Roger Ballen

I’ve only become aware of Roger Ballen’s work over the last year and half, but I find that I’m enjoying his work more and more. You can listen to the man behind these amazing images here on the Lens Culture blog.

To hear him talk about plodding away at his photography over the years and his thoughts on the subjectivity of photography ring very true with my own process. He seems as fascinating as his photographs.

Skew Mask by Roger Ballen (2002)

Skew Mask by Roger Ballen (2002)

Joubert’s Horse

I’m stuck at home today with a horrible cough/cold thing, so I’m going to do a few posts while I have the time.

In a previous post I mentioned photographing the model horse that was used to display Henry VIII’s armour in the White Tower. I picked up the negs and contacts yesterday and have just scanned in one of the contact sheets from the Large Format 5″x4″ camera.

Im using a different lab to develop my films as my usual place have ceased offering B&W dev services. It was getting difficult to find good lab services (when it comes to black and white) but now its difficult finding any. Thank heavens for Robin Bell.

Anyway here is the image I scanned myself, its not great quality but it will give an idea:

horse0171

(click on image to enlarge)

A Return from Spain

Just a short post to apologise for a bit of a gap from me on the blog. I was lucky enough to be in Barcelona for a few days, and was pleasantly internet free for the whole time.

It was a short stay so it seemed that most of my time was spent wandering the streets, looking at buildings and eating and drinking… not a bad life.

On my wanderings I ended up in a small Gallery/Bookshop in Barcelona’s Old Town – Im not sure of the name as its logo and sign were pretty unreadable, but inside were some fantastic vintage images, most of which were by a photographer I had never seen: Josep Salvany. I have had a quick look on the internet but have found very little about him, even in Spanish.

This was the picture that drew me (and my companions) into the gallery:

Photograph by Josep Salvany

Photograph by Josep Salvany

We liked this picture because it seemed to be an exact copy of the three of us just a 150 years ago.

I wish I could tell you more about the exhibition but my Spanish doesn’t stretch far enough to decipher gallery info boards (it actually stretches just far enough to order a coffee and apologise for my appalling Spanish).

I found this picture on the web, and its bares a similarity to some of my Tower pictures:

salvany_pedret

If there is anyone out there, reading this, who knows more about this photographer I would love to find out more, so please get in touch.

While searching for Salvany I found this picture which I love to bits:

Santa Coloma de Queralt. Fira al Casal. 1967 Autor: Pere Plaza

Santa Coloma de Queralt. Fira al Casal. 1967 Autor: Pere Plaza

Its a terrible thing to say but I only know the work a handfull of Spanish photographers, but now I’m going to hunt down some more.

The creation of landscape

For Christmas I received a raft of photography books, one of which was called Countryside, published by the National Trust, and as you’d expect from such an organisation the book contains some idealised landscapes of England, Wales and Northern Ireland in which the hills roll, the pastures are green, the sky is blue and there are no Satanic mills to spoil the view.  And yet, according to the United Nations, a staggering 89% of the United Kingdom (I realise this is not England) live in an urban area (and it’s been like that for over a century).  Why, then, is it that when we think of English landscapes we think of this?

Summer evening above Swainby by Joe Cornish

Summer evening above Swainby by Joe Cornish

Cornish, not to be confused with the comedian of the same name, commented about this picture “I remember thinking as I was making photographs this particular evening that William Blake’s immortal phrase from Jerusalem, ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ seemed perfect for this landscape. The success of the picture owes almost everything to the sky.”

The answer to the question stated above would take some kind of thesis, so I’ll skip to the proverbial meat and two veg, and say that it’s because our idea of landscape is not really concerned with geography, it is concerned with politics and culture.  A simple example will suffice.

Privy Garden at Hampton Court Palace

Privy Garden at Hampton Court Palace

This garden was originally constructed for William III and contained within the symmetrical layout was an impressive collection of plants from around the globe, as well as a series of statues depicting scenes from classical antiquity, most notably Hercules for whom the king had something of an obsession.  The landscape suggested that William brought order to the nation, was internationally influential and a highly cultured individual.

Not surprisingly, such an approach to landscape spread through the aristocracy and landed gentry during the 18th century, many of whom would go on to create such beautiful spaces that it’s easy to forget the ulterior motives that inspired their creation.  Naturally, after the invention of photography the medium became used by governments and organisations alike in order to construct and suggest readings of the landscape for numerous ends.  This usually occurs at times of national crisis or uncertainty when England is presented as a nation possessing a profound continuity between past and present and of unsurpassed rural beauty, rather than urban decay, social unrest or political turmoil.  This occurred in the late Victorian period as industrial development radically altered the nation, during World War 2, and in the early 1980s as the economy went through a period of substantial industrial decline and restructure.

One photographer who has challenged this view of rural, peaceful England is John Davies who has built up a substantial body of work in the last twenty five years that explores the fierce competition that has existed (and still exists today) for the use of the English landscape.

Agecroft Power Station, Salford, England, 1982.  John Davies

Agecroft Power Station, Salford, England, 1982. John Davies

Both Cornish and Davies create stunning images of the English landscape but with very different ends in mind.  Cornish’s approach very much fits in with the idealised view of England that tourists like to see, yet Davies creates images that ask difficult questions about the power relationships that exist between the individual, the community and the landscape.

Next time I’ll pick up where I leave off here and start looking at some other photographers that are concerned with different aspects of the tourist gaze.

A Gift Horse

On Friday I travelled up to the Tower with hopes of returning to photograph some of the area that leads up to Thomas More’s cell (again). The leaden winter weather gave me very little light so I decided to leave that area to another day. While wandering around the White Tower I was drawn to the building works that are going on at the foot of this famous building. The site manager was kind enough to let me into the area to photograph a few things (as long as I stayed clear of the actual work in progress due to safety restrictions) I managed to get a couple of pictures before the cold finally got me and I moved inside.

I thought I had had a good day with a few interesting images on film, but then I was kindly given the opportunity to have access to the areas inside the White Tower that are being prepared for an new exhibition called ‘Henry Dressed to Kill’ which will display a massive collection of Henry VIII armour. The images below were taken on my digital compact. I used my 6×6 Bronica as well as  a Wista Large Format 5×4 camera to make my final pictures, but I wanted to show you what I saw that drew me to make my photograph in the first place as well as some of the paraphernalia that I used to make it. I have mentioned before that I tend to only use available light but in this situation the light was so low I couldn’t see to focus, so I drafted in the help of some studio lights. I set the lights up to mimic the fall of the natural light as much as possible.

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dscf0019

I must admit I found the horse beautiful and ever so slightly sad. Apparently it was craned into the White Tower to display Henry VIII’s armour (for him and his horse) in 1913. It was made by Felix Joubert from paper mache over an iron skeleton. It will be taken away to be stored properly in the Royal Armouries and is to be replaced by a new model horse.

Its funny how moved I was by the story of this inanimate creature, partially wrapped in bubble wrap, how lucky I was to have the chance to photograph this wonderful thing before it leaves the Tower for ever. I just hope my final image captures some of its magic.

(as an additional note, as I packed up my kit after photographing this horse I dropped my old Vivitar Light Meter and broke it. I’ve used this light meter since I was a student and I’m going to miss it)

The great contradiction of tourism

Although there had been tourists before the 19th century (I’m thinking of the Grand Tour here), what we recognise as mass tourism didn’t take shape until the 19th century when work became more regulated and as a result, so did the idea of ‘taking a holiday’.  Industrialisation brought urbanisation (and suburbanisation) and with it a fear that ancient traditions and landscapes of Britain were being lost.

As a result there was a renewed interest, particularly by the middle classes who had the time to think about these things, to visit those ‘authentic’ sites of British history before they were lost to industrial Britain.  One such site was Stratford-upon-Avon, home of Shakespeare, which started to arouse significant tourist interest in the late 19th century.  The problem was that as tourists weren’t part of the regular landscape their very presence actually contributed to a decline in authenticity, a situation further complicated as the local industry would develop around the needs of the growing tourist industry.  This is the great contradiction of tourism and its quest for authenticity.

Confidence in photography’s objectivity, to literally capture what was placed in front of the camera, was at an all time high at this period, and so several photographers were either despatched, or despatched themselves, to Stratford in order to capture true Shakesperean authenticity in photographs before it was lost forever.  This would also be beneficial for the tourists as by going to the locations that were in these photographs, published in tourist guides, they could overcome the great contradiction of tourism and satisfy themselves that they had walked in Shakespeare’s footsteps.  Not surprisingly, there was a huge growth of tourist guides and popular histories at this time that all claimed to deliver the authentic Shakespeare experience.

The Old Lock at Welford, James Leon Williams.  From The Homes and Haunts of Shakespeare (1892)

The Old Lock at Welford, James Leon Williams. From The Home and Haunts of Shakespeare (1892)

The American dentist, James Leon Williams, who receives our thanks for inventing modern dentures, but more significantly for tourists was something of a photographer, offering the world The Home and Haunts of Shakespeare (1892) which was a heavily romanticised and nostalgic view of Shakespeare-land with over 200 illustrations and 45 photogravures.  This book was created for the American market and was reviewed in the New York Times where it curiously ignored the long-established obsession for Shakespeare already existing among the English and claimed that Americans were solely responsible for the active interest in Stratford-upon-Avon as Shakespeare’s birthplace.

New York Times review of The Homes and Haunts of Shakespeare (1892)

New York Times review of The Home and Haunts of Shakespeare (1891)

Although there were many other Shakespeare photographic histories, the focus Williams had on sentiment and nostalgia through the use of photogravure was intended to create a longing and desire among its readers to visit these locations, even though for most readers it would be financially impossible. Nevertheless, what we see here is the manner in which photography informs the tourist experience, something which has only accelerated and spread as technology itself has facilitated the use of photographic images in print, on screen and now on the internet.  Photography informs the desire to visit certain locations, allows tourists to recognise them as ‘authentic’ when they see them, but also to associate experiences with them – ye olde England in Stratford-upon-Avon, the romance of Paris with the Eiffel Tower, and so on.

In the next post I’ll look at the work of some photographers who work in opposition to the tourist experience I’ve described here.

Photography and tourism

On Monday the ‘arctic’ weather conditions forced the Tower to close and, as a result of transport disruption, only a few members of staff were able to make it to work at all.  As you would probably expect with such rare and magical weather, some of those who had managed the arduous trip had brought their cameras and were photographing the Tower in, as Paul Simon wrote, ‘a freshly fallen, silent shroud of snow’.  A colleague was surprised that as someone who works in a major tourist attraction but who also purports to be a photographer, my automatic response was not to abandon all efforts of work, get a camera out and start snappin’ away.

As I tried to explain why that was not the case, the thought occurred to me that my colleague’s view of photography was as a medium for capturing ‘pretty pictures’ as part of the tourist experience, a purely aesthetic endeavour without any intellectual weight to it at all.  For a moment I was on the defensive, having to justify photography’s position as a form of fine art, of self-expression, in the same category as music, drawing or painting.  I found myself saying something very haughty about why my colleague would never have the same thought if I’d been a painter… it’s snowing outside so therefore I must paint a pretty picture.  Terrible.

This experience led me to some thoughts about how Chris’s role as photographer in residence in a major tourist attraction is interpreted.  Confusingly enough, photography and tourism are already intertwined, in fact without photography tourism could not be sustained as it is one of the tools used to create the desire to undertake tourist activity in the first place.  In the case of the Tower, photography is used to represent and articulate the history that Historic Royal Palaces presents to the public and tourists are happy to snap away ‘collecting’ evidence of this history almost without question.

Chris’s role, on the other hand, facilitates a longer, more sustained and questioning gaze, an opportunity to study the site and its history, to use the medium of photography to reflect on the tourist gaze that photography itself has shaped and create a coherent body of work to reflect this.  Photography, in this guise, is not about creating (more) pretty pictures of the Tower, rather it is about using the medium as one of personal expression to present a unifying idea through a large body of work.  The idea is to create interesting and beautiful images but also to give you something to think about when you’re looking at them.

Of course, as Chris is a process-driven artist he wasn’t able to articulate what his body of work would reflect at the beginning of his residency, but as the end approaches his ideas are beginning to take greater shape.  However, Chris’s work cannot be fully appreciated unless it is contextualised within a wider photographic history, and so over the next few posts I’ll be doing precisely that as I explore photography’s complicated relationship with tourism.

Christopher King in conversation 2

This has been a long time coming, for which I apologise, but I do have a genuine reason as WordPress’s media player couldn’t cope with images in GarageBand file formats and I’ve lacked the time to convert it to a more palatable format.  However, as London has had a bit of snow lately and has come to an almost total stop as a result, I thought I’d use my time productively.

First Portraits – Part 2

Unseen Weston

I seem to spend a large ammount of time on trains and buses so I decided to buy a new iPod to help make the whole travelling thing a bit more enjoyable. I have started to subscribe to several podcasts to listen to on the various train journeys of my week, one of these is the podcast of Sotheby’s Fine Art. I downloaded one about the auction of photographs from the collection of Margeret Weston, one image really caught my eye (that I had not seen before). It was Edward Westons ‘The Ascent of Attic Angles’, a beautiful image and reasonably priced somewhere between $700,000 to $1 million. Only two prints exist and it marks the move of weston from his more traditional work into the realm of modernism.

ascentweston