Exhibitions, Inspiration, Landscape, Photojournalism

Beyond the Devil’s Rope

A review of the new work ‘Mountains of Majeed’ by photographer Edmund Clark

Edmund Clark has been photographing behind the scenes of the West’s ‘War on Terror’ since the late 2000’s. His breakthrough investigation of Guantanamo Bay ‘If the Light Goes Out’ drew attention to the plight of detainees and the daily routine of unconvicted terrorist suspects. With his new project, Clark continues to mine this rich seem, highlighting the discrepancies which exist between two polarized ideologies. ‘Mountains of Majeed’, is very clearly grounded in space and time – in Bagram Air Base in northern Afghanistan – but on closer consideration becomes a subtle allegory on the nature of experience.

© Edmund Clark

The photographs draw attention to the incidental spaces created between the buildings, boundaries and machines of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, creating a link between these highly ordered features and those which exist beyond the confines of the perimeter walls. The eponymous mountains of the title appear in each photograph like a vague recollection, their ethereal existence acting like a theatrical backdrop and counterpoint to the tangible solidity of the centre stage. The nature of warfare, analogous to rehearsed performance, is further enhanced by other details – a huge stars and stripes flag draped across the roof of a car port evokes the exuberant patriotism of a stage-show and a painting, intricately rendered, could be the set piece from a blockbuster movie.

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© Edmund Clark

Reality is further questioned by the use of other, more formal representations – this time of the landscape surrounding the Camp found as a mural in the military canteen. These idyllic paintings of the Hindu Kush by an anonymous artist known only as Majeed, contrast cleverly with their surroundings. The appropriation of this artist’s work acts as a cipher between diametrically opposed states. On the one hand is the geographical space between the soldiers inside the camp and the mountains receding into ultra violet light, and on the other the technological and existential distance between the two sides of the conflict.

© Majeed

This disparity is further enhanced with the knowledge that Clark used a state of the art high-resolution digital camera – further accentuating the difference between his Hasselblad and Majeed’s hog hair brush. The mechanism used to capture the image is sometimes a moot point, yet in this context it seems to reinforce the concept, providing a further critique on the gulf between ‘friend’ and ‘foe’. By adopting the technology of the foreign power, Clark acknowledges his place as an artist embedded within the machine of war.

Throughout the mountains remain alluring and intangible. Despite the project’s title, the clearest representation of this place is mediated through Majeed’s hand. This then becomes the most powerful narrative force within the work. The mountains become an enigmatic ‘terra incognita’ rich in human history and geological time but remain tantalizingly, for western eyes at least, beyond the devil’s rope.

The ‘devil’s rope’ is a term first used by native American Indians to describe the barbed wire ranchers used to enclose their newly acquired land. A BBC R4 program on the subject can be found here.

‘The Mountains of Majeed’ by Edmund Clark is on show at Flowers Gallery until 4th April 2015.

See more of Clark’s compelling work here.

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Inspiration, Photojournalism

The Critic

Below is a review I wrote as a response to an exhibition at Host Gallery in 2012, and also forms part of my submission to The Critic on Ideas Tap – this time with images. I’ve posted about this project before, but I do find it an inspiring, well conceived and above all brilliantly executed piece.

 

In Abkhazia, a forgotten corner of Russia’s vast landmass, emptiness and decay are everywhere. Two-thirds of the population of Sochi a resort town on the Black Sea have been driven over the border to Georgia. Landscapes are battered, pock marked and strewn with abandoned buildings. Empty interiors are as welcoming as mausoleums and cracks are crudely filled with mortar – but there are no attempts to hide the scars. People are unsmiling and melancholic behind their resolute faces. In this current exhibition of the work of photographer Rob Hornstra, we see the hidden cost of recent Russian history etched into every image.

The Mandarin Republic

Pictures representing deceased war veterans evidence the cost of independence to this fragmented state. Family portraits are tacked onto floral walls, or occupy their own reverential space in vernacular wooden frames as formal reminders of their sacrifice. By including these images, Hornstra has handed the role of narrator back to the Abkhazian people. One can only applaud this decision as it connects the viewer on a deeply personal level to the deceased, and their relations who covet their chemical imprint.

Photo of a deceased husband in a refugee centre on Shamgona island. Many Georgian women who were forced to flee Abkhazia lost their husbands.

Photo of a deceased husband in a refugee centre on Shamgona island. Many Georgian women who were forced to flee Abkhazia lost their husbands.

Such intimate pictures contrast starkly with more formal portraits of bureaucrats, slotted between pine desks and pine-paneled walls. They seem imprisoned like marionettes in their wooden worlds. Behind one desk bound official a painting of a sinking ship lurks like a premonition. Behind another a tiger’s head emerges. Danger, it seems, is never far away in the Caucuses.

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Post Office Administrator Suzanna Kaldzhan (35). ‘You can’t stick Abkahzian stamps on your card abroad

This exhibition is a poignant and sensitive portrayal of a largely unrepresented community. Aptly, Hornstra’s sympathetic, nuanced approach – re-enforced by the looming presence of the 2014 Winter Olympics – allows the complexities of the subject to emerge, justifying this long form style of photojournalism and the project’s beguiling array of printed and digital media.

All images ©Rob Hornstra/Institute

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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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Aftermath, Book reviews, Environment

Coal not dole

“…their future will be as black as coal itself, and the weekly wage packet will be a giro-handout…”

– Marsha Marshall, Women Against Pit Closures, at the beginning of the strike, 1984

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike. A book by a German photographer, only now published, offers the viewer a rare glimpse inside the upended lives of local families during a hugely divisive period in modern British history.

 

Spud Marshall with grandchild Carla, Rimington Road, Wombwell, 1985

Spud Marshall with grandchild Carla, Rimington Road, Wombwell, 1985

 

Taking inspiration from Robert Frank and his great opus on American culture, Michael Kerstgens, a young photography student at the time, follows his family contacts to South Wales before heading to the hotbeds of social upheaval in the mining towns of South Yorkshire.

The photographer manages to secure remarkable access, particularly through a chance encounter with a man on his first day at the NUM office in Barnsley by the name of Stuart ‘Spud’ Marshall. Trusted by the communities, he now becomes an invisible eye, free to make some astonishingly intense pictures of Union meetings and record insights into pivotal roles played by the Miners’ wives.

 

WAPC activist Marsha Marshall supports picketing miners with a donation of cigarettes, South Yorkshire, December, 1984

WAPC activist Marsha Marshall supports picketing miners with a donation of cigarettes, South Yorkshire, December, 1984

 

These pictures show the subtle bonds and ties of family that are sometimes difficult to articulate, but are nevertheless integral to stories of private and working lives connected and interwoven in ways which seem both familiar and strangely abstract. The images in places feel like a sooty archeological archive, such is the patina of coal dust covering every surface. The use of monochrome connects the subjects to a strong pictorial lineage, to moral questions of right and wrong and, perhaps more viscerally, to the very elements of the land under their feet.  Adding to this sense of other-worldliness the pictures of NUM meetings, veiled in a tobacco haze, are striking for their visual aesthetic, but are made more profound as historical documents of a very particular time and place.

The solemn tone is given a refreshing and relevant counter-point with the inclusion of some witty party pictures.

 

New Years Eve with neighbours and friends at Wombwell Working Men's Club, Station Road, Wombwell, 1984

New Years Eve with neighbours and friends at Wombwell Working Men’s Club, Station Road, Wombwell, 1984

 

The last quarter of the book brings us up to date with Spud and the town, who both, as Kerstgens puts it, ‘never entirely got over the strike and its aftermath.’

 

Spud Marshall at the Mitchell & Darfield Social Club, Wombwell, 2013

Spud Marshall at the Mitchell & Darfield Social Club, Wombwell, 2013

 

The passage of time has imbued Michael Kerstgens’ important photobook a sense of perspective and confirms feelings of injustice; less about the simple economic facts regarding the (un)sustainability of the pits themselves, and more to do with the void left behind after such enormous and immediate social change.

See more of Kerstgens work and buy the book here. All photos ©Michael Kerstgens

 

The Reunion aired on BBC Radio4 recently brought together five interested parties from the strike, allowing an opportunity to see if thirty years have entrenched or softened views formed at the time.

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Uncategorized

Newspaper Update…

Following some much appreciated exposure from a kind gentleman on the BBC photojournalism blog today, I would like to point people in the direction of the friendly folk at Newspaper Club where people can get hold of a copy of the paper I made, which is mentioned in the feature.

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Alternatively, please contact me direct if you would like a new version, with some new pictures as featured on my site.

Please also spare a thought for the many kind and generous people I met in my travels, some of whose families have been rooted in the area long before the airport existed. Hopefully they won’t have to wait too much longer for a lasting decision so they can get on with their lives.

Thanks for looking, and do please drop me a line if you have any questions.

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