Saturday, 30 March 2013

An archiving p.s.

Following on from my last post, it was interesting to read this month's BJP...  Check out the report by Gemma Padley on p. 79 - 81.

She explains how 'Two industry professionals, Graham Diprose and Mike Seaborne, have come up with a method for storing digital images that they hope will become a legitimate alternative to existing digital storage options [...] their approach involves "selecting and sending our most vital digital photographs and documents forward into the 23rd century as inkjet print 'artefacts' rather than as digital data".'

The idea is that in the future 'these images can be reproduced, enlarged and printed using either a high-resolution digital camera or scanner technology...'

So, maybe I don't have to organise my digital neg scan files after all...

Friday, 29 March 2013

Archiving: now is the time

Earlier this week, I trekked up to The Photographers' Gallery to watch/listen to a set of presentations and a panel discussion around the issue of 'the archive'.  The unvoiced questions on everyones' lips and some of the answers included the following (paraphrased and summarised for inclusion in this blog):

Q:  Do we need to think about organising our work into some sort of archive? 

A:  Yes.

Q:  Why should we do it?

A:  Several reasons, perhaps the most important is to ensure that after our deaths, we don't leave our loved ones with one hell of a mess (forgive the language).  Also, an organised life's work is much less likely to end up in a skip. 

Q:  When should we start?
A:  NOW.  It's got to be easier getting organised as you go along, rather than leaving it to a time consuming retrospective exercise.

Q:  How should we start?

A:  Get yourself some sort of system.  Find out how other people organise themselves.  Southam and Millington's Archive Research Project is going to be creating a website and sharing some case studies: look out for this!  However, there are things you can do NOW: Firstly, the basics.  If working from negatives: number your neg pages and corresponding contact sheets.  If scanning, or working digitally - have some sort of naming/numbering system that others will be able to follow.  Also, keep your documentation, your notes and diaries, encouraging letters/emails from friends, publishers - anyone - these could be of interest in the future.

Q:  How do we continue?

A:  Once you've got your system - stick with it.  Don't throw stuff away.  Keep your mistakes and successes.  These will be of interest to the researchers of the future.  Top tips from Susanna Brown of the V & A include:

  • Archive your material in the original chronological, working order.
  • Be tidy, orderly and consistent.
  • DO NOT EDIT your history.
  • Do not create a new system when trying to rationalise - find out what is out there and what will work for you and the holders of your collection in the future.
  • Talk to institutions before you die...  See if any of them are interested...

Additional tip from Mark Power:

  • As well as organising your work and scanning negatives, make sure that you print off actual physical copies of your best pictures.  Who knows if CDs and hard-drives are going to be readable in 100 years...  But a real, tactile, tangible print is going to be a thing of interest for ever (unless you burn your house down of course.)

Q: What do we do/can we do with our archive when we've shuffled off this mortal coil?

A:  This is a problem.  At the moment - there is NO coherent national strategy for the collection of photographic works.  Separate institutions, such as The V & A, Birmingham Library and The Tate are doing their bit - but it's not enough.  Importantly - there is not enough space to house everything and no funding to ensure archives can be looked after in suitable, controlled environments... 

However, all is not doom and gloom...  Jem Southam and Val Millington are carrying out a research project to see if they can come up with some answers.  They're working closely with individual photographers, including Daniel Meadows and Mark Power, and institutions that believe in photography...  The findings are going to be interesting...

p.s.  When thinking about the archive, the idea of 'value' pops up...  Bear the following in mind, value can be focused on the market, artistic, historical and research interest...  The chances are, it'll be other people who deem if our work is 'valuable' or not, but just in case it is, then best get it organised!

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Sentimental Archive

I want to write about this, but at the moment can't quite order the thoughts in my head.  The photograph comes from the family 'archive' of my landlord in Newport.  His family are originally from Bristol.  He has no idea who the couple are, but I guess that doesn't matter.  I love the way his best beloved is 'patched' onto the background.  I've never seen anything like this before.

Monday, 21 January 2013

With thanks to Rachel Cusk

Isn't it funny how photography can sometime dominate one's thoughts?  On Saturday, I read a piece by Rachel Cusk in the Guardian.  Focusing on ‘the inexorable rise of creative writing workshops’,  Cusk asks, ‘can fiction writing really be taught and by what academic criteria can it be judged?‘   Weirdly, I found myself substituting the word ‘photography’ into the text, each time ‘writing’ was mentioned...
So, with all credit to Rachel Cusk, please find to follow short sections of the article.  Where I have amended her text, you will find my words in italics.

On how being a ‘photographer’ is changing:

‘The ascent of photography courses has given photographers a different kind of work to do, and is transforming every established role - photographer, reader, editor, critic...’

On photography within academia:

‘In one way it’s high time photography was formalised: academic institutions offer a shelter for photographic values, and for those who wish to practise them, in a way that publishing, being increasingly market-driven, does not.  Painters and musicians have long been protected in a similar way - it is both an entitlement and a necessity for creative people to study and refine their craft.  Yet photography courses are often seen as being somehow bogus, as even threatening those photographic principles they set out to enshrine, though the truth is that the separation of art from popular values in photography has been virtually impossible to bring about.  this is a source of great dynamism in photographic culture, for anyone can be a photographer - at the very least, while the average person could not compose a masterpiece, a significant minority want to make good pictures.’

Concerning the subjectivity and variety of the photographer/audience/tutor:

‘A photography workshop will contain students whose ambitions and abilities, whose conceptions of photography itself, are so diverse that what they have in common - the desire to photograph - could almost be considered meaningless.  Moreover, different photography tutors will respond to the work in unpredictable ways.  One will like what the other dislikes; contradictory advice can be given in two different classes about the same piece of work.  So the question is, how can academic appraisal proceed on such terms?

On the subject of assessment:

The upper benchmark of academic assessment is that the work should be “of publishable standard”, which implies (though doesn’t actually state) a touching faith in publication as an assurance of quality.  Students are asked to demonstrate a critical and theoretical understanding of their own processes; they are formally entitled to individual attention from tutors, by rota in workshops and by a stated number of contact hours outside workshops; their work is regularly marked, double-marked, and submitted to an external examiner as a failsafe mechanism; marks are lost for misuses of, among other things, grammar, punctuation and spelling; tutors are answerable for the marks they give before a board.  Appraisal, in other words, is rather more rigorous than a lot of what happens at a picture editor’s desk.

Thinking about standards and the changing of ones’ opinions:

How are standards - publishable or otherwise - defined?  The answer is: by agreement.  There is no autocratic way of assessing photography: the shared basis of visual language forbids it.  Agreement is the flawed, frightening, but ultimately trustworthy process by which photography is and always has been judged.  When Virginia Woolf read ‘Ulysses’ she dismissed it out of hand, then she talked about it to Katherine Mansfield and changed her mind.  Photography teaching is predicated on something like that model.

 Concerning the power of photography:

Photography is not only the medium through which existence is transacted, it constitutes [one of] our central experiences of social and moral content, of such concepts as freedom and truth, and most importantly, of individuality and the self; it is also a system of lies, evasions, propaganda, mis-representation and conformity.  Very often a desire to photograph is a desire to live more honestly through the photograph; the student feels the need to assert a “true” self through the photograph...

You can read the on-line version of Cusk's piece about Creative Writing courses by clicking here

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Darwin's Natural Selection in Action?

Something is bothering me...  

A new magazine has been started by a couple of Newport undergraduates.  They have produced the first issue and are now working on the second.  They are open to submissions, although (according to one of the editors) have not pursued anyone to ask them to get involved for the 2nd issue.  They have received work from the UK, Europe and even from the USA, but interestingly, for issue 2, all of those who have been in touch are of the same gender.  They are men.

Why is this?  Could it be due to the nature of the submission process?  I don’t think so.  Even though both editors are men, they have female friends within their wide social networks.  They are surrounded by girls at university.  There are girls and women on their own photography courses.  Also, the publication was launched at the recent 100 Years of Newport festivities, where, seemingly many working professionals expressed an interest, and some have even offered themselves up as potential contributors in the future.  Based on these facts, there doesn’t seem a glaringly obvious reason why there has been no interest from women.

Could it be to do with the title?  ‘Darwin’ and its associations with a bearded Victorian scientist who revolutionised our understanding of the world with his research and writings?  I doubt it - after all, girls do science too...

The two guys running the show just raise their eyebrows when I start to bang my little feminist drum (in fact, I get the impression that they -and a few others - think I am more than a bit ridiculous when it comes to my gender-centric obsession) but seriously, there is a real problem here that their ‘It’s not about gender, it’s about photography’ doesn’t even begin to sort out.  

I’d really like to know why the girls/women out there are not flooding the Darwin inbox with work...  If anyone has any theories, please do get in touch, and if you have any work that you are proud of - then send it to Darwin, and let’s hope that some of it gets into issue 3.

You can send work to Darwin at:

Check out their blog:

Monday, 8 October 2012

Le Pub 2012 - 2013 #1

I've been a bit slack this week when it comes to thinking about le pub reviews...  To be fair though, I have been totally focused on Threshold - the exhibition of contemporary documentary photography that is on at The Riverfront in Newport at the moment.  It's been all 'go, go, go' for the show and that's been the priority.

Last year, when I did the reviews, I would email the photographers and beg for j-pegs to post on here and sorry folks, I haven't done it this time...  Maybe I will get back to it properly next time...

So, a few thoughts about:

Briony Jayne Oates: 'Seed to the Soul'.  Actually - you've a great opportunity to see one of the prints from this work and the book as both are in the Basement Gallery at the Riverfront until 7.30 p.m. on Saturday 13th...  Go and have a look...

The project is all about the importance of the pineal gland to our mental and physical well-being.  The images are pretty 'conceptual' and will get you thinking...  Click here for a taster.

Michael Fitzsimmons:  He's interested in animals and humans and how we all relate to one another.  This is very evident in his work, where cats seem to feature quite a lot.  Really interesting images created through 'chaotic' double exposures work to spark the viewer's imagination.  (I might write a bit more about this when I've got a bit more time!)

At the moment, he's leaving aside the photo-bollox and trying to figure out how to express photographically, 'the weird feeling about being alive.'  I'm pretty excited about the 'zine he's working on and if there is a way of pre-ordering: put me down for one.  Click here to see some of Fitzsimmons' work.

Mario Pinto:  He more or less started by saying, 'Some people call me the homeless photographer' and went on to show how well he works with the dispossessed and isolated.  Strong stills, but even more powerful multi-media piece.  Hopefully I will be able to post a link to it at some point and you can see for yourself.

Matt Colquhoun:  Another photographer keen to ditch the art-language that can cause such problems for a viewer.  At the moment he's obsessed with fog.  In fact, it turns out that he's been fixated for a while.  His photographs communicate a pleasure in how fog looks and feels and represent the emotional and intellectual experience of being in the final year at Newport.  Colquhoun's blog - click here.

Danny Land:  Beautiful fashion pictures and a film that was gorgeous to look at, but a bit clunky in parts.  He wanted the audience to be engrossed in the visuals, to become part of the world on screen.  At various points this worked for me - I loved it.  The only problem was when the model did a 'Miranda' and spoke directly to camera and out towards us.  I'm looking forward to seeing the next collaboration between Land and the director, Mike Flaws.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Thinking about Conceptual Photography - The Source Films

The Source website's three films about Conceptual Photography are going to be one of those must-sees for anyone wrestling with their own definition of the genre.  In fact, I am mightily sorry that they only started sharing them in August, as I could have done with the input last semester when working on 'Threshold', the University of Wales, Newport Documentary Photography unit... 

Film 1 starts with a question – Is Conceptual Photography a movement, a working methodology, a historical tradition, or none of these?  By the end of Film 2, the viewer is still not quite sure.  They've cleverly managed to ask the questions, offer a range of answers and then leave it up to us to make our own decisions.

There's a decent section all about the origins of the term when applied to Art practice, which is worth watching to understand the historical context.  Between the critics, Dr. Lucy Soutter (RCA) and John Roberts and the artist John Hilliard, an impression is created of individuals and groups playing with all sorts of methodologies, techniques and ideas, to come up with work that defied definition according to the critical voices of the day.  And we're back in the 1960s and 1970s, if you want to imagine the scene.

Although the past is important, and the context should be central to any discussion of art and culture, for the purpose of this little summary/reflection, I am not going to go any further with the background stuff.  For that, you really need to watch the film.

'Conceptual Photography' exists in opposition to other traditions and is, 'anti-humanist', 'anti-aesthetic' and 'even anti-photography'... So starts, Film 2. The basic premise is that Conceptual Art is about thinking... thinking and planning...  The criticism that is often levied against Conceptual Photography by those of us who just don't 'get it', is that the work is obtuse, narcissistic and too much about the idea and not enough about what is physically there in front of us.  Both Soutter and Sean O'Hagan (The Guardian's art critic) agree that there are areas of difficulty between the viewer and the work.  O'Hagan offers, 'Always start with the premise: There is something interesting here, maybe I'm not getting it.' Soutter assures us that whilst the photograph might seem to be of a man walking a hyena on a leash, it's worth working a bit harder to try to access 'the rich layering of ideas and concepts'.  It's about seeking to access 'the idea, motivation, historical references and inter-textuality' within any given photograph.

At this point in the film, I was started to get just a little steamed up.  All of this talk of being put in a position by the photographer/artist (we'll come to that distinction a bit later) that requires me to do quite a bit of work to understand what they are up to, well – isn't there a bit of a power imbalance there?  A hierarchy of knowledge and understanding?  I don't mind a bit of work, and I always am keen to learn new things, but what if I fail, what if I don't appreciate the exact historical reference or see the inter-textuality...

Luckily, the artist, Suzanne Mooney rode up on her metaphorical white charger, branding the shield of truth and common sense, with her battle cry of, 'The term Conceptual Photography is actually quite derogatory to other types of photographic making... It assumes that you aren't thinking, not researching' etc etc.  She goes as far as to name Documentary Photography as evidence that photographers other than the 'Conceptual' ones actually do think, question, consider...  (In my notes, I did actually pencil, “GOOD GIRL Suzanne!' at this point.)

There is a brief mention of Alan Sekula, Victor Burgin and Paul Graham as the narrators start to move through the 1980s (again, check out the film to find out specifics).  The basic message though is that Conceptual Art and Photography was being driven by commercial and gallery interests.  People made it, critics were interested in it, audiences started to look at it – because an actual monetary value was associated with the work.  There was a separation between the humanist thrust of other photography and the mammon thrust of Commercial, I mean, Conceptual Photography.  As Soutter identifies, Conceptual Photography was/(is?) anti-personal, anti-emotional and anti-subjective.  (I don't know about you, but little bells are ringing here.  Isn't a lot of 'conceptual work' based in the personal, emotive and subjective?  Answers on a postcard please...)

A slide pops up with the question, 'Where are we now?' and the answer offered is that, 'Complexity on its own has become a value...'  O'Hagan, who thinks that work HAS to have a humanist thrust (even though he knows this is probably an old-fashioned idea) says that 'the idea over-rides everything else'.  We are now dependent on accompanying text to enable us to access the work.  Photography that needs text, is not speaking as photography.

The final film, released on September 18th brings the viewer up to the present.  Much air time is given to the darlings of the Conceptual Documentary world, Broomberg and Chanarin and I would love to know whether viewers end up on the side of their call to photo-revolution, or on that of Sean O'Hagan who accuses them of gross arrogance...  But once again, I am ahead of myself...

I enjoyed Chanarin's opening gambit: 'There is no such thing as Conceptual Documentary.  All photography is it or isn't it.'  (Notice Chanarin looking fondly on in the background.)  

Louise Clements, 'curator', doesn't use the term at all.  In fact, she switches between 'Photographer' and 'Artist'  and herein lies another sticky one...  Cue little cross moment as she goes on to say that this title is tricky as it is all to do with how one perceives their approach to photography.  If you are an artist, you 'deal with ideas', or if you are a photographer, 'you know about your machine'.  SHOOT HER NOW.  SHOOT ME NOW to stop me shooting her.  SHOOT someone, anyone who still thinks like this!  Bloody hell.  Really?  (Go back to the observation made by Collins earlier about derogatory perceptions about photography that isn't conceptual...  Well done, Source for cleverly editing these two separately.)

The only hope for me in this little section came from O'Hagan's point that 'we may get to the point when Conceptual is the new orthodoxy and that something like Documentary seems quite radical.'  He goes on to say that the sub-genre, of Conceptual Documentary is a bit slippery, he has 'yet to find a decent definition'.

The final section of Film 3 looks at 'Conceptualism and Photojournalism' and uses Chanarin and Broomberg's 'The Day Nobody Died' to explore the contradictions between the forms.  O'Hagan thinks that the work, made in Afghanistan is arrogant and disrespectful, and C & B think that it is subversive and political.  It is interesting that Source has chosen to end the series with this debate and I am not going to spoil it for you with the finer details...  Go and watch it and then let me know what you think!  For me, the lasting message seems to be about the potential of Conceptual Photography, especially Conceptual Documentary or Conceptual Photojournalism to challenge power structures.  Could this be a call to arms?  It's definitely the continuation of a debate anyway and one that isn't going to go away, as long as there is a market for this type of work.