Spirit Transcends Time

Does the world really need another book of photographs of London? Perhaps not. Yet when the book in question is the recent Thames and Hudson publication of Sergio Larrain’s ‘London 1959’ the answer is certainly, yes. Made in the wake of his extraordinarily gritty yet compassionate photographs of Santiago Street Children of 1957, these London photographs were shot thanks to a British Council grant, Larrain taking advantage of the opportunity to also visit Paris, meet with Cartier-Bresson and become a member of the then-fledgling Magnum organisation.

It could easily be argued that any photographs of cities will capture to a greater or lesser extent a state of flux, for what are cities if not endlessly shifting canvases of change? Yet much like Robert Frank’s London work of ’51 to ’53, or Gerard Depardon’s photographs of Glasgow in 1980, Larrain’s pictures capture London at a particularly poignant moment, where old ways shift into new on the fulcrum of generational shifts. From a personal perspective Larrain’s pictures have a special resonance too, for 1959 is the year my parents met in London and I wonder if  they might be captured in any of these shots. Perhaps a blurred face on the Underground escalator or a distant figure walking in the park? Perhaps not.

These pictures remind me that one of the essential paradoxes of photography is that it presents the illusion of freezing moments, yet simultaneously spans time. Photographs shift meaning and purpose according to context. We read them differently each time they are unearthed and perused. Even family albums packed with memory and fading recollection are subject to this state of flux. Stories are re-told with a subtly different slant each time, meaning forgotten and reinvented with the passing of lives until eventually they become lost entirely to house clearings or, if fortunate, the contents of charity shops to perhaps become inspirations of flimsy historical fiction for art students at a loose end.

Sergio Larrain – London 1959

I’m sure there are art students in Larrain’s photographs of London in 1959. Certainly there are beatniks populating the later pages of the book as we delve into the black of night, down in the bars with jazz and sex swirling around us in grainy deep and seductive shadows. In a series of shots we see wire-frame figures floating ghostlike above the smoke-shrouded floor of a haunted dancehall. It could be a scene from ‘Absolute Beginners’. There’s Blitz Baby and The Fabulous Hoplite. Maybe even Crepe Suzette escaping into the light. And is that Big Jill with with her shirt knotted around her mid-riff and an unlit cigarette between her lips, staring us down with a look of ‘who the fuck are you?’ In another shot we are lost in the thrumming crowd, hands up high, reaching for the stars (or at least the festoon lights). Close your eyes, lock the time circuits for 1988 and this could be Shoom. Specifics may root us to years but spirit transcends time.

There are echoes of course of the aforementioned Robert Frank photographs, and back, back, further back to Bill Brandt’s documentation of London in the nineteen thirties. Now I admit that I have never explored Brandt’s work in much detail, perhaps because some of this images have always felt so familiar. This may be time playing tricks of the light on memory of course, but I seem to recall seeing his images reproduced in stark, rudimentary black and white in so many school poetry anthologies in the 1970s and early 1980s. Did they appeal? They must have done on some level for the memory, real or not, to have formed. I’m sure it must have been something to do with the harsh contrast of positive and negative space, the almost abstract composition of black and white. The same ingredients, in short, that led me later to be enthralled by Robert Motherwell’s paintings.

Brandt captured the London bus. Of course he did. There it goes, peeking above the strong black arch of the bridge, Heinz advertising resplendent on its flanks as the towers of Battersea power station loom ghostly in the distance. It’s not a photograph about a bus at all of course. Nor is it a photograph about the bridge, the river or the power station. All are just compositional elements as Brandt enjoys the interplay of the deep shadowed forms of the arch and the Thames mud. No more, and certainly no less. Or rather, that’s certainly my feeling on reading the photograph from my faded 1983 edition of ‘London In The Thirties’. However, on recently seeing a sharply printed reproduction of his 1933 ‘Parlourmaid and underparlourmaid’ photograph in David Campany’s wonderful ‘On Photographs’, my interest in Brandt’s work has been refreshed. The print in Campany’s book brings out so much more subtlety in tone and detail and I’m left wondering what more depths of pleasure I might find in looking at better quality reproductions of his other work, including the bus on the bridge.

Frank photographs buses too. In one picture we see a Routemaster’s backside in the middle distance  as the black form of a city gent strides purposefully forward, looking for all the world as if he owns the street (he probably does), newspaper and walking stick clutched firmly behind his back. Then there are the blurred phantoms bookending Eros with what for all the world looks like a bloke pissing in the fountain. Or an upper deck with hats and overcoats illuminated by the blast of interior lighting, framed by an advert for the Co-operative Wholesale Society below and the brooding black of a soot stained building above. Frank would revisit the bus a few years later for The Americans, this time with the more starkly confrontational gazes of passengers meeting the camera’s eye. A reflection of the difference between the national psyches, or of Frank’s growing strength as photographer. Both, perhaps.

Frank also has buses on a bridge, but unlike Brandt he positions himself looking across the bridge that diagonals to the centre line of the picture. The buses and the lines of composition all lead us away to the hazy distant shore, in contrast to the direction of the stream of pedestrians crossing towards us. Intriguingly, Larrain makes almost the exact same photograph of London Bridge in 1959, choosing instead to shoot in portrait orientation and thereby omitting the dark presence of buildings to his left. This directional opposition in both photographs lends a dynamic to the picture, but Larrain takes this to a whole different level with his closely cropped shot showing the side of a Routemaster. Here, the form of two windows are positioned as a blurred diagonal bookended by bowler-hatted fellows, the dual thin light lines of the wheel arch and the edges of letters completing the composition. It is a daring and modern photograph. Elsewhere, Larrain again utilises the diagonal, this time with the interior of a bus as a stark framing device and perspective platform as the artist looks down on milling shoppers. The bus turns the corner, literally and metaphorically. The 1960s are coming. Swinging, and Swingeing, London are just over the horizon, and intriguingly Larrain will have a hand too in the defining cinematic moment of those times. For whilst ‘Blow Up’ is inspired by a Julio Cortázar short story, this story itself was inspired by a story told by Sergio Larrain. Antonioni, Cortázar, Larrain: Outsiders all.

Insider Colin O’Brien also captures London around this time, and continues to do so for the rest of his lifetime, but unlike Brandt, Frank and Larrain, one gets the sense that O’Brien uses photography more as a means of exploring London, as opposed to using London to explore photography. As a London insider, O’Brien likely always considered the London bus as much too obvious subject matter for a photograph, and it is not until 2005 that we see one appear, and then only because it is an opportunity to record the final day of the iconic Routemaster running the 38 route from Clapton Pond to Victoria. It echoes the shot made in 1952 by the 12 year old O’Brien on the occasion of the last running of the Embankment trams. Both are essentially historical portraits, the driver of the tram posing for the youngster as the passengers queue tidily in the shadow of the trees. Fast forward 53 years and the Routemaster is also captured fully face on, but this time it is the passengers who pose for the camera, the youngsters all eager smiles and full of anticipation. It is a charming photograph, but it is clearly a photograph about the people as much as it is about the bus. Indeed, without the explanatory text explaining the historical context, what kind of photograph is it? One might see a similar kind of picture in any number of family albums, perhaps accompanied by a voice warmly explaining that “Here’s one that dad took of us and the family next door on a trip into the West End for a shopping trip.” And then the page will be quickly flipped.

I do enjoy flipping through the pages of ‘London Life’, the hefty retrospective of O’Brien’s photography, but admit that these days I’m drawn particularly to his early shots from the 1950s period. Certainly these photographs tell a compelling story of a young artist experimenting with their chosen medium. His pictures from this time of the junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road, documenting car smashes, processions and just occasionally not very much at all are tremendous. The birds-eye perspective may have been borne from the necessity of living four flights up, but they are captivating images precisely because of this unexpected viewpoint. If we might be disappointed that O’Brien’s later work rarely, if ever, utilises these kind of unusual visual perspectives, perhaps it is only because he has made those angles metaphorically in how he approaches his subject matter of the people of London. Still, from a purely aesthetic point of view I’d take Larrain’s shots from the top floor of the bus or from a camera placed on the Underground platform over pretty much anything else by anyone any day.

So as much as I enjoy the sensibilities of the insider that permeate O’Brien’s comprehensive, life-long exploration and documentation of London life, it is the work of outsiders Brandt, Frank and especially Larrain that continue to resonate most strongly with me. These photographers’ forays into London may have been brief (certainly compared to O’Brien’s) but the documents they left behind show artists’ eyes that are finely attuned and yet simultaneously detached. Intensely connected and yet fundamentally apart. A powerful combination.

Sergio Larrain – London 1959

‘Thames 1959’ by Sergio Larrain is published by Thames and Hudson
‘London/Wales’ by Robert Frank is published by Steidl
‘London Life’ by Colin O’Brien is published by Spitalfields Life

We recommend looking for all of these and other photobooks at the terrific Beyond Words website: https://beyondwords.co.uk/

Tracing The Infinite

The always ace Caught By The River kindly published a piece I wrote about rivers, and photographs of rivers. It’s ostensibly a review of Chloe Dewe Matthews’ newly published ‘Thames Log’ book, but I also wanted to weave something about Jem Southam’s photographs of the river Exe and recollect Sian Davey’s excellent ‘Martha’ photobook of a few years ago. The article went live today: www.caughtbytheriver.net/2021/02/tracing-the-infinite-river-photography/

Photograph by Chloe Dewe Matthews, from ‘Thames Log’

Moods For Moderns

It is perhaps a little known (or cared for) fact that in the furthest mists of Unpopular time I studied two years on an architecture course before eventually switching to complete an Interior Design degree. Naturally this qualified me to do nothing except become a teacher. Or perhaps that was just the result of a complete inability to engage with the real world of commerce. Whatever. I mention this not to suggest that, you know, I coulda been a contender or somethin’, but rather to explain why my favourite periodical of recent years has been The Modernist. It was a picture of Johnny Marr posing with the magazine (he’s a patron) that hipped me to it, and that is just fine. Marr was always my favourite in These Myths and whilst I have tried very hard to enjoy his solo records they have always left me cold despite me willing myself to say ‘wow, this is the business’ or some such. Sorry Mr Marr, they just don’t spark the thrill. But The Modernist? Now you’re talking. A bit like Caught By The River for architecture and design lovers, The Modernist ploughs a very specific furrow and is assuredly beloved by anyone who cares for a spare aesthetic of concrete brutalism/minimalism and the ghosts of 1970s urban planning. I particularly like the tall thin format of recent issues with it’s numerous fold-out pages lending the magazine an appropriate three dimensional quality, and issue 34 (‘juxtaposition’) is certainly a treat to keep me entertained in the lockdown.

Ashiya Eastwood has a terrific spread about the legendary Sound Mirrors Of Denge (new band name. I call it) with some deliciously warm photographs. Katrina Navickas has an informative piece about litter bin design in public spaces (of course!) and Craig Austin writes about the 1970s campaign to position Cwmbran as “the town where the future is happening now” and in doing so expands to contemplate personal history and other elements of British utopian planners dreams gone wrong (but that look brilliant). Best of all though is the terrifically titled ‘Anti Bucolic’ piece which collects some black and white photographs by Jethro Marshall. A segment of curving concrete harbour wall. Concrete steps cast between craggy rocks. A concrete cliff face embedded into the chalk face like industrial dentistry. Magic. Like looking at the kinds of photographs I would make myself, and blow me if that piece of industrial dentistry isn’t at Beer, the home of the famous caves and setting for much of Ian Sansom’s ‘Death In Devon’. In other words, right on my doorstep.

Marshall, it turns out, runs a small press called West Country Modern that has published a small but perfectly formed sequence of slim books that explore aspects of the South West landscape. ‘Coastal Brutalism’ explores exactly what it suggests, and is where you will find those shots of concrete sea walls and steps, alongside anti-tank cubes and pillboxes (and incidentally, mention of pillboxes on the South West coast cannot help but remind one of Alexander Stuart’s ‘The War Zone’) whilst the cheekily titled ‘Farm Follows Function’ presents photographs of industrial farm buildings. Unpopulated by humans or livestock, these photographs present the purity of form of these often ad-hoc collections of buildings as compositions of simple forms, line and texture. They are exactly the kinds of scenes I find most appealing when riding my bicycle along the farm tracks of Devon during my daily exercise excursions.

Marshall’s ‘Nightlife’ on the other hand is a meander away from the constructed landscape into the natural treasures of dusk and the cloak of night. Shots of grasses softly swaying in the wind and macro captures of flower heads frozen in light against rich darkness, they recall for me some of the terrific shots in the ‘Kentucky Renaissance’ collection of Lexington Camera Club photography: Meatyard’s ‘Zen twigs’, or Charles Traub’s ‘Fall’ perhaps. At times too these images remind me of Sarah Jones’ exquisite shots of rose bushes and there is nothing wrong with that. Tania Kovat’s accompanying text is just as marvellous, taking in as it does the sounds and scents of flora and fauna amplified through darkness, the scientific magik of Vantablack and the elliptical wonder of Talk Talk’s ‘Spirit Of Eden’. It all fits.

A Bartered Lantern Borrowed

I do not often read books about music and musicians, but something about Robert Dean Lurie’s ‘Begin The Begin: The story of R.E.M.’s early years’ caught my interest. Certainly of the music I listened to during the period from, say, 1983 to 1985, those first three r.e.m. albums are the records that I would say still hold some kind of strange beguilement; are the ones that conjure strong personal memories and yet simultaneously manage to slip through the grasp of understanding and remain both elusive and illusive. Perhaps only the contemporaneous albums by The Go-Betweens are a match in this regard, personally speaking. In his book Lurie certainly does a good job of drawing together the threads of narrative that combined to mould the group and in so doing widely acknowledges the broader context of Athens and its artistic mythology. At the very least it had me scurrying back to play those old Pylon records, which still sound magnificent, and of course tangentially out to the Let’s Active records too and that is always a treat. It’s ‘Fables of the Reconstruction’, ‘Reckoning’ and ‘Murmur’ though that remain the ones that soothe and confuse in equal measure, and it’s to Lurie’s credit that he has made me want to immerse myself once more in the pleasures and pains held within their grooves.

Naturally I understand why Lurie’s book also takes in the ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ and ‘Document’ albums (they are the necessarily ‘bigger’ records that bridge to the ‘major label’ breakthrough to mainstream recognition), but I admit that whilst both those records hold some treasure (the gorgeous Pop tingle of ‘Fall On Me’ would be the prime example) they leave me mostly cold now. I’m sure I have said it before, but I am certain this is largely because on those records you can actually hear what Michael Stipe is singing about and, for the most part, stripped of the shivering uncertainty of meaning held in the previous records, it all feels somewhat flat and worthy. It’s probably why I found those later chapters in Lurie’s book to be increasingly less engaging, as r.e.m. grew into R.E.M. and, increasingly shorn of art-rock local folkloric roots, became more another example of rock orthodoxy.

I should point out that I have no problem with R.E.M. and their subsequent global success, just that personally I have no interest in the records that followed. I’ve not got a huge amount of interest in the artistic life of Stipe post ‘Fables’ either, and I admit that what I have seen of his own photography work has left me balancing on a point between vaguely interested and distinctly underwhelmed. Certainly I have found them less interesting than, say, Dennis Hopper’s (to pick another artist from another medium whose photography might otherwise never have seen the light of day if not for their ‘celebrity’). Much of the interest in Hopper’s photographs now is as documentary evidence of history and culture (his shots of Hell’s Angels and of Sunset Boulevard riots in 1967 are particularly fascinating) but there are certainly threads of creative exploration evident throughout those images collected in ‘The Lost Album’ that bear out what Hopper said about the camera being, in the years between 1961 and 1967, the only creative outlet he had and that making those photographs “kept [him] alive”. There is certainly something of the obsessive amateur in the work, and as a tangential jumping off point I admit I keep getting drawn back to a particular 1962 shot of Brooke Hayward with a doll’s head.

This shot of Hayward and the doll’s head is a tangential point of reference because it reminds me of the celebrated work of another ‘amateur’ photographer, Ralph Eugene Meatyard. And whilst I say celebrated of course I admit that I have personally only stumbled (if you will excuse the pun) on Meatyard’s work thanks to Lurie’s compelling theory about the origins of the r.e.m. band name. In brief the theory goes thus: Michael Stipe, as an art student with an interest in photography and folkloric/outsider art, would undoubtably have come across the work of Meatyard in his studies/explorations (there are strong connections between the aesthetic of Meatyard’s work and, say, Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden or R.A. Miller’s garden of whirligigs that feature in the early R.E.M. promotional videos); Meatyard signed his correspondence with his initials, in lower case (r.e.m.); in their early years the group’s name on flyers, posters etc was similarly often written in lower case… So is the connection between Meatyard and the origins of the r.e.m. band name real/true? In hindsight it feels like a pleasant detour in meaning if nothing else, yet also entirely in keeping with a group who, in those early years certainly, seemed keen to keep the mysteries caged.

Meatyard too kept the mystery caged, being famously mute when sharing his work with fellow members of the Lexington Camera Club and rarely if ever giving interviews or talking about his photographs. What he did say about his work however is intriguing, particularly in reference to any connection into the music of early r.e.m. Certainly the notion of his work as being “romantic-surrealist” dovetails neatly with many of the songs from those first three r.e.m. albums which are so often suffused with a haunting Otherness with Stipe’s lyrics out of focus and lacking much meaning beyond abstracted associations of sound. Meatyard said about his famous images of his family members dressed in Halloween masks that the masks and the doll’s heads were there to function as ways into the photographs but that the more lasting interest would be in the backgrounds. Certainly they are photographs that reward repeated viewing. Those first three r.e.m. albums work in a not dissimilar way, where melodies and the occasional clarity of a lyric pulls you into a song that rewards with textures and shifts of light and dark that reward repeated listening.

In his essay that opens the ‘Kentucky Renaissance’ book about the Lexington Camera Club, John Jeremiah Sullivan writes that “[In the South], perhaps, we imbue our artists with a unique luminosity. We need them. And when a community does manage to form, however loosely, there’s a glow. You’re huddling together inside something, inside a culture, but against something too.” and it strikes me that this could just as easily have been Lurie writing about the Athens musical community in the late 70s and early 80s. Indeed, it is the threads and connections Lurie traces between people from that period that are the most intriguing and engaging elements of ‘Begin The Begin’ and I admit that reading the book had me digging out that ‘Athens Inside/Out’ DVD again. And just as Lurie has me scurrying back to listen again to groups like Love Tractor, Flat Duo Jets and (especially) Pylon, so ‘Kentucky Renaissance’ has me eagerly seeking out Charles Traub’s ‘Edge to Edge’ landscape photographs and Cranston Ritchie’s wonderful experimental work involving panning and tracking. Then too there is the work of Robert C. May and particularly his shots of Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s son Chris (sans Halloween mask) from the early 70s which could easily be taken as blueprints for the Michael Stipe aesthetic from a decade later. Indeed, the shot of Chris Meatyard reclining on an old mattress illuminated from behind by a window apparently shorn of glazing but with a wrapped fragment of sheer curtain tied in its lower frame, might be of Stipe in the old church on Oconee St in Athens and maybe, if the shot was in colour, the light might be green just as it is in what is perhaps my favourite of all R.E.M. songs, the gorgeous ‘Camera’.

Not ever having been what one might call an obsessive about the group it was only on reading Lurie’s book that I came aware that ‘Camera’ is ‘about’ fellow Athens community member Carol Levy, a photographer who shot the band for the rear sleeve of their Hib-Tone debut single and who tragically died in a traffic collision just a day after the US release of the ‘Murmur’ album. Lurie suggests that “Carol Levy’s spirit hangs palpably over the origins of the Athens music scene virtually everywhere you turn”. It is tempting to suggest such a reading is informed at least in part by a knowledge of the tragic circumstances of her death (it is always easier to read significance into the lives of those who leave us young than in those who lead longer lives and -perhaps- fade from narratives) but then again, there is a photo much earlier in the book that shows Lynda and Cyndy Stipe dancing in a club whilst behind them, only just visible, is Carol Levy. There is an immediately energising vitality about this fragment of image that is inescapable, so perhaps there is something in what Lurie says after all. Certainly there is a significant sense of loss, love and presence in ‘Camera’ and it is to R.E.M.’s credit that it is a presence you sense without any knowledge of the song’s origins or meaning. Stipe has said that this pretty much ended his period of ‘autobiographical’ song writing, though the threads of personal meaning are always obtuse and broadly suggestive rather than explicit. To draw another parallel into the world of the Lexington Camera club, where Charles Traub talks about how “photography is about seeing what the world looks like as a picture” then perhaps these early r.e.m. recordings are about seeing what the world looks like as a song. Indeed, in her essay that accompanies the Radius Books publication of Meatyard’s ‘Dolls and Masks’ photographs, Eugenia Parry writes that “the photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard are mystery plays”. One need only change “photographs” to “songs” and insert Meatyard’s initials to see the sentence as an accurate description of ‘Murmur’, ‘Reckoning’ or ‘Fables’.

Maybe there is something in Lurie’s theory after all.

‘Begin The Begin. R.E.M.’s Early Years’ by Robert Dean Lurie is published by Verse Chorus Press
‘Kentucky Renaissance. The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community 1954-1974’ is published by Yale University Press in association with the Cincinnati Art Museum
‘Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks’ is published by Radius Books
‘Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album’ is published by Prestel books

Still Feel Gone

“Falling out the window…”

How could I resist this book of photographs made by Tim Carpenter and Nathan Pearce? Titled after my favourite Uncle Tupelo record, ‘Still Feel Gone’ is woven through with the same threads of motion and longing that are certainly at the core of many of the songs on that record and of many of my favourite moments in Pop and photography ever. In his terrific autobiography Jeff Tweedy tells us that the title of the album, and by connection then this body of photographs, is to do with the notion of returning home from touring but being unable to fully re-root oneself (you “still feel gone”). Homesick for motion. Motion-sick for home. Longing for the other, whatever the other is and whatever it is you currently have.

What I liked most about the Uncle Tupelo record is what I like most about Pearce and Carpenter’s photographs. It’s the way in which they touch on traditions (old, new, who cares) but are never slave to them. Tweedy and Farrar would plug into Dylan and D. Boon; Williams and Rollins. Fast. Slow. Fast, fast, slow. The songs would be in dialogue with each other. Balanced and tensioned just so. It’s the same with Pearce and Carpenter’s photographs which are presented in a double-sided format where each has his own side. There are nods to the traditions of American landscape photography with ghosts of Darius Kinsey, William Henry Jackson and a kind of inverted vision of Ansel Adams (Pearce in particular present us with some images that are hardly Adam’s grandiloquent expression of immensity but rather a more cautious appreciation of the wilderness) but there are also nods to Bernd and Hilda Becher’s typologies of industrial architecture. It all fits and yet it doesn’t quite. “The slides are upside down…” indeed. Flip. Frame. Click. Flip.

So here we pass close to the mountains rearing over a rippled lake. Here the clouds drift down the hillside and slip between multitudinous ranks of trees, each blurred with a breath as they remind us of their passing. Now we slow so that the camera frames a development of homes dusted with snow. Where are we? Why are we here? Big questions. Small questions. Just moving. Always moving. And here again, the railroad tracks paralleling across the frame to punctuate the journey. This is how we experience landscape. Moving. Passing through. Us and it. It and us. Permeating. A two-way process. This way, that way. Just like the book, which we flip round and begin again.

If Pearce’s photographs appear to be shot from the moving train then Carpenter’s may be made whilst trudging relentless on foot and his photographs are similarly punctuation marks on the journey. If Pearce’s images show the promise of a changing landscape then Carpenters insist on uniformity. Here are the railroad tracks. But railroad tracks are not railroad tracks are not railroad tracks. Things are the same but all things are different and all things are the same. Carpenter’s photographs of the tracks are punctuated by grain elevators and similarly agricultural-industrial structures. Sometimes these are close-to, other times as a distant presence on the horizon. Is that the same tower we saw a few pages previously? Didn’t we pass that same composition of telegraph poles a while back? Is this arrow-straight railroad receding to that vanishing point just an illusion? Are we really just going round in circles? Are some of these buildings the same ones Pearce has photographed from the train on these same tracks? Did Pearce pass Carpenter en-route? En-route to where? Back to the start and beginning again. Flip. Frame. Click. Flip.

“Falling out the window…”

At the edge

Harry Gruyaert may not be a landscape photographer but as we have noted he is a great photographer of landscape. Perhaps the best proof of this is his ‘Edges’ collection in which Gruyaert selects and sequences photographs made at those points where land meets water meets sky. Land, Sea and Air as Appliance once sang, which is an appropriate reference after all since we have been musing somewhat on James Brooks’ work in recent weeks too. ‘Edges’ is a great book. It is one of those ‘chicken and egg’ collections. In other words it is one of those photography books where you see the relationship between time, intention and realisation play out in the unfolding narrative, where the ’story’ is one of endless, timeless variations on the themes of movement, stasis, flux and firmament. Gruyaert’s photographs map out our relationships with the sea as source of leisure and of commerce. They document the ways in which those relationships affect both the landscapes and the people in those edge lands. Here the cranes, docks and tough raggedy youth of industrial Galician coastal towns; there the glazed-in loneliness of wealthy retirees in a Le Touquet spa hotel. Always grainy, always underexposed. Just so.

Leafing through Edges I am reminded again of Rothko’s paintings. All the same. All different. The devils are in the details; in the subtle shifts of focus, light, shade, composition. Don’t mess with the formula. Don’t push the idea further than it needs to go. Explore the endless possibilities provided by minimal scope. At the edges. What else.

Well what else indeed, except that when I talk about edges I am of course tempted to listen to songs about edges. Making playlists is perhaps the curse of the hapless (almost exclusively) male trapped inside a world of books and films (or photographs) flailing around for a means of reaching a world that he knows exists yet cannot quite seem to reach (or even see). Should this be the case then my own list of songs at the edges (often, though not entirely exclusively, of the edges of landscapes) is shared here as a glimpse into that liminal borderland between my mediated (musical) understanding of that space and yours. And yes, you can expect more landscape themed mixes in the coming months.

Download as a ZIP file

River’s Edge – A Certain Ratio
From The Edge Of Maps – Cody
At the Edge of the Sea – The Wedding Present
Cliff edge – The Bats
Edge Of Town – The Bye Bye Blackbirds
At the Edge of the World – Billy MacKenzie
Water’s Edge – Tsunami
Edge of August – The Windmills
Darkness on the Edge of Town – Bruce Springsteen
At The Edge Of The Wood – Dead Meadow
On the Edge Of – Low
Edge of the World – Let’s Active
Edges And Corners – Standard Fare
Edge Of Everything – Colour Me Wednesday
Safe Around the Edges – His Clancyness
Living On The Edge Of The World – Bruce Springsteen
River’s Edge – Still Corners
Sea Comes At Its Edges – Starry Eyed and Laughing
Edge Of The Sea – Prelude
The Edge of Forever – The Dream Academy

Feeling the light. Or, Flanders, bicycles and the photographs of Harry Gruyaert

Last time out in this irregular ongoing series of landscape explorations we were talking about tangential connections and made mention of James Brooks and his Land Observations recordings. On one of these (2014’s ‘The Grand Tour’) there is a piece titled ‘Flatlands and the Flemish Roads’. I am unsure if Brooks intends this as anything more than a glancing reference to cycling, but its is entirely possible given that Appliance once recorded a piece called ‘Derailleur, King of the Mountain’. Certainly anyone remotely interested in the sport of cycling will immediately think of the likes of Omloop Het Volk (or Het Nieuwsblad if you insist), Scheldeprijs and the Ronde Van Vlaanderen when they see a reference to the roads of Flanders. That this immediate synaptic connection is to bicycle races rather than the WW1 fields of slaughter says much about cycling fans.

Harry Pearson says much about cycling fans, and Flemish cycling fans more specifically, in his new book ‘The Beast, The Emperor and The Milkman’. Subtitled ‘A bone-shaking tour through cycling’s Flemish heartlands’ it pretty much does what it says on the cover and is certainly entertaining in a semi-skimmed pocket-history travelogue kind of way. Hardcore cycling fans may find little new in the book but they are probably not the target audience anyway, so it’s perhaps a moot point. Certainly there were few names and anecdotes about Belgian cycling I had not stumbled on previously. What are new to me are some of Pearson’s musings on the history of Flanders, and if a little effort is also expended in an attempt to expand our knowledge of both this and of “famous Belgians” beyond Herge and Simenon it is an effort that is, to paraphrase the great honorary Flahute Sean Kelly, one that is carefully calculated.

It is certainly a shame that Pearson makes no reference, even in passing, to the great Belgian photographer Harry Gruyaert. Surprising too, for Gruyaert is famously fond of cycling and one of his quotes graces the back cover of the excellent ‘Magnum Cycling’ collection published a few years ago by Thames and Hudson and edited by Guy Edwards. There is a chapter of Gruyaert’s photographs in the book documenting the 1982 Tour de France and they are typically great shots. The best of the actual cyclists is surely one of the peloton peddling up a slope. Everyone is en danseuse apart from the man in the yellow jersey, Bernard Hinault, who sits resolutely in the saddle, leg muscles almost comically etched and bulging. Hinault too is the only one making eye contact with the camera, his piercing glare so sharp it’s a wonder the lens hasn’t cracked in terror.

That said, my favourite of Gruyaert’s cycling photographs is the last one in the book – a lovely shot of an elderly gentleman photographed against a wooden fence, from which dangle a couple of disembodied feet and lower legs. It’s probable that these feet (one in a Puma sneaker, the other in what appears to be something like a Hush Puppies desert boot) belong to young lads perched atop the fence watching the end of the first stage of the 1975 Tour and it’s an unusual Gruyaert shot because the gentleman (sharply attired in suit, tie and overcoat) is (like Hinault) making direct eye contact with us. Even more unexpected is that the photograph is in black and white, a startling shock given that Gruyaert is such a master of colour.

We looked at some of Gruyaert’s photographs during the year-long 50/50 project in 2016 so I will not dwell much longer on his photographs in the ‘Made In Belgium’ collection apart from to say that whilst they may not be landscape photographs per-se they are certainly images deeply suffused with a sense of place. Pearson makes the observation in his book that Belgium, and Flanders specifically, has transformed in wealth in the past few decades. With that in mind it seems clear that Gruyaert’s photographs are of a different Belgium, an older Belgium. They do remind me of Raymond Depardon’s Glasgow images and perhaps there is no surprise in that, for both collections are certainly now as much documents of historical, social and cultural threads that perhaps have unravelled, their frayed edges already misplaced amongst the murky mementoes of our pasts.

Today my favourites of Gruyaert’s photographs are the several shots which contain battlefield re-enactors. Here a cavalier atop his horse, the red of his jacket and scabbard an underexposed wound against a drab green hillside; there a row of riflemen with shouldered arms beneath the glowering grey of a sky that smothers the horizon. Elsewhere again there is the shock of ranks of marching figures in what, since this photograph was made in Waterloo, must be Napoleonic uniforms, backs to us crisscrossed with white straps and, in the gap between ranks, a motor car parked on pebbles, its yellow-green paintwork supremely evocative of the nineteen seventies/eighties. A small patch of sky shows in the background, this time the colour and texture of a Magritte painting. These are not soldiers, it seems to say. This is not a motor car. But this is, assuredly, Belgium.

On another day again my favourite photographs will be the ones made by the seaside, specifically in Ostend. The emptiness of the beach shelter and it’s electric red neon signs a back to front scrawl of light against the steel grey of the sea; the pale yellow columns and (again!) the reds of chairs in (yet again!) the void of a spa hotel; the nearly but not quite empty stretch of beach punctuated by the sharp imposing verticals of lampposts and a figure plumb centre looking out at the (yes, yet again!!!) concrete grey sea and a massive sky that blackens and breaks to cast a light that is almost apocalyptic. Anyone who has grown up by the seaside in the northern hemisphere can surely feel the bite of the wind in this photograph; can feel the whip of the sand as it skitters across the paving stones and into streaming eyes.

Gruyaert’s landscape photographs then are not landscape photographs, and this is their strength (analogous to Winograd saying that the key to being a great street photographer is not to call yourself a street photographer). They are instead photographs which show Gruyaert to be remarkably adept at seeing the essential qualities in the spaces around him and in capturing those essences within what would be, if he were a painter, a few deft brush stokes and decisive marks of colour. He makes landscapes out of details and details out of landscapes. He feels the light the rest of us barely see.

Bright Black World(s)

It feels fitting that we have been thinking about darkness in these first few months of the year for in the northern hemisphere at least these are surely amongst the dreariest and most challenging to get through, now more than ever. This sense of living through dark times, be it the apparently inexorable rise of far right political ideology or the unfolding of environmental disaster is certainly captured in Todd Hido’s ‘Bright Black World’ work.

There is a great video where Hido talks about ‘Bright Black World’ and how he appropriated the title from a page he read in an A.S. Byatt story (he also admits to not reading the whole story, which I think is intriguing in as much as it suggests how artists invest vast tracts of their time within their own work, so that references, connections, inspirations often come from magpied moments grabbed in passing). In the video Hido also acknowledges that whilst he sees himself as essentially an optimist he concedes that he’s “looking into the future but unfortunately the future’s not looking so bright and that’s part of what the work’s about”.

I’m intrigued though as to what else the work is about. Leafing through the book is a luxurious experience, not least because the pages are oversized, allowing the photographs to approach the scale they inhabit within the gallery display. The landscapes which make up the body of the book are filled mostly with darkened, glooming skies or with shadowy spooky undergrowth and trees that hint at apocalyptic events to come or just passed. Often they are landscapes filled with energy, rising off the pages to envelop us with an emotive presence it is hard to resist.

When teenagers (and perhaps most of us as adults too) look at photographs (or any art) their instinctive response is an emotional one. In their eyes all art is about emotion and whilst as a teacher it can be very tiring to hear this as a starting point for conversation day in, year out, it is also entirely understandable. It would be wrong if it were otherwise. And yet in Hido’s ‘Bright Black World’ this emotional response does feel appropriate because these photographs are surely meant to make us feel the tensions and conflicts happening within our environments (and within ourselves). In his photographs weather and landscape become as characters in a performance; actors playing their parts within the carefully choreographed context of the book. And actors emote.

Many of Hido’s landscapes (both here and more obviously in his 2010 collection ‘A Road Divided’) appear to have been photographed from behind the glass of a vehicle and feature roads retreating to their vanishing points, which naturally places Hido’s work firmly within the American tradition of the Road Trip. Think Lee Friedlander’s ‘America By Car’ but without the explicit framing vehicle of the, erm, vehicle window frames and wing mirrors. And in colour. So perhaps not so much like Friedlander’s work at all then, apart from that sense of movement through (a) country and the documenting of the shifting scene(ry). And since we mentioned the vanishing point of the road, can we place ‘Bright Black World’ in the realms of Kowalski and the last great American heroes? Possibly. Or perhaps we think about Robert Frank’s de-facto reference point ‘The Americans’? Except of course ‘Bright Black World’ is the first body of work that Hido has shot in countries outside of the USA so maybe not, except that we might just say there is something in the dark grain of Frank’s work that flavours the shadows of Hido’s and leave it at that. And I never even mentioned ‘On The Road’, did I? Or ‘Two Lane Blacktop’. Or… or… and… and… The list could go on.

In her wonderful memoir ‘Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia’ Tracey Thorn asks “who walks around suburbia at night? It would be spooky and weird.” To which the/an answer of course is Todd Hido. Indeed it was Hido’s photographs of suburban homes at night that first caught my attention a few years back and I admit that as much as I enjoy the newer ‘Bright Black World’ work I keep finding myself drawn back to them (analogous perhaps with loving Tracey Thorn’s ‘Record’ LP but still and always preferring ‘A Distant Shore’). I’d be interested to know what Thorn would make of Hido’s photographs for whilst they very much hold something of the suburban edgeland that she writes about in her book they are also perhaps particularly American. In this they slip more into the realms of the subtopian hauntology of David Lynch but there is also something universal in them that transcends geography and time.

What lends them this transcendency? Something to do with combinations of colour and form. Something else to do with formal composition. Another thing again to do with what you cannot put your finger on but that you know the moment you see, hear, smell, sense it.

One of the favourite phrases/ideas of many of my friends of a particular age is about “keeping the mystery caged”. In this era of self-promotion and where innumerable videos about anything you care to mention are instantly available, it can be difficult to maintain this mystery. It is perhaps unsurprising then to find one of these films documenting Hido photographing his suburban houses at night. It is a fascinating little piece that shows Hido shooting with a 35mm SLR using long exposures and bemoaning aircraft flying at night. Elsewhere in the film Hido is found in a hotel room preparing a shoot with a model. Viewed from outside the context of the artist/photographer’s bubble this feels faintly seedy and strange. Perhaps not “spooky”, but certainly to most people “weird” or at least slightly odd. But then what are/should artists be/seem to others if not somewhat peculiar to the norm? Perhaps it is this innate strangeness that allows Hido and his work to retain something of that mystery in spite of having the curtain pulled partially to unveil the mundane source of the magic. Perhaps the very act of showing parts of the process makes the end results all the more remarkable.

It is always interesting to trace connections of course and Hido has listed Robert Adams as one of his major influences. ‘Well duh’, you might think, given the unavoidable presence of Adams in the (American) photographic (ahem) landscape but gosh, hearing Hido say that encouraged me to look more closely and goodness, look at this shot from the ‘Summer Nights, Walking’ series and…. Yeah, you get the idea.

Robert Adams. From ‘Summer Nights, Walking’

Speaking of Lynch and speaking of connections, when I look closely at Adam’s ’Summer Nights, Walking’ photographs again now I am put in mind of some of those wild black and white sequences from the stunning 2017 season of Twin Peaks. All those references back to a 1950s subtopia infected by nightmares of nuclear desolation and sexual tensions, well they all appear present in Adam’s photographs (as indeed they do to a lesser degree in Hido’s). Of course when I say that they are ‘present’ in the photographs I mean they are physically invisible but deeply psychologically felt. Remember what Thorn asked? “Who walks around suburbia at night?” And if those who do are “spooky and weird” then imagine adding to the question: “Who walks around suburbia at night making photographs?”

If you have not tried such a thing (and let’s face it, chances are that even in these times of ubiquitous cameras and endless spools of snapshots, you haven’t) then I would encourage you to even contemplate it and to not feel distinctly uncomfortable as you do so. It is the strangest sensation and it makes Hido and Adam’s work seem all the more impressive. It is so easy to say “the key to being an artist is in saying you are an artist and believing you are an artist” but the reality is so much more difficult because it is so easy for Other Things to get in the way, not least of which are social expectations and Worrying About What Other People Think (which is essentially the same thing of course). To overcome that, as Hido and Adams (and indeed Tracey Thorn) clearly have, is a monumental achievement and I would argue is at the very core of what makes their photography (and music/writing) so compelling.

Magic. Illusion. Void.

Last week we looked at Amanda Harman’s photographs of the Somerset Levels and it occurred to me that really I ought to have mentioned Peter Benson’s novel which had such an enormous impact on me when I first read it all those (thirty two!!) years ago. Back in 1987 the landscape aspects of the novel certainly did not affect me as much as the narrative, yet there was certainly something beguiling and magical about it all that led me to pore over OS maps of Somerset, orientating myself around the place names and references in Benson’s words. Strange perhaps then that despite moving from the South West of Scotland to the South West of England five years after reading the book, the Somerset Levels remained (and remain still) something of an ignored treasure. Something to do, perhaps, with being just outside easy travelling distance, particularly as I only learned to drive in 2014, and perhaps too because there is a desire to keep the mystery caged and wrapped up in words and imaginations.

I have cycled across parts of the Levels in recent years, on solo sojourns and as part of the Bristol Belter sportive ride, yet I admit that when I am on my bicycle my thoughts are primarily about the process of cycling and only rarely, fleetingly, connect to the landscapes through which I am moving. The movement is the thing, and I have often wondered how I might go about using cycling as a process in which to fit art. My ‘tiny moments’ writing project of a few years ago is probably as close as I have got, although if there was some way of being able to make photographs or drawings whilst cycling in the same way I have done on train journeys then perhaps I would do so. Perhaps too I should simply admit to the fact that for me at least the act of cycling remains explicitly ABOUT the act of cycling and nothing else.

One of my most regular cycle routes takes me along the Exe valley, past Dulverton and up towards and occasionally onto Exmoor. On that route I often pass the Bridgetown cricket club and it’s delightful looking clubhouse/pavillion. I have never stopped to make a photograph of it (see above about the movement being the thing. I hate stopping on a ride even to refill bottles and much prefer eating on the move to stopping in a cafe) but you can see a glimpse of it on Google’s Global Surveillance Project (aka Streetview). Every time I pass it I think it would be fun to do a project around clubhouses before figuring that someone probably already has, or is doing so. I’m sure I stumbled on a blog at one point where someone was documenting village cricket pavilions of England and it delights me to see that Amanda Harman has built a body of work herself around a similar notion of clubhouses.

Harman’s Clubhouse images are varied in terms of the activities and sports they serve yet are all united by the absence of the people involved. What we see are the spaces devoid of the individuals who create them. We see the objects they leave behind them, sometimes related to the activity (a green fixtures book on a burnt sienna table top; cricket bats and pads on a changing room bench) but more often universal (a bar stool and a mobile gas heater; washed dishes draining beside a kitchen sink; assorted chairs; towels hung beside sinks). There is something of a fragile fragmented determination in these spaces, a sense of time draping gently into a distant past mixed with a hesitant hope extending into the future. These spaces are clearly communal yet we see them emptied of the chatter and shared experience of people. Instead the memories of moments linger in the air, unseen and unspoken but marvellously real. For me the photographs immediately bring to mind a scant few years of my youth spent at the long disbanded and dismantled Troon Sailing Club, dragging boats up and down the beach and slipping into the forbidden spaces of the clubhouse as a pre-teen waiting for my father to come back from his races on Tornadoes. I suspect these emotional attachments are, like those dishes on the draining board or the towels next to basins, universal. Many of us will have such memories and connections to fall back into and build upon on seeing these photographs. It’s one of the ways in which photographs should work, after all.

Elsewhere in Harman’s work we see shots under a collective title of Tidal Reach and here too are the tendrils of memory that reach back to my sailing club moments. The water, the sands, the horizon and the unflinching skies. My favourites of these images are the ones which are most formally constructed in terms of horizontal planes for these conjure thoughts of Rothko paintings and begin to enter the meditative realm of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s seascapes. Is it possible for anyone to make photographs of seascapes and not have Sugimoto’s work drawn in as a reference point? Probably not, but this is fine for there are surely none better.
I have come very late to Sugimoto’s work and this may be to do with the slow dissolve of an instinctive mistrust of spiritual meditation which has accompanied me for most of my life. In recent months however I have become ever more drawn to his work, intrigued by the notions of time within his long-exposure images. Our instinctive response to the function of photography is to see it as the freezing of fragments in time, a vehicle in which to store memories. I have found that this is one of the hardest barriers to overcome when teaching photography at GCSE level to teenagers. It is perhaps analogous to the development of the brain and connects to the way in which most teenagers cannot get past an infatuation with ‘accurate’ recording regardless of the medium.

It is a long time since either Sugimoto or myself have been teenagers (and I for one heave a sigh of relief that this is the case) so perhaps this helps explain a move away from an infatuation with freezing moments and instead looking at ways to acknowledge time as perhaps the crucial dimension as a factor in our experiencing (and hence recording) the world around us. The most obvious response to the dimension of time is the moving image, and whilst this is intriguing in its way it feels somehow too real to be real. Only at its extremes, like with Warhol’s film of the Empire State Building, does the moving image really, ahem, move me. More interesting by far are the ways in which illusions of time are captured within the single, still image. Sugimoto is a modern master of this and his theatres work is simply breathtaking in both its conceptual and formal execution. Ditto the seascapes and particularly the Revolution development which (literally) moves the composition on its side, further into the realms of abstraction and, if we can bring in this idea again, of meditative spaces. And here is that connection to Rothko again, taking into account the Rothko chapel and the supreme meditative space of the Rothko room at the Tate in London (personally I have much fonder memories of the paintings within the ‘original’ Tate Britain than in their ‘Modern’ context but I appreciate this is more than likely down to where I first experienced them). Even within the context of the printed photo book Sugimoto’s work resonates with an otherworldly presence. These images vibrate and send tingles of electricity down the spine precisely because there is almost nothing there. The lightness of most of the seascapes is such that they almost literally become weightless whilst the darkness of the Revolution series echoes that depth of void hinted at in Sarah Jones’ rose bushes. These photographs draw us is, envelope us in their delicious emptiness. They seem to say that only in nothing can there be something; the only thing real is unreal. Magic. Illusion. Void.

In The Black

I have been doing work for ‘my’ GCSE photography project and, inspired by Sarah Jones’ work, I have been playing with mirror diptychs and the notion of ‘black on black’ (this draws in connections to Ad Reinhart and Kasimir Malevich too, of course). The ‘content’, in case you are wondering and can’t make it out (if you can’t, that’s partly the point) is 1/32 scale plastic soldiers, which means the photographs are also at least partly about the muddied waters of nostalgia and loss. I’m also intrigued by the inverse of this, which would be intentionally overexposed shots, perhaps like Malevich’s white on white squares, so in other words letting so much light into memories that they literally burn up in the process… Anyway, here are the photographs. (I’m actually delighted by the fact that the thumbnails just look like black rectangles.)