Sunday, 29 April 2012

Teargas, Targets and Tiny Teeth

After the Haiku reviews for the last le pub session, I wasn't sure what to do for the latest offering.  My favourites ideas were: in the style of James Joyce's, Ulysses (breaking conventional rules of punctuation) or as a series of Who's Who entries...  But with a 3,500 word lit review outstanding and two projects to finish, I thought...  Don't try to be clever, just write something/anything.   Apologies for the delay in getting this up here: I've been a bit busy.
The evening's photographers were Ryan Grimley,  Louise Hobson, Jack Latham, Sam Laughlin and Tim Sayer.  For some reason, no Photo Art students nor PFA students chose to show this month...
I'll start with Sam Laughlin.  What do I know about Laughlin and his work?  Well...  He has the reputation of being incredibly detailed, precise, well organised, thorough, knowledgeable about kit and processes.  He can talk about the way light can hit a lens or paper like a zealot peddling the afterlife.  Some would say he's a bit of a photo-nerd, but I think it is more than that, it goes deeper: he's a man in love with Photography.  Watch out any future partner – you will have stiff competition!  Anyway, his work reflects this ability to focus, to seek for perfection.  In this, his final year at Newport, he has worked with black and white large format.  He has worked at night with long exposures, or in his home-made studio, with meticulous detail.  If his work is 'Documentary' it is definitely 'Conceptual'.  He is an artist and one day his work will hang in shows that aren't just about the photograph.
 So, it was a real surprise for many people to see the colour work, 'Teargas Landscapes'.  I had seen them before and even on this second outing, they still made me smile.  Although of a dark subject (he shot them during a riot in Italy), they are beautiful.  Trails of mist-like vapour soften the landscape; there is no sign of riot police, nor protesters and it is only the title which gives a hint of what was going on.  Many photographers, especially those with an education that includes 'the narrative' would have made very stereotypical shots, of arms raised in anger, faces contorted by screams and shouts.  Missiles would have been caught flying, someone would have been grabbed by a policeman, blood would appear.  Laughlin's pictures, made with a fine artist's eye avoid all of the clich├ęs.  Gorgeous.

The following image from the series is a temporary addition...  Until I can work out how to get real copies...

You can read a review of Laughlin's other le pub slot at:
Ryan Grimley  is in the 2nd year of the Doc Phot course and has recently been working on a small Danish island (I won't tell you where – I wouldn't want to start a tourist invasion.)  The selection of images he shared are part of a wider edit, with the final choices for the set yet to be made.  The work clearly communicated that this was a quiet place, where the pace of life is slow.  A man walks along the road carrying a tuba – it turns out that he hoped to start an orchestra or band on the island;  football goals are placed close to one another, unused as the island's team no longer has enough players; and a child sits, solitary in a changing room, seemingly lost in her own thoughts.
It is clear to me, that this journey was not just about finding out about the island and the life of its inhabitants (locals are worried about the school closing and the young people leaving for the mainland), but also offered Grimley a chance to develop his own working practices.  Even in this edit, you can see the experimentation, the searching for a strategy and artistic style.  The original two week shoot was extended to over four weeks, in response to this learning process and the images are stronger as a result.

Jack Latham's 'Pink Flamingo' series, shot along the Oregon Trail earlier this year is also about a journey, but this time an actual road trip of 5000  miles.  During the course of one month he drove, parked up and photographed anything that he found interesting, from the familiar shopping mall 'parking lot' and fast food 'joints' to prayer gardens dominated by 30ft high models of the Virgin Mary.  His work is about the landscape and what man has done to it, but also is about the people he meets and what connects us all.  He's having a conversation with this part of America, and its a conversation which it is a pleasure to listen in on.  

Now, there is nothing new about this sort of project.  I am a big fan of Alec Soth's work and there were definitely echoes of Soth in Latham's project; the question is – could this actually be avoided when working in daylight on an American journey and shooting 10 x 8?  I need to be clear at this point – the comparison and observation are not criticisms as ultimately, for me, the image is the thing: if I like it/appreciate it/am intrigued by it, well I don't particularly mind if it looks as though it might have been made by one of my 'heroes'.  I haven't looked at Latham's work in enough depth and detail (it's hard to do this when images are presented as a powerpoint), but I think that there was a difference in tone between them and the work of Soth.  Maybe it was the muted palette in many of the images, or the distance between camera and subject...  I'll have to get back to you on this one.  Or even better, check out the work for yourself (link to website is at the bottom of the review.)

The most lively debate about the pictures concerned one of Latham's portraits.  Made of a woman and her small dog, the image showed the sign of a well known fast food chain in the background.  The woman was rather large and one inference that could be drawn from the composition was that her size was directly related to a liking for burgers and fries.  Latham was horrified by this – when making the photograph, his eyes were on the woman and her canine friend and he did not notice the sign with its negative cultural connotations behind.  He plans to remove the sign from the image when worked on digitally.  Although I understand his reservations – he doesn't want his subject to think he was 'making fun' of her, or that he was trying to make a statement about overweight Americans and their fast-food diet – I think he should leave the image as it is.  To remove the sign would take away a couple of layers of depth.

You can read more about Jack Latham in a previous le pub review:

Louise Hobson 's work has a particular and personal resonance for me: I am from forces stock.  Grandfather, father, two uncles, aunt, two cousins – all served or are serving in H.M. Forces.  I am an army brat.  I get a bit teary-eyed each time there is a 'Welcome Home' parade, or news of another fatality.  I just have to see a green uniform and I go all funny.  So, Hobson's work about her brother and his life in the Marines interested me very much.  
For those who haven't seen 'H Hour', this is not a piece of work designed to give us an impression of the everyday life of a soldier, in fact there isn't a single picture of a person anywhere within the set.  But Hobson does give a sense of the waiting and the preparation that goes on before troops are deployed to combat zones.  Her images lead us into the unfamiliar world of the training zones and she invites us to imagine how her brother and his colleagues interact within their environments.

Hobson's intention is to talk about the the journey her brother is making and it starts back at home.  We see a target built in the woods behind their family's house, a wall hanging in their kitchen detailing an idyllic village.  She then jumps to the impersonal details of a military bedroom before moving out into the training grounds themselves.  For me there is a problem with the suddenness of the shift: I needed more images about his connection to the family home in order to really appreciate his new experience and how different it is.  (We spoke about this at the end of the Le Pub session and this 'weakness' – my word and not hers – may be rectified in her final edit.)

The most successful images for me were the ones made on the gloomy days; the muted palette creates an atmosphere of calm and control and yet, of foreboding.  Something is going to happen in these spaces and it's going to be serious.  The square format holds the subject safe (does that sound a bit odd?)  I really like her choice of format and the way the images are composed.  I am less keen on the ones made in the mock up of the Afghan village.  Shot in harsh sunlight (appropriate I guess), they almost seem to have been made by a different photographer.  There is a brutality to many of them which is perhaps deliberate – after all, this is the true training ground for current conflicts.  Hobson's brother is due to be deployed to Afghanistan and on a subliminal level, perhaps she is expressing a strong reaction to this.  

Finally, we come to the phenomenon that is Tim Sayer.  In the history of the Documentary Course I am guessing that there has never been a student like him...  

But, where to start...  Probably at the end of the le pub night...  On the way home, I turned to one of my Italian guests (lovely students over from the Studio Marangoni in Florence) and asked what they thought of the night.  They loved it.  I asked which photographers they particularly liked and they told me.  Then I asked what they thought about Tim's work:

Me: So...  Urm...  What did you think of Tim's work.
A:  You can't call it work.
Me: Yes you can.  He works hard to make his pictures.  They are staged.  He makes props.  It
takes a long time to organise his shoots.  It is work.
A: So, he 'works hard', but he does not make work.

And this for me is one of the central issues when considering Sayer's output as a photographer.  I can see the effort he puts in, but like my Italian guests, I don't really appreciate the outcome.  

Taken singly, some of the images are actually very funny (the mother snorting coke from the belly of her baby is so wrong it is hilarious), but I just don't get the joke in many of them.  Without the narration that accompanied the images and powered the post-show discussion, they just don't make sense.  This is perhaps a reflection of my own naivety, but also highlights a real problem with the work – Sayer needs his viewers to have a certain level of background knowledge or experience to read the details within the image and appreciate fully what is going on.

The fundamental premise of the work and how it will be presented – as a series of greetings cards available on-line is pretty clever.  Ultimately, visitors to his website will be able to 'enjoy' cards that could be used to mark a range of occasions such as the birth of a child, or getting a new job.  Clicking on any of the 'cards' will then lead the viewer along to a new thread and a new project.  Choose a 'sweet sixteen' card, you will be led to a series of black and white large format nudes entitled, 'Decline of the Pubic Landscape' in which Sayer displays a variety of pubic barbering styles to comment on the deforestation of the Amazonian rain-forest.  Select 'With Deepest Sympathy' and you go to the 'Polishing a Turd' series.  Other cards will take you on alternative journeys into Sayer's imagination and view of the world.  For many people, the site will be a very interesting and engaging experience.

Sayer's aesthetic style is deliberately crude, which suits the images perfectly.  This is bad taste created by someone who really cares about it; there is no subtlety here.  In many of the images, the lighting is hard, aggressive and obviously artificial.  The 'I shot in 5 x 4 so it must be Art' Pubic Landscapes appear casually composed: we see crumpled clothes in the background which serve no purpose.  Even though the lower half of a naked woman is prone for the camera, there is nothing sexy, nor beautiful about the images.  If he's being truthful about the politics, then this is politics with no spin.  If he isn't, then the irony is cheap.

When I think that Sayer is just about to graduate, I wonder how on earth the tutors are going to mark his work.  I wouldn't like to be in their position.  When I consider his future, I imagine a series of novelty books to be sold at Christmas-time; cards purchased and passed on by blokes with a dodgy sense of humour and a career as a stand-up comedian with photography and photographers as his subject.  If he can fine tune his material, stripping out the jokes that are based on the most obvious photographic stereotypes, I can see the development of a unique comic act.  Coming soon to a comedy festival near you: Tim Sayer Polishing his Turds.

If you want to see more of the work (and I am sure that you will) check out the following:

Sam Laughlin:

Jack Latham:

Louise Hobson:

Ryan Grimley - site under construction.

Tim Sayer: Website is under construction.  But you can check out another Tim Sayer at: