Posts tagged: art

Coming of age.

By , July 4, 2017 3:50 pm

There are three types of photographer: hobbyists, professionals, and artists. While their motivations are different, and the distinctions between each group are frequently blurred, they are united by a common approach. While others “take” photographs, serious practitioners “make” them. And their success is determined by two things: knowing what they want to say, and knowing to whom they are saying it. Photography is a means of communication, and becoming proficient at it has always been about finding one’s voice. But to really excel you have to be moved enough not only to have something that you wish to say, but also to know how best to say it.

Perhaps commercial photography is made easier by having the message and the audience clearly defined by the client’s brief, while for the hobbyist the critic and the author are frequently one and the same. This is not to say that producing good work is easy for either, because it is not. A commercial client can have exceptionally exacting standards, as can the hobbyist. But for the true artist photographer, coming of age is measured by that moment when they manage to bring alignment to their work, their audience, and the message they feel so compelled to tell, without the luxury of someone else setting the brief or the comfort of being one’s own audience.

Miah H Rachel Molina Seen But Not Heard

From Seen But Not Heard, this image was selected for inclusion in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2015. Photo © Rachel Molina.

To use a schooling analogy, most photographers with artistic aspirations never progress beyond primary level. Their work lacks maturity, finesse, and a cohesive narrative. Those who make it further often find it comes after many, many years of experimentation and soul-searching to find their métier. It is that which makes Rachel Molina’s first exhibited body of work so unusual.

Seen But Not Heard is a series of portraits of children in a transitional phase of their lives. Moving from the closeted safety of primary school to the greater independence of secondary school they are, much like Molina, forced to come to terms with a future where they must give more of themselves to their education. As Molina points out it marks the start of the transition from child to adult, a period she felt compelled to explore because her eldest son was making that transition himself, although he does not figure in the work.

Thirty-one portraits, a class in size, of children from various schools and very different backgrounds in South East London look out across the horizons of their own futures. Some hold the gaze of the viewer, others look instead to middle-distance of their own hopes and aspirations.

Tom Seen But Not Heard Rachel Molina

From Seen But Not Heard. The subjects come from very diverse backgrounds, and while all are broadly the same age at the time of the sitting (year 6 at primary school) each has very different levels of self-assuredness. Photo: © Rachel Molina

Each subject is unique. Caught in their own environs, surrounded by the paraphernalia of individual circumstances. Some sit comfortably in their skins, their demeanour resolute and sure, displaying a confidence which belies their tender age. Others are more circumspect; wary of the viewer, and nervous of what the future might hold. A testimony accompanies each: the sitter’s ambitions and trepidations about the future in their own words.

The quality of the work was first spotted by the judges of the 2015 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize when they selected one of the portraits, Miah H, to be included in the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Subsequently the work was picked up by the Guardian Online before she was offered the chance to exhibit the project in its entirety.

There is a tendency with portraits of children for them to be either critical or saccharine depending on the proclivities of the photographer, but Molina has achieved the considerable feat of making portraits which are neither judgemental nor sensationalised, and in doing so she has allowed genuine intimacy to flourish between her and the subjects, and kept that door open briefly for us as viewers to enter the worlds of these children. Given the diversity of characters in the project it is that singular accomplishment which marks Seen But Not Heard out as an eloquent and mature body of work. That it is Molina’s first major body of work is nothing short of phenomenal, and if you think I am overdoing this praise I would urge you to take it up with the V&A Museum of Childhood – they are the ones who have chosen to exhibit it for five months.

Jessica Seen But Not Heard Rachel Molina

From Seen But Not Heard. The transition from primary to secondary education marks the start of a child’s progression to adulthood as they are increasingly asked to make decisions for themselves and hold themselves accountable for their actions. Photo: © Rachel Molina

The children in Seen But Not Heard are now all well settled in secondary school, and none will be under any illusion about the fact that to succeed in this new world they must reach deep within themselves to get the most from their education. So too for Molina. Having set the bar so high with her first body of work the test is now to produce something new which draws on her clearly considerable talents, but does so without being derivative of what she has already achieved. Having found her voice I look forward to hearing what she has to say next.

 

Seen But Not Heard is on show at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green until November 19.

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

 

Movement

By , January 5, 2013 4:10 pm

I have often been struck by movement and stillness as subjects for photography, and airports are a great source of images relating to these two, apparently disparate themes.

Just before Christmas I was at Edinburgh airport to catch a flight back to London. Not for the first time (and no doubt not for the last) I learned that my flight was delayed, and thought of the irony of the speediest form of transport leaving me motionless and still.

I waited. The airport seemed such a haven of calm and quiet as I sat in my own bubble of existence. I stared out of the window at an expanse of sun dappled apron which seemed so calm. Every now and then something moved in my field of vision. I was motionless, and these little “creatures” scurrying across my view like rodents were the only movements in my life for that time. I resolved to record every movement while I waited for my own life to move once more.

Movement

Movement
© Michael Cockerham 2012

The resulting piece of work, “Movement” was created over a period of 28 minutes. It exists as a limited edition of 3 prints, printed on Canson Platine Fibre Rag, sized 24″x20″. The first print in the edition is priced at £20, the second at £40, and the final print at £80. No further prints of this work will be made.

FINDS – Harry Watts

By , October 11, 2011 2:32 pm

BOOK REVIEW: FINDS – Harry Watts

I cannot for the life of me remember who it was, but whoever it was was an adult, and I was about 13. Nevertheless they admonished me sternly for walking everywhere staring intently at the ground. I have a feeling it might have been Victor Whyatt, a man who had previously smacked me on the head with his umbrella for my having the temerity to remark that he looked like Captain Birdseye when we had been trapped together in a doorway. If so, you might think that he would have learned not to draw my attention to things worth looking at. A rather brilliant man with a fondness for first edition books, he later became my A Level maths teacher, and his influence on my character and outlook has been huge. But that admonishment was to be particularly pivotal.

As we enter our teens there is a natural tendency for introspection which manifests itself in a form of paranoia (no one understands me), a desire to be at once an individual and yet not to stand out (I do not want to wear what my parents suggest, but see no irony in determining that I must wear the same things as my peers, and the palette from which I choose is grey, dark blue and black), and a tendency to walk everywhere listening to music and looking at the floor.

From FINDS 2011.

From FINDS 2011. © Harry Watts

Hopefully at some point we each have our own moment of enlightenment. For me, it was that admonishment. I realised the world was large and interesting, and I was small and inconsequential. This epiphany did not help me with girls, but it did set me on the path I have followed since: my head held high I have soaked up the world with vigour and enthusiasm, and nary a glance at the ground since, excepting to keep an eye out for piles of dog shit – although I appear not to have been too successful with that either, my nadir coming on a tour of Europe in the early 90s in which I famously trod in steaming piles of crap in every major capital.

From FINDS 2011

From FINDS 2011. © Harry Watts

Harry Watts’ body of work, FINDS has this morning bookended that period in my life. Forthwith I shall be turning my attention back to the ground. Not because of a renewed desire to avoid processed Pedigree Chum (although I hope that might be a happy side effect), but rather because Harry has singularly demonstrated that there is much to be derived about the world we live in by looking down.

Aside from his own work, Watts oscillates between the studios of Martin Parr and Simon Roberts as studio assistant and studio manager respectively. Yet despite the constant exposure to the output of these luminaries he has managed the signally mature feat of keeping his own eye. To be fair Parr’s presence hovers a little ghost-like in this work, but it is less confrontational and more sympathetic than it could have been. Where Parr might be brutal with the irony, Harry has chosen a more subtle approach which requires the reader to question and consider the meaning of the images – but the irony is there in spades.

From FINDS 2011

From FINDS 2011. © Harry Watts

FINDS is a series of 23 colour images printed on newsprint in a tabloid format. The newsprint approach has gained traction in recent years, Alec Soth’s The Last Days of W and Roberts’ own The Election Project being notable examples. More recently Blurb’s PDN Awards for 2011 was won by Valerio Spada with Gomorrah Girl. As more photographers turn to the notion that the artist’s approach is the best model for the future (an irony if ever there was given how violently some photographers used to react to being labelled “artists” only a few years ago), the choice of newsprint has considerable appeal. It is relatively inexpensive, somewhat ephemeral, and harks back to the possibilities of a bygone era when the whole raison d’être of the photographer was to get their pictures in the papers.

Aside from the title and the admission that it is “by Harry Watts” on the front, and details of designers (Birch), publishers (Black Box Press), and the logo of the Brighton Photo Fringe on the rear, there is no text at all. Depending on your point of view this could be construed as a huge oversight or a touch of brilliance; my own preference is for the latter. In fact so much so that when I asked Harry for permission to reproduce a few of the images for this review and he asked if I wanted a statement from him, I quietly demurred. The beauty of this body of work is in its ability to force – and no, that is not too strong a word – the reader to question the things that they find. These finds are things that Watts has found, and in so finding them he has found himself finding his findings somewhat out of kilter. I believe that having found them he wants others to find them too. Indeed, unless I am wrong his preferred method of distribution for this “book” was to dump copies in various places and leave people to find them for themselves.

From FINDS 2011

From FINDS 2011. © Harry Watts

Assuming they were found, what might readers find? Pointlessness, futility, and humankind’s bizarre capacity to expend energy for no apparent reason. For example, why bother to use a ballast bag that has burst? Why sweep up rubble but then just leave it in a pile? Where is the warning for the broken warning lamp? Every one of Watt’s pictures asks these kinds of questions. They are not critical or accusatory, rather they offer a reflection of our own folly. We all do these things without a second thought. Harry Watts has found them and represents them to us so that we can find them too.

In a sense what Watts does so effectively is hold a mirror up to the irrationality of much of what we do. What is recorded in these pictures might be the flotsam and jetsam of modern urban living, but the subjects are metaphors for the more grandiose lunacies that society perpetrates with worrying regularity. As such FINDS is that rare beast: a body of work by a young artist that is clearly about a social issue and not about the artist. FINDS does not so much scream “look at me”, but whispers, conspiratorially, “look at us”.

So with Victor and Harry both giving conflicting advice on where I should be looking, I think I have reached an age where I need to start ignoring such advice. Now, who was it who told me to stop staring at my navel…?

*   *   *

With thanks to Wayne Ford for sending me FINDS, and apologies to Harry for calling him an artist if he hates that epithet.

 

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.

Lines of Sight

By , November 24, 2010 9:26 pm

Well, I said that more information would be forthcoming, and true to my word here it is. Blue Filter’s first foray into publishing has gone to press with Blurb. A sneak preview below to whet your appetite:

The Election Project – Simon Roberts

By , September 16, 2010 11:20 pm

EXHIBITION REVIEW: The Election Project – Simon Roberts

The Election Project - Simon Roberts - Blue Filter

Ian Paisley Jnr, Democratic Unionist Party. Portglenone, 3 May 2010 (North Antrim constituency).

EXHIBITION REVIEW:

We have a tendency to look back on events from an elevated perspective – hindsight does, somehow, give our memories a lofty vantage point; a mental image that may not be physically accurate, but affords a detached, unobstructed panorama of what has unfolded. In real-time the truth is obfuscated by events, and it is only when the dust of events has settled that we are given a more objective summary of what has passed.

Given this premise, and considering his recent acclaimed body of work, We English, it is no surprise that Simon Roberts was approached by The Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art, and invited to submit a proposal to win the commission of Official Election Artist for the 2010 General Election. Roberts followed the two previous incumbents, Jonathan Yeo who painted portraits of the three party leaders in 2001, and David Godbold who made a series of illustrations in 2005.

We English, was an examination of the English at rest within their landscape, and drew on the principle of detached elevation to achieve its ends. But while the place of people within the landscape was central to the work, personality was not. It was the fact of people, rather than the people themselves, that created the context and told the story so effectively. But a commission to document the general election presented a problem: how to continue to work in the same vein, but make room for personality, something so central to modern elections?

Emma Gormley, the Assistant Curator at the Houses of Parliament said that Roberts was an obvious choice for the post, not simply because he is a good photographer, but rather because his enthusiasm and interest in the subject were so clear. They were struck from the first meeting by the sheer breadth of Simon’s understanding of British politics and its landscape. And there was no doubt that he could manage the logistics of such an undertaking.

The Election Project - Simon Roberts - Blue Filter

Captain Beany, New Millennium Bean Party. Port Talbot, 23 April 2010 (Aberavon constituency).

More importantly though, Roberts is an assiduous researcher who knows better than most that the secret to telling a story is understanding the detail intuitively. Roberts “gets” democracy, and in particular he gets the peculiarities of British parliamentary democracy. This is not the grand set piece theatre of US presidential elections, but it is theatre nonetheless: the theatre of amateurs. That is not to denigrate it, or to disparage those who hold or seek to hold the office of MP. Rather it is a statement of fact, and it is one of those truths that make the British system so endearing, so utterly democratic and to many so utterly chaotic and frustrating. While other systems require patronage or money, our system of representation is egalitarian: whether you are the sitting Prime Minister in Downing Street, or an over-tangoed Captain Beanie in Port Talbot, the hurdles to stand for election are the same. Roberts’ innate understanding of this was in no small part responsible for his gaining the commission, as was his desire to build on the experience of public participation from We English by encouraging people to send in their own photographs depicting the election.

Roberts’ approach was to use the technique that had served him so well for We English, but to come in just a little closer, just enough to allow the personality to form a part of the image without overpowering it. To work, the balance had to be perfect, as the images need to play to two audiences: the contemporary audience, and the audience of tomorrow: those for whom the names Brown, Cameron and Clegg will be vague historical footnotes. That audience will be concerned more with what Britain was, and what it became as a result of the election, than with the characters themselves. Indeed, although the three party leaders made the final edit, most of the rest of the candidates depicted are unfamiliar to the average voter even today. If the pictures had allowed personality to become overbearing their resonance as historical documents would have been diluted. Would that have mattered? In short, yes. This commission was about creating art not for its own sake, but for its capacity to inform, educate and entertain future generations of Britains. It is now, and was always meant to be part of the historical record. As it turns out, if Mr Clegg gets his way, Roberts’ work may come to define the last election to use the only system we have ever known until now. If for no other reason it will inevitably be of great interest to commentators and public alike in a future we cannot even imagine.

The Election Project - Simon Roberts - Blue Filter

Nadhim Zahawi, Conservative. Salford Priors, 26 April 2010 (Stratford on Avon constituency).

Roberts said at the outset that he wanted to demonstrate just how mundane and lonely canvassing for votes could be, and it was equally important for him that the finished work reflect the full range of political views that exist in Britain today, so he paid as much attention to the independents and smaller parties as he did to the three heavyweights.

But the beauty of the work is in how much it tells us about the Britain of 2010. On the one hand there are the tower blocks, the boarded up terraces in the shadow of a football stadium, the caravans and post war housing, the modern executive homes trying to blend into rural England. On the other we have Woolworths – a metaphor for an election fought on the back of the deepest recession in living memory – and the market stalls of Whitechapel, the everyman trying to maintain his livelihood.

And the everyman is what British elections are all about. Each candidate has to appeal to the everyman. It is the grind of pressing the flesh, pounding the streets, knocking on doors, handing out leaflets, listening to the concerns of everyman that make the election such a hard and frequently thankless slog for the candidates, a fact captured with eloquence and irony in each image. The electioneering process is the same irrespective of the set in which it is played, and makes clear that while between the polls we the public must do the bidding of our political masters, the theatre of election is that moment when the tables are turned, and the politicians must come to us cap in hand, and beg for a chance, or another chance as the case may be. With the scandal of expenses so fresh, many of the candidates cut a lonely dash.

The Election Project - Simon Roberts - Blue Filter

Pete Wishart, Scottish National Party. Perth, 21 April 2010 (Perth and Perthshire North constituency).

As with We English, The Election Project was shot on film on a 5”x4” sheet film camera, with every detail precise and ready for the viewer’s inspection. All the images can be seen on the website, or indeed in the wonderfully ephemeral limited edition newspaper-as-catalogue designed by FUEL (the same people who have designed both Motherland and We English – and the essence of brand continuity is clear to see). But the only way to truely appreciate these photographs is as they are intended to be seen: glorious 120x90cm prints, full of detail and subtlety that draw you in with the many, many layers that exist within them.

The Election Project - Simon Roberts - Blue Filter

Gordon Brown, Labour. Rochdale, 28 April 2010 (Rochdale constituency).

There are elements that are poignant and serious, but there are just as many that are funny, and ironic. Gordon Brown facing the press with the now famous Gillian Duffy watching on – behind the Prime Minister (displaying what must be the last genuine smile he gave on the election trail) a man oversees prisoners working in the community, his fluorescent tabard says “Probation Supervisor”, while a signboard announces “offenders working for the community”. Or there is the juxtaposition of Ian Paisley Sr and two megaphones, and all the redolence of the voice of Unionism from a time gone by.

The Election Project - Simon Roberts - Blue Filter

Coalition talks, Liberal Democrat HQ, Westminster, 7 May 2010.

Perhaps my favourite, though, is from the extra image – the one that Simon made to reflect the no man’s land of the coalition talks. Outside the Liberal Democrat HQ the massed ranks of the press wait for news. By the door a cameraman stands by his equipment. On the back of his T-shirt it reads: “It could happen at any time”. Never a truer word said, and that is what The Election Project is all about. Don’t miss it.

All images © Simon Roberts 2010

The first opportunity to view the exhibition will be this Saturday and Sunday (18th-19th Sept) during the Open House Weekend when Portcullis House will be open from 10am-5pm (last entry: 4.30pm). Enter via the building’s main entrance on Victoria Embankment. As well as the 25 prints created by Simon, there is a fifteen metre installation showing all of the 1696 images submitted online by the general public, many of which offer a wry, surreal or acerbic commentary on the election, and are well worth closer inspection. 3000 copies of the FUEL designed newspaper are available free to those quick enough to get them.

For those unable to make the exhibition then, public access to the exhibition is by free guided tours offered on a first come first serve basis. You can find out more details here.

And the battle begins

By , April 6, 2010 10:49 am

Well the starting gun has been fired and the contest begins. Many have a very negative view on whether anything positive will come from the general election, but photographers can take heart, thanks to the Houses of Parliament and Simon Roberts, there will be at least one good thing to come from it:

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.

We English continues to win accolades

By , February 12, 2010 1:30 pm

The World Press Photo awards 2009 have been announced, and Simon Roberts’ project has won third prize in the Daily Life: Stories category. Just one of the images is not from the book.

The recognition is well deserved, but somewhat curious as Roberts shoots less editorially now than he did 10 years ago. It is his first WPP win, although he was awarded a WPP Masterclass place back in 2003. Wonder what “Bollos” would make of it?

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