Hello and welcome to my photography blog. I’m a documentary photographer and writer from Manchester in the UK. You can email me at: email@example.com or watch a short film or three here on vimeo and you can read my own publications here at Issuu.
“I like photographers – you don’t ask questions.” – Ronald Reagan
Despite declining sales, newspapers still set the agenda that TV news follows, that the public swallows, then shares on social media. Lying may be a sin the press occasionally commit, but its not as serious as the sin of distraction:
The government has abolished the Child Poverty Unit, the Prime Minister announced,
WEARING LEOPARD SKIN SHOES!!!
That’s the story behind my latest distraction, PRAV(D)A (gettit? – propaganda/shoes???) –a 16 page newspaper, which mainly consists of pithy quotes I’ve copied and pasted from someone else and the choicest selection of photographs of Theresa May’s shoes that I could find on Getty Images picture library. In other words I gave myself the idea when I wrote the post ‘The Fourth Estate’ below.
Photographers try to make a politician reading an autocue into a picture that a newspaper will spend £458 on. They have to stay for the whole speech, so they snap a few full length shots, a few head shots, a few audience reaction shots then the same again in horizontal and vertical formats. Then they look to see if they can get the slogan on the backdrop to say something rude if the politicians head blocks out a letter. Then they spend the rest of the speech catching the talking head looking stupid. Or, in the case of Mrs May, they photograph her feet – or make her look stupid.
I’ve written before (generally negatively) about the practice of colourising old black and white photographs – I make a (possibly arbitrary) distinction between doing this in PhotoShop to make the photographs more palatable to a modern audience and some old photographic processes that were around before colour photography was practical and widely available.
Time recently published a web gallery of “30 of the Most Iconic and Influential Photos of All Time Colorised“the technique is so widely known now, I doubt too many people would be amazed – after all photographs have been coloured since the earliest days of the medium (though this is clearly evidence of a demand for photography to be more true to life). The technique of colourising black and white movies was justified that a modern, young audience wouldn’t watch a black and white film anymore than they would watch a silent one (or read subtitles). But proponents of the technique of colourising black and white still photographs argue that the monochrome practice makes the past seem less distant, so we are more able to empathise with what we are seeing.
I’d argue that we have a problem with empathy – but looking through Time’s “…Iconic and Influential Photos” did make me look anew at images that were so familiar as to have become almost invisible. A point in case was Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother”– probably the most famous image of the Great Depression.
Here is the image in its original monochrome and the colourised version.
The Library of Congress describes the image as: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.” It was taken in 1936 for the Farm Security Administration (a U.S. Federal government funded organisation, and shows Florence Owens Thompson (1903 to 1983) and some of her children. Much of the image’s strength stems from the viewer being able to connect with Thompson as another human being and read meaning in her expression, even if the meanings are sometimes contradictory (resilience, resignation, strength, exhaustion etc.) The question is, is the picture better colourised? Can we connect more with her if we think she is of now, rather than the past (she died over 30 years ago)? The empathy gap can’t be bridged by PhotoShop – There’s certainly a lack of empathy for today’s migrant mothers as we see their children washed up on beaches in full HD.
Today, Lange’s photograph will usually be encountered in its context of being a classic photograph in a book about photography or a photography exhibition – which was not what Lange was being paid by Uncle Sam to do. As the photographs were paid for by the Federal Government, they have been made available to the American tax payer (and people with an internet connection) through the Library of Congress. I’ve put the images here:
We can see Lange’s original shot (the one we know was cropped slightly) as well as look at a sequence of five photographs she took of the subject (apparently she shot a sixth picture that was not given to the Library of Congress (see their site for details). The photographs were taken on a 5×4 Graflex camera, the negatives were not numbered at the time, so it is not possible to know which order they were taken, but in the February 1960 issue of Popular Photography, Lange told the story of how she took it:
I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.
There is also a wealth of articles about the photograph putting it in a historical and cultural perspective. You can even download high resolution scans of the images and colourise them yourself 😉 ).
I’ve collected together the different works I’ve done on the theme of war memorials and put them together in a folder and called it ‘Slumberland’ (after the quote from Othello: “’tis the soldier’s life to have their balmy slumbers waked with strife”) – I’m probably not quite finished producing work on this subject, but for now it’s the book ‘Best We Forget’, the leaflet ‘Faithless’, about the architecture of the Cenotaph, ‘A Proclamation’ the A3 tracing paper series of quotations about silence, talking of which, there’s also ‘Silenced!’ two audio recordings from the Two Minutes Silences held at the Cenotaph in Whitehall on Remembrance Sunday and at the England v Scotland football match held a couple of days earlier at Wembley, and last (for now) ‘A Walk in the Parks’ – the 2 A1 plans that trace a psychogeography walk I did around Hyde Park Corner.
I’ve droned on before about the moral arguments of discussing aesthetics in photographs that show tragic events. The same arguments can be heard today, looking at the photographs of the killing of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey last night by Mevlurt Mert Altinus, an off duty policeman at the opening of a photography exhibition in Ankara, Turkey.
Altinus shot Andrei Karlov shouting, “This is revenge for Syria” and “We die in Aleppo, you die here” as the diplomat gave an speech at the exhibition called ‘Russia Through Turks’ Eyes’. From the way the assassin acted, it is hard not to compare his act as a performance, presumably designed to attract the greatest publicity to his cause. Associated Press photographer Burhan Ozbilici took an image that was within hours being described by Time as iconic, so much so that whilst some questioned the authenticity of this image in particular, suggesting it was too perfect not to have been staged and by implication the event is a conspiracy.
It must be said it looks like Quentin Tarantino art directed the shot. But we have a number of examples of how media savvy people who commit such acts have become. The orange jumpsuits, the symbolic nature of the targets chosen for 9/11 and here. The setting (an art gallery) and the moment (during a speech by the victim, where everything was set up to facilitate the media in recording the event) the assassin had thought carefully about his dress (to blend in and look good) and intended his action to publicise his cause, which he knew would be best done by his action being as media friendly in its presentation as possible.
However, in the pause before World War 3 we might consider that the aesthetics of this act were kept from the front pages by the news from Berlin where someone drove a truck into a crowd…
“The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything. Except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands” – Oscar Wilde.
I don’t think the public are interested in the Prime Minister and her shoes, but the press can be relied upon to ensure they don’t become too curious about some of the other things that she is up to.
I went to see the Turner Prize nominees at Tate Britain last month – as if to confirm why I don’t bet on horses, I took some photos on my phone of everything that grabbed my eye and realised tonight I didn’t have a single shot from the exhibit of winner, Helen Marten.
‘Silence’ is a list of quotes about err… silence done in the stylee of a memorial stone, such as the one that covers the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. It’s part of the larger body of work I’m doing about war and remembrance, that includes ‘Faithless’ – the leaflet about the architecture of the Cenotaph (see the last blog entry) and ‘Best We Forget’ – the booklet I wrote earlier in the year. There’s a bit more to come.
Silence (I’ll think of a better name – or take suggestions on a post card) is printed at A3 size ( 297mm x: 420mm [11.75 x16.5 inch] ) onto architect’s tracing paper – though if there’s any stone carvers out there…
The first two minutes silence on the anniversary of the Armistice took place after King George V issued a proclamation:
“All locomotion should cease, so that in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on the reverent remembrance of the glorious dead”.
Though given that the end of the “war to end all wars” set the conditions for the sequel, perhaps a better person to quote would be Shannon L. Alder:
“Be leery of silence. It doesn’t mean you have won the argument. Often, people are just busy reloading their guns”.