Category: Profiles

It’s tough to be Independent.

By , February 13, 2016 10:53 am

The sad, albeit inevitable, news of the demise of The Independent as a printed publication reminded me of an interview I conducted some 17 years ago with Colin Jacobson. The interview was about his brilliant Reportage magazine, and foretold its inevitable closure in print form. Much like The Independent today it was compelled to become an online resource, but considering we are talking about 1999 when the web was in its infancy, it was a poignant indicator of the way things were going. Why is this relevant? Jacobson was probably best known for being the founding editor of the Independent Magazine back in 1988. The Independent may be highly regarded for the quality of its writing now, but in its heyday it was universally admired by photographers for the quality of the images it used, and the prominence with which it used them. That drive to make photographs of primary rather than secondary (or space-filling) importance within the paper was in no small part due to Jacobson and those with whom he worked, and it attracted photographers of the very highest calibre to work with them. When other publications shunned black and white for being an anachronism, The Independent proudly proclaimed that it was the quality of the image that mattered, and to photographers that mattered and the paper and Jacobson were seen as their champions.

The interview may be older than the digital revolution, but what it has to say is just as pertinent now. The online version of Reportage is still available, although has not been updated in fourteen years. Here’s hoping that the Inde online is more successful.

 

 

An Interview with Colin Jacobson

 

As men of vision go, Colin Jacobson is an unlikely example. Soft spoken, bespectacled, and, it appears, utterly at ease with life. But looks deceive, and he definitely has a vision, albeit one which by his own admission is self-indulgent.

In 1993 Jacobson launched Reportage, a magazine for quality black and white photojournalism. Image led, it was inevitably hailed as a Picture Post for the nineties. But poor business decisions and Jacobson’s reluctance to compromise on quality led to its demise in 1995.

At about the same time, the arguments about the death of photojournalism became a favourite in the pages of the photographic press. Perhaps it was coincidence. Nevertheless, the received wisdom was, “nice try, but the genre’s dead.” It was, therefore, something of a surprise when Reportage was relaunched in the winter of 1997.

Working in London’s Shoreditch, Jacobson is now guiding his creation into the second year of its second incarnation. It’s make or break time and, quietly, he knows it. Files and papers all around him an exercise in controlled chaos; the hum of his Mac standing in for the insects oddly missing from a humid summer’s day, he took time out to consider how he had reached this point in his life.

Jacobson’s career seems in retrospect to have been grooming him for Reportage.

“I started as picture researcher for The Sunday Times Magazine in 1971. At the time it was a very strong magazine with topical features. They had Don McCullin going out to Vietnam. It was in the tradition of front-line reporting. My job was to find photographs to illustrate texts that were already written. It was a very good learning school because at that time it was definitely the most influential magazine in the world.”

From there he moved on to become photo editor on the Economist, before working on a short-lived but interesting magazine called Now.

“It was the first real attempt to launch in the UK a news magazine a bit like Paris Match, or Stern – a kind of hybrid between that and Time or Newsweek. A lot of text at the front and back but the centre of the magazine was visual. You always had a strong photoessay in the middle, which was usually news related. A lot of our stories were the first to be published in the world, like the Reagan assassination attempt, which we got out very quickly the day after. That was a fast moving magazine but unfortunately it closed after eighteen months because it wasn’t making any money.”

Did that set the seed for Reportage?

“Not really. Where you could say it planted a seed was my realising that the best photography always comes from a particular individual’s perspective. The way the photographer sees the story is the difference between ordinary photography and memorable photography.”

Another lesson he took from Now, was that a good picture magazine does not need high profile writing staff. The major input should be visual not textual. But he is adamant that this is not the same as saying that good captioning and well written text cannot enhance an already powerful set of pictures.

“Despite the fact that Reportage is an attempt to swing the balance towards the visual, as opposed to the textual, I do believe very strongly in good text. Photojournalism means context – photography in journalism – so it requires good headlines, good intros, good captions, good text to make it all work. I have a couple of volunteer slave labourers who help with the text. I hope that the text is not just throw-away, I am really trying to avoid that.”

From Now he moved to the Observer Magazine as photo editor for six years before a very brief excursion to another short-lived paper, News On Sunday. When that closed after only eight weeks, he freelanced for a year, editing the photography for Chronicle of the Twentieth Century before landing the job for which he is probably best known, founding picture editor on the Independent Magazine in 1988.

“The first few years of that magazine we achieved something really quite special in British magazine journalism. But all these things have a kind of life, and after a few years somebody decides on a change for no apparent reason. I left the Independent in 1995 just after the Mirror group bought the paper.”

The fact that he started Reportage while still working for The Independent is telling. Such a massive undertaking would put most people off.

“My spell at the Independent made me realise that nobody was doing the stories that we began to do. Once we started showing we were prepared to do black and white stories, and not about famous people or lifestyles, we started getting a lot of submissions. I realised just how much work there was out there that wasn’t getting published.

After three years the Independent Magazine got a new editor who wanted to make it more glamorous – much more like any other magazine really, and less like the magazine it had been. That’s the point at which I started Reportage because I wanted to find a home for this work which was either not being published at all, or if it was, it was very truncated – maybe just one big picture and a little one, and that was it.

It was a shame that somebody was spending a lot of time on a good story, producing maybe ten or fifteen excellent pictures, and then no one could see them. So I started the magazine in 1993 with the hope of providing an alternative to the mainstream magazines.”

Reportage is characterised by its high quality – quality paper, quality printing, quality design, and of course the quality images. If his motivation was to publish unseen work, surely it would have made more sense to compromise on the quality in order to reduce costs, lower the cover price, and give the magazine a greater chance of success?

“It was a time when the broadsheet magazines were going towards newsprint, so the reproduction was pretty mediocre. I wanted something that was going to be more collectible. I knew it was going to be expensive to produce anyway, and that it was not going to be a cheap magazine to subscribe to, so I felt people would want to get something of value.

It was an expensive subscription, particularly for a quarterly magazine with not that many pages. It started out at £12 in 1993. I wanted to persuade people that this was worth having, by having something well printed, and well designed; something that people wouldn’t just throw away like most colour magazines these days; something lasting, which in a sense, put together over a year would be a bit like a small book. You had an investment in something which you could keep.”

In the editorial to the pilot issue, Jacobson wrote that “in the minds of most people the distinction between photography as self expression and photography as a documentary tool still exists.”

“I think the guidelines are being merged more and more between documentary photography, photojournalism, and press photography. You could say that reportage is a kind of “catch all” description. But I think press photography is becoming dominated by digital technology, and to my mind suffers. What is paramount now is speed. The speed at which you can get something on the page. I think that is having a destructive effect on press photography generally, if you look at the quality overall of national newspapers in Britain today.

At the other end of the spectrum is documentary photography. This is becoming much more obscure. Documentary is getting closer to art in that it is more about personal expression than chronicling something out there in the world. It is tending to become more about a subjective assessment of a subject. Documentary photography is a lot more about combining fragments of this or details of that, and putting it all together as a show. I think that’s what has happened a lot in documentary practice. It’s becoming a curatorial product rather than a photography product.

In terms of photojournalism, I think the real problem – in Britain anyway – is that the outlets are going. Other outlets are replacing them. Like the Internet, which is available for photographers to show their work, but they don’t make any money out of it. Photojournalists are finding it difficult to survive. Some are reaching into commercial work and advertising, or company reports – well paid, but not very challenging in terms of being a photojournalist. Others are working in more focussed ways in niche magazines. These specialist magazines have good opportunities for photographers, but they are not going to give the same job satisfaction that photojournalists would get from say the Sunday Times Magazine.”

Does he feel then that the documentary rôle of photography needs to be protected?

“Yes. There is this big contemporary post-modern debate about, ‘is there any such thing as truth; can we ever talk about anything as being objective anymore?’ To me a lot of it is a philosophical game, because actually most people would agree a normal kind of reality. Like if you drop a pen from your hand it will fall downwards and not upwards. You accept this without asking if it’s true or false; it’s a common reality. What I believe is that there is a certain kind of debate about photography which is at an esoteric level of curators, critics, teachers, where a lot of mind games are being played. But I don’t think it is touching the greater public, who by and large still believe, despite all the evidence of manipulation digitally or non-digitally, in what they see in photographs. They accept it as a form of evidence and appreciate it as a kind of contemporary history. The general public are the people I am trying to get to. I am not really trying to get to the people who are happy to reject classical photography as meaningless, because as far as I can see it does have meaning if you want it to have meaning.”

So we arrive at the critics who from the outset felt that Jacobson and Reportage were trying to keep alive something they regard as an anachronism.

“That is a totally valid observation, but in the end you do what you want to do and what you believe in.

Most of what we understand about the past is mediated through pictures – a lot of it photography. Our understanding of Belsen comes very much through George Rodger’s pictures. What I can never quite understand about post-modern attitudes is that if they consider this kind of work as no longer valid, who’s going to provide this kind of history? It’s certainly not going to be through some of the post-modern work we see in the Photographers Gallery all the time. I mean what are people going to think in twenty years time when we look back on photography in the Nineties? What sense of society are they going to get? I don’t think they will get a very representative sense from this work.

I am quite happy to accept that a lot of stuff I publish is very “classical”, but I don’t see that as a pejorative word. Many of the outlets for photography on the page, apart from the mainstream publications, are into the avant-garde, and new ways of seeing. Fine, I have no argument with that, but I think somebody has still got to keep representing this classical stuff.”

If the need for Reportage is as real as he suggests, why did the magazine fold after only two years?

“The big problem with the first incarnation was that we printed far too many copies. We stupidly decided not only to supply subscribers, but also shops through wholesale distribution. We printed substantially higher numbers than we needed. About five or six thousand per issue for the first year, with about three and a half thousand subscribers at the end of that year. Our second problem was that all subscriber based magazines lose a high proportion of their subscribers at the end of the first year. You have to send a lot of letters out to people to remind them to resubscribe. Now it’s fine if you are Time or Newsweek because you can just keep doing it automatically. But every time I set up to do it, it cost me over £1000, and I could only afford to do it two or three times. So that was a reason why we never managed to get back our basic subscriber base. But maybe a lot of people didn’t like the magazine as well I don’t know.”

Having turned to other things, a chance encounter gave Jacobson the opportunity to try again. For most it would have been a case of once bitten, twice shy, but not Colin.

“To be honest, I didn’t think I would get a chance to relaunch. I hooked up with this publisher in Holland who is publishing it now. We met at Perpignan during the first incarnation and he rather off-handedly said he would always like to help. When I bumped into him again I told him what had happened and he asked if I would like to try again if he could raise the money. To which I said sure, I don’t want to lose my own money again! So eventually we did this one-off prototype for the new series. Then he managed to get a grant out of Canon Europe, which took us through to the end of the first four issues, and Canon Europe undertook to provide the same money for the second four issues. So we have that cushion. It’s not ideal to be dependent on sponsorship or grants. What we aim to do is to increase the subscriber base so that we can feel like we are our own people.

With the second incarnation we have a much more coherent strategy. We only print enough for our known subscribers plus some extras. The unit costs have fallen dramatically, but it’s still not cheap.”

Once more he finds himself holding his breath to see if people renew, which is, perhaps, a bigger question than the first time given the big increase in the subscription price since the first incarnation. If being a conduit for good contemporary photojournalism is Reportage’s guiding philosophy, what does Jacobson see as being its future?

“We have always hoped we could achieve a subscriber base of five thousand – internationally – over a period of years. That would be our ideal target, especially when we hit America, which we are trying to do now. Then we would be in a position to commission work, as opposed to trawl it in.”

That kind of support would also raise the possibility of the occasional colour story. While his preference is for black and white he is not averse to colour.

“If I could afford to publish colour I would probably do one story per issue, but it would have to be a special story where colour actually added to your understanding of the pictures.”

Contrary to suggestions that he is antagonistic towards advertisers, Jacobson suggests that quite the reverse is true; he would welcome advertisers, but can’t get them because Reportage is too small.

“My experience is that it’s more difficult to get people in the UK to help or sponsor than in Europe.”

Is this symptomatic of a British malaise? Evidence on the street would suggest not. Photography seems to be going through a renaissance, and black and white is more popular than it has been for years. But how is it seen at the publishers’ level? Jacobson’s view is rather bleak.

“What I detect is a growing disrespect for photography in that it is seen as just there to fill a space. There is no real belief throughout a publication that photography has a contribution to make.”

Clearly his own view is diametrically opposed to this, and his belief is strong enough that he doesn’t take any pay from the magazine. Indeed, almost all those involved in Reportage are giving their services for little or nothing.

There is no question that Reportage is an excellent and unique magazine, and Jacobson will continue to put it together for as long as the money is available. It will be interesting to see how history reflects on the man and his creation. By rights he should succeed. Whether or not he does is down to the greater public he aims at. At £32 for four issues it is not cheap, but then again, things of value very rarely are.

 

Original published in The RPS Photographic Journal

A reasoned approach – Simon Norfolk

By , May 7, 2011 11:13 am

There are a great many photographers that I admire as photographers, but for the most part it is simply the quality of their output that attracts me. Simon Norfolk is a rare exception, someone who admire not only for the quality of his images, but as much (if not more so) for the thought, reasoning, personal politics and agenda that they are embued with.

I came across this short film today about a new body of work that he has been creating in Afghanistan, that references the work of Eighteenth Century commercial photographer John Burke.

Simon has a very clear idea of what he feels about the events going on in various parts of the world, and whereas many photographers drop in to a place “report” and leave, his approach is to make a statement about his views. It is less the supposedly objective reporting that others may (often incorrectly) believe they are undertaking, and more the subjective response as reporting. As a younger photographer Norfolk was often considered quite militant in his pronouncements. With age and experience his methods have become more nuanced and precise, but he has lost none of his anger and desire to hold a mirror up to the follies of the west. Long may he continue in this vein.

Note: The soundtrack does not start until about 45 seconds into the film.

Tim Hetherington

By , April 20, 2011 11:10 pm

The news tonight of photographer-filmmaker Tim Hetherington‘s death in Misrata is shocking and upsetting. I had the pleasure of meeting him first about 10 years ago when I invited him to give a talk to the RPS Visual Journalism Group. I remember him to be thoughtful, intelligent and focused, with a clear view of where visual documentary was likely to go. It was clear then that he had a bright future and his was a name to watch.

It is for others who knew him well to write his obituary (although one piece well worth reading can be found here). What concerns me is the gaping hole that is left by his passing, and what his legacy might be. What made Tim unique was not the methods he employed, but the fact that they were coupled with a genuine passion and empathy for his subjects. He was not judgemental, and it showed in his work – it had soul.

I confess I am ashamed by a thought that forced itself into my mind shortly after hearing the news: the well known story that on learning of his client’s untimely demise, James Dean’s agent retorted, “Good career move.”

To modern ears this seems a crass remark, but in an era that predated the soundbite by several decades, it is more likely to have been a quick reflection on the likely effect on Dean’s appeal. Indeed, this effect is as true for rising stars in acting, music and popular culture today as it was then.

It was once also true for photographers: Robert Capa was at the top of his game when he was killed in French Indochina (Vietnam) in 1954. He was called the greatest war photographer in the world during the Spanish Civil War, and his exploits during World War II did nothing to diminish that view of him. Moreover, with friends like Hemingway and Picasso, and Ingrid Bergman as a lover, his champagne fueled gambling lifestyle and big heart only served to enhance his appeal. Arguably for Capa generally, and his legacy Magnum in particular, his death was a “good career move”.

But with that thought in my head whether I liked it or not, it necessarily posed the question, does it apply in this case?

Hetherington was unquestionably a talent whose star was in the ascendant. He was nominated for an Oscar for Restrepo earlier this year, a film which had already won the prize for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival last year; he took the top prize in the World Press Photo Awards in 2008, and had received countless plaudits since he turned professional in the late 90s. He was widely regarded by his peers as one of the most dynamic and creative people working in photography today.

While the industry as a whole is starting to get excited about “convergence”, Hetherington had already occupied the high ground. He recognised early on that to make a difference it was not enough to shoot stills, or video, you have to grab the opportunities the modern multi-media world offers to get a story across using a variety of tools. Magazines, newspapers, art exhibitions, books, the internet – all have an audience, and the audiences are receptive to the stories you want to tell provided you approach them in the right way.

Hetherington’s genius was that he had started to find a way to bridge those audiences and tell those important stories. None of this was done out of self-agrandissement, but rather out of a genuine desire to give voice to those who are often overlooked. Restrepo (and the accompanying book Infidel) was a perfect example of this. When the public in the UK and America (Hetherington had dual UK and US nationality) became increasingly hostile to the war in Afghanistan, Tim worked with writer Sebastian Junger to show that far from being a simple instrument of policy, the soldiers on the front line were real people doing a hard job in an impossible situation. The point was that if we, the public, have a problem with the policy we should take it up with the policymakers; the soldiers on the front line deserve to be appreciated whether or not we agree with the orders they carry out.

But to come back to my question, when Capa died the world was a different place, and the gap he left was never really filled, not in the same way. With each passing conflict ever greater numbers of photographers have strived to make a name for themselves in war zones, and the impact of the inevitable deaths has been increasingly muted; their names rapidly consigned to history. Hetherington’s death, should be different. It deserves to be if for no other reason than the impact his work was starting to make. But therein lies the problem – it was only starting to affect a broader consciousness than that of photographers and filmmakers alone. Time will tell whether this impact will be the lasting one it deserves to be, but the reality of 2011 is that it is so much harder to make a mark than it was in Capa’s day, and as a result there is a real danger that Tim’s legacy will be left behind by history’s inexorable march and the exponential rise in the numbers of people eager to take his place.

Perhaps we should not be surprised when someone who chooses to spend months in the Korengal Valley dies in a war zone, but his death has shocked everyone. It is a testament to the extremely high regard in which he was held that his name was trending on Twitter (is this really how we now measure a man’s worth?) within an hour of the news breaking, and was the lead item on the BBC by 9 o’clock. Tim was no novice, and he certainly knew the risks in Misrata – his final tweet read:

In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO.

His passing will numb his family and friends for a long time to come, and my prayers are with them all. I shall miss his despatches, his images, his films, and his thought provoking contribution to the world we live in. It has affected me more profoundly than I would have expected even though I did not have the honour of calling him my friend.

In the end I do not believe anyone’s death should be written off in the way James Dean’s was, and certainly in the case of Tim Hetherington, with so much promised, it was not a good career move at all.

The Bang Bang Club – The Movie

By , March 23, 2011 5:58 pm

Look at any forum dedicated to photographers, and photojournalism in particular, and you will find a thread asking for suggestions as to what movies there are about photojournalism and its protagonists. The films are for the most part little more than war porn – action filled adventures full of death, guns, booze and sex, usually with one or more attractive and glamorous heroes toting cameras in the thick of the action.

Well there is a new one about to be released, with the subtle difference that it is based on a true story. The Bang Bang Club is due to have its cinematic release in the United States on April 22 (as yet there is no date for release in Europe). The trailer (see below) promises everything that we have come to expect from these films.

I have no idea, it may actually be very good, but I would hope that it places plenty of empahsis on the fact that of the four members, one was killed on assignment, one committed suicide after finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile the fame that came with his Pulitzer Prize with the public opprobrium he faced for the photo that won the award, and a third has recently lost both his legs in Afghanistan.

I know that the surviving photographers have been involved in the making of this film, and it is based on the book of the same name written by both Greg Marinovoch and Joao Silva (the other two members of “the club” were Kevin Carter and Ken Oosterbroek), so one hopes there will be rather more accuracy than is often the case when Hollywood is let loose on the truth. Having said that, it would be folly to suggest that there wasn’t something inherently glamourous about the life the club led. The problem, therefore, is how to convey the story without spurring ever more young and naive wannabes to pick up a camera and head for a war zone in the hopes that some of that glamour might rub off on them. Most of the time it won’t.

I confess I am looking forward to seeing the film, but I would urge anyone not familiar with the story to read the book first, and if possible see the Oscar nominated documentary The Death of Kevin Carter too. At the very least that will give some scope to strip the truth from the good yarn that the film must almost certainly be.

Watching a master II

By , February 18, 2010 3:52 pm

Over the years I have collected some informative documentaries exploring the work of great photographers. One of my favourites is called Frames from the Edge and concerns the work of the late, great Helmut Newton. Newton was a master of fashion photography with an erotic twist, and his work was always very clearly his. His life makes for interesting reading too, and I can recommend his autobiography published shortly before his death in 2004.

Anyway, someone has seen fit to publish the documentary on YouTube, so I am delighted to bring it to the attention of my readers. Enjoy.

PS   I know that Part 7 appears to be missing – I shall keep a look out for it.

Watch this space

By , February 10, 2010 8:02 pm

The danger of entering photography as a profession in the 21st Century is that of being derivative. We are gradually drowning in an ocean of imagery swelling at an exponential rate as more and more people look to forge careers as photographers. The irony is that many established practioners openly question how much longer the traditional idea of photography might be commercially viable. In the meantime the wannabes churn out work that is little more than a pastiche of the work that inspired them to pick up a camera in the first place.

On the positive side, the more enured we become to seeing the same things endlessly repeated, the greater the satisfaction that arises from catching the glint of a gem in the sunlight. Today I have had one of those moments, and I am going to stick my neck out on the block.

Proof images from Carmel Walsch shoot.

Promotional images shot for Carmel Walsch, a Florence-based Irish shoe designer. © Leo Bieber 2010

While others his age were studying assiduously, a young British boy moved from his family home in Sussex to a flat in Florence in an effort to learn how to be a photographer by learing about life. To put it another way, he set out to become a photographer the old fashioned way. Driven by what is going on in his head and in front of his eyes, his creative sparkle has not been throttled by an over-emphasis on technique. While he is interested in many genres, he has determined that his own innate passions and creative bents should shoulder the burden of developing his eye.

Proof images from Carmel Walsch shoot.

Promotional images shot for Carmel Walsch, a Florence-based Irish shoe designer. © Leo Bieber 2010

I have been watching his work for a couple of years, and from what I have seen his sense of style is unique. Clearly I am not the only one to think so, as he has started to pick up some interesting and enjoyable commissions. Where others his age might be tempted to do the easy thing and make the money, he sees every job as an opportunity to push his creative envelope.

He still has a long way to go, but I think Leo Bieber is a name to watch.

Watching a master

By , November 24, 2009 10:46 am

I have recently started a new project with some students in East London – I will post substantively on that at some point in the future – but suffice to say that for our second session yesterday, I thought we would have some practical fun by taking pictures of each other. None of that digital stuff. Proper photography – large format. I had a box of Polariod Type 55 which I took with the camera, a bucket, some sodium sulphite and some enthusiasm. They did really well.

Anyway, got me thinking about that master of large format black and white, and have just come across this series of old BBC documentaries on him from about 25 years ago. So, why read when you can watch.

Enjoy.

Lament

By , November 18, 2009 11:28 am

Ask any photographer what the most important thing they can have is, and they will answer, “access”. Access is everything. Without it there is no story; there are no pictures. The best will employ guile and a cheeky smile and honest intentions to brazen it out and get what they want. Whether it is Grace Robertson putting on a white coat and posing as a doctor to get into a hospital and get her pictures, or Joel Meyerowitz employing the vaudeville schtick of his father to “accidentally” sit in the lap of a police captain at Ground Zero after 9/11 and gain their favour, the ends are often deemed to justify the means.

The fact is, we live in an overly controlled and regulated world, and the authorities and PR people like to believe that they know what photographers need. Sorry guys – you don’t. If you are not a photographer, you will never know where we want to stand, how important the direction of the light is, what it is that we wish to convey with our images. We know you mean well, but by and large you get it wrong and rub all photographers up the wrong way.

Nowhere is this more true than with the rich and famous. In the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, even the 70s, the rich and famous knew that their very existence depended on a symbiosis with the media. And media moguls knew that sales of magazines were (and still are) hugely influenced by who appeared on their pages. As a result, there was a golden age of access, when photographers were often accorded long, uncontrolled periods with their subjects, enabling the public to have a deeper understanding of who these familiar faces really were: what they thought and felt. Some of the most memorable images of the stars of those eras are a direct result of that easy relationship. Somewhere, though, it faded to dust.

Now the rich and famous want to control every aspect of how they appear in and to the public. Photoshoots are almost always stage managed by PR people – usually with ridiculous demands. My own worst experience was at a studio shoot being told by a PR manager to a Hollywood star that I had 60 seconds to get the photograph – and she was serious. I got what I needed and the picture was published – but it could have been so much better without the intimidation. The point is, it is rare these days to see images of these people that have more than just a veneer of authenticity, and recently I came across some work which has exactly that.

Lorraine Goddard has produced a charming, but compelling body of work depicting household names doing things that make them happy: Christian Slater watching Star Trek; Lord Lloyd Webber swimming in his pool; Vivienne Westwood embracing her husband. All this is done with the aim of raising awareness of, and money for, mental health charities. There is little suggestion that any of these celebrities suffers or has suffered from mental illness, but the effect is stark: it makes you look at these people again and ask, “I wonder if…?” If it can happen to them, it can happen to me. There is such a stigma attached to mental illness, and there should not be, and that is the point that Goddard wants to convey.

She has called the project, Out of Context. An apt title in more ways than one, as I would be lying if I claimed that these were remarkable photographs. Of themselves, they are not. But the fact that she got them, and their effect as a body of work, does, in this day and age, make them significant and worthy of discussion.

So the inevitable question: how did she get the access? Answer: that other favoured method of photographers, and the only one these days which really counts: she knew them. Perhaps not all of them, but she was married to Adam Ant and her experience of his manic depression gave her the impetus to begin the project. She was also (ironically) a PR person for Vivienne Westwood for a year.

No doubt these two facts opened many doors at the time that have only later become tremendously important in helping her realise her project. Of course there has to be more to it than this. Knowing people may open doors, but to keep them open and gain access to new ones relies on being open, honest, loving and trustworthy. Lamentably it was the closeting of these traits that ended that golden age, and made so many view photographers as a whole with a suspicion bordering on contempt. Goddard, clearly, has substance.

Apart from a splash screen of some of the images as tear-sheets from the Sunday Times Magazine, there is nothing more of the work on her website, a pity as I would like to see more. Both the cause and the images are worthy of greater reflection.

Quiet passing

By , November 13, 2009 1:41 pm
Name the ten most significant photographers ever. Go on. Actually, get a pen and paper and write them down… I’ll wait. In fact, post a comment below with your pick before you read any further.

It’s a safe bet that most of the names will be repeated endlessly, and those will be the ones tomorrow’s photographers aspire to match for their legacy if not their style. But there is one that seems to me at least, curiously absent from so many lists: Irving Penn.

Large Sleeve (Sunny Harnett), New York, 1951

Large Sleeve (Sunny Harnett), New York, 1951

Born in 1917 in Plainfield New Jersey, Irving Penn had an ordinary state education before embarking on a course under Alexey Brodovitch‘s tuition at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art.

Brodovitch, himself a photographer of the Bauhaus school, was to prove one of the most influential people in 20th Century photography primarily because of his art direction of Harper’s Bazaar from 1938 to 1958, but his student list from his time at the school is a veritable who’s who of late 20th Century photography. Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Lisette Model, Richard Avedon, Eve Arnold to name a few. But whereas Avedon et al were intent on Brodovitch’s photography class, Penn was looking to pursue a career in what we might now think of as commercial art.

After graduating he took a couple of jobs in art direction on magazines, but dissatisfied he quit and used what little money he had to spend a year painting in Mexico. If he was hoping to find himself it worked, but not perhaps as he expected. Penn’s conclusion was that he would never amount to anything more than a very average painter, so he went back to New York and got a job as assistant art director to Alexander Liberman on Vogue magazine. It was to prove the most important decision of his professional life.

In essence Penn’s remit under Liberman was to suggest photographic covers for Vogue, but fortunately for Penn the staff photographers at Vogue were singularly unimpressed with his suggestions. Under less daring art direction, Penn might have found himself out on his ear, and the history of photography might have been very different indeed. But Liberman liked Penn’s ideas and convinced Irving to pick up a camera and shoot the concepts himself: Penn the photographer was born. It was Vogue’s first colour cover and Penn’s first professional photograph.

Vogue, October 1, 1943.

Vogue, October 1, 1943 - Vogue's first colour cover.

While he was known principally as a fashion and portrait photographer, he produced stunning work in still life, ethnographic, and nude photography. He was remarkable not just for the sophistication, beauty, and layered commentary inherent within his photographs, but also because the work itself was not derivative: it was unique, original imagery. If, like me, you have been enthralled by some of the post Vietnam work of Don McCullin, then explore Penn, because he did it first; while his nude studies reflected the abstractions of Bill Brandt working on the other side of the Atlantic.

His portraiture was powerful, captivating and revealing, employing an aesthetic that appeared to imprison the sitter, resulting in some of the most iconic portrayals of an entire generation of artists and thinkers like Capote and Miles Davis. Along with Avedon he swept a broom through the stuffy fashion photography that had gone before, preferring simple backgrounds to the fussy locations that to his mind distracted from the fashion itself. His work brought a whole new palate of nuanced thinking to fashion photography, and inspired – perhaps often unwittingly – a new generation of fashion photographers. It also brought him love.

There is a tendency for photographers (male ones at least) to fall for their models, and Penn did not buck that trend in marrying Lisa Fonssagrives, who appears as model in a great many of the photographs he took. Where he did veer from typical behaviour was in remaining married and devoted to her until her death at the age of 80 in 1992. Lisa was more than a muse to Penn. She is widely regarded as the first supermodel, earning nearly four times what her contemporaries were getting, with her own career lasting to the age of 40 – ten years longer than everyone else. Hers is the face on a myriad of iconic fashion images created by such luminaries as Hoynigen, Horst, Blumenfeld and others. But for all her protestations that she was just a “good clothes hanger”, there was a special magic that existed between them and it sparkled in the work Irving created. Alexander Liberman said on her death that they represented “an extraordinary relationship between a photographer and a model.” Adding that “she was the inspiration and subject of some of Penn’s greatest photographs.”

Truman Capote

Truman Capote, New York, 1965.

Penn excelled at his craft because he was interested in things. That sounds trite, but it cannot be overstated. The capacity to treat all things and all people as endlessly interesting is the bedrock of good engaged photography. And whether Penn was photographing frocks, or the indigenous peoples of the Andes, or disgarded cigarette butts, or products, he treated them all with the same level of reverence, curiosity and precision. The designer Issey Miyake exclaimed that Irving Penn “shows me what I do.”

His technical brilliance was reflected in his printing as well, and he is credited with a rebirth of interest in the practice of Platinum printing. The process is arduous and painstaking, but results in some of the most permanent prints possible, and Penn developed a method that produced the richest of detail and luminosity. Having found the best, he could never settle for anything less and spent the best part of three decades printing his exisiting and new work using the method. As a direct result, ask any museum to list their preferred type of black and white print, and the answer will come back “platinum or palladium”.

penn_sleep

Summer Sleep, New York, 1949.

The temptation at this point is to write Penn off as yesterday’s man. But the truth is that while his career may have started in 1943, he was still creating exceptional photographs for Condé Nast and others right up until his death last month on October 7 at the age of 92. A print of his photograph of a naked Kate Moss sold at auction for nearly a hundred thousand dollars, while another of his prints (Cuzco Children) broke the half million dollar mark last year.

Why, then, is his name not one that trips off people’s tongues when creating the pointless lists I mentioned at the start? It is simply because Penn never shouted about what he did. He led a touchingly domesticated life. A private man who avoided publicity not through affectation, but because it was not important to him. He was a quiet, kind perfectionist, and thanks to that perfectionism his work will be singing his prasies for many, many years to come. Whether you know it or not, if you are a photographer, Penn left his mark on you.

Irving Penn. Photographer. 1917 -2009.

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