7 November 2012

A taste of things to come..

Just a quick post, to celebrate the arrival at PLATE manors this week of some lovely photobooks!

In case you can't make these out (blame the shoddy iPad 2 camera, and me, in that order), they are, from top to bottom:

Sophie Calle, The Address Book (Siglio, 2012)

The Bitter Years: Edward Steichen and the Farm Security Administration Photographs (d.a.p., 2012)

Andrew Phelps, Haboob (Kehrer Verlag, 2012)

I'm going to be reviewing these for Photo-eye magazine over the coming months, so do keep an eye on their website if you're interested! All reviews end up on PLATE as well, but I don't like to post them here until quite a while after they've appeared on Photo-eye, so check there first..


30 October 2012

Well, hello!

And apologies for the scandalous lack of posts in recent months - a mix of day-job trauma and general uselessness has prevented me posting on not only a glut of excellent photography shows in London, but also a fantastic trip to Tokyo (where I discovered the completely wonderful, if slightly airport-lounge-reminiscent Metropolitan Museum of Photography) and some fantastic photography books that have come my way.

I intend to make amends, starting with this post - it's an article/ review I wrote for 'Hotshoe' magazine earlier this year on the subject of dog photography.. More, less dog-related, news to follow very soon!

Your first instinct on seeing Martin Usborne’s series The Silence of Dogs In Cars might be to laugh. In my case, this is in no small part due to the cognitive echo of William Wegman’s immortal segments on the childrens programme Sesame Street, in which Wegman’s Weimaraner companion, Man Ray, would be enrolled to demonstrate some domestic task such as making bread or (doubtless, when the photographer was feeling “basic”) simply choosing the object that was “not like the other ones”.
This personal (and slightly fatuous) qualm aside, there is the more taxing problem for Usborne that the incongruity of seeing dogs, or indeed any animal, in “human” positions, contexts and scales is now firmly the province of internet-based, viral humour and has a comedic effect for most viewers. Add to this the problem that the dog’s face in repose tends towards the melancholy… and there is a risk that the photographer’s more serious stated aims will be overwhelmed completely by the sense that these shots are just a bit silly.

Usborne acknowledges the comedic potential of this work and says he has no problem with this response – indeed he has contributed droll commentary on this work to the Guardian and The Independent websites, remarking on the hours spent “matching the expression of the dog to the type and colour of the car”. However, he does have wider themes in mind. The premise of the project is briefly this: Usborne has carefully staged and photographed scenes of dogs trapped inside cars of various ages and makes, each of them positioned and framed slightly differently – many appear to stand in artificially-lit urban environments, other cars are shot in cluttered garages or off-road, in rural settings. This is not, as a brief description might lead you to believe, a documentary project, but rather something “more dreamlike and cinematic’” that sits (albeit strangely) amidst the work of other photographic metteurs-en-scene such as Gregory Crewdson and Philip Lorca di Corcia. Usborne professes a lifelong interest in dogs, their “mute” vulnerability. This he connects with his own fears of being alone and voiceless, and claims that, in his photographs, the dogs are a metaphor for the “raw and dare I say it – animal – parts of ourselves” that we conceal.

It is certainly easy to intuit these concerns in Usborne’s images, many of which communicate the sense of being still – stopped, stalled – through their clear, graphic compositions and intense saturation, and which subtly convey the “muted”, fearful atmosphere Usborne describes. His attention to reflective surfaces, glass and steel, and to the dynamic framing of car windows within his own photographic “window” heighten an almost auditory sense of isolation – the particular atmosphere that a closed car has. This attention to what it “feels” like to be a living thing inside a closed, mechanical body triggers a metaphorical reading of the images, in which the dogs become our “raw” animal interior life, contrasted with the body- or skull-like shell of each car – a reading aided by the fact that no humans or other creatures appear in these images to distract us from their central conceit.

One odd thing about Dogs in Cars, within the lineage of “dog photography”, is this kind of simple, direct attention to the animal subject. Elliot Erwitt’s perennially popular dog photos, for example,  incorporate architecture, props and human anatomy alongside their canine subjects (it has been remarked before that dogs were of particular use to Erwitt on advertising jobs, being perfectly placed to draw attention to shoes). Indeed, these are hardly shots of dogs at all in one sense – the animals act as props or foils to their human counterparts, alluding to their lifestyles and personalities. The same can be said of Wegman’s photography and of the dogs collected in Barnaby Conrad’s book Les Chiens de Paris – it is the mirroring or comparison of human-dog behaviour that is often the point of interest or humour in this kind of photography.

Usborne has dealt with these ideas in a recent documentary project, titled CRUFTS: Extraordinary dogs, ordinary people (2012), in which he explicitly addresses a culture where animals are used as a canvas for the quirks of taste and outlandish impulses of their, otherwise ordinary, owners – one fantastic image shows a woman whose presence is obscured by that of the spindly, cock-eared whippets crowded round her feet. Ironically, as Usborne’s title suggests, the dogs in these photos are often more convincing and engaging than their owners, the real subject of the photographs being human “obsession with classification, management  and controlling”, as expressed in breeding and grooming pedigree dogs. This is the theme – that of power and control - that carries over into Dogs in Cars, occasionally heavy-handedly, as when the stately “Prince” is photographed behind the word “slave” printed on a truck window.

The photographer can be disappointing when he repeats his central visual tropes too emphatically, the baleful eyes and large looming shadows of these moody, mysterious images too ponderously spelling out their emotive “themes” of constraint and abandonment . Conversely, he is at his best when he finds tension in his theme – the jolt that comes from a (rare) blurred shot of one dog baring teeth behind glass, or the wry humour of seeing a huge animal seemingly pressed up against the windscreen in a car that seems too small to contain it.

The series is varied and will undoubtedly find a varied audience – those who appreciate Usborne’s eye for colour and form, as well as those who simply appreciate dogs. Dogs in Cars has certainly found interest in the media, and among a wider public – German publishing house Kehrer Verlag will print the photographs as a fine-art photobook in a limited run of 1500 copies this Autumn, funded in part by Usborne’s campaign on website Kickstarter. The project overshot its fund-raising target of $15000 dramatically, with a total of £31,392 raised at the time of writing and, one presumes, at least a handful of sponsors who paid the $2700 dollars requisite to receive a signed photobook, postcards and full-sized gallery print in return. Whether this translates into a wider success really depends on where your tastes lie in relation to this kind of anthropomorphizing imagery – put simply, are you a dog person?

This review was originally published in Hotshoe magazine, August-September 2012, and can also be viewed in their iPad app! All (terrible) photographs of the layouts are mine and do not reflect the excellent quality of the publication..

16 May 2012

The Mark of Abel, Lydia Panas

I first saw Lydia Panas' work from the Mark of Abel series when it was exhibited at Foley Gallery, New York, in early 2010. Back then, I remember thinking that the photographs – muted group portraits, in which obscurely connected individuals stand before anonymous rural backdrops – were engaging but hard to access. Each photograph is simultaneously a tempting puzzle, its subtle visual clues inviting you to 'work it out,' and a rebuke, resisting your attempts to draw any conclusion about its subject. Whether that discomforting effect is an intentional experiment with formal tension or, rather, a weakness in Panas' project, remains unresolved in this book.

'Group portrait' is an awkward description of what Panas does. The phrase suggests a formality, a sense of occasion, which these images are conspicuously lacking. A sense of 'inbetween-ness' is generated by the almost listless attitude in which the photographer captures her subjects. These figures rarely engage directly, physically, with the viewer or, in any dynamic way, with the frame of the photographs, though we are subjected in nearly every image to their blank yet unrelenting gazes. They 'do' almost nothing and the result is an air of expectancy, a sense of pause. George Slade puts it neatly, in his short text towards the end of the book, when he refers to the way in which these loose compositions of figures and ground create a 'dwelling within the photographic frame,' a space in which we think about and around the people depicted.

This delicate sense of presence is offset by occasional moments of explicit drama or theatricality, as in an image in which a young woman wears a white wedding dress – its slightly odd fit and her almost mournful expression informing us that she is only playing at the role of bride, and that half-heartedly. The visual reference to the commercial photography of 'occasion' underlines Panas ambivalent relationship with physical appearance – it gives us, she seems to say, everything and nothing; clues to human behaviour and character without any real or accurate understanding.

There is action of a subtle, gestural kind in Panas' photographs. At her best, she has a technical mastery and sense of visual space that activates the reader's imagination and invites interrogation of her images. In The Mark of Abel where family groups are depicted (without captions or explanatory text) this is particularly acute – what can we glean about these people and their relationships? How are they similar and how different? We wonder about the character of the woman who adjusts her partner's hair in the background of one photograph, while the 'daughter' figures in the foreground address the camera both more frankly and yet, because of their more plain and androgynous appearance, more anonymously. A slight sharpening of focus brings one woman into relief while her male companion drops back into the image, raising a protective, or self-conscious, hand to his chest. Is he unsure of the camera or disdainful of it? In this respect, in these telling gestures, The Mark of Abel has something in common with the cryptic communications of Thomas Struth's Family series, though it is less varied in scope.

When I last saw Panas work in an exhibition, it was the piece Kitty, Christine and Kira, selected for Foto8 Summershow at the Host Gallery, London. The sense of transience this later portrait evokes is heightened by the way in which the photographer has caught her beautiful subjects at odds posturally with themselves and each other. It seems more resolved than some of the work in The Mark of Abel – I look forward to seeing further Panas books in print, which are slightly less opaque, slightly less of a puzzle, than this one.

This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 12th February 2011, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are from The Mark of Abel, by Lydia Panas, published by Kehrer Verlag, 2012.

25 March 2012

my home is where you are

Cover detail, courtesy my iPad
Last week, I received an e-mail from a nice young man called Filipe Cacasa, a Portugese photographer who has recently published his own photobook (well done, Filipe), titled a minha casa é onde estás ('my home is where you are'). This collection of 15 black-and-white photographs, selected from a larger body of work made over 3 years, have Cacasa's wife Teresa as a subject and explore intimacy, domesticity and a strange kind of theatricality that emerges when the photographer takes his camera into a private space. The book is available, in a limited edition of 300 copies, from a bookstore near you (stockists, I am told, include Photo-eye, Santa Fe; Dashwood Books, New York; Tate Modern bookshop, London; Flotsambooks, Tokyo; Tennis Club Bookshop, Amsterdam; and Ivory Press, Spain). However, Filipe very kindly offered to send me a comp copy of the book and to answer a few questions I had about him and the work – so, you can see our mini Q&A and my review of the book below!

As you can see from some of my (poor) photos, 'my home' is a pretty serious production, reflecting an apparent desire for this book and the work within to be absorbed quietly and thoughtfully. In terms of production, this desire translates into a straight-forward, even sombre, black cloth case-binding (no tricksy 'Blurb' design for this Lisboan), and the choice of weighty, classy materials within (200gsm Gardapat paper, seeing as you're asking). There is a little too much of this studied quietness for me – the severe design of the book, for example, doesn't necessarily reflect the wittier images in the series, such as a photograph in which the photographer's feet are held to Teresa's breasts, creating an atmosphere at once tender and surreal and a figure at once humorous and humanised.

c. Filipe Cacasa
There are also niggling issues with the production; a slightly lighter paper stock, for instance, might have made the book a more natural, flexible object without harming the dignity of the photographs. However, these are fairly minor qualms and, as much as I like a jaunty book design, I've also got a lot of time for the way in which Cacasa's more reserved choices (and no doubt those of designer Ana Fatia) reference his photographic concerns; what is hidden and what can be shown, what is in shadow and what in light, and what can be known about another person from their physical presence. This is a recurring theme in the photo series presented here – a combination of images that plays with the conventions of recognition and identity. Some of the photographs are pure, formal explorations of the body's appearance in space, the shapes it takes. These shots work individually as elegantly formal investigations of light and dark, and physical gesture.

c. Filipe Cacasa
However, taken in series, these (often faceless) physical portraits also strike up a conversation with both more intimate, 'close-up', facial studies, snapshot-style photographs of props including shoes and lingerie, and apparently staged images, in which the model theatrically veils or otherwise obscures her face. The series works well as an illustration of the ways in which we see those closest too us. Most of these photographs are taken from a domestic, 'colloquial' viewpoint, with the photographer's model and the camera moving in relation to one another with apparent independence. While the choice of black-and-white photography, the high contrast printing (which leaves areas of extreme, obscuring shadow) and simple 'set-up' and props of most of these images imply a kind of universality or impersonality, this never translates into a cold or exploitative aesthetic. Rather the overwhelming impression is of warmth, playfulness and, somehow, conversation.

c. Filipe Cacasa
I would like to see more of Cacasa's work, particularly his work from Asia, in book form. There were moments in a minha casa é onde estás - the simple, formal studies of discarded shoes and hanging lingerie, for example – that are well-made and evocative in series, but don't necessarily leave me hungry for second and third viewings (though I'm aware my taste always runs to more complex, 'messy' imagery as a general bias)! Nevertheless, Cacasa clearly has an eye for mood and an ability to work intelligently with space and sensitively with the human figure, and I would love to see more of his well thought-out books. He is clearly investing in the way he tells his photo-stories and I'm left with a desire to invest the time in reading them.

It's not often I get to quiz the photographer behind the work on this blog, but Filipe has very generously answered some of my questions about his work below. Enjoy!

Your training and exhibition history are pretty international - China, Japan, Portugal – what drew you to these different countries to take photographs or was it all pure chance?

It was not by chance. For a long time I have had a strong interest in Chinese and Japanese culture. I feel drowned by the relation between it's past, it's history and that influence in the present day, despite  a great influx of foreign cultures through the years. The assimilation of foreign cultures by the ancient cultures created new identities. I like the way people think in Japan, the way they organize space, whether interiors or urban areas. And photography! Japanese photography is a big influence on me; their unique way of seeing and showing something personal associated with the subject of their work. I know that I have a strong need to know and understand Japan. Portugal is where I live and, strange as it may sound, it is much more difficult to work here, maybe because I have a few pre-conceived ideas about my environment that come across in my photos. But this is something I am working on.

I think 'my home is where you are' is quite an intimate, personal series. Is it representative of your work, or is this project different from your previous work?

It is very representative of my work. Speaks a little about me, about my private space and mostly about my wife. When I started to photograph, my subject was my friends, their spaces and sculptures. This series started after I meet Teresa and developed in our home. I think this series is like a performance. But it is my performance. The (photographs) are of Teresa as performed by my mind’s eye, which is different from anyone else’s. It is very difficult to photograph someone you know. The fact that I know her doesn’t make it easier. It actually makes it much more difficult. There is a tendency to bring our opinions of somebody to bear on the photographs we take of them, projecting on them that image we’ve created, which doesn’t always correspond with their own self-image. That’s what’s most interesting: showing her an image that she hasn’t seen before. And that’s what these images are about, about the way her body is, the movements she might not even be aware of.

Why present this series as a book? Did you always intend for it to take book form, or is that a decision that came about later?

When I photograph I normally think of editing in series, of a body of work and not independent images. I think in book form. It is essential that people see these photos with time, step by step, to get into the feeling. You have to see it photo by photo, page by page, to understand that all these photos are one photo. Another strong reason to present this work as a book was because I see it as a gift from me to my wife. With this book she can understand better how I see her through the years.

Are there any photobooks in particular that influenced you? Which other photobooks do you admire? (Love Filipe's answer here by the way, I have to look some of these up!)

The books that influenced me: Rinko Kawauchi - 'Cui Cui'; Nobuyoshi Araki – 'Sentimental Journey'; Jin Ohashi – IMA; and the work of Dirk Braeckman.

And I also admire: Miguel Rio Branco – 'Silent Book'; Daido Moriyama – 'Farewell Photography' and 'Memories of a Dog'; Antonio Julio Duarte – 'Peepshow' and 'White Noise'; Larry Clark – 'Teenage lust'; Andre Cepeda – 'Ontem'; William Eggleston – 'Los Alamos'; José Pedro Cortes - 'Things here and Things still to come'; Shomei Stumato – 'Hiroshima–Nagasaki Document 1961'; Paulo Nozolino – 'Para Sempre'; Nan Goldin – 'The Other Side'; Kohei Yoshiyuki - 'The Park'.

Do you any advice for young/ new photographers about to make their own book. Do you have any words of wisdom?

I don´t know if I have “words of wisdom”…my advice to young photographers is work hard. Not all of what we do will be perceived as 'good' or as a 'master piece'. Some work is a personal improvement of our way of seeing, of thinking and feeling, and this only comes with persistence and dedication. A book is the best investment a photographer can make. We can learn a lot in that process of thinking, and this will open new paths in our work method.

9 March 2012

Fancypants photobooks..

.. and their affordable cousins. Whilst rummaging through the bookshelves at work recently, I came across two stapled, pamphlet-type publications that caught my eye. I can't say why particularly, except that they appeared to concern photography exclusively (which only a small proportion of our books usually do) and the cover designs (one of which you can see above) are really lovely – very simple and slightly old-fashioned, but lovely. the Art that threatened Art, in particular, has this strange arrangement of archaeological 'finds' on the cover, photographed in such a way that, as the back cover copy remarks, they communicate 'a curious animation' - this complex, inexplicable and slightly surreal image had me hooked.

Anyway, it turns out that these two, modest books are something of a find and, without wanting to sound like a one-woman Hayward Publishing marketing team, I'd recommend seeking them out (I found one here for the princely sum of £1.51..) Published in 1988, the pamphlets were originally released to accompany two small touring shows in the UK, curated by critic, photographer and picture editor Bruce Bernard. These shows, in turn, were inspired by the publication, in 1985, of Photographs from the Collection of the Gilman Paper Company (White Oak Press), by all accounts the mother of all photobooks. Authored by Pierre Praxine (curator of said collection) and with plates by fine printer Richard Benson, the book could be had for $2,500. Yep, you heard me, $2,500 dollars.

This monster photo-tome contains 199 plates by over 100 photographers. It was produced in a limited edition of 1,200 copies and is set apart for collectors and book nerds by the absurdly good quality of printing, with many of the reproductions reportedly coming close in effect to the original works themselves. The Gilman Paper Company bought an offset printing press specially and had it installed in Richard Benson's HOUSE for the printing process, which he describes in technical detail both in the book itself and in the pamphlets above-mentioned. The black-and-white prints were made in up to six colours, each of which was mixed individually. Some of the images, each of which was printed individually, went through the press eight times, in an exhaustive effort to reproduce the tonal variations and surface textures of the original prints, and the whole things was printed on two different stocks.
And I complain when we have to do two rounds of image proofs for a book..

So, to cut a long story short, Bruce Bernard saw the book and recognized the possibility of touring Richard Benson's prints. South Bank Centre (as it was then) organised the show and produced two little wee publications to go with it. These are illustrated with, ahem, more reserve than the original Photographs, with just 8 images in the Art that threatened Art. However, these images alone are beautiful, a tantalising insight into the Gilman Collection itself, and are accompanied by fantastic descriptive captions by Bernard. He has a real gift for condensing, into just a few words, how the formal qualities of a photograph both communicate to us the original conditions of its making, and transform into aesthetic experience for the viewer.  His description of Carlton E. Watkins' Sugar Loaf Islands, Farallons (c. 1868-69), with its 'preoccupation with mass' and 'squirming seals' poetically evokes how this borderline weird image transcends its commercial and documentary origins.

So, the Art that threatens Art documents some of the early, mostly nineteenth-century, works in the Gilman Collection and the second leaflet, a Leap in the Light, focusses on the twentieth century. There is a far more complete account of the collection in the Met's survey title The Waking Dream, which was published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name in 1993 – it's also worth mentioning that the Met now own the entire Gilman collection – but these books are a good taster and appendix to the bigger volume. Bernard is good on debunking clichés and generalisations about nineteenth-century photography, commenting on the 'variety of hue' in works we dismiss as monochrome. While you might not agree with his every assertion and judgement, he is a powerful defender of photography as an expressive artform ('it is even... an expression of temperament to take great pains over photographing an eclipse of the sun'), and of good photo-reportage, free of 'picturesque banality'. In a Leap, Bernard also gives a potted history of twentieth-century photographic feuds and antagonisms, focussing on the competing demands of 'worldly' commercial photographic enterprises and the lone artisans plying their trade (Atget being a prime example).

These are tiny 'books' with short texts. They don't cover anything much beyond the 1960s and they are not even large enough to qualify as introductions to the Gilman collection. They're beautiful though and, for the price, worth looking out as a bit of exhibition/ photo-history!

14 February 2012

More Cooning With Cooners, Kalev Erickson

As a British citizen, I have to confess I didn't know much about 'coon hunting before I opened this book. Now having closed it, I'm not sure how much better informed I am. This is simultaneously the most confusing and the most beguiling thing about this book. It is not an obscure, difficult or even unfocussed publication – More Cooning With Cooners is as much about raccoons, and the hunting thereof, as a sixty-page photobook can be. Even the cover is designed to resemble a raccoon pelt, with the bloody red endpapers inside evoking the inevitable conclusion of the chase. It's just that, alongside this thematic coherence, this blatancy about its theme, there is an ambiguity about the photographs within, and the book project itself, that far exceeds one's initial expectations.

So, what are you looking at? A short note at the beginning of More Cooning explains that the images within have been edited from 'a family collection of Kodachromes taken during the 1960s in Ohio.' We never find out who this family are, how editor Kalev Erickson encountered their photographs or, indeed, how he knows for sure that they are 'the work of a single, but unknown, photographer with a clear enthusiasm for the hunt' (all of the photographs are presented without captions). Other minor mysteries pervade the book: where one would normally expect to find a contextualising, critical 'essay' on the body of work presented, there is a short, straight-faced prose piece on 'The Art and Craft of Cooning,' describing the sport’s history and traditions. Similarly, the 1924 vernacular poem 'Dat Scanlus Coonhunt Itch' is dropped into the book without introduction – yet another element in a patchwork of references that circle the 'coonhunt' at the centre of this book, but never quite state their relationship to it.

Perhaps what I'm trying to get at is the problem of attitude posed by this book – what and who it is for. It is not simply the document of an enthusiast, though it makes reference to the eponymous 1924 'Cooning' manual whose cover illustration is reproduced on the title page. Nor, quite obviously, is it a sentimental campaign against blood sports, though the violence of the kill is emphasised in a number of individual photographs in the book and echoed in the raccoon skull line-drawing featured towards its end. It is conspicuously an 'art' book, an edition of 500, but without the patronising discussion of 'vernacular' photography and its charms that can appear in such collections.

What this book captures is the strangeness of going through someone else's photo archive – their memories and their passions caught on film – and the inevitable editorial distance that is created when one tries to order or 'archive' this work in any way. It is impossible to know the names, lives and motivations of the men captured in these photographs, and so they are reduced to a series of gestures and poses – presenting their dogs, sweeping their flashlights, posing with their kill – which we read from a distance. As a work of art in its own right, the book belongs to a tradition mined by photographers such as Zoe Crosher, working with 'found' material, who are interested in what is gained and lost when we 'read' a foreign group of photographs. The publishers of More Cooning, the resolutely mysterious Archive of Modern Conflict, have won international awards and garnered themselves a cult following by releasing a number of beautifully-produced titles in this vein, in which often historically fraught collections of photography (see Nein Onkel – a collection of playful domestic photos taken by Nazi soldiers) are mined for their significance and their conflicting effects.

So much for the conceptual ambitions of the publisher, what about the images themselves? Cropped with rounded corners, to emphasis their antique origins, and with errors of exposure and colour intact, these are enthusiastic, playful photographs edited with an eye to their humour and energy. While there is an element of threat about the images which juxtapose hounds with young children (and this is a recurring theme in the edit), emphasizing the contrast of vulnerability with strength, domesticity with animal instinct, there are equally images included that are about tenderness (a young man holds a hound puppy) and also, simply, routine (identically dressed men sit, blankfaced, outside a hunting lodge at night). Erickson also gives free rein to the excitement of the chase, as captured in a number of blurred, close-up shots showing hounds as they pursue their victims to the treetops. The images themselves are taken with an eye to composition and colour, while the editing – which focusses emphatically on the volume of kill towards its end, with repeated photographs of 'trophy' walls of raccoon tails – usually allows the emotional and formal range of the images its full play.

You may feel like you've been on a hunt after finishing this book, but whether for raccoon or a couple of cold, hard facts, it's hard to say. How much you enjoy it will depend on how informative, how eloquent, you like your photobooks to be. I, for one, only wished there was more of the book to hunt through.

This review was originally published in photo-eye magazine, 2nd February 2012, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are from More Cooning With Cooners, by Kalev Erickson. Published by Archive of Modern Conflict, 2011.

1 February 2012

Two things of note..

© Edward Burtynsky
Yep - the temperatures are Siberian, the Tories are in power and all the Christmas chocolate is gone, but I'm determined to find things to smile about this month, starting with the following..

1) The Photographers' Gallery set to re-open!

After a long (18-month) wait, during which time I have tried and failed to attend any number of Photographers' Gallery events in temporary locations around London – a combination of obscenely quick 'sell-outs' and my inability to use their website are to blame – this wonderful gallery will be back in Londoners' lives from 19th May 2012. It always puzzled me that the gallery closed so quickly after moving to its new location in Ramillies Street (off Oxford Street, W1F 7LW), but apparently this was always part of the plan - to establish the gallery in its new site, tease us with a few months of great shows and talks, and then disappear again while the gallery was renovated for permanent use.

I can't wait to see the new building; we are promised twice the exhibition space of the old gallery, a whole floor set aside for 'education' and a new bookshop, café and print sales room. In addition, the gallery have already announced the two shows that will inaugurate the new space - a 'retrospective' of Edward Burtynsky's mammoth 'OIL' series, in which he documents the workings, addresses the consequences and envisions the future of our oil-dependency; and 'An Afternoon Unregistered on The Richter Scale', a video work in which the Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective reproduce and reimagine one particular archival photograph from early-twentieth-century Calcutta. While I know of Raqs Media Collective, I've never scene their work 'in the flesh', so I'm really looking forward to this one. Edward Burtynsky also appeals, and it'll be interesting to see how he engages with work that has preceded him, including Mitch Epstein's towering 'American Power' series.

© Zarina Bhimji

2) Zarina Bhimji at Whitechapel Gallery

I'm ashamed to say that this exhibition had passed me by until now (saving myself, as I am, for Whitechapel's Gillian Wearing retrospective later in the year..) but I visited the gallery on Saturday and really enjoyed seeing this work. Turner Prize-nominee Bhimji makes film installations and large-scale photographic prints, usually focussing on sites in India and East Africa and subjecting the forgotten and often dilapidated buildings in her works to a deep, sustained gaze that unravels their structure, history and visual composition.

Colour seems to be particularly important for Bhimji, whose intensely printed photographs are stunning to behold and distracting, even, in the sense that their jewel-like beauty confuses the 'archaeology of place' which is ostensibly one of her themes. It's hard to unpick or analyse the evidence of time's passage when all you can think about is how gorgeous old buildings look! Indeed, my only reservation about the show was that this rapturous, high-fidelity visual style is in evidence throughout all of the work on display, however hard-hitting (or not) its subject (as in as series about the controversial examination of women as part of British immigration protocols in the 1970s). It could begin to feel, to some viewers, like an affection that Bhimji can't shake off. In other works, however, it is precisely this attention to aesthetic 'effect' that gives the work its force. In the film 'Yellow Patch', a study of trade and migration across the Indian Ocean, the subtle movement of Bhimji's camera around the colonial port buildings of Mumbai, in combination with a hypnotic, slowly shifting soundtrack, forces the viewer to read the history and architecture of these buildings in a way that would be difficult to replicate through a single, silent still.

This show, the first major survey of Bhimji's work, is open until 9th March and is, amazingly, completely free to visitors. Might even be enough to take your mind of things until summer gets here..

19 January 2012

Give us the nice, bright colours..

Businesses file for bankruptcy everyday. Indeed, it's reported on everyday. In the 'Business and Finance' section of newspapers. You know, the bit no one ever tweets about. But the demise of Eastman Kodak (at least in its current form – the firm apparently plans to relaunch itself in 2013 with digital photography as its sole focus) has gone mainstream in, I think, quite an unexpected way.

The news that Kodak is filing for bankruptcy has prompted a wave of articles analysing the demise of Kodak's once thriving business - a decline that is largely blamed on the company's tardiness in 'going digital'. The first digital camera was developed by Eastman Kodak in 1975, but the company sat on the technology for fear of damaging their own film-making business and were overtaken, in the meantime, by Japanese companies such as Nikon. More interesting, however, has been the slew of overwhelmingly nostalgic articles looking back over the history of Kodak and its products. This is partly down to the appeal of George Eastman, founder of the company, as a figure in our collective cultural history. Eastman's own rags-to-riches biography – left school at 14, invented revolutionary technology (roll film), founded pioneering company, became legendary philanthropist – is interwoven with the history of photography and, therefore, the history of the last century, in an almost irresistible way. Eastman made it his aim to make photography portable and accessible, putting the first Kodak 'Brownie' camera on sale in 1900 and instantly creating a new market for a previously cumbersome, specialist technology. By the 1970s, the company was at it's peak, selling 90% of all photographic film in the US in 1976. It's an extraordinary legacy.

The brand has also always been extraordinarily visible - Kodak and advertising have historically gone together like Guinness and Pelicans - and even inspired a 'Mad Men' episode where Don Draper is tasked with marketing the companies 'new' slide carousel and comes up with... well, with this, drawing on the sentiment and nostalgia we all associate with domestic, personal photography. This is the point, isn't it? Photography is often described as inherently nostalgic, or a least backwards looking, especially in the context of personal or 'vernacular' photography. Kodak has become a focal point for this nostalgia, and I for one am not immune.

My own Kodak memory relates to a book I worked on at Aperture Foundation - William Christenberry: Kodachromes – which documents Christenberry's archive of work made using 35mm (Kodak) Kodachrome slide film. Christenberry (b. 1962) made this work over a period of 30 years, in his home of Hale County, Alabama, and it is beautiful, as is the book. We received hundreds of 35mm slides from the artist (which had previously been kept in his refrigerator) and these were edited by editor Denise Wolff and book designer Dave Chickey into a dreamy sequence of beautifully framed snapshots - usually devoid of people, often documenting structures, signs and places which had become iconic in Christenberry's oeuvre. I love the work, I love the book and it reminds me of a really happy time in my life!

Let me know your Kodachrome memories and I'll do a post if I get a few! Either way, there is more archival Kodachrome action to come on the blog, so watch this space!

3 January 2012

Happy New Year!

Well hello to you all, and here's hoping it's been a good start to 2012 for 'PLATE' readers! Ive been tweaking the front page of this blog a little in readiness for the ONSLAUGHT of posting that I'm planning for the new year (somebody's been making new year's resolutions..) and one of my changes has been the addition of a couple of new sites to my blog roll. I'm continually updating this list, mainly because I find it useful to have a round-up of good art and photo resources in one place, but also to share new finds (artists, bloggers and publications) with anyone who reads here. I hope some of the new listings are of interest to your good selves and provide good browsin' in the difficult first days back at work after hols.

I can't lie, the additions here are mostly cribbed from an article on the topic of photo blogs by Joerg Colberg, which appears in the first digital issue of the British Journal of Photography. I have been ushered into the world of apps and digital publishing by the generous Christmas gift of an iPad and have been hungrily downloading books and magazines that I enjoy in print form to see how they stand up in the digital format. The British Journal was recommended to me by a friend and it's a really impressive example of how the print magazine can be expanded and adapted to a digital platform - the first (free) issue contains audio, video and links to outside resources alongside full-length, easily navigated articles and beautifully presented sideshows of new and archival photography. Ive never been a reader of the print magazine previously, having found it a bit fusty and 'gadget'-heavy on first browse and assumed it is intended as a community forum and tech-guide for professional, usually editorial photographers. While this may have been true in the past, a re-design of both print edition and website seems to have been directed at a more 'arty' readership, and the content of aforementioned digital edition has also been cleverly skewed so that it addresses those with an interest, not just in photography as a discrete art form, but as a medium of communication disseminated through books, magazines and websites. See the 'Profile' of Michael Mack's ambitions for digital publishing, or the feature on documentary photo projects, as cases in point. Essentially then, this is still an 'industry' magazine, but given a tweak to appeal to an increasingly design- and tech- savvy audience..

I advise readers to beg, borrow or steal (maybe not steal) an iPad and take a look at the magazine if you haven't already. I'm sure it's going to get lots of competition in the coming months - the beautiful Aperture magazine have just launched a digital editon, for example - but it's a lot of fun and gives us a taste of what might be possible for photo-publishing and photo-writing in new formats!