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.
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 More. Comical, 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!
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.
Ever just stared at the shelves of a magazine stand at the front covers of the art photography magazines and cast your eyes on the likes of Aesthetica, Black + White, BJP (British Journal of Photography), FOTO8, Inspired Eye, or even LensCulture and wondered if there was a magazine specifically aimed at the genre of ‘Street Photography’? I’m a subscriber of StreetHunters.net and now again our good friend Spyros Papaspyropoulos will do a book review, I’ve done a few myself which you can find here. Recently the guys had a good look at a seemingly new kid on the block; EYESHOT. Comes in the format of a softcover similar to the aforementioned mags. The cover photograph is square lending itself to those who use Instagram to vent their creativity to instantly like it, (see what I did there). The collection of photographers the magazine reads is exceptionally wide-ranging from Dougie Wallace, Jonathan Higbee, to the likes of Vineet Vohra and Gisele Duprez, and many others. The Editor in Chief is Marco Savarese who founded the publication in 2017. It seems not to rival other publications, but because it represents a specific genre, it enhances them, and so too I think other publications seem to make it stand out even more. Inside the covers you are greeted with some very nice blurb about the publication, it’s creator and the stories and photographs contained herein. The pages themselves are printed on Fedrigoni X-PER Premium White paper so quite a bit of weight as you would expect. The photographs vary from white and black backgrounds, which seem to enhance the images. Some are really quite colourful (Vineet Vohra) others just seem quite surreal in a monochromatic style. The content itself has covered recent street photo festivals and on the website, you will find who it specifically partners in the guise of LSPF, ISPF StreetFoto SF. Whilst this does come across as too isolationist and not a wide-ranging representation of other Street Photography Festivals think Miami or Photo Athens for example. The plethora of amazing photographers are definitely what keep me hooked in this publication, the work of all is so very inspiring for this art form. Another interesting aspect to the publication is the limited printed copies available, once they are SOLD OUT! they certainly are. However, all is not lost you can order a digital PDF version which, I’m sure if you are willing to print that out you’ll get by.
For any serious collector of the seminal work of William Eggleston, will know that this is no mere slight brushstroke of his oeuvre. William Eggleston famously said of his approach to photography; “I am at war with the obvious”. This statement seems to amplify the banal, colourful, intrinsically linked subject matter. Whether it be a ceiling, a shopping mall carpark, views from restaurant windows or bottles of soda. These recurrent themes are what draws his followers of this dissenter to his artform.
An Eggleston photograph identifies every day, yet he is at war with the obvious. A twist then that may isolate some critics but, also support and strengthen their respective theory. That yes, the work may seem familiar and boring, but of course, they are right. He is one of many colour photographers; the list seemingly growing. Others have tried to copy his style but failed not having the required tenacity for such a thematic or, indeed a sense of the vernacular language of his photography. Just as the photographic language of Saul Leiter is a very different perspective, it is still an observation of everyday life. I’ve always been a fan of his colour palette, but also, I have been a fan of his early monochromatic work. However, when I view those photographs, I yearn for them to be in colour. Your sense of visual literacy becomes accustomed to a particular style, you learn to appreciate the obvious. Hence my affinity with William Eggleston, he is not an out and out documentarian in the photojournalistic vain, but he is a documentarian who has influenced many a photographer.
Certainly, his style seems to influence a middle-class English photographer in the guise of Martin Parr, who has published work of colourful cakes and indeed a book aptly titled The Non-Conformists, seems to assert the close relationship with the obvious, these photographers both share. If you’re looking for a post-modernist perspective on social documentary, then this book really doesn’t define itself as such. However, if you’re looking for a book that gives you an insightful perspective on post-modern colour photography, and how colour highlights certain eccentricities and characteristics of southern aristocracy then this is, definitely well worth seeking out.