Do you have moods? You do, don’t you? I have them too. Happy, sad; sure, unsure; elated, depressed; strong, weak . . . who knows?
Today I just don’t know.
I could pretend I know, that I’m sure. Or I could wait to write this until I do feel sure (because I’ll feel sure later). I could curate the face I show here, package it up into some as-close-to-perfect me as possible. I could live the lie.
Fuck that shit . . .
Photos tumble out of my X100F. The result of confusion and some kind of concerted effort. But nothing seems to be making much sense.
Don’t get me wrong, though. After all, this is what I set out to do . . . to be confused, to look for some new kind of sense. And now here I am . . .
At least I feel alive.
As far as I can tell there’s pretty much nothing I want to note, photo-wise, in Kapital City this week. And when I say “to note” what I mean is there’s nothing happening that, in my opinion, moves photography in Kapital City forward. I don’t need to agree with whatever is being presented, but I’d like it to be smart, modern (or historically pertinent) and well conceived.
The important bit from the above being “in my opinion”. After all, I’m just a guy with a blog, doing the best I can. (And some weeks I do better than others.)
Sometimes I wonder if I might (should) write something critical here when I see photographs presented for consideration that fall short of the (my) mark.
After all, as I’ve said before, there’s too much “noticing” and boosterism in this scene, and not enough actual criticism. And it seems to me that if you present work for consideration perhaps you should want, and expect, people to consider (rather that just notice) it.
Or maybe some photographers don’t want or expect their work to be considered. Perhaps, for some, just being noticed is enough.
Colin Pantall and Robert Darch both think that the UK leaving the EU is stupid. They each reacted to the causes and effects of the vote to leave, and its aftermath, in their own way. And those ways are diametrically opposed.
Colin, angry, attached extended captions to images he already had. He imagined a parallel universe where Brexit makes sense. He posted these to Instagram.
Robert, melancholy, used the Brexit thing to reimagine an idea he was already working on, but had no real emotional attachment to.
I’m interested in how photographers can address the same subject yet still (if they are any good) have their personalities come through in the work, can make it their own.
So I asked Colin and Robert some questions to see if further light could be shed . .
What was the genesis (apart from the obvious) of your Brexit project?
Colin Pantall: I live on the edge of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s constituency. (ed note: Jacob Rees-Mogg is a hard-right arch-Brexiter.) Pretty much every day I walk through these gaps in hedges to go to my allotment garden or just take a walk. As soon as I walk through that hedge, I’m on Jacob Rees-Mogg’s land. I’ve photographed a lot there because of the allotment. There’s this strange mix of the rural – the allotments, the views of Solsbury Hill – combined with allotment weirdness.
This mix seemed to fit with the emotional idea of Brexit, an idea that mixed an idealised nostalgia for what Britain used to be with a blinkered and quite baffling hostility to anything ‘foreign’.
As Brexit day (originally 29th March ) approached I made an edit of my work that mirrored a journey into the mythical land of Jacob Rees-Mogg where everything made sense in an off-kilter kind of way. I started putting this edit up on Instagram.
But as the negotiations took hold, Britain found itself in the grip of these bizarre circular arguments that went nowhere. The votes in parliament were almost like a live sport. And so the Instagram posts evolved into something more responsive to events, and as events moved from the political to the satirical, the cynical and sarcastic, so did my posts. They ended in anger, frustration and despair. That’s where I stopped them. After all the negotiations and votes, Brexit has been delayed till October 30th before which the process will begin again.
What was the genesis (apart from the obvious) of your Brexit project?
Robert Darch: In 2015 started taking pictures on Portland Island, a small island in Dorset, England, connected to the mainland by a road and causeway. The island is scattered with quarries, dramatic coastline, tunnels and imposing prisons. It has a peculiar, uncanny atmosphere, quite distinct from the mainland but with elements of Britishness, so really appealed to my sensibilities. My initial idea was to make some observations about the British nation, using this small island to reference the British Isles as a whole. This was of course well before there was any notion of Brexit happening, but I envisaged exploring a lot of the issues that led to the Brexit vote, immigration, poverty, etc. However the project didn’t evolve, most likely as I didn’t have any personal attachment or real passion for the idea, and aside from an interest in the atmosphere of the island I couldn’t envisage how the project would develop beyond that. My work specifically deals with attachment, feeling and emotion, to generalize, i’m a heart, rather than a head photographer and my initial idea for the Island was definitely a head led concept.
However, that’s where the title of the Island originated. Then a few years later when Brexit happened, I felt so heavy and sad about that decision, I just started taking pictures that attempted to visualize how I was feeling, which became a new version of The Island, photographed in the South West and the Midlands, where I grew up.
Most of my work has a slow genesis, often encapsulating older ideas and taking some time to realize the atmosphere or sense of place I am trying to create. Although The Island is a response to Britain voting to leave Europe, I was also drawing on feelings of melancholy I experienced in the past and how these emotions somehow felt heightened as a young adult.
Why do you use an imagined approach, as opposed to a documentary one?
Colin Pantall: Documentary is always imagined. Arguably it’s least imagined when its imagined in a positive way that embraces and recognizes the imagination? I think the straight expository voice of documentary is unbelievably fake and historically is a visual form of control. That might be a bit extreme, but yes, why not. Sometimes I wonder if straight photography isn’t like talking in a big, booming baritone voice that shows off your private education and economic status and your expectation to be believed because of it. And finding that actually you are.
Everything about Brexit and the Leave Campaign is imaginary too, but in a bad way that doesn’t embrace or recognize the imagination. It’s based on lies, dishonesty, and open racism and it’s backed openly or surreptitiously by people in all parties who pretend certain parts of it don’t exist because they’ve never been a racist so it couldn’t be possible.
Brexit has never been thought out, the Leave arguments are based on fantasy and emerge from decades of infantile anti-European propaganda that revolve around second-rate British icons like custard creams and sausages denied us by envious, snooty Frenchmen and scheming, organized Germans who never got over the war. When really we’re the snooty ones who never got over the war, or the loss of empire, or anything. Brexit is an emotional thing and to treat it in an expository documentary voice is to make a categorical mistake.
Imaginary though my approach is, it’s still documentary – documentary can be emotional, with an unreliable wavering voice. That’s the voice I have, it’s inconsistent and it changed as the negotiations became more conflicted.
Why do you use an imagined approach, as opposed to a documentary one?
Robert Darch: I am not a traditional documentary photographer, instead I work instinctively and use photography to capture a feeling or an emotion. I don’t like using the ‘A’ word as it feels slightly pretentious to me, but I do work more as an artist than a documentary photographer. Maybe I should just get over that hang-up and embrace it, buy some round glasses and a navy blue smock!
The Brexit vote and the outcome of that decision is highly complex and layered with a multitude of underlying sociological, political and psychological issues that make envisaging a documentary work close to impossible. Also if I did consider a documentary project about Brexit as a Pro European, I would start making judgements about certain elements and aspects of the British mentality that I can’t abide, and as an educated, white middle class man I can’t begin to imagine how I could do that without appearing judgemental and privileged in some people’s eyes.
Equally, i’m not so blinkered and idealistic that I can’t see and understand how this happened, why people would want to leave Europe, for the perceived safety and familiarity of good old Blighty. The Brexit vote was the result of years of austerity, mass immigration, lack of job security, raised aspirations, greed, the class system, politics, neoliberalism, privatization, fake news, indifference, social media and spin alongside a perceived lack of control over individual and collective fears…. I could go on.
Instead of trying to rationalize that I made a quiet series of images that reflect my own hopes, fears and aspirations for the future, combining melancholic landscapes with portraits of young adults, whom this decision will impact the most and (in general) they passionately want to remain part of the European Union
I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh, or cynical, but what’s the point of your Brexit work, what does it achieve?
COLIN PANTALL: It’s a reflection of a mood, a wave of fluctuating sentiments and emotions that accompanied Brexit. It’s not rational, it’s not considered, it’s not trustworthy, it’s not consistent. It doesn’t achieve anything and it became quite destructive towards the end, a wave of what-the-fuckery and sarcasm. I don’t know what the point of that is. Maybe it’s a kind of Instagram therapy, a release valve for me to vent my rage.
It really was quite a unique period in British history. Was or Is? Because nothing has been resolved, we’re no closer to a way out of the mess that has been created. In fact we’re probably even further away.
Why do people vote for assholes and their shitty, self-interested policies. That’s what I ended up asking. It’s like pigs voting for the butcher. That’s Brexit. I’m getting irate now just thinking about it. That’s why I had to stop. I was getting too angered by it all. Perhaps that was the point of it. It ended up just getting me all irate first thing in the morning and last thing at night. So what was the point of it? Probably it was pointless, but I’m not sure if it was in a good way or a bad way? Or a bit of both.
I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh, or cynical, but what’s the point of your Brexit work, what does it achieve?
Robert Darch: I think you have to fundamentally make the work and take the photographs that mean something to you, and if someone else shares in that experience and relates to them then that’s wonderful.
I don’t make work thinking about what it will achieve, especially not in changing people’s fundamental views. I am not a political campaigner, that’s why I chose to make a quiet series of images that capture a subjective mood about a specific time, rather than add to the chatter around Brexit.
We live in a time where people appear to be fundamentally entrenched in their views, tribes, religions, politics and aren’t able to see something from a different perspective. People inhabit bubbles surrounded by collectives that feel the same as they do. This has definitely been reinforced by social media, witnessing people deleting friends if they were pro Brexit for example.
There’s an arrogance about believing that your viewpoint or opinion is correct and a safety and security in surrounding yourself with people that think like you do. I am sad about (Possibly) leaving the EU, but I am also sad about how divided and less empathetic humanity appears, something I am guilty of too.
This week we begin with a short thing, and a link, to a discussion about photographing power. There’s also an update on my new project, plus a couple of Ottawa Notes. And be sure to tune in next week when drool. will have a special BREXIT! edition.
Let’s begin . . .
A little while ago I participated in a Skype-type round table discussion, the subject: Photographing Power. The discussion was moderated and edited by Laurence Butet-Roch, for The Magenta Foundation’s newsletter.
In on the discussion were Glenna Gordon, Janet Jarman, Yvonne Venegas, Paolo Woods and Luca Zanier. Some seriously smart photographers.
It’s a long(ish) read but if you are interested in, well, in how and why to photograph power you’ll find some interesting thoughts, ideas and links in there.
INDUSTRY, HAPPENSTANCE AND PONDERING
When I began this project the plan was to allow my new camera, plus a certain amount of industry, happenstance and pondering, to provide direction. What the project might be about, what it would look and feel like, was totally undefined.
But now something, some possibility, is emerging out of the semi-randomness of my shooting.
For instance, I see these four as being connected. But the connection, whatever it is, is very crude and probably mostly in my head. And even then it’s foggy. But it does feel like I’ve caught a glimpse of something in that fog, some possibility, something to pursue.
Of course I’ve just begun, and the act of discovery (as opposed to executing a plan to arrive at a foregone conclusion) takes a lot of time. I have to keep reminding myself. Yes.
Plus, as I work away I’m sure there will be rethinks, maybe even wholesale revisions of what I think I’m trying to do.
And that’s the beauty of it.
This workshop, at SPAO, will enlighten you about all kinds of practical photobook-making tips, tricks, strategies, resources, promotion and more. Stuff I learned the hard way, through trial and error, when I was running Straylight Press and produced 18 titles by 12 photographers.
After Angus Wright lost 300 pounds Ruth Steinberg photographed his body. The resulting images, large B&W prints from 4×5 negs, are on display at the Enriched Bread Artists gallery.
This is a hard yet elegant look at a male body. The photographs contain no gauzy symbolism, they are not overwrought, nor do they cater to romance. What they do do is, they tread the fine line between forensics and art history. They are difficult to ignore.
The viewing sched is a bit finicky, but this exhibition is definitely worth the effort. Go have a look and a think. Details here.
I first met Émilie 4 or 5 years ago at the Boreal Bash in Toronto, where she showed her Passport West Africa work. I was immediately taken. Shot with a Polaroid passport camera, four identical images on a small piece of positive film. Mostly women, a few men and children. Headshots.
Since then I’ve been looking at her subsequent work with wonder. Created mostly in Africa, almost always based on fashion. But it’s not really of fashion, also in the mix is portraiture, culture, exoticism (to Western eyes), sociology, anthropology, art, and the document.
Her most recent work, La Bella de Luanda, photographed in Angola, stopped me in my tracks. There’s something about these images that seem (at least for me) to provoke interesting questions about representation, questions that photographers people these days might want to think about. And they do it in a fresh, modern way that invites wonder.
Top to Bottom Miss Allina Maria and Hortancia Madame Mendes
I asked Emilie a few questions. Her answers are as fresh and honest as her photographs . . .
Tell me a little about how you came to photography and why you choose to work with cameras that seem to embrace, for lack of a better word, the analog qualities of the medium.
I came to photography at a very young age. My grandfather bought me my first Polaroid camera when I was about 6 years old. I was then living in Gabon, and I remember shooting whatever I could, my friends, landscapes etc… They were terrible images, but I was already infatuated with the magic of photography.
When I was 16, I start working, and I used my first paycheck ever to buy myself a semi-professional Pentax camera. I was then taking photos of my friends and parties until graduation, most photos were taken slightly drunk or high and I would paste them on the wall of my room. And from then, I tried hard to not embrace photography as a professional career, but at 20 after dropping out of college on a winter day because they were no more parking spots available… I decided that maybe it was time to stop running away from what I really wanted and I went to study photography at College Marsan in Montreal. I instinctively disliked digital at the beginning. It doesn’t have the same sensuality, the depth of field bothered me, it had with time became too sharp and mainly it doesn’t exist in the material world, plus the beauty of mistakes with film camera is hard to beat. But I guess I am just like a nostalgic DJ swearing vinyls are so much better than MP3….
Miss Oliveira Miss Maria Miss Fatima Miss Esperança
What draws you to Africa?
I spent my childhood in Gabon, and we got back to Canada when I was about 8. I for a long time said and thought that I went to live and work on the African continent to be an actor of change and witness inequalities.
Today, if I am honest, I think I was drawn back to this continent because a part of me belongs here. I am mixed race, and I was raised in a suburb of Montreal where I always stood out. Despite the love and affection of my family and friends, there was not a day I didn’t remember that I was different. It could maybe have been another experience if my father would have been around and I would have a positive reference of what it is to be a person of color, but he didn’t, and I grew up around white peoples.
At that time, for me being black was either synonym of a gang, crimes, hip hop, absent father or Africa and starvations. When you are mixed, you embodied both, the oppressed and the oppressor. There’s a natural tendency to embrace the part of you that has been oppressed, as it is your weakest link. I used to hate being mixed from a Black father, so I guess I had to learn about that side of me, to learn about what it means to be Black.
When I first came to Dakar more than 10 years ago, I felt that there were other realities than the one I had been living in. That the narratives about peoples of color I have been exposed through Western media as a child and a teenager were lies and stereotypes, that this continent was something other than conflict and malnutrition, that this is a place of creativity where the world is being reinvented. And I felt I wanted to be part of these narratives, not the one I was seeking at first, but the one that is still taking shape in front of my eyes.
Miss Lebia Blue Madalena and Luzia Miss Americo
To my eyes the work you are doing there moves well beyond what these days is commonly called “othering”, your photographs ask a lot of questions. Can you talk a bit about your approach, both on the ground with the people you choose to photograph, and how and why you came to this way of working?
The goal I am pursuing with my work is to build bridges, to create other narratives and other ways to look at peoples. Our brains are over lazy and Western ideas of success, beauty, wealth are widely spread through Western Media and are often held by the elite around the world. This has created conditioning on how we see ourselves and how we see others. I want to challenge those ideas. I have been exposed to them growing up, and every day I am working hard to rewire my brain and to believe other truths. I want my work to make others question their absolute beliefs. I don’t have answers, but I am continually seeking new questions. I believe Fashion and Art are powerful tools to lead to new ways of thinking and to expand our consciousness.
SPAO hosted their annual grad show this past Friday. As usual a swell crowd filled the premises. Merriment, chat, discussion, catching up, looking, et cetera, ensued.
But what about the work?
Well, as usual, each graduating student has brought their own voice, concerns, perspective and approach to the show. What struck me, though, is I can’t remember a graduating cohort who seem more outward-looking and politically engaged than this one (generally) is.
Some of the politics is overt.:
Katherine Fulwider’s prints on cardboard of homeless youth, these accompanied by cardboard signs those youth use to tell you what they want you to know.
Christine Potvin’s portraits with interviews of Canadian Forces veterans, if that’s the correct word, who were drummed out of service because they were gay.
BPG’s reimagining of supermarket tabloids as hard political propaganda.
Some is elliptical:
Vivian Törs’ reaction to letters, written from 1937 to 1944, by a Hungarian-Jewish wife and mother.
Lauren Boucher’s ode to home and surviving cancer.
Destroyed money by Nicolai Papove Gregory.
Through her grown children, Patricia LaPrairie looks at life in her home.
Lindsay Irene’s portraits of sex workers.
Of course there’s more. And who knows, you may see politics there where I don’t. After all, couldn’t all self expression be classified as somehow political?
And, as usual, some of the bodies of work here are more accomplished, fully realized, sophisticated, multi-dimensional, (fill in your own word here), than others.
Go have a look and decide for yourself. It continues until May 5th.
Let’s start with the continuing saga of me and my camera. If that bores you, well, there’s also a thing about the Dave Heath show at the Nat’l Gallery of Canada and an excerpt from the Jonathan Blaustein review of After the Fact.
So . . .
The X100F is a perfect tool for snap-shooting, carrying everywhere, making random notes. And that’s how I thought I might use it.
But after a few weeks of doing that I’ve come to a preliminary conclusion. And that’s that I’m not a random kind of guy.
Hold on, maybe I am a random kind of guy, but only in life. When it comes to photo projects I need some kind of hook to hang on.
Of course we all need some kind of hook, even if it’s just I’m-going-to-photograph-random-street-scenes. Or I-shoot-birds. Or yes-portraits-that’s-what-I’m-interested-in.
At the outset of this new project I set out just to see and react, and to bring the results of that seeing and reacting home so I could look at it, think about what I’d done. Then, as often happens, I saw one image and something in my brain went ping!An association was made, some synaptic path opened up and I saw a way forward. Focus was found, or at least intimated.
This is the photo that set it off. I don’t really like this image, will probably never use it.
It did, however, serve a purpose . . . it fixed a word in my brain, one word. And that word, which I am not yet ready to say out loud, has given me direction. Like a sign.
When all this was going through my head I bumped into this description of the process behind Brian David Stevens book: Doggerland. It was timely for me and seems to hit the nail on the head, about how I will pursue this thing I’m doing now . . .
“. . . found images, but images all looked-for : sought, perceived even a little in advance . . .”
The beauty of the camera I’m using is that it facilitates that mode of working. I’ve been enjoying carrying the thing around, and now I have a better idea of what I’m looking for.
The Dave Heath exhibition, Multitude, Solitude, at the National Gallery of Canada is a must-see. A slightly overlarge view of much of the work he did in Korea and, famously, New York City in the ’50’s and ’60’s. Plus recent colour work, book maquettes and a bit of miscellanea.
Perhaps a little too sentimental in places for my tastes, but there is no denying the power and (specific) universality of these renderings. And, having known the man, it must be said . . . the work is true to his sensibilities, vision and outlook. These photographs are impossible not to look at closely, and that looking will affect you. What more can you ask for?
The NGC link here will take you to a place where you can read all about it.
I have to say, he really got it, not only what it was about, but also the cyclical form of the sequence. Here’s the main bit of his review.
And, by the way, there are still 20 copies left. Go here to see the sequence, and here to buy a copy. Support independent publishing.
The cover is a dream-scape in silhouette of black on blue, with ravens and a tree and the sky.
This will be a repeating motif within, birds, and while I was OK with it, maybe it did seem a bit obvious.
Open it up, and there’s a globe. The North Atlantic Sea is prominent, and I think it’s a pretty damn smart way to ground the story.
Then, a disaffected portrait of a tall guy crammed under a short ceiling.
Then bleak, cold, yet undeniably beautiful landscapes of what I take to be Canada in Winter.
We start with a smart quote by Bertolt Brecht about singing in the face of darkness, which I took to mean that we need to make our art, to speak our peace, to sing our songs, in particular when we think things are going to shit.
(And of course many people regard our current situation as a particularly dangerous one, relative to the Post World War II era.)
Then, some redacted text, and then a slew of excellent images.
Like I said, the bird theme is a bit on-the-nose for me, and I normally don’t use that expression. But I’d also like to ask that people stop including pictures of trash on the street or sidewalk. (We had them in last week’s book too.)
What do you say, folks? A moratorium on garbage in the street pictures?
But other than that, the photography is spot on.
The portrait of the dog in the muzzle? Amazing.
The yellow brick road, the policeman’s gun, the bloody bed, the sad portraits, the public places, it all adds up to a feeling of dread and impending doom.
Impending doom is the same as maybe-not-yet arrived doom. You can feel it coming, but is there still time to affect the outcome? To hope?
There’s a guy in camouflage unfurling a wire of some sort. Mennonite women, a power-company worker at night, more sad portraits, dead-people feet, power washing a building, and then that little girl looking right at you, from the side, like a young-21st-century-Mona-Lisa.
Towards the end, the book’s title page, “After the Fact.”
Then, another quote, this time from Martin Heidegger, “The possible ranks higher than the actual.”
Idealism before realism, I suppose?
Next, another portrait of a guy looking away, (behind the hoodie,) the birds, and a cold Canadian landscape.
A last credits page, which quotes Joe Strummer, “The future is unwritten,” and states, unequivocally, “This book is a work of fiction. The real people, places and incidents portrayed are used fictitiously.”
Is it, though?
If you open it in the back, and start here, doesn’t the book make just as much sense?
You get opening quotes for context, and you’re explicitly told to see this as a work of visual fiction.
It opens similarly, motif wise, (birds/landscape/dude portrait,) and this way, it includes the title page in the beginning, where it would normally be.
Plus, it’s just so easy to flip-it back to front, given its design.
There are narrative waves and repeating motifs that work just as well this way, and even better, you can reverse direction whenever you want.
It’s a good reminder, perhaps, that we not get too rigid in our thinking. That books should be made this way. Or that.