Exhibitions, Inspiration, Photography and current affaires, Photojournalism, Stories, Theory

Incoming

Incoming from Daniel Norwood on Vimeo.

Incoming is a multi-media instillation on show at the Barbican Gallery in London by the artist Richard Mosse in collaboration with the cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and the composer Ben Frost. Its theme is the migration crisis of refugees into Europe, and branches off into independent but related scenarios such as the demolished ‘Jungle’ Camp in Calais and naval operations in the Mediterranean.

Mosse uses a military grade thermal imaging camera to represent migrants as monochromatic, anonymous figures irradiating heat signatures in varying tonalities, depending on their circumstance and predicament. The thermal rays bounce off a metallic blanket like light, and the tips of fingers and the ends of noses fade against warm palms and faces. The vision of this highly sophisticated camera in this context is resolutely other: a piercing dystopian eye which sees like an alien and renders those within its gaze as heat maps, rather than identifiable individuals.

As a linear progression from his previous work Enclave, where the artist used discontinued military grade infra-red film to reveal Congolese fighters in deep jungle, Incoming utilizes the technology of surveillance as a medium of artful reflection, rather than for, as in this case, its intended purpose – as a tool for battlefield awareness or the long range enforcement of border crossings and other state sponsored surveillance. Where Incoming departs from Enclave, and expands the critique on the use of such systems, is in the insidious rendering of all human life as equally vulnerable to the camera’s technology.

The ethical use of this medium is born out of the artist’s desire to diverge from the common use of images in the mass media, and showcase the awesome (it provokes awe) properties of the camera itself. In simple terms, this means that the gallery visitor can see what the soldier or law enforcement officer sees. More importantly however, it highlights the complicity of this ‘seeing’ in the context of the gallery space, and casts the unwitting witness as complicit in this crisis. The result is that one emerges into the daylight equally moved and troubled by the experience. Yes, the refugee ‘other’ is represented as stark, featureless biological traces, but so too are the aid workers, doctors, police officers and military personnel. Indeed, anyone who strays into the dehumanising vision of the all-seeing-eye is deprived of humanity.

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The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord

 

 

In this way, the gallery visitor, by association, is implicated in the work, and this fact could be used to respond to criticism of Mosse’s approach as mere gimmickry. The discrepancy of power relations between migrants and governments create an unnerving undercurrent, raising questions about the ethical use of surveillance techniques against people who are essentially rendered (in their essence) the same as us – just another heat source. This could be seen as helping to break down barriers of representation, rather than re-enforcing usual stereotypical narratives. However, it is complicated by the inherent sense of voyeurism – the overall production values borrow from the language of entertainment – the lingering close up and the stylized slo-mo being two obvious examples.

In short, Incoming refers as much to the new frontiers of military hardware available to the State as to the vulnerable refugees that this project seeks to represent.

The powerful and emotive Incoming is a free exhibition on at the Barbican until April 23rd.

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Exhibitions, Inspiration, Landscape, Theory

Thomas Struth and the (un)Mediated Image

Shinju-ku (Skyscrapers), Tokyo 1986 1986 by Thomas Struth born 1954

mediate vb 1. –ating, -ated to intervene between people or in a dispute in order to bring about an agreement 2. to resolve differences by mediation 3. to be changed slightly by (an experience or event)

“My whole idea of working has a lot to do with how humans live. How we live, how I live, how humans live together – human connectivity. That is my core value: what it is to be human. That is everything I believe in. I do not believe in current ideas of post humanity.”– Thomas Struth, Art Monthly 5.94

To a greater or lesser extent, all photographs have some kind of psychology or psychological origin and effect, whether it’s the ubiquitous ‘selfie’ or the jewel-like fine art print. Submerged beneath each image lies an interwoven raft of reason and rational – in journalistic terms the ‘who, what, where, when,’ of the image, but more importantly for this discussion, also the ‘why’. By looking at the architectural work of the photographer Thomas Struth, currently on show at the Barbican’s excellent ‘Constructing Worlds’ exhibition, we can see some of these psychological elements reveal themselves and become more accessible.

A first reading of the quote and image above may seem to be stretching these worldly ideas somewhat. Here we have a rigorously constructed large format photograph of modernist architecture and street scene – almost completely devoid of people or ‘street-life’, and conversely we have the artist’s intention to articulate through the photographic process his particular concern for the state of society – or the ‘human connectivity’, as he puts it.

In between these two seemingly dialectic ideas, the camera acts as a mechanical intermediary, but also offers the notion of a metaphorical ‘walkway’ between the psychological state of the artist and the concrete world he seeks to interpret. A kind of ‘alchemy’ is achieved between what is actually in front of the camera, and the translation of that three dimensional ‘fact’ into something more analogous to the photographers’ reason for being there. However, what is most interesting about Struth’s work is the great lengths to which the he goes to distance himself from an imposed reading of the image.

To paraphrase Struth from the same article, ‘Everything is being filled up with mediated information, mediated fantasies, mediated role models, mediated models of society, mediated violence and mediated suggestions for solutions, which are in turn no solutions.’ To which the obvious reply is why take the picture in the first place, if not to ‘mediate’ some kind of message to the viewer? The photograph is surely the ultimate mediation between the real world and its two dimensional representation.

Struth cleverly tackles this critique by deploying a field of view which is habitually referred to as ‘cool’, yet harbours a meticulous vision in harmony with that of the architects’ and supersedes those of the buildings’ invisible inhabitants. By being restrained, he challenges the viewer to wonder about the psychological effects of living on such streets and in such cities, without the need to actively mediate this information himself.

Free from any consciously directed reading of the image, the psychological intensity of the work comes from the obsessive qualities of Struth’s vision itself, and for me at least, a reason to keep going back to study and attempt to understand the complexities of our relationship with the constructed world.

Thomas Struth will be speaking at Tate Modern in London on Wednesday at The Landscape in Contemporary Photography: from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The Constructing Worlds exhibition is on at the Barbican until 11th January.

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Book reviews, Environment, Inspiration, Landscape, Stories, Theory

Stories from the English Countryside

Something like a Nest, by Andy Sewell

“Visible out picture windows, however, are fragments of open sky and long views which obscurely make radiant even what frightens us.”

– Finis Dunaway, Beyond Wilderness

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©Andy Sewell

In his enigmatically titled new book, Something Like a Nest, photographer Andy Sewell engages in a poetic re-framing – both literal and metaphorical – of the English countryside. Employing a subtle and contemplative pictorial style, the book addresses aspects of rural life and living beyond that which is superficially dramatic or stereotypical.

Sewell’s is not a search for his own sanctuary amongst the common detritus of agricultural production and country life, but rather as a collector of small stories, and motifs, which allude in an oblique way, to their own unique narrative vignettes. The overall effect is not to define what the English Countryside is and what happens there necessarily, but to open up possibilities and connections between disparate aspects contained therein.

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©Andy Sewell

The simple act of noticing (as mundane as that sounds), or put another way, of understanding the reason for noticing, plays an important thematic role in the book. The third image, for example, depicts a still life of a jar containing what can only be described as a glutinous mass of frogspawn. Hermetically sealed in their iridescent enclave, the spawn seem safe and secure, like a new type of Kiwi jam from Waitrose, perhaps, with the label carefully peeled to reveal the tempting fruits behind. Yet, on a second look – second thought more appropriately – this is a precarious position for the entrapped embryos. The day could quickly turn from overcast and cool, to harsh and hot, boiling the life out of this primordial preserve.

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©Andy Sewell

Another still life also alludes, more subtly, to containment. This time a carton (cartoon?) of eggs is placed on a cloth-covered table illustrated with kitsch depictions of cockerels and hens. This stylized ‘wipe-clean’ version of nature – resplendent with repetitious, almost robotic looking roosters – cleverly negotiates a dialogue between the natural world and consumerism; between the rural environment and our manipulation of it. In this context, the letter lurking in the background from Tesco.com takes on somewhat Orwellian connotations. The cutlery clamouring in the corner – normally benign utensils clad as they are in sunny yellow – are now made lurid, adding a further tinge of artificiality.

This rubberized ‘cartooncloth’ adds to a sense of a reality somewhat skewed. Or is it perhaps a sense of the awareness of the photographer, somehow heightened? Either way, Sewell seems to celebrate rather than chastise these eccentricities, taking aesthetic pleasure in agricultural geometry and a keen eye for the significance in the minute and the mundane.

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©Andy Sewell

Two years ago I spent some time walking the route of the proposed HS2 rail line between London and Birmingham. Although that area of the Buckinghamshire countryside is designated an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’, the land is visually and ecologically better described as a kind of green desert. Modern farming techniques turn nature into a monoculture fit for little, save for the very specific task of growing crops. In Sewell’s green desert, the washing line draped across the middle of the frame includes a Thomas the Tank Engine towel, playfully illustrating the precariousness of this symbolic rural retreat. In the foreground, a shrunken toy tractor seems the victim of some kind of agro-chemical blunder.

Elsewhere in the book, the colour red and the people who do appear, play an equally emblematic, unifying role, as do the five kitchen windows, resplendently back-lit with jewel-like ornaments and emerald green (radioactive?) washing up liquid. Religion appears as a metaphorical backdrop, and rituals are represented throughout, adding to the sense that repetition and renewal are key features of this unsentimental and complex vision of rural life.

The image on the front of the book reflects this too, showing the desiccated remains of a cornfield, and it is encased, like frequent objects in much of Sewell’s English landscape, in a thin and beautiful veneer of plastic.

Something like a Nest is available to buy via http://www.andysewell.com/

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Exhibitions, Inspiration, Landscape, Photojournalism, Project reviews, Theory

Enclave

Enclave, n. – a part of a country entirely surrounded by foreign territory

‘By contrast with the beautiful and the picturesque, the sublime is associated with awe, danger and pain, with places where accidents happen, where things run beyond human control, where nature is untamable.’ – Land Matters, Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity, Liz Wells, 2011

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The electrostatic whine of feedback reverberating around this darkened room accompanies the crimson shades of ‘Enclave’, the photographer Richard Mosse’s latest Congo Project.

Trapped in its own subterranean world – this overspill display forms part of the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, and manifests itself as a stream of consciousness halfway between dream and reality.

In this disconnected space, the curatorial process can be taken as a fundamental element to the work itself. The lack of visible light paradoxically makes the viewer more aware of their own presence while negotiating the strange hypnotic properties of the images.

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The inspired act of selecting (practically) obsolete military surveillance film, which renders vegetation in lurid red and magenta hues adds to the symbiotic relationship between content and context. Cast out from the pristine white walls of the gallery, these images are further removed from their documentary roots and engage more with the conceptual notions of representation – particularly with regard to our consumption of images of Africa as ‘other’ or ‘apart’ from western experience.

Six bed-sheet sized transparent screens hang from the ceiling, adding to the immersive nature of the work. Onto these are projected infra-red moving images from the Congo, a place where the death toll – 5.4 million since 1998 – mirrors that of the holocaust. Much like the unfathomable extent of this tragedy, the project deals less with the specifics of the ongoing conflicts, and more with a dark psychological brew into which fact and fiction melt and dissolve.

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Given this universal treatment, beauty and the sublime, albeit as something of a technical construct, are never far from the surface. A languid descent of a hillside down into a refugee camp is made cinematic with the expert use of a steady-cam, before laboring, somewhat uncomfortably, on a father holding a child in the belly of the camp. This methodology is the antithesis of the Photojournalist grabbing at action, and seems to have more in common with theatre or other performative fiction.

Mosse, filmmaker Trevor Tweeten and sound recordist Ben Frost, have chosen to view this troubled land through a prism in an attempt to extract some hidden truth from a story as impenetrable as the surrounding vegetation. By rendering the infra-red into the ocular range, they have managed to successfully re-frame the conflict and, in so doing, have turned technology used for warfare back in on itself to show its raw, hallucinogenic underbelly.

 

The exhibition continues until the 22nd June.

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Exhibitions, Inspiration, Theory

The Space Inbetween

‘Yet it is not (it seems to me) by Painting that Photography touches art, but by Theatre.’

– Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

NPG Gallery Record - Exhibition Image – Digital Copy

©Spencer Murphy

Some photographs have a disconcerting ability to confer a sense of hidden space between the viewer and the subject that is at once familiar and comforting, but also intangible and disrupting.

In Spencer Murphy’s award winning image of Katie Walsh, it’s not immediately obvious who this woman is or why we are looking at her. Her expression is quizical and uncertain – as if she has had to be cajoled into this quiet, mute performance – and we wonder what we are looking at; wonder how this picture came about.  Her beauty is both extraordinary and banal, but since it cannot be both, a drama is created in the space where these two binary forces meet. The mud splatters connote the rawness of nature and we might guess at her profession, if it has eluded us thus far. This information itself creates a tension between her outward expression of femininity and our imagined projection of equine energy required in her chosen discipline.

Murphy photographed several jockeys for his commission to promote the broadcaster Channel 4’s racing season, but the meticulousness of his approach coupled with the tension between the camera and his subject, is only fully realised in the portrait of Katie.

Ultimately, photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks. – Roland Barthes

This is the last weekend of the show down at the National Portrait Gallery in London. I urge you to get down and see it.

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Environment, Photography and current affaires, Theory

Junkyard Economics

waste vb wasting, wasted 1 to use up thoughtlessly, carelessly or unsuccessfully

Picturing the detritus of the the West has produced a rich vein of photographic work. A new book by the journalist Adam Minter, however, casts the subjects in this trade, particularly in China, in more nuanced terms.

From the series Permanent Error ©Pieter Hugo 2009

For photographers, there has always been an attraction to the gritty, grungy aesthetic of a landfill site or recycling dump. The pictorial qualities of waste can draw on links with historical painting or engage with a sense of injustice; evidence that rich nations are consuming more than their fair share. The subtle beauty of the former can be seen in the work of Neil A White.

As evidence of injustice, waste dumps are often labelled on a par with the industrial exploitation of resources – mining for gold and metals used in smartphones – and other human rights abuses from which local people have no escape. This however ignores the very real economic benefits these dumps provide, and the dignity gained from a sense of agency and entrepreneurialism. Powerful and noteworthy work along these lines include projects by Sophie Gerrard and Pieter Hugo.

©Sophie Gerrard 2006

©Sophie Gerrard 2006

I am not suggesting that individuals working on these sites should be universally grateful for their lot, but I am questioning the concerned gaze of the western viewer who, when confronted with such easily decoded images, is prevented from delving into the intricacies of the issue. We look at the figure. We take in the surroundings. We reel in horror. And do nothing. This seems to be the default position.

Despite these universal truths, there is according to journalist and re-cycling expert Adam Minter , a vast and hugely rewarding trade in e-waste and recycling happening in China, which might suggest new commercial opportunities for communities in suitable parts of Africa and India. Needless to say, contamination of food and water supplies need to be addressed.

Minter argues that far from being no-go areas, recycling dumps particularly where large quantities of valuable metals can be extracted, provide the necessary raw material for new products and industries and for communities to emerge and thrive, despite the odds.

An excellent review of the book published in the Guardian by Isabel Hilton can be found by here.

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Exhibitions, Theory

A Sense of Place

Listening to an influential theorist talk about his work is the best way to grapple with intangible concepts

Today is the tomorrow you were promised yesterday

Today is the tomorrow you were promised yesterday

Seeing the recent Victor Burgin exhibition currently on at the P3 gallery in London and listening to a talk given by him, chaired by the exhibition’s curator David Campany, gave a useful insight into the mind of this highly respected artist and academic, and made sense of many of his more profound ideas.

Central to his practice – according to the literature – is an ‘on going inquiry into spaces which become ‘places’ through the mediation of image and text. The result is a hybrid form producing a virtual, psychological, image.’

In his early career Burgin used the codes of advertisers and marketers to subvert the images’ message, thereby creating a shift in perception which could be filled with the viewer’s own interpretation. It was insightful to hear him describe this process and re-affirm it by saying that he expected no two people to have the same experience while viewing the work.

His early painting career, he recounted, ended in paralysis when he realized all brush strokes had been made before by other, more ‘masterful’ artist. Photography he called the ‘painting for our time’, but without the inhibiting history in which painting was seeped. With a rye smile he conceded there might have been some pleasure in trying to continue for the sheer joy of it.

He went on to describe his passion for architecture and the visualization of new buildings through virtual reality. He saw this as a natural progression of photography, considering all photographs to be fundamentally ‘virtual’. His tromp l’oeil work comprising of photographs of wooden floorboards, printed life size, then replaced back on the boards and re-photographed gave an insight into his methodology, and seem to be a link between his past work and the moving images which have come to define his more recent pieces.

Photopath 1967-69

Photopath 1967-69

The talk ended with Burgin criticising further education institutes whom he accused of turning into marketing departments – a clear swipe at tuition fees and the need for broad international appeal in order to justify courses and departments. Yet, Burgin himself declared that he was ‘no longer trying to change the world’.

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P3 Gallery, University of Westminster

In this rarefied field he has found a way to subvert industrial design practice into something which draws attention to some of the psychological aspects of a place and opens up the possibilities of what John Berger called ‘New Ways of Seeing’. This in itself, I would argue, is as anti-establishment as anything.

Victor Burgin’s ‘A Sense of Place’ runs at P3 Gallery until the end of the month

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