I met Chris online, back in 2011. He’s an ex-astrophysicist, ex-Wall Street trader and, when I got in touch with him (or did he get in touch with me?), a photographer.
I’d been photographing drug addicts, so had he. I’d been criticized for photographing drug addicts, so had he. We compared notes, commiserated and pretty much saw eye-to-eye.
Then, in 2013, business took me to NYC, where Chris lived. I contacted him, asked if he wanted to hang out. Sure, he said, wanna go to a crack house in The Bronx?
Let’s go, I replied.
We kept in touch over the years, he visited me in Kapital City a few times. It felt like we were fellow travellers.
Then Chris, as is inevitable, got worn down, broken down by all the time, energy and emotion he had spent with addicts. (Oh, I know that feeling.)
But his curiosity remained intact. So he set off across America to further the education Hunts Point had provided him. He went to the edges (which are, ironically, in the centre), those places given lip service (and knee jerks) from the media and by just plain comfortable folks.
Three years and 150,000 miles later his head was full. He dropped out to make some sense of what he’d seen, what he’d felt, and what he’d learned. The result is his book, DIGNITY, which hit the shelves this week. It’s a book of words and pictures. Lots to sink your teeth into. Food for thought.
drool. calls it required reading if you want to understand a bit more (different) about what’s happening now in the USA. Or, really in any place or society that is in the grips of, is suffering from, late-capitalism (aka neo-liberalism).
Chris doesn’t think of himself as a photographer, although photography is definitely part of his working method. We had a conversation about that, and then got sidetracked. And the sidetrack, as is often the case, led us to the crux, or, more accurately, a crux . . .
Chris Arnade: For me the photography comes second to the story and learning. I think that shows in my images. I do care about taking good pictures but they are secondary, and became more so as this project evolved.
If I have a framework it is to take portraits that the subject wants. Or trying to at least. Or giving dignity to the subject. Meaning I almost always let them choose how they are photographed, and allow them, should they want, to clean up before the shot. That doesn’t mean I don’t have some action pictures. But more often it is intentionally posed.
It also means I do relatively simple stuff. I try not to make it too arty, because I think that just feels artificial.
To the larger point. I care more about learning than getting the right shot.
T. F.: We’ve talked before about how poverty is mostly comprised of stasis and crushing boredom. Yet many photographers who render poverty seem to look for, or at least inject, all kinds of drama into their photos of that poverty. Tell me a little about your thinking on this.
C.A.: Thank you for asking this. One of the most difficult things to do as a photographer is to not “artify” or add too much drama to your pictures. To take simple photos that respect, not transform, what you find. For a long time I fought the realization that much of poverty takes place amidst the banal. Partly because of what I had seen before, via the more traditional and famous photos of poverty, which rendered it dramatic and the subjects broken. Sharply contrasting black & white, wooden homes, weathered faces, clichéd poses, whatever, you know what I mean. I thought maybe that was how it was supposed to be photographed.
But the reality I found was more like the interior of McDonald’s, or the decidedly bland architecture of low-income housing projects. It was cheap corporate – an attempt through bright colors to hide the shoddy or uncomfortable environment, or through countless grey tones, to not offend anyone.
This is the world of so much of low income America. Bland & banal strip malls, repetitive architecture, loud & jarring advertising. The attempt to make that pretty, or dramatic, or whatever just isn’t right . . .
I’m curious if you disagree with this. Or . . . curious to hear your thoughts since you are so much more familiar with Photography and its history than I am.
T.F.: I think your take on this is mostly right but a bit too categorical.
It is possible to manipulate, artify, images of, well, anything, poverty included, in a way that is true (whatever that means) to the subject. Just as it is possible to take banal photos of poverty that don’t really approach the subject at all.
In the end it comes down to the intent and talent of the person making the images. I believe intent and talent can actually be seen in the results . . . if one cares to look.
And therein lies the problem . . . most people (as you know) don’t care to look, they just want their biases confirmed and, thus, to be entertained.
Take, for instance, Sebastiao Salgado, I really dislike his Wagnerian, melodramatic, biblical really, photographs, and Bruce Gilden, who I kind of like for the brutality of his approach. For me Salgado is just lies filtered through Romanticism, while Gilden’s work seems to be more reality-based.
So it’s complicated. I try to judge each body of work on its own merits.
C.A.:I agree there is no set rule. I also fully agree on Salgado, who I was partly thinking of when I wrote what I wrote. I am not sure about Gilden. I really dislike his work because I think he is mocking his subjects, and I hate how he surprises them at times — I think with bad intent.
I fully agree with this “Just as it is possible to take banal photos of poverty that don’t really approach the subject at all.”
I guess my approach is more literal than most — which is why I am not really a photographer in my heart — I come into a place, look around, think about it, hang, and then try to figure out what is the essence of that place. What did I learn from this. What do I want others to learn? And how can I communicate that essence, or what I learn, the best via words & photos.
Perhaps that would mean arsty-ing it up. Perhaps not. I don’t think Salgado or Gilden communicate the essence of a place or their subjects. Although by that measure, Gilden does indeed do a ‘Better” job.
T.F.: There’s more than one way, though, to show the essence of a place. For me Salgado’s images are way too melodramatic and idealized to be a “true” reflection of the recognizable world
And I don’t want to be an apologist for Gilden, because lord knows it’s so easy to see his images as just plain nasty. But for me there can be more to them than that.
But folks look for confirmation of their biases. You can easily find that in both those photographers’ work. Whereas with more neutral work (yours, for instance) that built-in bias is moved way to the back.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as it’s there on the surface and not hidden behind trickery.
C.A.: I agree with all that, and fully agree that communicating that essence can come in many different ways.
With regards to confirming ones bias, or having a bias. One thing you become very very aware of as a Wall Street trader is dangers of having a bias. Perhaps that is why I approach it why I do! 20 years of Wall Street made me determined to be aware of my bias!
T.F.:Okay, we sort of agree. I hope I haven’t bullied you into agreeing.
C.A.: I don’t think you bullied me. I asked your opinion because you know the photo world like a million times better than me. I intentionally operate without building that knowledge so I don’t end up copying a style.
T.F.: Fair enough. I’ve gotta go do the dishes, make dinner. And I’ll let you get back to your life.
So I’ve got an idea, or maybe a rough idea, about some of the imagery I want to accumulate, throw into the stew that is my new project.
One of the things (if “things” is the correct word) I’m after is male and female flesh, bodies.
To this end I asked my friend Hannah if I might photograph her, her body. Sure, she said. Thank you very much, I replied.
Day of the shoot I went over to her place, we sat on the couch, talked a while. I tried to explain what I thought my idea was, why I wanted some flesh and bodies in the mix. The situation, then and there, seemed relaxed and interesting so I shot a frame.
But I was nervous to begin . . . what with having some pretty firm ideas about how and why photos of naked people should be used. In fact it feels a little weird posting these here. But there is a reason (I tell myself) for showing them, the duds and the ones that might, in the end, be useful. Just as there is (or might be) a reason why I need images like this at all.
Anyway, finally I gathered up my gumption and we moved to the bedroom and began.
To say the photos were bad would be an understatement, they seemed forced and stupid. My fault completely. (I’ve always maintained that when photographing people in a controlled situation the photographer is the only person who can make a mistake.)
Then I remembered how comfortable we had been sitting on the couch, talking. How that very first snap was so fresh and seemed real, and how I liked the way her eyes were cut off because I hadn’t been really looking or even trying.
So we moved back there . . .
And it felt closer to what I thought I had in mind.
But seen here, decontextualized from how it might be used in the project, it seems too blatant. I mean, I like the relaxed feeling and the fact the eyes were cut off (and that extra eye on her arm). The look on Hannah’s face works for me too. Maybe in the end I’ll be needing images like this. For now, for me, that’s reason enough to try.
And finally we did this . . .
And I thought, yes, that’s what I meant. It strikes me as maybe a viable piece of my project, which is a puzzle that, at this point, is undefined. But I think that this image provides, somehow, a piece of some definition.
I had set out to photograph flesh but it’s this photograph that embodies, for me, the feeling (and maybe even the meaning) of what I think I’m after.
Goes to show that what you think you want, what you think might be important, might not be what you want or what’s important.
Of course, these are early days and I’m not ruling anything out at this point. My job now is to make sure I’ve turned over as many stones as necessary to ensure I have enough “right” images to make the project work. And by work I mean to create a sequence that points in the direction of, and somehow defines, my idea. An idea which I’m still not going to say out loud.
Not much to note in the KapitalCityPhotoScene this week. Next week, though, there’ll be some good stuff to report. And so it goes . . .
In the meantime, what about your project? Does it want to become a book? If it does then this workshop is for you.
Why you should make a photobook and how to organize your images in a way that makes sense.
The various tools, both online and physical, you can use to work on your book.
How to make dummies (working prototypes) of your book as it evolves.
The steps you should take to refine the look and feel of the book.
The various means available to have your book printed.
And a lot of other stuff you’ve probably never considered, like how the weight of the book affects shipping charges, how to source packaging materials to make the delivery/distribution of your book more professional, and ways and means to publicize your book.
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.