Category Archives: photography

Book: Photography After Capitalism, by Ben Burbridge

Publisher: Goldsmiths Press // Pages: 240 // Date: Dec 2020

In 2011, a contemporary artist and a US council of war both made use of a series of photographs taken from satellite imagery. The artist was Mishka Henner; his Libyan Oil Fields appropriated the aerial views of petroleum extraction in that country which are freely available on Google Earth. The facilities appear high res, and, as has been noted, there are less interesting locations in the Libyan desert yet to warrant so much photographic detail. Henner was only the first to make use of these shots. The same year there was a US strike on some of these targets with some 110 Tomahawk missiles.

The same year, another contemporary artist, Andrew Norman Wilson, got interested in the activities of Google, by filming employees in and around the corporate headquarters in California. One important role was to make digital photographs of books for Google Scholar, but those workers were only given ‘white badge’ status, and hence lost out on some of the privileges (free food, etc) given freely to their colleagues. Though his 11 minute film, Workers Leaving the Googleplex, has a wry connection with early cinema (See Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, 1895), its more straightforward purpose is to draw attention what happens when photography becomes menial work.

In Enjoy Poverty: Episode III, a 2008 film by Renzo Martens, we meet a group of Congolese wedding photographers who, instigated by the artist, attempt to boost their income by selling images of conflict to Médecins Sans Frontières. Their considerable efforts are rejected in what makes for a very uncomfortable scene in which the artist acts as broker with the client. And it appears that only Western photojournalists can be permitted to make reportage.

What these three projects have in common, besides inclusion in the book Photography After Capitalism, is a concern with the more sinister aspects of contemporary imaging. From oil to systemic poverty via the digital academy, photography is everywhere. Artists who churn out examples of so-called poverty porn in order to condemn capitalism are not doing enough. It appears here that artists need to address photography’s role at the heart of capitalism, and Burbridge demonstrates page after page that fortunately many already do.

But even that might not be enough. Critical art also enables left-leaning fans of critical art to feel that merely by consuming politically engaged art they are doing something. This issue is grappled with by many artists today. Yet even the high earning players in the art market have a critical edge, without which they would lose status and stock. It’s a problem. Burbridge does not call for the storming of the Googleplex, but he does agitate for more incisive photography projects and new social models which photography can facilitate.

Renzo Martens, for example, has been instrumental in the establishment of a white cube gallery at a former plantation in Lusanga, DRC. Will it change much? The implication of its inclusion within these pages is that, locally, it makes a difference. And indeed once you’ve seen those pictures, and once you’ve read this galvanising book, you need never look at a photography exhibition at your own local white cube in the same way again.

Photography After Capitalism documents the loss of innocence given rise to by ubiquitous images, the digital era, and mining for the components of smart phones. But the book also points to the experiences of photography, those projects of resistance, which might one day grant us innocence afresh.

Purchase Photography After Capitalism from The Photographers’ Gallery Bookshop here.

Our City, How Do We Look? @ BPB2016

Brighton Photo Biennial 2016 will look at the way photography fosters our understanding of style, the body, gender and subcultures. It is arguably the biggest visual art event on the city’s calendar, and this year the month-long festival issued a call out to BA students on Brighton Uni’s acclaimed photography course.

Four chosen artists, who appear to come from all walks of life, will feature in one of the busiest exhibition spaces in town. So if you’re passing Jubilee Square, do take some time to take in Our City, How Do We look? I spoke with the talented group at local music festival Together the People.

© Chynna Guyat, 'Eva Petulengro', 2016
© Chynna Guyat, ‘Eva Petulengro’, 2016

Interview: Chynna Guyate

It is at once a comfort and occasional source of alarm that Brighton’s sartorial flair extends to residents of all ages. So in putting together her show, Guyate has looked for “the elderly who defy age and disability and dress how they want to express themselves”.

Brighton may be thought of as a city for young people to see and be seen in, but Guyate is drawn to those who have seen it all before . “These people need a voice,” she says of her subjects, “Because they’re just as great. That’s why I picked up on the older generation”

While aware that it might sound like a cliché, the second year student was inspired by her own 91-year-old grandma, who was living with dementia. “Despite that she loved dressing up, styling; she had all these crazy clothes. I just thought, Good on you!”

Her show came together over three sun-drenched weeks this summer and Guyate recalls “going around and seeing who’s about, clicking away”. She staked out her subjects from cafes and soon learned how to get up the nerve to approach strangers in the street.

“These people were fairly rare,” she points out. “So when you see them it was, Right, just got to go and do it.” The result is a portfolio of straightforward portraits and glimpses such as you or I might catch of these older denizens one hesitates to call eccentric.

All the same, Guyate does report an encounter with a man festooned with keyrings, who was pushing his own wheelchair, and a woman on the beach playing a tambourine to the seagulls. “That was pretty interesting,” she tells me with wry understatement.

Old people clearly have to work hard to achieve visibility. But Guyate finds in their “crazy colourful clothes”, an intriguing reflection of our “crazy colourful city”. Expect a crazy and colourful display during BPB16.

© Jennifer Jackson, Kelly, 2016
© Jennifer Jackson, Kelly, 2016

Interview: Jennifer Jackson

After several moments talking with Jackson, it seems there’s more to gender than male, female, and trans-one-way-or-another. The third year photographer introduces me to the term non binary to describe a group of people who subscribe to neither gender norm.

“I use ‘them’ and ‘they’ pronouns rather than he or she,” they advise me and their portrait-based show is about making visible a diverse non binary community which was a lot larger than Jackson at first expected it to be, even in a city with a vibrant LGTB scene like Brighton.

Not that one can make assumptions about the sexuality of people who might simply be gender queer: “There’s a lot of people who identify very differently within it and express their non binary very differently,” says Jackson.

Although on the boyish side of feminine, this photographer looks fairly conventional. “A lot of people who are more openly non binary might present in a more radical way,” they say. So, the show is not short of telling details in clothing, modifications, tattoos, and hairstyle.

“But there are a lot of people who are non binary who are exactly like everyone else on the street,” Jackson tells me. “Maybe very feminine, or very masculine. Other people are androgynous. So I think it’s impossible to tell. It’s just a feeling really.”

Whatever the case, it is a feeling which is safer to express here in Brighton, as compared with the far flung northerly region where the photographer originates. “In Cumbria there are still difficulties in being accepted,” they tell me. “I can’t imagine anywhere being as accepting as Brighton is.”

© Sophia Wöhleke, 2016
© Sophia Wöhleke, 2016

Interview: Sophia Wöhleke

Although Brighton has its share of fashion chainstores, it does more than most cities to redress the ecological and ethical balance. Look no further than the North Laine and London Road, where second hand shops encapsulate something of the spirit of this city.

Now in her third year, Wöhleke came from Marseille to join the BA in Photography and having done so she brings an outsider’s eye to what seems to be a growing proliferation of thrift stores, upcycling workshops, leather workers and cobblers.

With an avowed interest in “sustainable fashion”, Wöhleke makes clear: “We live in a consumerist society where little emphasis is placed on the durability of items. Brighton is a city where there is a trend of people going against that”.

So the well-travelled photographer turned her lens on the retailers hitting back and stalked the city’s most bohemian streets to find alternatives to Top Shop etc: “I wanted to look at it from a grassroots perspective while focusing mostly on little shops in order to gain an understanding of how people make a living without succumbing to the consumerist culture that exists elsewhere in Brighton”.

Most businesses were open to participation in a student project. “The first place I photographed was an alterations place. The owner only opened the shop last year and she sometimes has to work nights to finish her orders on time,” says Wöhleke. “She was open about how she works and didn’t mind me photographing anywhere, she helped me out quite a lot.”

Her industrious subjects were also open about their working environments; “I wanted to bring the different layers of the shop into the pictures because I wanted to get a sense of the amount of manual work and time that go into running small businesses like these”.

Wöhleke uses a medium format camera to capture all that rich detail. Her only remaining challenge: finding room for a tripod.

© Judith Ricketts 'Basil Chap' 2016
© Judith Ricketts ‘Basil Chap’ 2016

Interview: Judith Ricketts

A show that combines fashion with the realities of Brexit may sound unlikely; the Leave campaign was marred by many things, not least the double-breasted blazers of its chief protagonist Nigel Farage. But third year Judith Ricketts is interested in both all the same.

Ricketts has responded to the referendum by finding EU nationals living in Brighton and taking their portraits in the city they have thus far called home. Subjects were invited to choose a location that had personal meaning and dress to represent themselves to the world.

The concerned photographer reports a general reaction of shock to the outcome. “People were saying they felt very much under the microscope,” she tells me. “Because the vote was most focussed on immigration and before that they were part of the landscape”.

Ricketts’ interests in home and displacement may stem from her African-Caribbean parentage: “I was wondering how that moment in time changes peoples sense of belonging in a city, because one of the things about this city is, I think, it’s always very, very multi-cultural.”

The resulting show brings documentary up flush against a conventonal fashion shoot. But the photographer in question sees fashion as political. “It’s a complete identity statement,” she tells me, before adding: “Our identities are fluid. They change depending on who we are, who we are with, and where we live”.

In the case of this show, subjects were persuaded to meet in town at seven or eight in the morning and talk about their experiences of the disaster known as Brexit. (“You have to make that connection really quickly!” Ricketts tells me.)

“Most people I photograph become my friends,” she adds. “They become part of my own identity, because I use it as an opportunity to get to know different kinds of culture.” This attitude, which realises we are in fact lucky to mix with different nationalities, is refreshing, even in Brighton.

Our City, How Do We Look? is a Photoworks/Together the People co-comission for Brighton Photo Biennial 2016. Work by all four photographers can be seen in Jubilee Square, Brighton, between 1-30 October 2016.

Clue: Cold, Stefano Amoretti and Mino Tristovskij (2014-present)

sample 3

Long after his death, forensic photographer Luigi Tomellini has become an ‘artist’. Producer Stefano Amoretti and photographer Mino Tristovskij have put him in a book and a show.

This could not have happened had not his analogue photography lost its value as evidence gathering. The very obsolescence of the medium gives these documents a certain poetry.

No one could question the purpose of his vision, of the vision of a hardworking forensic snapper. Tomellini’s work has put criminals behind bars and served justice to the victims of crime. One hopes.

If poets are still the unacknowledged legislators of the world (unlikely), police photographers, CCTV directors and (at times) courtroom artists are the acknowledged prosecution.

But none of the prints in the show will make it to the situation room or the courthouse. It is Amoretti and Tristovskij who have latterly developed his vast collection of negatives.

Nearly 30 years ago, these negs were found in a rubbish bin in Genoa. But one man’s trash is often another man’s meat (especially if the other party in question are artistically inclined).

The duo behind Clue: Cold developed Tomellini’s output using a traditional emulsion technique, implicating themselves in the investigation of early 20th century crimes.

By way of an important footnote, the forces or law and order were using photography only a few years after the technique was invented. This began as far back as the 1840s.

One remembers that photography perhaps only has a minor history as an artform. Aesthetics comes in second to pragmatics. But this show turns that worldly fact of life on its head.

Clue: Cold can be seen at Gallery 71a, London, on 24 March 2016, before travelling to Treviso and Genoa in Italy.

Amore e Piombo @ Brighton Photo Biennial 2014

2014-10-31 14_Fotor

The years of lead (or anni di piombo for you Italian speakers) lasted from the late 60s to the early 80s. Thanks to festivals in Venice and the anni di amore are still in full effect.

As a result this is one of the only exhibitions where you can reasonably expect to find photos of the Hollywood A-list alongside those of victims of social unrest. Dead victims, that is.

1976 may be some time ago. But the fate of Vittorio Occorsio still provokes dismay. You can see his last photo, a body falling from a car, blood making rivulets on the asphalt.

The deceased was a magistrate, and since his day job entailed chasing up links between a black Masonic Lodge and Italian neofascists, it’s not hard to guess where to lay the blame.

Suffice to say, whatever your leanings, the press photos of the aftermath will appall you. The blood is still wet and the covert struggle between political extremes is still fresh.

Nearby are press photos of the unfortunate Aldo Moro. The Red Brigade killed five bodyguards in order to kidnap this former prime minister, head of the Italian Christian Democrats.

After 55 days imprisonment, he too was killed. But the evidence is not as graphic. The facts of his death are not as alarming as those of the brave magistrate. And this is an interesting problem.

Since the Terrorism Act of 2006, even the attempt to justify the way of the gun is a criminal act. So far be it from me to explore the strange nostalgia which so many of these agency snaps provoke.

But Italy in the 1970s really was a land of extremes. Of the many photographed demonstrations in this show, there are various mobs agitating for divorce, the monarchy and a ban on French wine.

The situation appears volatile. There may be as many demonstrations in our day and age, but the many millions who in February 2003 marched against war in Iraq barely caused a ripple.

If we can draw a conclusion from that, we might say there is no hope and no alternative. And yet in the years of lead, you had more factions running about left and right than in a Pynchon novel.

But the presentation of terrorists alongside filmstars here in a museum library is tantalising. The path of armed resistance is not so far from the stuff of movies. Can we even get away with seeing that?

Amore e Piombo: The Photography of Extremes in 1970s Italy is at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery until 2 November 2014.

Jakob Dahlgren, Peinture abstraite (2001 – present)


Artists often go too far. Sometimes it can seem that any art worth its salt has to do just that, to show some form of excess, to do something inordinately repetitive, or of course skilled.

Jakob Dahlgren’s thirteen year-long durational project will have many scratching their heads, asking what is the point? But to provoke that very question seems to be the point.

The Swedish artist has worn a striped t-shirt every day since 2001. There’s not much more to it than that. Although, apparently, he invites people to ‘curate’ the wardrobe for him.

It might not sound too impressive. He has an archive of 1000s of numbered shirts. He has as many photos on an Instagram site. But the work’s very lack of gravity could indeed be his point.

Dahlgren calls the work Peinture Abstraite and that smattering of French is not putting on airs. It is rather puncturing the work of those who have been historically content to paint coloured stripes.

People are still painting stripes. In austerity Britain they are probably at it right now. And Dahlgren compares this no doubt serious endeavour with just so many sartorial decisions.

He wouldn’t name names, but the artist said he drew inspiration from a range of artists whose work he didn’t very much like. He doesn’t like them, but they engage him.

In turn, you might not like his t-shirt project. But if you are reading this, it is hoped that Peinture abstraite has engaged you in some way too. It fights fire with fire, decoration with decoration.

And the fact he has just gone too far with the t-shirt idea, sporting them at weddings and funerals alike, just makes me warm to this deceptively simple piece.

For the stripe painters out there, fear not. Dahlgren is not above picking up a brush, dusting off a worn t-shirt and painting what he sees. There’s no getting away from it.

Peinture Abstraite can be seen at Fabrica, Brighton, until 26 May 2014. Check out Dahlgren’s Instagram site for more images and see the artist’s website for more info on the project.

ASCO, Asco (1975)

© 1975 Harry Gamboa Jr
© 1975 Harry Gamboa Jr

Patti Smith, writing in her memoir Just Kids, says that by walking a city you can come to own the very streets. She and lover Robert Mapplethorpe attempted and achieved as much in New York City.

But that was Manhattan and, to point out by way of a cliché, nobody sane walks anywhere in urban sprawl Los Angeles, home of East Coast art ensemble Asco.

Here you see a daring alternative strategy for owning a boulevard. Put bodies on the line, spell out your collective identity, and shoot the entire scene with a cinematic gloss.

Of all the photos shot by Asco in the 1970s, and 1975 is a peak of sorts, the one above is perhaps exhibits the most exemplary mix of horseplay and bad attitude.

And in the same way we project ourselves into certain movies, an Asco photo can make you want to be there. Oh to be young, glamorous, and at large among the bright lights.

But at the time of making, Harry Gamboa Jr., Patssi Valdez, Gronk and Wilie F. Herrón III and their associates were anything but superstars. In Hollywood, Chicano superstars did not exist.

In response Asco made promotional stills for movies that did not exist. The photos, dubbed No Movies, press the same buttons as the real thing. This is conceptual art with magic dust.

Yet the word spelled out above, Spanish for nausea and disgust, becomes a real spell. Here where they own the city, where they own the night, who can say what reconfigurations are taking place?

We now have Chicano A-listers. Uma Thurman, Jessica Alba and Salma Hayek are all of Mexican descent according to IMDB. Say, they would really be great in an Asco No Movie.

ASCO can be seen in Asco: No Movies at Nottingham Contemporary until January 5 2014.

Sean Smith, Swindon, 1994

(c) Sean Smith
(c) Sean Smith

This surely isn’t a complete picture of Swindon in the 1990s. And the town’s name sits at a variance with many of the other locations where Sean Smith has been to work.

A current show in Kensal Green takes visitors to Palestine, Beruit, Johannesburg, Sarajevo and Kabul. But this town in South West England has thrown up one of the most disturbing scenes

Clearly, taking heroin is quite absorbing. You wouldn’t know there was a third figure in this room: a man with a camera. How does Smith get himself into so many wrong places at the wrong time?

Thanks to him, we too can explore this room unseen. We note the childrens’ toys in the foreground. Observe the syringe-behind-the-ear fashion statement.

We might assume this woman is a mother; she doesn’t look like a stereotypical addict. But neither does this too-young man. Is it his own mother? In that possibility lies the full shock.

Mothers tend to their children. Children do not usually tend to their mothers. Once she might have fed him milk from breast or bottle, now he tenderly shoots her up with scag.

Perhaps it is time to end my ongoing ridicule of my own mother for some of her fussier habits: covers on sofas, silverware for special occasions, candles at family meals.

She too is an avid photographer, of a different stripe. Pleased now, that my own appearances in family snaps are in well-appointed living rooms not empty flats like this one.

But this is still a domestic scene. Nowhere is it written that heroin use and household management can’t go together. Maybe that’s what makes this photo so subversive, its apparent normality.

The sofa, the toys, the natty pink trousers: these all make it a homely scene. But the spoon, the needles and the tourniquet are completely out of place and unheimlich.

All these tensions hang in the air. And there are plenty more conflicts in the surrounding works, split between a chapel and a crypt in W10. The subterranean venue adds even more atmosphere.

It may be true that, as TS Eliot wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality” But there are surely dangers in not getting enough. For this alone, visit Smith’s show if you can.

Sean Smith: On the Margins shows in the Dissenters’ Chapel, London W10 4RA, until June 26 2013. Venue best approached from Ladbroke Grove. See map!

David Dawson, Mirror in Studio (2004)

Like many a good artist’s studio, that of Lucian Freud required a mirror. And when David Dawson was in the studio it would have become a rich metaphor.

Freud‘s longterm assistant was also a painter. The master would also paint Dawson. And Dawson in turn made portraits of his employer – photographic, like the one here.

But in this shot, Freud is conspicuous by his absence in the room, then conspicuous again by his absence in the mirror. The brushes and the marks on his wall stand in.

It almost goes without saying that Freud is all the more present for being invisible. Just as he seems ubiquitous ever since he passed away last Summer.

Dawson is also absent, bur only up to a point. This is no baroque conceit like Las Meninas in which the artist includes his own mirror image in the composition.

Instead he gives the impression of this being an objective view of both ends of an empty studio. And in its way, that too is a bit of trickery.

It is a trick which captures the sad reality of this space on a top floor in Holland Park  Freud can no longer be here. Dawson, after 20 years service, has no reason to return.

David Dawson: Working with Lucian Freud can be seen at Pallant House Gallery until 20 May 2012. See gallery website for times, etc. Click here to watch a video interview with Dawson

Mocksim, Contra-Invention (2010)

To those who say, I could have done that when faced with contemporary art, here is a project that you really could have done. The catalogue provides instructions.

Mocksim’s show comprised some 200 photos of illegally parked cars. 1) check the parking ticket; 2) visit the Penalty Charging Notice website; 3) enter a code; and 4) retrieve your artwork.

The artist notes that data is also available about the make and model of the camera used by each traffic warden, along with shutter speed, aperture, focal length. The mind boggles.

But the final exhibition still represents a lot of work, as much pounding of pavements as a so-called civil enforcement officer. You would have needed some time to emulate it.

As social minded art, Contra-invention seems very honest. We do not have many wars, famines or plagues in Brighton. But we do have zealous parking restrictions.

Part Two of the project presents photos of wardens at work. Using another cheap camera (a cameraphone, in fact), Mocksim now appears to be working in tandem with his subjects.

So there does not appear to be all that much difference between the artist as flaneur and the traffic warden. He snaps them. At times they snap him (see picture above).

No one much wants their portrait taken at work. But the shots reveal a tolerance and resignation which redeems this hated job. If you too could do that, then great. Go make some art.

Contra-Invention appeared as part of Brighton Photo Fringe in 2010. Thanks to the artist for sharing documentation with me in the form of catalogues. See Mocksim’s website for details of other projects.

Hala Elkoussy, Al-Khawaga and Johnny Stories (2011)

A film in the back room tells the story of Sein, who seems to be in perpetual flight around the city of Cairo. In piecing together her story, the artist may also be piecing together ours.

Like Sein, we find ourselves lost in the city or at least the shop at 87 Sandgate Road, in which the memories pile up on the wall. In places the postcards, adverts and photos are ten deep.

The colonial past is everywhere: in adverts for stationers and soap, in baroque architectural flourishes, in notices for travel agencies selling us the pyramids.

Egypt has just had a revolution, but this was not its first. It was not even its second. But with each convulsion of revolt, the country tries to move away from British or Western influence.

The 1,000 killed in Tahrir Square might not have even been there were it not to mark so-called Black Saturday, and the 1952 murder of 50 Egyptian police by our occupying forces.

Given the amount of blood shed during the Arab Spring so far, it is embarrassing to look from the walls to the collection of books which Elkoussy has laid out on a central table.

Thrillers and travel yarns tracked down on Ebay and via the British Library catalogue remind us that Egypt has long been considered a playground by the West, albeit a mysterious one.

So her installation implicates. If you’ve ever enjoyed a film about mummies or a visit to the British Museum, there are mirrors on the wall in which you see yourself.

The surrounding ephemera points to at least 1,001 stories in this Arabic city. And it may come as a surprise to find how many of them involve Johnny, in other words you or me.

This work can be seen at Folkestone Triennial until September 25 2011. See organisers’ website for more details. And read my interview with Hala Elkoussy here.