We are always being influenced

By , February 4, 2016 3:36 pm

No matter how hard we try to pretend that we are doing things our own way, the fact of the matter is that there is very little we do which is original. Almost all the photographs we take will be informed or influenced by others we have seen in the past. Often that influence is gentle, almost hidden, but occasionally it is quite blatant.

Consider, for instance, this image which I took at a wedding shortly before Christmas. It was long service and I was exploring the rear of the church with a newly acquired (and utterly sublime) 56mm f1.2 on a Fuji X-Pro 1, when I saw a young girl playing with the votive candles, as I pulled the viewfinder to my eye I already new it was an image I had seen before.

Girl with votive candles

Girl with votive candles. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2015

The image it conjured in my mind was by the photographer David Seymour (aka Chim), of a girl called Tereska. The original caption for the photo said:

“Children’s wounds are not all outward. Those made in the mind by years of sorrow will take years to heal. In Warsaw, at an institute which cares for some of Europe’s thousands of “disturbed” children, a Polish girl named Tereska was asked to make a picture of her home. These terrible scratches are what she drew.”

Tereska draws her home, by David Seymour/Magnum 1948

Tereska draws her home, by David Seymour/Magnum. 1948

Clearly they are very different subjects, with one traumatised by war and concentration camps and the other presumably having had no experiences other than a safe a secure upbringing, and I am not trying to draw specific parallels between the two. But equally it is clear that the compositional elements of the older photograph by David Seymour of Magnum were informing the decisions I made as I moved to take that photograph in December.

Good things come to those who wait

By , February 3, 2016 7:43 pm

Yesterday I began work on a new long-term commission, and was struck once again by the way that the smallest of things can resonate with you as a photographer. I have many things in the pipeline at the moment, all of which I have been plugging away at for months if not years. Now, it seems, all those hours of careful cultivation are about to bear fruit. My creative allotment offers many wonderful opportunities to harvest. But I am aware that I have neglected this, my blog.

Back to that moment of resonance, in a tired building somewhere in the UK. I opened a door, probably the thirtieth such door I had opened. On the wall opposite someone had written the message:

Good things come to those who wait

Derelict room with sink and faded carpet

Image from the series “Dreams once played here”. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2016

 

As the dust settles

By , May 8, 2015 10:59 am

At ten o’clock last night the polling booths closed, and the exit poll was announced to gasps of disbelief by just about everyone… except me. My only surprise was that the exit poll was only suggesting that the Conservatives would be the biggest party but still short of a majority. I have been saying to anyone who would listen that there would be a Conservative majority, albeit a slim one, but everyone told me I was wrong.

It was not wishful thinking on my part, as I was not specifically looking for a Tory win. I foresaw the result because it was blindingly obvious if you stopped looking at the polls, and started to look at the broader political picture in the UK. The point at which I became utterly certain of a Tory majority was during the three way Question Time debate on the BBC. The audience gave all three mainstream leaders a hard time, but they tore Miliband to shreds. With almost any other audience I would not have been especially struck by that fact, but this was a Leeds audience – a Yorkshire audience. This was a traditional Labour heartland audience. The fact that that audience would not, could not, give Miliband an easier ride was a strident warning light on the election dashboard. At that point any lingering doubts I might have had were removed, and even if the Labour high command saw that warning light too, it was by then too late for them to “pull up” and avoid the crash.

The consequence of this is more nuanced and interesting than any of the pundits are suggesting, or might even have realised, and the lessons to be learned must be learned by both the politicians and the electorate.

Firstly there is the shift in the nature of British politics. Without electoral reform – which is not guaranteed by any means – the century of either Labour or Conservative majority governments is now over. But rather than the complex options of minority or multi-party coalition that the media has been chewing over for months, it will be a new choice of either slim Tory majorities or socialist/left-wing coalitions. Labour as a majority governing party is finished for at least a generation.

general election polling packs

Preparing the papers for the polling stations at a general election. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2015

Secondly, while many Tory supporters will be pumping their fists in the air at the prospect of unbridled power and the ability to push through their entire legislative programme, the reality is that all such plans will have to be tempered. The temptation is to say that the majority, no matter how slim, gives them a mandate to pursue their manifesto commitments, and with the kind of majorities that have existed in the past they would be right. But this is not that kind of majority – the spectacular results of the SNP in Scotland have put paid to that. David Cameron told the country as a whole at the time of the Scottish Independence referendum that he “passionately” believed in the Union. He must now prove that. An old majority would have allowed him to ride roughshod over the wishes of those who might not have elected him because those people would have represented an even spread of the Union. But the reality he wakes up to is a majority government with no legitimacy north of the border. Constitutionally it does have legitimacy, but electorally it does not, and how he and the Conservatives govern must take that into account. Anything less and the Scots will never forget it. Cameron faces the extremely effective double act of Salmond in Westminster and Sturgeon in Holyrood. Miliband may have lacked credibility and strategy, Sturgeon and Salmond do not, and Cameron needs to be smarter and more effective than he has ever been, and that might be too much for him. As things stand the vote in Scotland is similar to that for the referendum – the SNP may have won virtually all the seats, but thanks to the vagaries of first-past-the-post about 55% of the Scottish electorate did not vote for them. Consequently the opportunity exists for good leadership to strengthen and reform the Union, but the jury is out on whether Cameron is anything more than an effective middle-manager; he has yet to demonstrate the qualities of a national leader.

Then there is the Labour strategy: where did it go wrong? The lazy answer is that it went wrong the moment the Labour party elected Ed Miliband as its leader. I am sure he is a decent and honourable man, but political leadership demands many qualities, and most important amongst them is credibility. It might seem cruel, but that does not make it any less true. To put it another way, if all hell was breaking loose around you, would you want to be standing next to Bear Grylls or Alan Carr? Alan Carr might be a lovely bloke, but I don’t see him rescuing me from an avalanche. It doesn’t mean that he couldn’t or wouldn’t – he might actually turn out to be the best person to have in a tight situation, but it is the kind of thing you would only discover through chance circumstances. If you were putting someone on standby, you would choose Grylls because of the credibility factor. Ed Miliband was always lacking that credibility, and it was always going to count heavily against him, and, ironically, as we all know his brother David did not suffer that shortcoming. But ultimately the decisive factor was the tone the Labour party took under Miliband’s leadership: theirs was the politics of envy. It was at all times about bashing those who were well off, those who had done well and were continuing to do well for themselves. The problem with that approach is that it is divisive. It necessarily encourages an “us and them” attitude, and inevitably requires everyone to determine whether they are “us” or “them”. At no time, especially when things are tough, does division encourage people and nations to pull together for the common good, and a great many people (including people who are neither well-off nor succeeding) are instinctively turned off of politics that discourages success. This is not to say that all of Labour thinking was necessarily wrong, but rather than it was packaged in a way that was negative and discouraging. If Labour is to rebuild its base irrespective of whether it remains “old Labour” or returns to a more Blairite “New Labour”, it must address the way it deals with aspiration, and join the politics that encourages, celebrates and rewards it.

Finally there is the lesson that all politicians will take from the Lib Dem results. For at least ten years, and likely much longer, the electorate and the media have bemoaned the way politicians insist on playing party politics. “Why can’t they be more consensual? Why can’t they put political considerations to one side and work with each other in a more compromising way?” In 2010 the Lib Dems did precisely that. They put their own interests to one side to provide a mature and stable government when it was so desperately needed. They had to compromise, and the lion’s share of the compromise had to come from them as they were the junior party in the coalition. They could have chosen to be obstructive. They could have chosen to throw a spanner in the works at every opportunity to protect their political ideals, but they didn’t. Instead they did what the electorate and the media have so often said they wanted to see politicians do. And now they have been annihilated for it. Every politician returned to Westminster today will look at that and see clearly the effect on their position of open compromise and consensual politics: they get shafted by the electorate. So the next time you ask why politicians can’t be more cooperative with each other and stop playing party politics, remember that we all played our part in making them behave that way.

All that is required for evil to triumph…

By , January 27, 2015 4:20 pm
Work will set you free. The entrance to Auschwitz. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

Work will set you free. The entrance to Auschwitz. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

Suitcases of Auschwitz inmates. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

Suitcases of Auschwitz inmates. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

Some of the prosthetic limbs removed from Auschwitz inmates. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

Some of the prosthetic limbs removed from Auschwitz inmates. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

Watchtower and barbed wire. Auschwitz. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

Watchtower and barbed wire. Auschwitz. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

The ovens. Auschwitz. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

The ovens. Auschwitz. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

Watchtower, tracks and endless fences. Brzezinka (Birkenau). Auschwitz. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

Watchtower, tracks and endless fences. Brzezinka (Birkenau). Auschwitz. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

…is for good men to do nothing.

Holocaust Memorial Day.

What’s in a box?

By , January 22, 2015 1:36 pm

The news today is dominated by talk of an impending vote on cigarette packaging, and more specifically on making it plain. But if we are being honest, describing the proposed packaging as plain is at best disingenuous. As far as I am concerned, this is plain cigarette packaging:

 

Plain fag packet

This is what plain packaging really looks like.

 

However, the intention is that “plain” packaging will look something like this:

 

Intended "plain" cigarette packaging as currently sold in Australia.

Anything but “plain” cigarette packaging as currently sold in Australia.

 

It is amusing to listen to pro-smoking lobby groups argue that “plain” packaging won’t make any difference to smoking uptake by the young, while the advocates for the change argue equally vociferously that it will. Both of them are lying, but for very different reasons. Starting with the tobacco companies, if their argument was correct you would have to ask why historically they all invested so much time, energy and creativity into their packaging, advertising design and branding. My suspicion is that they would be only too happy to settle for truly plain packaging (see my example at top), since they know it would have little impact on their overall sales and market share. Meanwhile the legislators and anti-smoking lobby are quick to say that packaging and branding influences the young and persuades them to start smoking, and that for that reason they need to have an “anti-branding” campaign (against smoking per se rather than a specific manufacturer or brand) to scare the daylights out of people based on the impact it might have on their health.

The great thing about being an adult is that you were once a youth yourself, and if you try hard enough you can remember exactly how you felt about things and reacted to them. So here is something I remember very clearly from my youth, an advert for Benson and Hedges:

 

Benson and Hedges Pyramid Ad.

Benson and Hedges Pyramid Ad.

 

I was at boarding school at the time, and I remember a friend, Kevin, sticking this picture up on his wall (along with the many others that the brand released over the period). I thought that this was so cool. Did it make me want to smoke? No, it made me want to be a graphic designer or a photographer (funny that – perhaps it was cigarettes that got me into what I have been doing for the last 20 years!). Did this advert make any of my friends want to smoke? No. It may well have influenced what brand those who did smoke chose to buy, but none of the very clever advertising of the time compelled people who didn’t light up to start. But to be fair the prevalence of cigarette advertising and the ubiquity of people smoking will have influenced a lot of teenagers into thinking that it would be OK if they did. Society did not treat smokers as pariahs in the way it does now, and there can be little doubt that alone has had a huge impact on persuading many never to take it up who might otherwise have done so. But the fact is that some people will always choose to smoke anyway, just like some people choose to take drugs. Indeed it can be the very illegality of it which creates an appeal that is unavoidable. As a result, a part of me wonders whether the “plain” packaging proposed might be less effective than genuinely plain packaging. After all, there can be very few people who are not totally aware of the negative effects of smoking on health, and from the point of view of teenage rebellion, nothing is more of a turn-off than bland.

What’s my point with all this? Partly it is wondering where the limits of state interference in people’s lives should be. Yes, smoking is harmful to your health, but it is still legal, as are many other things which are also harmful to your health. Are we going to go the same way with alcohol? What about sugary products? How about driving – should cars be “plain” by which I mean emblazoned with pictures of contorted bodies of people killed by not being careful enough? What about extreme sports? At what point are my choices MY choices, and is it time for the government to back out and leave us to live our lives as we choose? Increasingly the bean counters are looking to tighten everything to reduce the burden on the state, and while that is understandable surely there must be limits?

I am not a smoker, and I support the legislation that has been enacted over recent years. I love the fact that I can breathe in a pub or restaurant and not come home smelling like an ashtray after a night out. I would not like my own children to start smoking and the overall move to reduce its visibility and therefore acceptability is welcome. But if within this prevailing climate a free person chooses to smoke who am I to castigate them?

One sad part of all this is the effect on creativity within the industry. Cigarette packaging has a long history of great design, and the skill of the artists and designers over the years has been to tap into the prevailing zeitgeist and both reflect it and shape the styles of the times. To work on a small space and create something which reflects society and its sensibilities and fashions is a fabulous skill, one which has now been replaced by proscription and fear. It is a dying art and the death is happening elsewhere for different reasons too – think of the record or CD cover, slowly becoming irrelevant in the era of the digital download.

 

A discarded Gitanes package in Paris I photographed and made into an artwork which adorns the wall of another Kevin I know. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1992

A discarded Gitanes package in Paris I photographed and made into an artwork which adorns the wall of another Kevin I know.
Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1992

 

The real reason I started this post is that the news reminded me of a grave I happened across about a year ago. Hidden in the undergrowth of the cemetery of St Mary’s Church in Bexley, less than a quarter of a mile from where I am sitting as I write this, is the headstone above a different box: the coffin of Walter Everett Molins. The headstone was so unusual that despite its hidden position I was convinced he must be a man of some significance, so I took a photo and looked him up.

Molins was born in New York, the son of Jose a Cuban who made cigars and hand rolling cigarettes in Havana in 1874. Jose came to London after a period in the US (when Walter was born). In 1911 Walter and his brother Harold invented a machine which could make almost any type of package, and in 1912 they set up the Molins Machine Company. In 1924 their Mark 1 machine was making 1000 cigarettes a minute and by 1931 they had also set up in Richmond, Virginia: the heart of the US tobacco industry. Walter invented a number of machines and packages for the tobacco industry, the patents for which still exist today, and indeed it was his son, Desmond who having joined the family business invented and patented the hinge-lid pack in 1937 that is so ubiquitous today, and is the basis for all the discussions about the design which should or should not exist upon them. Interestingly Philip Morris relaunched the Marlboro brand in 1954 using the Molins’ designed pack, and it was instantly successful with a 50 fold increase in sales. Perhaps the legislators should be looking at the physical design of the cartons rather than what is printed upon them!

What, I wonder, would Molins make of the discussions today? He is quite literally the father of the modern cigarette pack, but he was an engineer at heart, and no doubt he would simply have worked the problem like all engineers do. The company he created still exists today. Molins PLC had sales of £105.2 million in the year to 31 December 2013, with bases in the UK, the US, Canada, Holland, Brazil, Russia and Singapore. Not bad for figuring out how to pack a few fags.

 

The grave of Walter Everett Molins.

The grave of Walter Everett Molins. St Mary’s Bexley. Molins invented much of the machinery used in the manufacture and packaging of cigarettes, and his son invented the modern flip-top cigarette carton. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2013

 

We too shall pass…

By , January 20, 2015 3:07 pm

In the normal course of our lives we meet thousands, if not tens of thousands of people. We do things for them, and they do things for us. Or, perhaps, we get in their way, or they get in ours. We may only exchange a few words, but we impact upon each other.

Today the news is focused on Anne Kirkbride whose sad death has affected so many, and yet the irony is that the vast majority of those distressed by her passing will never have been in the same building with her, let alone exhanged words. Meanwhile faceless people slip away everyday, their passing noticed only by the few with whom they were initmately connected, and yet it is just possible that they will have had a more profound, more lasting impact on a great many more people throughout the their lives. One such person is Gail Swann.

Gail Swann - General Nursing Assistant. Photo from Phineas' Friends. © Michael Cockerham 2011

Gail Swann – General Nursing Assistant. Photo from Phineas’ Friends.
© Michael Cockerham 2011

I met Gail twice, I think. The first time she was caring for my critically ill son, Phineas, then three weeks old while he was at the Evelina Children’s Hospital. My only recollection of her at that meeting was that she was calm, warm and professional. The second time was when she sat for me for my project Phineas’ Friends. Again, she was calm, engaged, polite and professional. I am not entirely certain that she was sure what I was trying to do, but she knew that my intentions were honourable and she was keen to be involved.

I found out today that Gail died from cancer last month, and I was struck by just how saddened I was to learn of this. Perhaps it is because I could so readily put a face to the name, that I could recall exactly how she influenced my life – the lives of my wife, my other children, my family and friends – and most especially Phineas himself. Gail may not directly have been the one who saved his life, but she was utterly instrumental, and as a part of that team, as a part of Phineas’ Friends, I am eternally indebted to her.

In some respects I am lucky. I know who Gail was and I could say thank you. But there will have been thousands, tens of thousands of people whose lives she will have touched over her career, who would have wanted to say thank you to her but never thought to do so until after she was no longer involved with them. They may not have known her name, or the specific role she played in treating them or their children, but if they had I have no doubt that they too would have been upset to learn of her death. They too would have mourned her and wanted to say good bye and the “thank you” that escaped them when it was appropriate. They would have wanted to express their sympathies to Gail’s own daughters.

Perhaps I can do it for all of us: Gail, thank you. You will be missed.

A very special publication

By , November 17, 2014 1:47 pm

It has been a bit of a publishing fest at Blue Filter. Along with notification of A Good School (now available to order online), I am also pleased to announce publication of WAKE.

WAKE is a highly personal body of my own work, which depicts the funeral, burial and celebration of one of my closest friends. Neil died quite unexpectedly in January of 2013 leaving his family and friends stunned and numb with disbelief. Some years previously Neil had asked whether I would be an executor on his will, and I had agreed, remarking loudly at the time that I thought it might give me something to do in my seventies.

Neil was probably my biggest fan, and I had no doubt at all that he would want me to photograph his funeral, and I knew that somwhere the resulting photographs would help me come to terms with his death. He owned the business next to mine, and we shared office space, and after a while I became aware of the truth of what people say about grief coming over you in waves. The more I thought about those waves the more the word “wake” came into my thinking. How apt it is.

Committing Neil's body to the ground.

Committing Neil’s body to the ground.

It is now nearly two years since his death, and I have revisited the photographs as we have finally reached the conclusion of our duties executing his will. I wanted to make something that was at once transient and permanent, so I conceived of a magazine format publication. Magazines are by their nature disposable. But occasionally we come across an issue which strikes a chord, and we keep it; treaure it even.

WAKE is strictly limited to 51 copies, one for each year of Neil’s life, and most of the edition has already gone. A few remain. If you would like to have a wave of his life wash over you, even though you may not have known him yourself, you can order a copy here.

A Good School – new book from Blue Filter

By , November 14, 2014 5:23 pm

I am pleased to announce the impending publication of a significant new book from Blue Filter.

A Good School – A History of Michael Hall by Joy Mansfield, Brien Masters and Stephen Sheen is published on Sunday November 23rd priced £20.00. More information about the book will go up in the next few days.

 

UPDATE: A Good School is now available to order from Blue Filter. Deliveries will go out from November 23rd. More information is avaliable in the books menu of Blue Filter.

A Good School - A History of Michael Hall, by Joy Mansfield, Brien Masters and Stephen Sheen.

A Good School – A History of Michael Hall, by Joy Mansfield, Brien Masters and Stephen Sheen.

A rush of blood to the head

By , September 8, 2014 2:03 pm

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about Gwyneth Paltrow recently. Well, more accurately about that rather ridiculous phrase she coined when announcing her intended divorce from husband Chris Martin: conscious uncoupling.

Not that I am considering divorce, you understand; and I am reasonably confident that my wife isn’t considering it either, although you never know. It’s never a good idea to be complacent about these things, and perhaps that’s the point.

I have often said that if I hadn’t been born English, and could have made a choice, I would have chosen to be Scottish. I fell for the country, the people, the history and the culture the first time I went. But the reality is that my understanding of what it means to be Scottish is inevitably warped by virtue of my not being such. So what am I? The truth is that on the occasions I have ever been asked that (only when I am overseas) my reply has always been: British. I have to think about it to say “English”, but “British” comes naturally and without thought. Why is that?

Camden Grove, Chislehurst. Only the alarm bell boxes and the parkign restriction sign put this image in the 21st century. April 29, 2011. Photo © Michael Cockerham

How do we perceive ourselves? Photo © Michael Cockerham

Am I unusual? Do my English peers regard themselves the same way? I think they may, and that the growing interest in English nationalism has been born not of instinct, but from the clamor of nationalism in other parts of the United Kingdom. But the mistake for the English has been to assume that the other parts of our union have seen themselves in the same way. Clearly they have not.

So what has this got to do with Mr & Mrs Martin? I don’t know whether they both wanted to split, and I don’t much care. But what that phrase tells us is that both of them decided that it was for the best if they went their separate ways, maintaining a cordial relationship for the sake of the children (interested parties affected by the split but with no say in the matter). The ‘uncoupling’ was a conscious decision on the part of both parties. The impending Scottish referendum is qualitatively different. If the Scots and those residing in Scotland who also have a say, chose to vote yes, it will for them be a case of conscious uncoupling. But the rest of us in the UK are in this marriage too, and any such uncoupling will be far from conscious.

I am starting to feel like the husband who sits at home keeping an eye on the kids thinking everything is rosy, only to have my wife come home to say she wants a divorce. “Why?” I ask plaintively. “I thought we were happy together?” “You took me for granted and I want something else from life,” is the reply that comes seemingly out of nowhere.

The standard response from the husbands in this kind of drama is to say, “Give me another chance, I can change.” I think we can all see that if the Scots do give the union another chance then we will have to change, and change profoundly. But making such pleas is desperate, pathetic and too late. So what should we (predominantly the English, because I think the Welsh and Irish would be quick – and right – to distance themselves from any culpability in this) do to persuade them to vote “no” on September 18?

In the end I come back to how I have always seen myself: British. The reason I do not see myself as being English is because somewhere in my ancestry I have absorbed a part of what it means to be Scottish too. I am proud of what the Scots and Scotland have achieved over the last three hundred years because I see it as our achievement too, and I hope that the Scots have taken a similar reflected pride in the accomplishments of the Welsh, the Irish and the English. We are, all of us, better for the things we bring out in each other, and it seems to me that gaining independence would give a short-lived sense of nationalist pride for those north of the border, and there may even be some practical benefits, but how long would they last?

So it is an emotional plea then. To my many friends in God’s country, I love you, and it don’t want you to leave. You make me what I am, and deep down I think you feel the same way.

Don’t go: you complete me.

So what did I do?

By , May 5, 2014 5:24 pm

I cannot believe that six months have passed since my last post. I don’t think I have stopped, so time really does seem to have flown. For the moment, though, I shall make this brief. I note that my last post was about the launch of the Nikon Df. I got a chance to play, and while it is nice, I really could not get comfortable with it. So what did I do? I bought the D4, which feels almost exactly like my D3 did, but with a few tweaks here and there. In the end it’s not the camera, or the glass, it’s how the person behind it sees the world. That’s what matters.

art deco, eltham palace, 1920s, beauty

An image made a couple of days ago.
Nikon D4 50mm f1.4 AFS

Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2014

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