all that a lot: pictures of people pushing bikes through rivers, or lowering them on ropes down cliff faces, or up to the cranks in snow.

If you enjoy that, too, it’s very simple.  Buy the book, which is a delight, and follow, which is another.

Yorkshire 1976

Yorkshire, 1976

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This seems strenuous, even by RSF standards

The bicycle may seem ill-adapted to the conditions

The bicycle may seem ill-adapted to the conditions

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Crossing the Maize Beck, 1955

Crossing the Maize Beck, 1955

S. Ireland 1955

S. Ireland, 1955. Do notice that those are tandems, which are often fast on a road, but very heavy being pushed uphill.

Ingleborough 1957

Ingleborough, 1957. It’s like taking an old and favoured but now lame dog for a walk. You carry it almost all the way.

Glen Doll Scotland ~ 1959

Glen Doll Scotland, 1959. Here is one example of the Terry clamp holding a Primus tank to the top tube.

But there’s another thing.

This is a rather good photographic book.  It is proper social history, of an informal kind, certainly, but still …  There is a principal author in the person of Bob Harrison, who is credited with the majority of the photographs (and the distinguished outdoor photographer Henry Iddon has supplied new pictures of the archive itself, including views of slides laid out for editing, wooden drawers of miniature plan-chests crammed with 35millimetre slides and so on).  This is a wholly respectable, wholly fair exploration of a sub-group through its archive.  It gives a plentiful element of context, good original material to study (including much in the way of maps and diaries and reproduced magazine pages that goes far beyond the photographs themselves). It reproduces many photographs which are both crammed with interesting detail and redolent of their time and of the groups they came from. This is, in other words, a book of serious intent which stands mainly on the photographs it brings together, on the context in which they are shown, and on the background furnished with them. Yet it has, as far as I know, made no ripples of any kind in that corner of the world which admires and discusses photobooks.

This seems to me quite a revealing failing. Now, it seems, only those things which are self-consciously ‘fine’ photographs draw the attention of the people self-consciously interested in photography, and a fairly naïve, fairly un-self-conscious collection of pictures like this one simply doesn’t count.  Some of the cycling community have taken to this book with curiosity, with an open-minded interest in what it shows and what it reminds us of.  It advertises today more than £50,000 on its Kickstarter account, a sum to make green many hundreds of self-publishing photographers scraping about for ways to cover the costs of their hope for an audience.  The RSF Archive book makes a wonderful coronavirus book of escapism and absurdity and the possibility of dancing down into the next valley.  But it wasn’t conceived as that.  It is a proper collection of photographs. There’s honour to the people who did the riding in there, and also honour to those who made and edited the pictures. It does have a jolly tone, certainly, and its premise is not complex. But it’s none the worse for that. It’s also an invitation to re-think, perhaps to a world in which standing around in yellow capes was itself a pleasure. Why does that largely miss the world of photography? Is photography now only to be considered when it’s about previous photographs?

Flydal Gorge Viewpoint Norway 1965





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.


Photobooks: The Sound of One Hand Clapping

I have for personal reasons been away from these pages for quite a while.  Since the timing was not of my choice, the last post, on the Jonathan Lovekin pictures that make up Ottolenghi’s Plenty, has remained the ‘front’ page for too long.  Yet I would like to stay in the same general area and to broaden out that piece, because some of what it touches on is more important than one not very well illustrated cookery book.

The photobook market is booming, but it operates a curious double standard.  To get a book of photographs published – to achieve publication – did at one time mean that somebody had made a favourable judgment as to the quality of the pictures.  To get a book past a discerning editor was a validation, even a compliment.  It is still treated as such, but it is no longer so.

We are in the era of self-publishing.  If the criterion for publication shall be only that you can pay your contracted sum to Blurb, then clearly we need to rethink validation.  Publishers are in a dreadful mess, too. Most of them patently have no idea of the relative merits of their own books, and will only invest a marketing budget after they already have a measure of guarantee in the proven sales figures.  So publishers take fewer risks, they copy each other again and again, and when they don’t, everything they publish is in the nature of a test-marketing exercise.  Again, validation is hardly the word.

There probably aren’t ten really inspired and inspiring editors of photographic books in this country, and they are up against a publishing orthodoxy that says what they do is too expensive and too ‘niche’ to command the necessary budgets. Photographers are expected to cover or at least contribute to their own costs, often.  If they can’t, the galleries, which show them, must do it. Not much validation there, except in terms of self-esteem or self-promotion.

And then there is the question of numbers.  It is normal today for a photographic monograph to sell fewer than a thousand copies.  A howling success might sell five thousand.  Such numbers don’t equate to a mass medium. This used to be called vanity publishing. It is on a par with the old-fashioned ‘respectable but barely commercial’ tranches of the publishing business.  Like poetry, the offline publishing of which is dying on its feet at the hands of apathy and anthologies.  Yet the industry (and many of the photographers, if they cared but to admit it) rather despises as superficial or worse anything which far outsells that.

The new excitement about the photobook confines itself to self-defined products of artist-makers and the narrow lines of breeding from which they claim descent. In photobooks, it’s all happening, all go.  There are new photobook fairs and websites and the auction houses are quick to claim a new level of activity. The whole apparatus of a sub-section of the art-market is cranking into gear.  It’s become a collectable field.  You know what that means?  A field in which prices can be ramped up because two suckers can be found where there used only to be one.  But the field isn’t photographs-well-presented-in-books.  It’s photobooks.

The whole point is there.  It is far from clear that photobooks can sensibly be confined to a specifically photographic sector.  All sorts of books principally contain photographs.  See my last post on the Ottolenghi cookboook for that. Yet, as a mirror of what happens in the wider photographic world, the sheer breadth of the possible frightens the participants.  Photography touches everything, even if photographic artists don’t.  There are photographic books which deserve serious consideration across far wider ranges of type, of subject and of market than it suits a few ‘connoisseurs’ to pretend. I would offer the landscape work of Joe Cornish as an example : thoroughly successful and clearly doing a lot right, but somehow snubbed by the photo-gentry.

I don’t think books should be criticized or collected according to how near or how far they fall on a spurious scale between self-consciousness artistry and illustration. It doesn’t matter whether a book is about golf or gardening –  it doesn’t matter, in other words, whether a book is principally a display of photographic skill, or whether the photographs are incidental to some other theme.  If it uses photographs, it should use the highest standards in making or choosing and displaying those pictures. Plenty of books which are not marketed as photobooks depend for their entire sale on photography.  Why should they be passed over in silence?

And the converse is also true: that books which purport to be displays only of photography are often not fit to be published as books.  Most usually, these fall into a category I think of as ‘project books’.  A photographer has an idea for a formula which can generate some pictures.  He makes enough of them to fill a book.  He gets a book. He is proud to be the author of something which nobody else cared about in the first place, which nobody much gets to see, and of which second-hand book dealers will struggle to sell even the paltry number of copies in existence for the next fifteen years.   We all know – we all own ! – books like this.  But photography is a way of communicating.  It deals in facts, and it deals in ideas.  If your facts are banal and you’re bereft of ideas, you may well not have a photograph at all.  You certainly won’t have a book of them.

This boils down to something very simple.  As photography has spread into every corner of human activity, we have lost the ability to keep track of our responses to it.  A culture of name-checking has grown up to replace judgment.  Never heard of X or Y ?  But he’s published by Hatje Cantz, or Twelvetrees, or whoever….it must be OK.  This allows for stupid snobbery: treating pictures as somehow ‘different’ just because they don’t come from the precious world of photography but maybe smell of commerce or hobbies or even journalism or fashion.

That makes for sloppy work, and sloppy communication.  It undersells photography, even while selling a number of collections of photographs.

At the top of this page, two brilliant books of photographs are illustrated.  Hugo van Wadenoyen’s Wayside Snapshots was a wise and quietly influential essay on seeing photographically, on taking the strengths of the medium and working with them.  Published in 1947, it was an attempt to bring European thinking gently into Britain, a kind of not-too-modern Modernism. It was published by the Focal Press and therefore edited by Andor Kraszna-Krausz.  It has perfect pedigree as a serious study of photography, photographically illustrated.

Picturesque Great Britain is a very different kettle of fish.  It has a suggestive imprint at Bouverie House, indicating its close connection with that high propaganda world of Lords Northcliffe and Beaverbrook. And indeed: the text is a piece of nationalistic boosting by the First World War Liberal British minister of propaganda, Charles Frederick Gurney Masterman (an important figure in the development of deliberate Government provision of information).  It was wonderfully illustrated by Emil Otto Hoppé in a lush idiom of mild melancholy at the necessity of industrial progress.  The photographs are servants of the whole: Hoppé was a great star by the time it was published, in 1926, and his name appears above the title on the title page.  All the same, it is in no way a book about photography.  These are different uses of pictures and intended to reach different audiences.  Yet would it not be absurd to try and make sense of them by separate standards, only one of which would be reserved for ‘photobooks” ?