Picture Post photographer George Douglas

George Douglas photographed during the 1950s

George Douglas photographed during the 1950s

For a current exhibition project, I have been researching sittings by key Picture Post photographers taken during the 1950s, including by Bert Hardy and George Douglas. (I am very grateful to Sarah McDonald, Curator of the Hulton Archive, for her ongoing assistance and advice.)

While Bert Hardy is known to many, the work of George Douglas is arguably less remembered today, despite the significance of his remarkable output while a commissioned freelance photographer for Picture Post. The great diversity of his work ranged from picture essays on celebrity figures; such as Audrey Hepburn at the time of her breakthrough performance in Gigi (1951); to photojournalism, documenting topics such as Olive Walker, one of Europe’s few female chimney sweeps, and the work of a speech therapy clinic in Stockton-on-Tees.

Within the last few weeks I was delighted to visit Brighton photographer Nigel Swallow, who is researching the Douglas Archive and organizing its long term care, alongside the Archive’s owner photographer Roger Bamber. (Bamber inherited the archive following Douglas’s death, and the subsequent death of his widow Jill Renton).

Next month, a small display of thirty photographs from the vast Douglas archive, will be staged at his former home at 14 Sillwood Road, Brighton. Douglas had bought the house in 1964, and though he spent much of his life in California, returned to live here permanently from 2007 until his death. This display will be part of the Brighton Artists Open Houses Festival 2014, and further details can be found on the event page. This display marks the beginning of a new exciting journey by the Archive’s owners to fully unravel and research this collection of several thousand negatives from the 1940s-1960s. I look forward to following their news, and I hope that in time, their work will lead to a reappraisal of Douglas’s legacy.

 

The Changing Face of Contemporary Photography

Aesthetica Art Prize 2014

Aesthetica Art Prize 2014

Photography has had an interesting history, first being connected to science, then struggling to be recognized as fine art, and now, with the digital age, the concept of what a photograph is or can be is changing, as are the photographers themselves – what challenges and opportunities does this present within the established tradition of the art museum?

At the dawn of photography, the technical experiments of pioneers including Joseph Niépce and Louis Daguerre in France, and William Henry Fox Talbot in England, established the medium’s basis in science; and photography soon became an alchemy of wonder to the mid-Victorian age. Its early connection to science introduced the concept of the photograph as truth, a direct recording of the reality found in front of the photographer’s lens.

However we do not need to investigate far into the medium’s first fifty years before we find significant examples of photographers who challenged this blind faith in photography’s veracity, and pushed the practical and ideological limits of the medium. Hippolyte Bayard’s Self-Portrait of the Photographer as a Drowned Man (1840) was arguably the first example of the photographic lie. Camille Silvy’s River Scene, France/La Vallée de l’Husine (1858) and Henry Peach Robinson’s When the Day’s Work is Done (1877) are both complicated compositions made from multiple negatives. Traditions such as ‘spirit’ photography, popular from the 1850s onwards, and the trend for ‘headless’ photography often found within photo collage albums of the Victorian era are further examples. In her essay on photography for the Quarterly Review in April 1857, Lady Eastlake wrote: “Photography has become a household word and a household want; is used alike by art and science, by love, business, and justice…”

I present these historical examples to argue the point that while the challenges brought by the digital age are expansive and complex, photography has always been a highly experimental medium, ambiguous and fluid in nature, often moving between classifications. Any artist-photographer working today either consciously or subconsciously is working within the historical context of such forebears discussed above. Once we have dismissed a singular view of photographic history, and accepted that a straightforward linear narrative from science to art with clear ideological beginnings and ends is not appropriate, we are free to explore the role of photography today.

Considering the traditions of the art museum, what conceptual challenges does the digital age bring to a museum’s practice in terms of its understanding and exhibition of photography? As photography moves further away from film and paper-based techniques, and a born digital image becomes increasingly screen-based, and adaptable in how it can be merged with other mediums, our past understanding of this term needs re-evaluating. The digital age can necessitate that the art museum reconsider its traditional object-based view. It must be adaptable in acknowledging that contemporary photography has further blurred distinctions between genres, the still and moving image especially. Many photographic artists working today are currently exploring the hybrid found when the mediums of photography, painting, computer technologies, and film meet. The work of Susan Sloan, whose motion capture portraits were exhibited at the Photographers Gallery in 2012, is an example of this development.

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Todd Hido: Excerpts from Silver Meadows

Todd Hido: Interview for Of the Afternoon

Todd Hido: Interview for Of the Afternoon

San Francisco based photographer Todd Hido was born in the small town of Kent, Ohio, where growing up his first introductions to photography came through MTV and magazines such as Rolling Stone and Interview. His early influences were extremely broad, and among the genre of cinema, he particularly remembers the impact of seeing Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire at age twenty. This film has been especially influential to Hido in the way he approaches sequencing a book, and planning its flow as if floating in an out of people’s lives.

Hido came to international attention with the publication of his first monograph House Hunting in 2001. This collection of twenty-six nocturnal studies of suburban houses, photographed using long exposures and available light, introduced key themes found within his aesthetic vision. This series presented the viewer with a discomforting ambiguity in the concept of ‘home’, as both a source of comfort and isolation. The underlying sense of detachment in House Hunting can partially be attributed to Hido’s objective visual distance which clearly referenced the influence of ‘New Topographics’ photographers such as Robert Adams, and perhaps the pioneering work of Wright Morris’ The Inhabitants (1946). Hido’s subsequent books Taft Street (2001) and Outskirts (2002) further explored this Midwestern domestic suburban environment to great effect.

In 2006, Hido introduced portraiture to his published work, with Between the Two, which juxtaposed images of dilapidated interiors with studies of women. Later monographs such as A Road Divided (2010) presented Hido’s own interpretation on the contemporary American landscape, and the mythical allure of the ‘open road’. The latter book further expanded Hido’s artistic style, with many photographs taken through the blur and fragmentation of the car windscreen, becoming more abstract and painterly in style. In 2013, all of these previous chapters in Hido’s publication history came together to form his most ambitious book project to date, Excerpts from Silver Meadows.

It was a great pleasure to recently interview Todd Hido for photography magazine Of the Afternoon. Hido and I discussed many topics including the tradition of the family album, the influence of his former teacher and mentor photographer Larry Sultan, Hido’s portrayal of women, and his photographic techniques and approaches to photobook design and publishing. You can read the full interview in issue #5 of Of the Afternoon which is available to order online.

 

Carlotta Cardana: Mod Couples

'Amanda and Jon' © Carlotta Cardana, Reproduced with kind permission.

‘Amanda and Jon’ © Carlotta Cardana, Reproduced with kind permission.

Back in October 2013, I was a selector for the Association of Photographers Open Awards, an annual competition and accompanying exhibition for professional and amateur photographers. My fellow judges and I were unanimous in choosing Carlotta Cardana’s portrait of ‘Amanda and Jon’ from her documentary portrait series ‘Mod Couples’ for The Best AOP Student Award.

Cardana’s series documents young couples who belong to the Mod scene, the sub-culture which first began in the late 1950s and reached its original peak in the mid-1960s. Cardana’s simple but bold compositions are immediately engaging, in part due to her sensitivity to the formal conventions of portraiture, and also her detailed attention to the personal style, fashions and environments carefully chosen by each couple. However the series as a whole also invites much quieter, more complex questions regarding the construction of identity; both individually, as a partner, and collectively as part of a sub-culture. Viewing these photographs one also questions the increasing role of nostalgia in contemporary society.

I’m delighted to see Cardana go on to receive wider recognition for this series, most recently as a winner in The New York Photo Awards 2013 and as a shortlisted photographer in the 2014 Sony World Photography Awards. Further portraits from the series can be enjoyed on the photographer’s website.

Photographers’ Archives and Legacy Project

Since 2013, photographer Jem Southam has led the Photographers’ Archives and Legacy Project based at Plymouth University, a pioneering research project which aims to consider the many practical, personal, and cultural issues surrounding the archiving of photographers’ work.

This valuable project has already raised wider awareness of the issues involved in managing photographers’ archives and making them accessible, and in due course will provide advice and guidelines on best practice. First case studies with leading contemporary photographers Liz Hingley, Daniel Meadows and Mark Power can now be explored online, and I look forward to following the research project further over the next year.

Glen Erler: Family Tree

Glen Erler Family Tree

Glen Erler – Family Tree (Kehrer, 2013)

Glen Erler’s newly published monograph Family Tree (Kehrer) documents his return visits to California to find the family and locations remembered from his youth. From a still-life of a blue towel on the ground where he once played freely with childhood friend; to a study of his niece in the same jacuzzi where she nearly drowned at thirteen months old; to a parting view of his father on their last meeting; Erler very gradually pieces together a portrait of his past. At first viewing, it is a document of his family’s life within the physical landscape of Southern California; however a quietly haunting exploration of the emotional landscape of a childhood remembered emerges.

The final section of the book contains photographs taken over a ten day period following Erler’s father’s death: a record of the people who surrounded the photographer at this time, alongside studies of the rooms his father rested in and the objects he used during his final days. In these closing photographs one witnesses the painful tangibility of the marks left by a loved one’s presence, now out of reach. Erler’s book is a very personal journey to understand how fragments of his memory and family history continue to define his character, his present, and future.

Family Tree can be seen as a continuation of the themes developed in Erler’s previous series Age 13-18. This book further explores the tension between home and family remaining a permanent anchor in one’s life, despite the need for independence and the continuous redefinition of one’s own personal identity throughout adulthood. Erler has produced a quietly understated but powerful meditation upon themes of family history, loss, memory and belonging. It is a work that needs to be returned to repeatedly and slowly, in order to fully appreciate its delicate grace.

It was a great pleasure to recently speak to Glen Erler about the development and making of Family Tree. This interview can be read in full in issue #4 of magazine Of the Afternoon which is now available to order online.

A selection of images and personal reminiscences from Family Tree can be viewed on Glen Erler’s website, where the book can also be purchased directly from the photographer.

Saul Leiter: Photographer of everyday beauty

Leiter

Early Colour by Saul Leiter, Steidl.

I never thought of the urban environment as isolating. I leave these speculations to others. It’s quite possible that my work represents a search for beauty in the most prosaic and ordinary places. One doesn’t have to be in some faraway dreamland in order to find beauty.

On learning of Saul Leiter’s death today, I tried to remember when I first encountered his work, and despite my efforts, this evening I am still struggling to remember. So ingrained in my mind are his early colour images; so influential his way of celebrating the everyday often overlooked details of the urban world which surrounds us. As obituaries now begin to be published, I recommend returning to recent documentary In No Great Hurry which will surely become a fitting lasting tribute. Enjoy captured on film many moving and delightful insights from this masterful but most humble of photographers.

I am not immersed in self-admiration. When I am listening to Vivaldi or Japanese music or making spaghetti at three in the morning and realize that I don’t have the proper sauce for it, fame is of no use. The other way to put it is that I don’t have a talent for narcissism.

[* Saul Leiter quotes are from a detailed interview with Photographers Speak, 2009]

Miniclick Response Exhibition

Earlier this month I joined Miniclick for their first Response Exhibition, an event devised with Hastings based Lucy Bell Gallery. Almost 100 photographers submitted a total of more than 700 images, in advance and in person. The images were projected during a two-day event at the Phoenix Brighton, and discussed by photographers, the public, Lucy Bell, Jim Stephenson from Miniclick, Brighton Photo Fringe emerging curators Lulu Evans and Kayung Lai, and guests including myself, Eleanor MacNair, Rachel Segal Hamilton and Laura Pannack.

As images from each submitted portfolio were discussed, chosen images were printed, and added to an every changing wall, in which pairings and themes were found and continuously developed. At the end of the event ten photographers work was chosen for an exhibition at Lucy Bell Gallery which is now on show and continues until 23rd November.

Read more about the Response Exhibition on the Miniclick blog, where you can also view a slide show of work by the selected photographers Jocelyn Allen, Christopher Bethell, Richard Cutler, Peter Gates, Sam Laughlin, Margaret Mitchell, Nikosono, Kajal Nisha Patel, Kristina Salgvik and Amelia Shepherd. It was wonderful to be involved with this exciting and highly collaborative event; an experiment in mass curating which I hope Miniclick repeats in the future.

Brighton, November 2013, Photo: author’s own.

Capa at 100

Today, on the centenary of the birth of Robert Capa, the International Center of Photography released a recently rediscovered recording of his only known radio interview: “Bob Capa Tells of Photographic Experiences Abroad”, broadcast on October 20, 1947. The interview was made in connection with press for his memoir Slightly Out of Focus. In the interview Capa discusses his recent trip to the USSR with writer John Steinbeck, and most importantly discusses his famous Falling Soldier image, subject of so much debate in recent years. Enjoy hearing Capa’s voice for the first time and the full interview here.

Autumn news

Returning to London this week after a happy holiday in Burgundy, thoughts return to plans and hopes for the months ahead. First however, a quick note on recent photography projects.

I’ve greatly enjoyed spending the last few months focusing on the work of 19th century photographer Herbert Watkins. Display Herbert Watkins: Characters and Caricatures which continues at the National Portrait Gallery until 17 November, showcases my new research on albumen prints from the important Watkins album; considers Watkins’s early experiments using caricature and photo-collage; and examines the photographer’s famous portraits of Charles Dickens within a wider context. Discover more on Watkins in my new blog post for the National Portrait Gallery here.

This year, Source Photographic Review kindly invited me to be a selector for the MA/MFA section of their annual online showcase for emerging photographic talent from photography courses across the UK and Ireland. Reviewing the diverse and impressive range of MA/MFA portfolios submitted was a wonderful and rewarding opportunity to discover and consider the work and concerns of this year’s postgraduates. My thoughts on selected photographers Ochi Reyes, Lewis Bush, Adriana Monsalve, Nathalie Joffre, and Sharon O’Neill are now online.

Last month after several online judging rounds, I spent a very enjoyable day debating and discussing entries submitted to this year’s Association of Photographers Open Awards. Out of nearly 1500 images, my fellow judges and I selected 61 images that make up the final 2013 AOP Open exhibition which will be shown at B3, The Old Truman Brewery, this Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th October. You can now view the entire show online and choose the image you think is worthy of the Public Choice Award via the AOP Awards website. I hope you enjoy the exhibition!