Suburban Bus

This is the first book, I have purchased by the photographer Alejandro Cartagena. Whilst I was studying Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at University of the Arts London, in 2014-2016. I came across another two of his works; Before The War and later A Guide to Infrastructure and Corruption. I found his work was totally reflective in the sense that here is a man, who initially is not a photographer, but has an interest in observing the surroundings he finds himself, and documents his native country as though he were an outsider looking in. Quietly, unseen and able to create the most remarkable images, without fear of provocation or recompense. Alejandro Cartagena has an interesting eye, his journey from Juarez - Monterrey - Juarez, is an incredible piece of work. The fact he was travelling on a bus journey, documenting the changes happening around him, inside and outside of the bus, covers a multitude of people whose lives, and aspirations are shared through the lens of his camera. We do not know these people, we should not judge these people, but we learn that they too, are just as ambitious, have families to visit, have jobs to go to, they’re living and moving towards their own goals. A worthwhile book, which is worth seeking out.

Fill The Frame

New York City is home to many photographers. However, the latest street photography offering; Fill The Frame (Director: Tim Huynh). Focuses, on the not so well known, but a diverse cast of street photographers, Jonathan Higbee, Paul Kessel, Dimitri Mellos, Julia Gillard, Lauren Welles, Mathias Wasik, Melissa Breyer, and Melissa O’Shaughnessy. Whilst the cast may seem diverse from a gender perspective and background. The cast does not feature any African-American or Asian-American photographers. Where is Andre D. Wagner, what about Corky Lee, and Eli Reed et al? 

Sadly, Young Kwok Lee passed away. Lee, who was committed to both reestablishing the artistic and documented contributions of Asian-Americans to the authentic record and to archive their present-day lives and battles, particularly those living in New York, passed on Wednesday in Queens. He was 73 years old.
His longtime partner, Karen Zhou, said the cause was Covid-19. He had been receiving hospital care for much of January. We are in no doubt that, Corky Lee leaves behind a legacy of work, that can only strengthen the cultural history of an iconic city. New York City, is well documented and this collective of photographers, puts their stamp firmly on a different perspective, albeit with the support of known artists like Jeff Mermelstein, Joel Meyerowitz, Richard Sandler and Matt Weber. There is also a string of interviews that tell the narrative through Colin Westerbeck author of Bystander 1999, and Michael Ernest Sweet. Street photography is an ever-changing genre in photography. It encompasses the past through analogue means and the future through digital technology, during one of the interviews Jeff Mermelstein elaborates on the beauty of iphonography with an iPhone. How it works, and how seemingly easy it is to have a camera on your phone, it is lightweight and versatile. What more could you want to document the street? The film touches on the discovery of the late Vivian Maier, and how her discovery leads to re-writing the history books. Vivian Maier style was primarily candid street portraiture, it underlines what is missing from street photography, and the documentation of children living their lives in the city. Helen Levitt was just one practitioner who regularly practised this art form. 

Images today are focused on geometry, linear, light, shadow and multi-layered. Whilst the film does touch upon this, it feels like a skimmed edit. It leaves you asking questions but wanting much more. Everybody Street, this is not. The film doesn’t feature a music score that states hipsters much watch this, but there is an underlying narrative. It does feel nostalgic watching this documentary play out, especially when the reality of a worldwide pandemic spells it out, how are these photographers fairing today? Following them around the city and the generic background interviews adds a little more depth to the feature, especially with a frank and open chat with Jonathan Higbee, leads to a world street photography award, for his cover image of World Street Photography Book #3. Admittedly, this film focuses on a new wave of photographers young and old who enjoy documenting life for what it is in the Big Apple. Well worth seeking out, whether you want to swoon over the images, or are just beginning to get into street photography as a means of self-expression. This film has a great feel to it. However, the downside is it doesn’t feature photographers whom I would have liked to see featured. Overall its a great introduction to street photography from an up and coming film director. 

Invisible City

Recalling some post-apocalyptic vignette from the 1980s meets a maelstrom of dark gritty aftershock inhabitants of East Village, New York. The work printed by Steidl is reminiscent of the layout and aesthetic of the oeuvre of Daidō Moriyama. Gripping and a very real sense of anxiousness when experiencing the gaze of the photographer, let alone as a voyeur in the confines of my apartment. The feelings I get when viewing the images are strangely all too familiar. I’ve been here before I’ve witnessed a similarity in the work of Anders Petersen’s Cafe Lehmitz and yet, this is the work of one of Americas most underrated photographers Ken Schles. All three photographers choose a monochromatic aesthetic, to convey a sense of being ‘in the moment’, it isolates the context of the subject, whether it be some drug user, a pair of lovers, a prostitute or even a menacing-looking dog. If colour were present, it would only detract from the startling content we are privileged to witness in this analogous document. I perused two of his books; Night Walk, and Oculus being the other. His work is a very dark aesthetic that adds more drama to the story of the images, which I like (a lot). Okay, the books are not overly large they measure 9.1 x 6.81 inches. Compared to a landscape photographer’s book, they’re relatively small. However, the photographs pack a punch and the book is extraordinary and is well worth the money spent. 

Self Isolation

Countless companies today follow a particular rhythm and mindset whereby, it’s tantamount to George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. This is like Michael Hodges has stated; going on for years, they either want you to conform to their ideal or they do not want you. This is disconcerting, as it contradicts the term democracy, particularly in a postmodernist world. Though this is no ordinary postmodernist world, this is a world that has self-harmed. Early reports came in late December 2019 from a food market in Wuhan, China. The epicentre of the outbreak according to local health authorities it was the earliest case that was announced by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission had shown symptoms some weeks later. Although, it did not report on the human-to-human transmission, which could point to the possibility that the Corona Virus had mutated and now named as COVID-19. One can recall a cinematic perspective on such a theme, namely Contagion (2011). A film; which focused on a rapidly spreading airborne pandemic, strangely its origins mirroring that of the very real pandemic, we are all witnessing in 2020. Now, this is very disconcerting but it also points to another interesting and illuminating aspect; a one monetary system world. 

Orchestrated by a global government, it could be an actual truth in the foreseeable future. The thinking behind this process is the now apparent elimination of using cash daily. Because of the recent outbreak, the COVID-19 virus can be transmitted through objects handled by touch. Just like in the afore-mentioned screenplay, we touch ourselves between 3000 - 5000 times a day. Add to that, the number of people we come in to contact with and the numbers are staggering. Then if you work in an office, or are a key worker, that rate increases exponentially. I watch the skies a lot where I live, living under a flight path to a major airport hub. Traffic has decreased, but I see that more and more people are travelling to the countryside or the local park. The local park where it was once considered a tranquil location has now been inundated with hordes of fitness fanatics who, even after being so-called informed by the government and an NHS campaign are still congregating in public areas. On, the upside to all of this is the plethora of creatives who always seem to capitalise on such events in a positive way. If you can recall the unfortunate 9/11 attacks on US airspace and soil. Musicians/ Producers came up with some interesting personal perspectives on the event; Blood On My Hands and Daniel Rossen’s Saint Nothing to name the most hauntingly beautiful interpretations. Also, literary aficionados will no doubt have read with interest, The Reluctant Fundamentalist and The Last Illusion. Two very different novels, but both inspired by real events. 

So, what of the current circumstances with the COVID-19 pandemic? Well, if you watch many YouTube videos, you will have watched how some of these so-called creatives, are suffering from creative block and reposting work they’ve already posted under a new #Title or others spreading their negativity and refusing to accept it is a PANDEMIC and opting to name it a recession! The fall out financially may lead to a global recession. However, a pandemic is a very real threat. Stock markets may have crashed. Fuel prices are being pushed down, shelves are emptying quicker than a supermarket sweep, and Instagrammers are posting photographs of said empty shelves. Fine but trawling the local supermarket, I realised one important aspect to all of this. What do we leave behind, what do we consider non-necessity and what do we consider valuable in a world hit by the crisis? Most of the stuff I found left on the shelves were items that would be needed for someone moving into a new apartment and the nicknacks that accompany peoples lifestyle; cushions, curlers, hairdryers, mirrors, vases and picture frames, even beer was more readily available. Whilst on the thought of picture frames, I recalled a meeting with world-renowned photographer Joel Meyerowitz and his wife English novelist Maggie Barrett. It was during an exhibition of the publications; Morandi’s Objects and Cape Light, I purchased both books. His work has always been inspiring. The photographs of the objects emit a kind of soft warm aesthetic in a rosy light, very pleasing to the eye and convey a sense of the painter, but also depict details that only the camera lens shows. 

It was this book, combined with the empty shelves at the supermarket, that has ignited a creative response to document photographs of still life, of everyday objects we take for granted but, find is no real necessity because of the current crisis. Having trawled through umpteen posts, some creatives have come together musically. Which, I’ve found very entertaining even a family whilst in isolation performing a parody of Les Misérables’ One Day MoreComical, however a very real sense of how people, all over the UK and undoubtedly the world, are keeping themselves entertained and actual family bonding taking place. 

Let us digress a little to photography. I’ve been photographing scenes whilst out shopping for food. Making the odd document for the future. Finding people in isolation and trolling photographs, I took some time ago from my back catalogue of images. I am also anxiously awaiting my batch of negatives from Ilford Labs, more on that when they arrive as I will scan straightaway. I have scanned a series of negs from my time before lockdown shooting the Button Street Badger Band in that well known Liverpool pub, the White Star. The gang vary in ages as they do from their backgrounds and different instruments that they play. Granted I think the youngest in her late sixties, the oldest was someone who is senior and their dad turned up, he was in his late eighties. They all enjoyed the banter, the drink and musicality of each member and the knowledge of the old folk songs. It was a privilege to document these people; I shot several rolls of film, colour and monochromatic. However, the decor was well-dated, and I opted mainly for good old black and white, easier to scan less faff editing the images. Before shooting the band, I was glossing the pages of Anders Petersen’s Cafe Lehmitz, and Krass Clement and his seminal work DRUM. Both photographers utilising monochromatic film. In Petersen’s oeuvre, you will undoubtedly see movement and perhaps form some anxiety regarding the subject, sex workers, punters, pimps and petty criminals amidst a backdrop of alcohol and drug-induced infamous Hamburg red-light district; the Reeperbahn. In stark contrast, the subject of Krass Clement’s DRUM is set against a small pub in Drum, Ireland. The main protagonist is alone drinker, the entire set is dark and the atmosphere one that cuts through the bravado and debauchery of Cafe Lehmitz. There is a certain unease, alas one that produces and reflects the very nature of the pub and those that frequent it and they’re ignorance of a fellow man. The books and photographers are inspiring and trying to encapsulate a combination of the two was hard, especially in the White Star pub, the atmosphere was one of a senior day release field trip, they only hung around every Wednesday for a few hours, so I had to catch them when I could. I got to know their songs even though it wasn’t my usual form of listening, I do have an eclectic taste. Beside the band locals would come and go, have a few pints catch up with the football news and leave. Remember Liverpool is home to two of the biggest clubs in the Premiership, so when they clash on Derby day, you can imagine the atmosphere. Unfortunately that won’t be happening this year, as the current crisis continues, i’ll be keep you posted but please enjoy these images for now. 

Keep Safe, Stay Home!


Robert Frank: Remembered…

Glossing through the pages of one of Americas most profound documents, photographed by one of the most pioneering photographers of his time. A series of eighty-three black and white photographs taken during 1955 -1956 and first published in 1959 and accompanied by a poetic essay written by the most seminal writer of the beat generation Jack Kerouac. A writer with divine improvisational prose, no doubts then that this conceptual photobook became the marker for future photographic monographs. It is in itself a visual poem, for Robert Franks’ photographs are indeed an ode to the real, a homage to the human condition. He scratched the surface of this iconic landscape and revealed the people of a nation plagued by racism and relentless exponential consumption, although this reality defines beauty. It encompasses everything America ever was, a dream, a dream that belies ambiguity. However, Frank captured America’s truth, and from a journalistic perspective that is enlightening. So what of the photographs themselves? Well, over a two-year road trip, Robert Frank had amassed twenty-eight thousand photographs, editing down to eighty-three for the book. A remarkable feat I’m sure which equated to just over a roll of film a day. Reading the images and the stories contained within, one begins to grasp a dark visual literacy to Franks’ work, the Afro-American couple interrupted overlooking the residential area of San Francisco. The road trolley (tram) in New Orleans, with the segregated seating. The images vary from locale to locale, the rodeo at Detroit, a city associated with the Automotive Industry. The bar at Gallup, a city in McKinley County, New Mexico. Then there is the bikers gang at Indianapolis, Afro-Americans looking hip in Denim, that time on those motorcycles is synonymous with iconic actors such as Clarke Gable, Marlon Brando, James Dean and countless others. None the less, let’s retrace our steps a little because, of the most disconcerting aspect of this monograph. It is one I have a problem with knowing that Frank made 28,000 photographs while documenting America for this commission, we now have to accept that this monograph is a representation of the USA. 

Though in reality that must have been a dream too, for Robert Frank, because if you look at other photographers of the day. They documented certain key events that marked changes in American society Central High Hallway (O’Halloran, Thomas 1957) and Van Buren Students (Bledsoe, John 1958). 

So, my question is this; during the time before publication was Robert Frank coerced into ‘an acceptable version’ of his monograph as to superficially hide the ‘truth’ of The Americans? Or, was it, in fact, his artistic interpretation of America. If we scrutinise the landscape of America, two decades earlier, we will discover that it was well documented during The Great Depression, certainly an era that wasn’t overlooked by protagonists Walker Evans (Resettlement Administration 1935-1937), and Dorothea Lange (Farm Security Administration 1936) amongst those, whose work would represent the hardships endured by agricultural workers, pea pickers, and cotton hoers. Arguably by his admission (Art in America, Katz, Lewis 1971), Evans’ work was more objective rather than subjective, citing his photographs did not depict the aesthetic nature of Alfred Stieglitz, whose work was popular at the time. While on the focus of subjectivity, it is here then, we can relate to the work of Robert Frank, as it is the poetic phenomena of The Americans, those critics found difficult to accept; everyone knew those sort of things existed. It is how they are depicted, that makes the photographs much more idiosyncratic, somewhat even emotional, a certain strangeness. Moreover, Robert Frank was an emotional artist, his peers even confirmed his pessimistic wit. So too, do the photographs in the book show a kind of self-awareness, a reflection of how Frank perceived the human condition. As a collector of photographic monographs, this is a book that I wished I had purchased earlier, rather than later in my life. It is an incredible book, but not shocking in comparison to other photographers subjectivity, think Minimata W. Eugene Smith, master of the photographic essay in my opinion. 

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