Masahisa Fukase’s ‘Solitude of Ravens’ at Michael Hoppen Gallery

I was a late visitor to this exhibition, as often is the case with life, other matters seem to always get in the way, but I’m extremely glad that I made that visit.

Fukase is one of the most celebrated photographers to have worked in that halcyon period in Japanese photographic history, which began in the early 1960’s and ran for about a decade. Though he was a contemporary of Moriyama and the Provoke photographers his work was never part of the exclusive and highly influential club. His work (in Ravens) shared some of the aesthetic, the grainy black and white, blur and off kilter composition, however it was tighter in the final edits, telling a more coherent and far more personal story than say Takuma Nakahira’s For a Language to Come or Moriama’s Bye Bye Photography, both of which are as much about photography as they are about the photographer and their subject matter.

Ravens’ (shot between 1976 and 1982) is a love story, a melancholy love story told by a broken man whose wife has divorced him after his heavy drinking and bouts of debilitating depression eroded their relationship. It is a love that is both tragic and destructive. In the case of the former: it is unrequited due to her absence; in the later the obvious obsession he has for her imprisons him in his grief and compounds his increasing loneliness.

The Ravens, a bird that is omnipresent on Fukase’s home island of Hokkaido serves as on obvious symbol for Yoko (his wife). Where ever he looks there are Ravens, and so, there is Yoko. One can imagine him stalking them with his camera only to have them fly away, but not to far – just enough to remain in view – jut enough to remain out of reach, to taunt him. There are other images in the work: blurred landscapes, blizzard swept landscapes, shadowy figures on roads to nowhere and women: a naked masseuse, young ladies with raven black windswept hair, a surly cat giving a sideways look of contempt that only cats can muster, the black abstract shape of a jet in flight – I’m sure he longed to take that flight to get away – but he knew it would have been a useless gesture, he could never run from what was haunting him. But most of all there are Ravens: flying, roosting, in detail and dead.

If one could draw a literary comparison to this work Edgar Allen Poe’s Raven would be the place to start. Both Fukase and Poe’s protagonist have endure the loss of their beloved wife, although in the case of Poe’s anonymous character his Lenore was robbed of her life. In each case both men were left alone in the torment of longing and of course they were haunted by a Raven a harbinger of what would be – nevermore.

Fukase’s personal story continued on its tragic arch, in 1992 after a heavy drinking session he fell and suffered a head injury that would leave him in a coma for 20 years. He eventually died in 2012.

If it is the case that an artist must suffer for the art – then Fukase was issued with more than his fair share of pain and torment. But what a rich vain of raw fuel this provided him. This is quite possibly the most poetic body of photographic work ever produced and while anyone familiar with it cannot be anything but moved by its solemn beauty its is sad to think of the suffering endured by the man who created it.

Ultimately any artworks success must be measured against its ability to communicate the almost incommunicable, by this measure Ravens is high art indeed.

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Saul Leiter at The Photographers’ Gallery

Like many people I was familiar with Saul Leiter’s work – but I didn’t know it as well as I should have, but then who did? So much of his personal work had remained hidden until just before his death in 2013.

This exhibition acts – in a time where concept rules – as a much-needed reminder of how a photographer can engage with the world around them and in doing reveal to us how complex, contradictory, compelling, beautiful, alienating and chaotic life can be.

The exhibition opens with his early black and white work, which is even less known then the colour that followed. It is, I suppose, inevitable that any early user of colour film will be compared with William Eggleston, such is the great mans gravitational influence; for his part Leiter certainly matches up, although in many ways the Leiter has been treated harshly by “establishment”, as he preceded Eggleston by some years and so should be hailed as a master in his own right. Both men are very much the product of their environments: Eggleston the crisp defining southern light – Leiter the often subtler, diffused New York winter variety. A painter turned photography Leiter prowled the streets of New York, which through his lens became an immense, living breathing Abstract Expressionist canvas.

While there is a sense of gentleness in his images – which is partly due to his photographing through misted window or in the subdued yet luminous light of a snowstorm – he captures the grittiness of life in the metropolis. His images are more claustrophobic than Eggleston’s; there are no vistas or wide open blue sky; making Leiter somewhat closer, psychologically, to Robert Frank – there is a quiet sadness and sense of alienation in his images.

People in Leiter’s photographs are usually alone, small and against a background of bright but grubby buildings or battling the elements; framed by a window or deliberately cropped out of the image leaving only a hand or foot to be seen. The singular figures convey the sense of isolation one can feel in a city of millions.

Screen shot 2016-02-14 at 16.07.15
©Saul Leiter

In one of the most memorable images of this type, a monochrome: a young woman is placed in the bottom left of the frame, she looks distant, preoccupied and unhappy; above her, running in a dark blur diagonally across the fame is some type of solid, heavy structure, in the top right the impression of some buildings – as sign of the city – perhaps it is the weight of the city that is crushing her spirit, trapping her in her isolation.

When occasionally seen in pairs, people tend to be incomplete elements of complex and fragmented scenes. Leiter often employs reflection in windows to create elaborate collages, which shows the viewer what is happening on both sides of the glass. In so doing we are invited to untangle the varied, knotted strands that is social interaction, a complexity and messiness that is intensified when one lives among millions of strangers.

Screen shot 2016-02-14 at 16.27.58
©Saul Leiter

The experience of city living, whether in Leiter’s 1950’s or the modern day is essentially unchanged and so Leiter’s New York becomes an archetypal city, it is easily recognizable to any current city dweller, we can understand its language, feel its rhythms and recognise the effects of its cold indifference.

There are a third set of images in the show: nudes. Exclusively black and white, Leiter’s penchant for obscuring features and parts of the body is evident her too. Again there is tenderness to the images, in some an obvious erotic element too, but there is no vulgarity or the objectification that is sometimes evident in female nudes produced by men. The other subset here are nudes that Leiter has painted over. Usually such images would not hold my attention, but these did. That they are such high quality photographs to begin with provides a very solid foundation for embellishment, in some it seems almost a shame to paint over them. But, combined with the attention of a painter they taken on a new life. They are imbued with a sense of energy, a tension that actually does bring something exciting to them – it makes them vital.

Screen shot 2016-02-14 at 16.14.26
©Saul Leiter

What Leiter does brilliantly is to not only depict a place and a time but also help us to feel a place and a time, in all of its wonderful, chaotic beauty – he commented that he sought to depict beauty, as unfashionable as that is, without apology. This seems fitting for a man who mixed with Arbus, Winnogrand and the other grandees of the New York school, but never received the same accolades, even though they are richly deserved.

Luc Delahaye

The first posting on this blog is a get to know me book list. It was only a few days ago, while looking through my bookshelves that is realized I had hadn’t included any work by Luc Delahaye. I could believe I had left him out, especially as he is one of my favorite photographers.

Delahaye was for a number of years a photojournalist with Magnum Photos. His journalistic work, often on assignment for Newsweek, took him to Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Chechnya, amongst other places and won him a number of prestigious awards. In 2004, declaring himself to be an artist, he resigned from Magnum, not that this meant a change of subject matter; he continued to photograph in war zones and other areas blighted by social upheaval. As a photojournalist, and a Magnum member, the presence of Robert Capa is never too far away, with the famous dictum: If your pictures aren’t good enough you’re aren’t close enough being the litmus test for such work. But Delahaye seems to have not got the memo. He certainly got physically close but there was an emotional detachment – his is a cool observational eye.

He sought to formalise this approach, firstly for the book L’Autre where he used a hidden camera to photograph the people sitting opposite him on the Paris Metro. This exercise helped restore a lost faith in photography and was followed by two long trips to Russia that culminated in the book: Winterreise.

For me this small book stands as one of the finest examples of its kind. The work feels different to the journalism the preceded it. One gets the feeling that the melancholy that emanates from it is as much a reflection of Delahaye’s state of mind as is of the social decline experienced in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Spending time with drunks, criminals, addicts and the homeless Delahaye depicts a Russia that could easy have come straight out of a Dostoyevski novel.

Though it does not have the hard edge of his journalistic work, there is a sense of discomfort when looking at some of the images. The profound squalor, the feeling of hopelessness, the substance abuse and violence that offers the only way out of such dire circumstances. There are no happy people here, no smiley families or children having fun, instead everyone looks old before his or her time. In what must be the most heartbreaking image in the book a toddler, sat on the edge of a bed in a filthy room next to her older sibling, feet in layers of dirty socks, hair a tangled mess, she looks at the floor, dejected, struggling under the burdens of a life that no child should have to live. Her demeanor is that of an old lady, someone worn out or rather worn down by the unrelenting hardness of life. One wonders if she’ll ever make it to actual old age – it seems though that the odds are stacked against her.

In other images, of people on beds – a recurring theme – we see adults passed out from drink or hard drugs; lined up for arrest; beaten by the mafia, at work down a mine or in factory that looks like the gateway to another layer of hell and, like modern day hunter gatherers in a post apocalyptic nether world foraging on open landfill sites. There are small signs of what is to come though, the faint smudge of a building sized Coca-Cola logo herald the rampant capitalism of the Putin era with its oligarchs and crass nouveau riche, they haven’t arrived yet and they certainly wont bring any solace to these people, they’ll just ignore them as they drive by in their luxury cars or hold up in their mansions.

To say that this is a work of the highest caliber is an understatement. Rarely do photographers capture so intensely, so completely the atmosphere of a time, a place and a group of people. It is Delahye’s ability to capture this mood of a country at a time of profound change and uncertainty that is most striking. It is a lyrical work that seeps into the viewers consciousness, lodges itself their and stubbornly refuses to leave.

Luc Delahaye – Winterreise (Phaidon 2000)

Does Yellow Run Forever? by Paul Graham

I have admired Paul Graham’s work for a number of years now, so I was delighted to find a copy of his newest offering in the tiny Soho branch of Donlon Books. Since buying it I have greatly enjoyed exploring its themes, which are presented with Graham’s always intriguing and enjoyable obliqueness.

Any fan of Graham’s will, I think, greatly appreciate this new work, and those, who are not quite as familiar will I’m sure be beguiled by this golden treat. The newbie’s also have the joy of using this as a starting point to look through his back catalogue, something I wish I could do afresh, but then with an artist as visually eloquent as Graham there is always the opportunity to discover a heretofore-unseen detail, which is sure to delight. I would have to say that Graham is one of the few photographers whose entire oeuvre continues to excite and challenge.

For anyone who is unfamiliar Graham, he is one of those photographers that belong to that loose confederation that introduced British Photography to colour in the 1970’s and 1980’s. He is a master of the type of work that can be described, for want of a better description: oblique social commentary, (I don’t particularly like the labeling of photographers and their work, but sometimes it is useful). He has added his voice to the chorus of artists who seek to bring our attention to various forms of social inequality and hopefully challenge the assumptions that they, all too credulously, rest upon. As the term oblique would suggest, Graham eschews that which for some has become problematic, namely the language of photojournalism and documentary photography that is most often associated to this type of subject matter. Instead he has developed a language that often incorporates various functional elements of the photographic act – a strategy that is most notable in the so-called American Trilogy: American Night (2004), A shimmer of Possibility (2007) and The Present (2012). The results of this are images that slowly burn their way into the consciousness of the viewer; rather than ‘simply’ presenting something, they take the viewer on a journey, you have to work to get into images, rather than letting them lay it out on a plate.

Does Yellow Run Forever is no exception to this. The first thing to note is its size; it’s small, much smaller than his previous books. It is immediately a very tactile book, covered in gold suede with no photograph, but a debossed title. The next detail one notices is how far the pages, which are edged in gold leaf, are indented from the edge of the cover – 5mm instead of the usual 3mm. It’s subtle but it makes a difference, almost as if you are being made to dig a little deeper for the treasure at the end of the rainbow; which leads one past the gold fly page to the first photograph.

The photographs follow three themes rural landscapes from Ireland, all of which feature as the central feature an arching rainbow; next are those of a sleeping woman and finally the frontages of various gold shops.

Taken separately these thematic threads seem to be unrelated, but in the hands of Graham, they are woven into a contemplative narrative about the nature of human desire.

In the Irish images we see delicate rainbows floating above the verdant countryside. For many a life in the country idyll is itself a dream, but the rainbow suggests more, bringing with it another dimension: the mythical bridge to other worlds, the land of the gods, the physical manifestation of the rainbow snake or the location of a leprechauns’ gold. In the literal sense as an optical and meteorological phenomenon the rainbows reveal the constituent parts of visible light, that which allows for the existence of the photographs themselves. But it is in the mythical capacity that Graham employs the rainbow – they act as the medium by which the other images are connected. As a testament to his attention to detail, along with his commitment to creating a distinct world within the confines of the book – the rainbow photographs sit higher up the page, the most intangible, ephemeral of the three narrative elements. We can see them clearly enough, but, like so much of that which make us truly happy they are ephemeral, they are not of this world, we can never physically grasp them and yet they cannot but fill us with joy.

Then there is the sleeping woman. Herself an enigma – who is she, where is she, what is she dreaming about? Questions we can only imagine the answers to, which allow her to be whom we desire, where we desire her to be and dreaming about what we desire her to dream about. These photographs show her surrounded by white or pastel coloured walls, there is a tenderness to them, making Graham unusually present in the image, she seems to be safe and dreaming, not having nightmares. The tenderness of Graham’s gaze reveals his fillings for her fore she is his partner – and so we are presented with another intangible: love, art’s eternal muse. Again the details are telling; these photos sit in the middle of the page, lower than the rainbows, associating them and her physically with this world, yet her slumber renders her in a liminal space, somewhere perhaps between a version heaven and hell and leads us to the final set of images.

The gold stores: they feel like the most earthly of all the images and so sit at the bottom of the page – the diametric opposite of the rainbow photos. Like the rainbows’ gold has its own mythic quality: its eternal lustre and very real rarity and subsequent value. Possessing it could make your dreams come true, but equally coveting it, like all obsessions, can be the stuff of nightmares. These images are perhaps most in keeping with Graham’s earlier work. The stores look to be in less prosperous areas, indeed one of them shows a man who looks to be laying out goods on the pavement to sell. It isn’t difficult to imagine neighborhood people going to the store, seeing their wedding rings, along with anything else, to make ends meet. One wonders if those with financial concerns can sleep as soundly as the woman features in the book.

This, I think is the core of the book. So many of our “dreams” are excessively materialistic in nature that perhaps we forget, or in many ways are prevented from fully appreciating what is really important, namely, those intangibles that makes us memorably happy.

Photographically speaking Graham has pulled off a very difficult balancing act. He has pitched the structure and content of this work precisely; what looks like ‘straight photography’ is imbued with just enough concept so that neither one dominates the other, which allows both to breathe and the full complexity of the work to be appreciated. He also manages to face up to some of photography’s clichés; what serious photographer would honestly photograph rainbows? – without them being cringing. One doesn’t feel the need to look over both shoulders for the photographic thought police when looking at these photographs. It’s nice to think that this can be done – at a time when there is so much pretentious nonsense dominating photography at the moment.

Does Yellow Run Forever? By Paul Graham MACK 2014

 

Should the Moving Image be considered part of Photography? No!

I was going to leave it at that, as it says it all really. But then I thought I should write a little more.

I have been to a number of exhibitions recently, all of them photography exhibitions that featured moving image pieces. I’m not against the moving image as an art form at all, far from it. In an art gallery or other venue/context the moving image can be as wonderful and exciting as any other art form. But should it be included in a photography exhibition? Once again, No!

While there are obvious similarities between the moving image and the still image: the use of a type of camera, the use of light and composition, there are two fundamental and even more obvious differences: one moves, while the other doesn’t. I have immense respect for cinematographers and cinematography, but it simply is not photography.

One of the magical qualities of photography is that it renders the moving world still. A photograph shows us something that the photographer wants us to look at – really look at. Once frozen on the surface of a piece of film or saved to a memory card, that moment is preserved, allowing the viewer to look at it again and again allowing them to explore the details that in the moving image, may otherwise, go unnoticed.

In a world where human activity takes place at an increasingly fast pace, where unthinking and often unblinking consumption of everything is king; where some people can’t stop, sit and think for fifteen minutes at a time, the photograph is literally a pause for thought.

Some people like to cite the currently fashionable term: lens based media to justify the moving images inclusion in photography exhibitions and discourse. Here we see not so much the denial of photography as a unique art form that is prevalent in the wider art world, but more a dilution of photography. Surely the curators, gallerists, academics and critics that largely, through their choices, control the photography world, should respect the essence of photography and in doing so should promote what is so special about it. Instead we are witnessing the devaluation of the photograph and photography to that of just another image produced by just another generic lens-based media.

A photographic Call to Arms

I first became interested in photography about fifteen years ago. I had studied anthropology at university and so was initially attracted to the photojournalist/documentary end of the photography spectrum. I had seen a copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Europeans and not only marveled at the beauty of the photographs, but saw a very clear anthropological quality. It was one of those moments, a light bulb appeared above my head, or perhaps it was a flashgun. But I saw then the way I wanted to go. I wanted to change the world, armed only with my camera and my anthropological know how.

Over those fifteen years my goals became a little more realistic, you could say limited. But what did grow was my understanding and appreciation of a wider range of photography. My tastes have shifted, I still appreciate what is seen by some as the traditional photojournalist mode of Magnum Photos, but I have come to like the more oblique social commentary practices of Paul Graham; the poetic subtlety of Alec Soth; the unhinged reality of the Provoke era Japanese photographers, the ‘topographical’ architectural surveys of Donovan Wylie, along with many more.

But as my knowledge of photography has deepened I have grown ever more frustrated at some elements of the medium. It’s not about a particular way of working, although, as with everybody I have my preferences. It’s about the peripherals, for want of a better term, the labels, tags, boxes and restrictions that photographers and photography are forced to adopt and be squeezed into that bother me so much. And, what’s worse is that by and large these restrictions aren’t placed on us by us. We have come to accept them, and define ourselves by them as creative beings because we have been all too eager to fit into the pre-existing order of things.

Despite initially being written-off by the art world as inferior and lacking in genuine creativity, mainly due to its mechanical nature, (the fact that ‘anyone’ can push a button enough times that they will eventually get lucky) which apparently reduces the creative process to almost nil, photography has slowly gained a small measure of acceptance in the art world, albeit I believe, a grudging one.

Anyone who saw the National Gallery’s first photography exhibition could only walk away with that impression. Just look at the title: Seduced by Art. Implying of course that photography is anything but art – that it is something other, something lusting for the status of art – a medium that can only ape the work of the Masters. The exhibition itself was something of an embarrassment to anyone familiar with photography. From the childish text about how cameras work, to the constant references to photography’s relationship, or debt to painting. And then there are those who like to call themselves ‘Artists that use photography’. These ‘real artists’ feel the need to explain their photographic endeavors with this tag presumably because they are unable to lower themselves to the level of a mere photographer. The artist who uses photography has to explain to their audience that they are doing something really creative, that there is a self initiated, visible and historically accepted process at work; that they aren’t one of the fluky chancers who get lucky every few thousand clicks of the shutter. But why can’t they see that the camera is just another tool? That this device allows truly wonderful things to happen? After all, a painter isn’t an artist using a paintbrush. A sculptor isn’t an artist using a chisel. So why do so many ‘Artists’ feel the need to explain away the photography in their art. As Paul Graham so adroitly states:

‘…photography for and of itself -photographs taken from the world as it is– are misunderstood as a collection of random observations and lucky moments, or muddled up with photojournalism, or tarred with a semi-derogatory ‘documentary’ tag.’ (Graham, Paul: The Unreasonable Apple, 2010).

Now, this isn’t a rant against the art world, or artists who wish to make photographs. Far from it! As I said, photography’s stock in the art world is probably at an all time high. Tate Modern has a full time photography curator, exhibitions attract record crowds and images sell for more money than they ever have. Great! But I still feel that a bit of that prejudice still exists. Photography that illustrates a concept is fine, but photography in and of itself in the eyes of the art world is the junior partner, the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives, allowed a seat at the top table, but only thrown a few scraps and then patted on the head and told to let the big boys get on with it. It’s an issue of identity – for too long we have let others determine who we are.

The problem I think is two fold: in the past we have allowed ourselves to be held up to the ‘traditional visual arts’ as a measuring stick, when in fact this rule of measure is not really the most suitable stick for photography to be measured against. It’s an obvious choice – but one I think ultimately restricts our individual creative possibilities. Of course this is partly down to the fact that photography was created when, in visual terms, painting was king, a king that wasn’t about to be usurped by a mechanical frivolity, a passing fad. Thankful photography has stuck around, but by following the existing models of the art world, where artists are lumped into schools, movements and worst of all forced to have a style etc., we have shirked the opportunity to be free to create as we wish to and control the destiny of photography. Of course the art world includes a far greater array of creative mediums, so some grouping together is inevitable. But all photographers use cameras, all are subject to the unique opportunities this affords as well as the limitations, and by dint of this, we are a group unto ourselves.

How many photographers agonize over their ‘style’ – wondering if it is ‘fresh’ or has ‘been seen before’, or if they in fact have one at all? We have allowed others to pigeonhole us according to their own inappropriate criteria. And once that label sticks it’s mighty hard to lose it, fore in the case of photography it seems to be almost impossible to alter how you work without raising howls of derision. The same type of thing happens in the commercial world too. While at times it is seen as the antithesis of the rarified art world, the commercial world has its own equally damaging set of descriptive terms: advertising photographer; editorial photographer, product photographer, what really is the point – other than to allow editors to organize their address books. Hmmm we’re doing a feature on Britain – get Martin Parr on the phone!

Of course if a photographer is happy to work in the same way over the course of their careers then I’m happy for them. Really I am. But I think there should be room for those of us that don’t. Why can’t a photographer change the way they photograph to suit their chosen subject matter. What is wrong with that? Surely it allows us to maximize the impact of our work – to really articulate our points of view, because after all, photography is a subjective medium and that subjectivity is malleable, it is complex like all things human. So why choose to stifle it?

I can fully understand the search for legitimacy as a creative medium that was felt by the earliest practitioners. But we now have history on our side – photography has stood the test of time. We need to assert our independence and establish our own rules and labels, or as I would prefer our own lack of them, after all chaos is good for creation! We must celebrate all that is unique about this medium, regardless of what we choose to photograph and unite as photographers. Not as artists, or artists-that-use-photography, but as creative people, as: photographers!

First published in Tonelit 1st Anniversary Edition

The Old Lady and Her Gatepost by John Bulmer

I first saw John Bulmer’s work in a copy of Hotshoe magazine a few years ago. While I liked all of the images featured in that issue, one in particular has stayed with me.

The image was made in the town of Nelson in Lancashire while Bulmer was on a commission for Town Magazine in 1960. Shot in black and white it shows us an old lady, in threadbare clothes and leather boots that look so heavy I wonder how her stick thin legs can lift them. She is hunched over, at her feet a bucket peeks from behind a wall; with a brush in her right hand she scrubs her gatepost.

Screen shot 2014-03-14 at 13.44.34©John Bulmer.

 If I were forced to list my top ten all time favorite photos, I think I would have to put this one on the list. I always think of it when I visit my hometown. I’m not really one for nostalgia, I’m sure the past was never as rosy as people like to make out – but when I think back to my childhood – my memories of where I grew up are distinctly different to what it is like now. Of course everywhere changes in one way or another, but I walk the streets of that town and am saddened by how little care people take of the place they live, the place that I lived. Many of the houses look uncared for, people dump unwanted furniture: beds, sofas, tables on street corners, gardens that were once filled with flowers have been concreted over – to be used as driveways, overflowing bins spill out onto the pavements and there are cars everywhere, far more than there used to be. There were always decent sized gaps between the cars so that my friends and I could play street cricket after school. Now you hardly ever see kids playing in the street. Anyway, that’s enough of the Wonder Years.

I just wonder why it is that some people seem to not care about, or take pride in the environment that they and others live in. Does it really take that much to consider those that live around you? Just think how nice a lot of places would be if all those that lived there took care of their small patch, just for the sake of others, if not for themselves. I guess it’s a reduced version of act local think global. And lets face it, as my grandmother used to say ‘soap, water and elbow grease don’t cost very much’. Which takes us back to that old lady in John Bulmer’s photo. She was out scrubbing her gatepost.

Image courtesy of John Bulmer