Disphotic

Probing photo murk.

On Ruin Value

I feel slightly guilty when I post something which is not directly related to photography, but then I have to remind myself that this isn’t actually a photoblog, it’s simply a blog for things that I find interesting. On that note I recently came to this interesting essay on Sebald, recent German history and the architectural concept of ruinenwert, or ruin value via a friend. Ruinenwert is the idea of constructing a building with the intention that it should look aesthetically pleasing as a ruin, as a future fragment of the original building.

Sebald wrote that when we see a huge building ‘we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.’ Judging by some of the architects I’ve met I’m not sure how many of them possess the modesty to entertain the idea of their creations existing as ruins, however I am aware of two who definitely did.

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Model of the ruins of Pompeii

One was Albert Speer (1905-1981) who developed the concept of ruinenwert while designing buildings for the 1936 Berlin Olympics and articulated the idea in the essay Die Ruinenwerttheorie. For Speer the possible appearance of his buildings as ruins was important because he saw them potentially inspiring future Germans in the same way the ruins of ancient Rome were integral to the myth  building of Italian fascism. Heretical though it might have been to suggest that the Nazi era mightcome to an end, it was also a tacit recognition of the power of the mighty remains of one civilisation to inspire the asthetics and ideology of another. It’s an obvious irony that despite the massive destruction soon wrought on Germany, many of these buildings did indeed survive, the Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus, which now houses the German finance ministry, is one notable example.

Earlier though was Sir John Soane (1753–1837), who frequently commissioned paintings of his buildings as ruins. For Soane, who like Speer drew inspiration from antiquity, this practice placed his buildings in the same lineage as those he admired. For example in this drawing of the Bank of England, which turned out to be strangely pre-emptive, as at the start of the twentieth century Soane’s beautiful interiors were ripped out and replaced leaving only the exterior walls of the bank remaining. He also discussed constructing his own home with a thought to its latter ruination, in the essay Crude Hints, he wrote ‘O man, man, how short is thy foresight. in less than half a century – in a few years – before the founder was scarcely mouldering in the dust, no trace to be seen of the artist within its walls, the edifice presenting only a miserable picture of frightful dilapidation’. Perhaps these words lingered on his mind, as Soane later secured an act of parliament before his death to preserve his home as a museum.

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Ruins of Coventry Cathedral

Recently I read that the now shelved plans for a vast nuclear waste dump under Yucca Mountain, Nevada had included a call for designs for warning signs that would last 10,000 years. Intriguingly this is a fraction of the time that they would really be required to survive if they were to warn of the buried waste until after it had ceased to be dangerous, not to mention that like early archaeologists encountering an Egyptian ruin, those signs might well be the remnants of a forgotten, inexplicable civilisation, the messages on the signs might have become meaningless and untranslatable within that time. By contrast at the Onkalo nuclear waste site in Finland, designers have tried to find a balance between making the site impossible to find and access, and leaving enough visual clues for anyone who might find it about the nature of what it contains. One proposal for how to do this suggested carving a copy of Munch’s The Scream into the entrance.

I think I find the idea of ruinenwert fascinating partly because it sheds light all creative practice, not just architecture. All things have a lifespan and are subject to disintegration and decay, even in an age where digitisation appears to offer the equivalent of immortality for media like photographs and text. Digital technology is of course far more sensitive and susceptible to the ravages of time than say a stone hieroglyphic. Similarly all created things are liable to be seen and understood in drastically different contexts to the ones in which they were originally located. One wonders what might remain in a thousand years of today’s culture, let alone in ten thousand years. What strange perspective on our culture might future archaeologists have from our surviving ruins, particularly if all that remains are underground caverns housing thousands of tens of tons of deadly waste, will these be our pyramids?

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Concept for Yucca Mountain warning sign by Yulia Hanansen

Ruinenwert seems to be both so profoundly egotistical and yet still requires the recognition that even the most sturdy, long standing building is just a flicker that by comparison to the landscape in which it is constructed lasts only for a moment. Shelly noted the transience of passing empires in the poem Ozymandias, describing the statue of a king lying shattered in a desert wasteland. Less well know is Smith’s poem of the same name, written at the same time, and dwelling on similar themes but relating them more directly to the present, as British interests overseas were expanding into what would become an empire occupying almost a quarter of the world. He suggested that perhaps one day:

‘Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place’.

Cultures of Consumption

Madeleine Corcoran’s thought provoking post over on the Duckrabbit blog about the ethics of using a World Press winning photograph to promote an album forced me to return to some writing I’ve been labouring over for a while. While her post rightly engages quite specifically with the ethics of taking a news image out of its original context to promote a product, for money, my own concerns are a bit more general.

I’m fascinated by consumption in a broader cultural sense and how this is tied into the particularly powerful ability of photography to reduce fleeting, transient things like a moment between two people into an object ready to be consumed at will (quite literally consumed in the sense that something is used up each time an image is viewed, the image’s ability to effect is diminished, and the context of that diminishing power is significant). Photography is a process of production, the camera makes products out of everything that it captures, and the difficulty is of separating legitimate consumption of those photographic products from the gratuitous or distortative is huge. For that reason my own writing on the subject is at a painfully early stage. Gradually like all ideas I suppose it will develop its own gravity, drawing appropriate ideas into orbit around it until it reaches some sort of critical mass. Until then will remain lurking but unseen.

Judging by the comments posted in reaction to Madeline’s writing, these are controversial issues that not all photographers want to talk about. I don’t agree with all the points she makes in the post, but I do think these are important issues that need to be raised and discussed even if they are ultimately dismissed, and photojournalism, perhaps photography in general, would benefit greatly from more of these types of debates not less. I think its rather telling that this isn’t the first time a World Press winning image of a moment of intense human suffering has been used as an album cover, Malcolm Browne’s photograph of Thich Quang Duc self-immolating made it on to the cover of Rage Against the Machines first album and subsequently all sorts of merchandise. It probably won’t be the last time either.

Rollei XXVIII

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Tap in, Tune Out

Some images from a mini-project I shot over the course of several bus journeys for a little home made book that is going to be displayed at the Telegraph Hill festival in New Cross, London, this weekend (9th and 10th March) on the top deck of an old Routemaster bus.

The book is just a bit of fun and a testbed for a few ideas rather than a serious project, it amalgamates photographs of the changing scenery and passengers from several journeys into an imaginary composite trip through London. The book itself has no spine, the pages are joined to each other and attach to the two covers forming an accordion like structure which expands and contracts, emulating the behavior of time on journeys that can seem to last for hours or moments. A few pictures of and from the book, and the introductory text follow:

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Bus journeys become such a regular part of life in London that in the end they often don’t even register in the mind as having taken place. You shuffle on, tap in and tune out until arrival. The interiors of buses are strange jigsaw puzzles of shared space, where again almost automatically you shift and climb around other people and things, invariably avoiding contact, physical, visual, verbal until finally you secure a coveted window seat.

Watching the city from a bus is dislocating, particularly for someone used to mingling with events as they occur. You view life unfolding from on high, like the less well to do audience in a theatre, looking down on the stage from the gods, an entirely unnatural way of viewing things. Equally unnatural is the buses juddering movement through the city, movement which threaten to interrupt the action outside unpredictably, shuffling one set of actors out of view and drawing in a new group, changing sets, props, plots.

Rollei XXVII

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A State of Rest

I’ve been rereading quite a bit of Sebald lately including one of my favourite novels Austerlitz, hoping I suppose to cleave what insights I missed the first time through. In it an unnamed narrator describes a series of encounters with the strange architectural historian Jacques Austerlitz, a man stripped of his past, but the residue of which appears to insidiously infiltrate every aspect of his life.

In one passage Austerlitz discusses the evolution of military fortifications, particularly the vast star forts that were constructed in increasing size and complexity from the early modern period into the nineteenth century. In it he explains how these vast geometric formations were intended to overcome the increasingly destructive power of cannons and siege guns, but consumed such vast resources and required so long to construct that they invariably ended up being technologically obsolete by the time of their completion. The response to this was paradoxically to construct ever more complex, expensive variations, which in turn were ‘overtaken by further developments, both in artillery and in strategic planning, which took account of the growing realization that everything is decided in movement, not in a state of rest’. Various examples remain, either as complete forts or just as marks in the landscape around which new settlements have grown.

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Everything to Declare

This post is a little behind the times, written a couple of months ago when I was  in midst of filling out my tax return (or rather trying to find reasons to avoid filling it out) but hopefully the sentiment will be appreciated more now that the pain of tax returns is behind the self-employed for another year.

January is the time of year when conversations with other freelancers tend to drift unerringly towards the inevitable moans about tax returns. Like talking about football or the weather it’s something you can do to pass the time with people you don’t actually like and have almost nothing in common with but who chance and circumstance (or mutual friends) have drawn together.

But in the same way that I am regarded as a social pariah for openly admitting that football bores me, the confession that I actually don’t mind doing my tax return always seems to perfectly offend everyone in the room. I find tax returns oddly palliative, perhaps because they pander to the anally retentive bean counter inside me, a boring little man who has been pushed down deep inside and is only allowed to see the light of day once or twice a year, when a task requiring behemothic pedantry appears on the horizon.

When this occurs this jumped up little accountant re-emerges with glee to battle the slovenly mess of book keeping that his better, more creative, half has generated over the year. My filing system is a numerical haystack of combined invoices and business expenses, which get chucked into a corner as soon as they’ve been paid and sometimes even before, to decompose into a financial soup.

The process of coming to terms with this mess is one I find oddly satisfying, like matching up socks or arranging all your books by colour, with a secondary ordering by subject. I even enjoy the task of trying to decide which of the truly byzantine questions actually refer to my financial status. Does finding a two euro coin in the toilet of an Italian ferry count as offshore profiteering?

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‘Sign of the Dollar’ photomontage

No, what I really object to about tax returns isn’t the process of doing them, My objection is to having my face rubbed in quite how little I make. As a freelancer just starting down the road to riches and acclaim (hah), you have to rapidly reconcile yourself to a life of rather limited means. Part of this process involves adjusting your lifestyle to one you can sustain on whatever chicken feed you make, and then repressing the traumatic memory of what a pathetic amount that actually is.

So then when you have to go back and tote up all those invoices and discover the total only just peeks over the expenses you incurred to make that money in the first place it’s a little distressing. As is spending an hour searching for an interest statement just so I can inform HMRC that I made the princely sum of thirty six pence of interest in the fiscal year in question.

To cap it off, as I drift off to sleep, return submitted, I’m haunted by half-dreams that my declared income will seem so suspiciously low that it will not be taken at face value, and I will have to revisit these indignities. To defend, of all things, my self-imposed penury.

Redesigns and other news

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I’m afraid I’ve not got much to post at the moment. Between working, tendering for more work, entering competitions and applying for awards and residencies (and sneaking in a weekend break to Bristol) I’ve not been left much time to spend writing or even photographing a huge amount. Hoping to rectify that fairly soon with some comments on the unfolding Paolo Pellegrin affair but for now just a little news.

I’ve redone my site, although I liked the previous theme I was using (mainly because it didn’t look like a totally generic photographer portfolio) it was less than ideal for displaying images, so I’ve switched to a more conventional side scrolling gallery format. Unfortunately this is less ideal for displaying text and I’m still working on a way to make the longer bits of writing more readable. Check it out. I’ve also redesign and republished several of my books, including The Camera Obscured, and Canvey Island. Hoping to have videos of those up on the site fairly soon.

I have a few exhibitions on the horizon. I’ll have some work in the Telegraph Hill Festival, a local arts fest in New Cross on the 9th and 10th of March. It will consist of an open studio where I’ll have some of my photo books on display, possibly alongside the notorious box of prints made for the Memory of History project. I’ll also have some images on display as part of a curated show on an old route master bus at New Cross bus garage.

I’ve got a couple of talks on the horizon as well. Lastly a reminder that the Photobook Show E at John Hansard Gallery in Southampton is on for one more week, lots of beautiful books to look at, including mine and several of my colleagues from the masters course. Drop by if you’re in town.

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Losing Vivian Maier

A documentary is in the works about Vivian Maier, the reclusive Chicago nanny who was ‘discovered’ shortly after her death and has subsequently been hailed as one of the greats of American photography. Over several decades Maier amassed hundreds of thousands of photographs taken on the streets of Chicago and other American cities, photographs which show a rare curiosity and a remarkably developed photographic eye for someone apparently with little or no formal training.

She hoarded these images it seems never showing them to anyone, indeed not even developing many of the films. As she grew older this strange cache was deposited in a storage locker, the contents of which were auctioned after her death and the negatives were picked up more or less by chance by a collector. Recognising them as remarkable images he began to promote them, and they quickly gained attention, leading to exhibitions, publication, and much writing about them. Now as I’ve already mentioned Maier’s story and the story of her ‘discovery’ are set to be unraveled in a new documentary.

I used to be an unquestioning fan of this amazing story, but now I find it increasingly suspect. In all of this, with all these people professing their adoration for Maier and her work everyone seems to be ignoring one fundamental point, that she probably would have hated all this attention. We can only speculate as to why she didn’t show her photographs to anyone, perhaps she simply took them for herself or for the pleasure of photographing, perhaps she didn’t feel they were worth showing, but whatever the reason I feel quite strongly this privacy is something that ought to be respected

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If you really admire an artist, a writer, a photographer, part of that admiration recognises the importance of self-determination with regards to their own work. How many creative people had their legacy distorted by the posthumous publication of work they considered substandard, incomplete or not indicative of their style? It’s also particularly problematic in Maier’s case because the decision about what work to show and what to withhold is completely arbitrary, its impossible to know what Maier may have regarded as her best work.

Of course Maier is not a unique example of someone who’s implicit or explicit wishes have been ignored, Kafka famously entrusted his friend Max Brod with the task of burning his papers after his death only to have Brod publish the work regardless, claiming Kafka didn’t really mean what he said. Similarly Larkin requested his papers be burnt after his death, his diaries were but many other documents were not. Many people would argue that we are culturally richer for these betrayals, but they are still betrayals. True there was no explicit agreement between Maier and the present owner of her works, but I’d argue there is a responsibility that comes with ownership of someone else’s work, a contract to faithfully represent the creator.

I love Maier’s photographs, they are beautiful and brilliant works, I find them inspiring, funny, moving. But part of that love for art is respect for the person who made it, including their likely wishes for the work, even if that wish is to keep the work private. If respecting that means no one ever seeing the work again then so be it. Artists and writers don’t owe their audiences anything, particularly when fame has been so uncourted and unexpected as it has been with Maier. It goes without saying that her work is out there now, and cannot be undiscovered, retracted, buried back into storage. Nevertheless I think it’s important to speak when I see something like this that I think is fundamentally wrong.

Engines of Doubt: Shooting Estates

Since my previous post about the vagueries of search engine results I’ve been exploring similar topics. However these things are difficult to discover except by chance. The other day on hearing a rumour of a shooting (a depressingly regular occurrence where I live) I did a search for ‘estate shooting London’ a ridiculously broad query that got me nothing particularly useful.

Image searching however I got a strange mixture of pictures, the predictable aftermath images of crime scenes, police officers and forensic personnel, family photographs of victims and police mugshots of perpetrators. Alongside these were images of, frankly, toffs out shooting pheasants (peasants?) on country estates. The two ends of english gun culture encapsulated in a nutshell by one poorly designed search, such are the vaugaries of the search engine.
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