…is for good men to do nothing.
Holocaust Memorial Day.
…is for good men to do nothing.
Holocaust Memorial Day.
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:
However, the intention is that “plain” packaging will look something like this:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
After all the teasing, we have the outcome, but is there an answer to my earlier question?
The fourth video in Nikon’s teaser series was set in that wonderful city of Edinburgh, and it reminded me of this photo which I took while I was there to deliver a speech just under a year ago. I was, as I recall, pacing the bitterly cold streets trying to arrange my thoughts in some coherent order, and looking for inspiration when I came across this scene.
I rather like the quiet contemplative nature of this image, which was very much at odds with what you do not see, namely Princes Street with pre-Christmas bustle. It was taking this image that started to give order to my thoughts, and the speech I gave the following day was a great success as a result. Perhaps then, when you view the fourth of the Nikon videos, the reason why I should think of this one image will become clearer. But it also raises some questions, now we know what the tease was all about.
With great fanfare, Nikon have launched the Df. A full-frame DSLR with retro styling, and more than a nod to the idea of beating obsolescence. I will not embark on a detailed review of what this machine can and cannot do, as there are more than enough equipment fans doing that already. What I am more interested in is whether the marketing is just hype, or whether (as the title of these posts suggests) there might be some substance to go with the style.
To be fair to Nikon, they have created a camera which is backwards compatible with all but three (I believe this is correct) of the lenses that have been created for the venerable F mount. Suddenly lenses which may have had no value in the modern age will have an attraction for the very real and different qualities which they can bring to image making. That is not just style, it hugely expands the range of tools available to photographers. It is something which no other camera manufacturer could do, with the exception of Leica. Canon and Minolta and all the others abandoned their lens mounts around the time that autofocus was invented in the late 1980s. Nikon, however, took the view that cameras were not as important to photographers as lenses, and the Df is a natural extension of that philosophy. It is a philosophy for which they should rightly be praised.
One of the other intriguing things about the pre-launch tease was the suggestion implicit in the six videos (the fifth and sixth are at the bottom of this post) that “pure” photographers are British and love Scotland – which is of course true! The “pure” photographer is a refined person who likes to be at one with his or her thoughts, and the image making comes as a deep-seated emotional or visceral reaction to the circumstances in which he or she finds themselves. It is undeniably poetic nonsense. But like all such things, it rings with an element of truth, and that resonance is what makes the marketing so successful. The world is overrun with people who want to be “photographers” not because they are interested in the world around them, but because they like the idea of the way it makes them look – serious, comtemplative and erudite; at one with the real issues of the world. It is a kind of mock-bohemian ideal, a 21st century equivalent to the 60s beat generation. Photography in the digital age offers a fast track entry to creativity with none of the apparent hurdles of training, skill or talent. The reality is of course at odds with this, and we find ourselves drowning in a sea of visual sewage, to paraphrase Grayson Perry in this year’s BBC Reith Lectures.
Nikon’s launch of the Df yesterday was accompanied by suggestions that it was a future classic. Many have suggested that this is wishful thinking, but the truth is that only time will tell. My interest in this camera comes about only because I was about to buy the D4, and it stands to reason that I would want to see if this camera could meet my needs as a working photographer. On the face of it the answer is yes, but looking deeper I have some reservations which will only be resolved once I have had the chance to try it for myself. Each of the reservations is a little thing taken on its own, but collectively I think they undermine Nikon’s attempt to create the “future classic” for “pure photography”.
Firstly, it stands to reason that Nikon would assume serious photographers attracted to the Df would frequently already be Nikon users – hence the desire to make it backwards compatible with the entire lens lineup since 1959. That suggests such people would already be using cameras like the D4, D800, D3, D2 etc. All of these cameras use only, or offer the choice to use, compact flash cards. The Df, however, is SD card only, and while the other cameras mentioned have dual slots, the Df appears only to have one. The dual slot is not just about capacity, it is also about backup. With film photographers when they were processing, but in the digital era it is not unknown for memory cards to fail, or for cameras to suddenly format data for no apparent reason. The dual slot gave workign photographers the chance to work without fear about the security of the images, so by offering only one slot with the Df, Nikon has undermined the attempt to give photographers that relaxed and carefree walk through the highlands which the marketing promises.
Secondly, my cameras get used heavily, and while the D4 has a shutter mechanism tested for 300,000 cycles, the Df is only tested to half that number. True, it is only half the price of the D4, so one could buy two, but it necessarily leads one to wonder how well built the Df actually is. The marketing material says that it has the weather-sealing of the D800, but frankly if I want to be out in Scottish weather, I think I would rather have a Nikonos. OK, I am taking the mick, but the D4 would have no problems with inclement conditions – I would be a bit more circumspect with the D800.
Thirdly, even in the days before autofocus, one of my favourite cameras was the Minolta X700 with its motordrive, which allowed for an extra shutter release with the camera in portrait orientation. All of Nikon’s pro-spec DSLRs have either had such a release built in, or available as part of an optional battery pack. Not so with the Df. Admittedly one of the draws of the Df is that it is very light for what it is, the portability being its great selling point compared to much heavier bodies, but that is at odds with its purist ideals – if the purist of purists Ansel Adams could climb the mountains of Yosemite with a 10×8 Deardorff I think we can cope with a couple of extra ounces – one might argue that a purist’s camera would cater for all approaches. Indeed, the mechanical marvel that was the FM2 had the option of a motordrive, so it does seem an odd ommission not even to have the possibility of this being introduced later for the Df. Just in case you are wondering, I have seen nothing written about this anywhere, but a simple view of the bottom plate of the camera shows that there is no lug-hole to allow registration with a pin one would normally expect on an accessory batter pack.
Finally, there is the styling itself which I think is a distraction. Don’t get me wrong, I love dials over buttons, but it seems to me that all of the things Nikon wanted to achieve with the Df could have been done without the retrostyling for its own sake and that includes the dials. In the final analysis, pure photography is actually about what you are taking a picture of, and not what you are taking it with.
The outcome then is that it is almost all style without substance. Aside from the facility to use any Nikon lens made, nothing about the Df is revolutionary in any way. Is it any good? Like any other camera it really depends on who is behind it and their relationship with what is in front of it. I will reserve judgement until I have had a chance to play. It may well be that I get one, but it will be because of whether it will cope with what I throw at it, not because of what it looks like.
Nikon have clearly engaged a new marketing strategist for their latest (impending) release. As the third in the series of teaser films goes public the internet (well, that part of it that has nothing better to do than speculate about things that haven’t happened yet) is awash with rumour, claim and counterclaim about what the new offering will or will not do.
Everyone is claiming as fact that it will be called the Nikon DF, and it is being said that this stands for “digital fusion” (so, not a reference to Nikon’s single greatest achievement, the F mount then?). But the most interesting chatter revolves around the fact that it will, apparently, be a retro-styled camera. The reason this is interesting is because so much weight is being placed on its importance, but I have yet to hear a reasonable explanation as to why this matters.
I am all for cameras which make it easier to concentrate on the moment and not get bogged down in buttons and menus, so if the proposed retro-styling will deliver that, then good. But in my experience there is more than a grain of truth to the adage that form should follow function, and style for it’s own sake is pointless and expensive in what is for me a working tool. Perhaps the most persuasive argument against making cameras pretty can be taken from my early experience with the Fuji X100 – a lovely little camera that was also given retro styling. In my experience that styling became a hindrance because I want to be invisible with my camera, but in the case of the X100 I have often had to fend off potential subjects who were attracted to me not because of what I was doing, but because of how pretty the camera was.
I just hope this does not apply to the DF or whatever it ends up being called.
Nikon are milking this for all its worth. Epsiode 2 in their teaser campaign has just been released.
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