Goa Zhen and Gao Qiang are avant-garde Chinese artists whose work often brings them into conflict with the authorities. Their exhibitions, which continually push at the boundaries of artistic expression, have been shut down and their studio raided in the past. Posters and catalogues have been banned. They hold secret parties at undisclosed locations to show new work and the entrance to their home/studio is continually guarded. Not surprising when you remember that one of their sculptures, “Execution of Christ”, shows Jesus facing a firing squad of Chairman Maos.
This photograph (The Interview, 2007) by the Gao Brothers, shown at the Saatchi Gallery’s recent “Pangea II” exhibition, attracted my attention. But how can we describe it? It is obviously fake - the interview shown could obviously never have happened. Yet it is at the same time entirely realistic, not just in the sense that the photograph is convincing but that we are somehow not at all surprised to see a collection of murderous dictators all of whom could never have met in a room at one time (although some did meet at other times). Somehow the photograph's technical and conceptual realism undermines the obvious trickery. We inevitably look for the message from the photograph which quickly emerges as that all dictators are the same, in cohoots regardless of their politics.
In one of her essays, Martha Rosler proposed a useful mapping system for photographic messages:
“Formal” foregrounds the photograph as a work of art while “transparent” is information-carrying, denoting a scene; “Literal” conveys clearly-bounded information; “transcendent” looks to get across a ‘higher’ message. She gives the example of a fiery helicopter crash in combat. This would be:
Rosler says that even if an artist locates his work near the formal end of the one continuum, his messages, no matter how commonplace or “vernacular” are still free to wander anywhere along the other, from literalness to transcendence. On the other hand, transparent messages are more likely to be conveyed in a literal image.
The power of the Gao Brothers’ image seems to lie in the way it spans so many of these categories at the same time.
The formal properties of the photo impress us – how did they do that? How did they make it so realistic? At the same time the image is information-rich, so transparent as well. The message is not literal (the interview never happened) but clearly transcendent. It's not a literal image in any sense, yet the shading could be pulled down towards literal because of the way in which it makes us suspend disbelief and accept a transcendent message almost as literal.
 Martha Rosler, “Lee Friedlander: An Exemplary Modern Photographer” in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001
Shirley Baker: Women, Children and Loitering Men
Photographers’ Gallery (until September 20 2015)
“Street photography” (more on that term later) has been around virtually since the invention of the medium and photographers have always turned their lenses towards the lower strata - working people of all kinds, street hawkers and vendors, urchins, pliers of the petits metiers, slum dwellings and dwellers, downtrodden women, child labourers, exploited immigrants and virtually every other variety of the poor in London, Paris, New York and most other large cities. For Susan Sontag, photography’s insatiable fascination with victims and the unfortunate has been ‘one of its most vigorous enterprises.’ What is it that leads photographers to be fascinated with the disadvantaged and viewers to be attracted to exhibitions such as the Photographers’ Gallery current show of Shirely Baker’s photographs of the working class areas in and around Manchester in the 1960s?
As it happens, Sontag also had a few things to say which might help. Photography actively promotes nostalgia and most subjects, after being photographed, are touched with pathos. The ugly becomes beautiful and the beautiful, worn by time, evokes pity. Frozen in time, all photographs testify to ‘time’s relentless melt’ and gain particular poignancy if they portray a historical moment of change or upheaval. They are incitements to reverie; the Paris of Atget and Brassai is gone for ever, ‘like the dead relatives and friends preserved in the family album…the photographs of neighbourhoods now torn down…supply our pocket relation to the past’.
It is hard to imagine a period of more disruptive change that that in which Shirley Baker (1932-2014) was active between the 1960s and ‘80s, when the sprawling slums of Manchester and Salford were being swept away but their residents were still waiting to be rehoused, stuck in dilapidated and decaying housing. Her photographs of loitering men, women in housecoats and scruffy children, against a backdrop of the mass rehousing which radically reshaped the urban landscape in many of England’s northern cities, came to define her distinctive vision. ‘My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often for months on end, sometimes years, while demolition went on all around them’, she said. This exhibition shows her striving through her photography to ‘find the poetry’ in the lives of the women, children and unemployed men as their lives spill out into the street where they stand or sit, talking and passing the time, the children playing games and amusing themselves with makeshift games using lampposts, debris from demolition sites and deflated footballs.
Photographing Manchester and Salford in these years was Baker’s way of finding a route into photography in the face of professional obstacles. Born in Kersal, Salford, she studied photography at Manchester College of Technology in the 1950s. Union restrictions on female press photographers scuppered her ambitions to work for Guardian so she pursued for the next 55 years her own documentary projects in London, France, Japan and her home city. The exhibition brings to light rare images from the formative period of this career – many of which are previously unseen.
The documentary value of Baker’s photographs is immense. Accounts of the period by historians in the future cannot conceivably describe the material conditions of the lives of these people without consulting photography of this nature. I am less convinced that they provide clear readings of the responses of the people to their circumstances. Baker was close to the people in the photographs, sympathising with their plight. ‘Not since the photographs of the Farm Security Administration in America’, in the opinion of Colin Ford of the National Museum of Photography in Bradford, ‘have I seen someone photographing people in deprived states and getting so involved’. Well, yes and no. Involvement and advocacy was certainly an essential part of the documentary tradition of 1930s America generally. Many of the FSA photographers, as well as writers, dramatists and documentary makers of the period, were socially aware and committed, consciously highlighting social problems in the hope that solutions would be forthcoming. The work of these advocate-photographers was designed to expose problems and provoke responses. Their photographs are characterised by a full-frontal obviousness, material conditions and their effects on the people clearly exposed; these photographers wanted to leave no room for doubt, no ambiguity which might let public opinion, social reformers and legislators off the hook. Their aim, quite simply, was to expose the problem – poor housing, poverty, exploitative working conditions – and their subjects had to be portrayed as victims of such conditions. At its worst (think Margaret Bourke-White's over-emotionalised You Have Seen Their Faces of 1937 ) human agency is stripped from the victims who are portrayed as being buffeted by circumstances and have lost any fight.
Not all documentarists were of this ilk. By far the best photographer of the period, Walker Evans, maintained a cool detachment from the people he photographed – one of the reasons, perhaps, that he never got along with Roy Striker and why his tenure at the FSA was short-lived – and his images are the stronger for it. His laconic images lack this surface advocacy, his messages cloaked in nuance. Baker however was in the tradition of the advocate-photographer for whom subtles and possible ambiguities have to be avoided in the greater cause of exposing the social evil. Many (probably most) of her subjects appear posed, staring at the camera with a listlessness that they may or may not have felt but which helps reinforce the message. Some of her shots of children show them playing street games but I was surprised how many of these were also posed, the children seemingly standing around or looking lost or – in one particularly vivid example of victimhood – fishing in a street drain. I could not help comparing these images with those Roger Mayne took in Southam Street just a few years earlier – an equally poor area but in which people seem engaged, chance events and surprises in the street appear to have been captured and the children are constantly engaged in play and games which turn their circumstances to their advantage. There is in Mayne, as there is lacking in Baker, a sense of human agency.
Which brings us back to street photography. Professor Griselda Pollock’s Foreword to the exhibition catalogue speaks of Shirley Baker as a ‘street photographer’, ‘a wandering and acute observer of social spaces and their unexpected transactions and encounters’. This is surely a misreading or perhaps just a lazy recitation of commonplace tropes. It is true that the quest for the unexpected, chance and ‘found’ happenings is what distinguishes the street photographer from the documentarian – the ability to seize on that happenstance and reveal the human subjectivity which can often transcend circumstances. Inevitably though the result of the great street photographer it to present images of indeterminate and unknown outcomes, the chaos and plurality of human life revealed in a chance instance. The street photographer’s anamorphosis – look once see something, look again see something else – is anathema to the advocate-documentarist, who cannot afford the multiple possible interpretations which might cross with the “message” he/she wants to get across.
The poses of Baker’s subjects suggest more of a desire to expose the degrading effects of poor housing and other forms of deprivation, a portrayal of victims rather than human subjects. As time has passed the photographs then take on the nostalgic patina of time. The message inevitably finds a receptive audience in the liberal-minded contemporary generation of viewers. Nostalgia with a message – powerful stuff, but street photography it ain’t.
Copyright © All text and photography (other than where indicated) Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014.
Cite Alan Ainsworth, 'Photography and the historicism of poverty: Shirley Baker at the Photographers' Gallery', 29.08.15 available at http://www.alanainsworthphotography.com/blog/2015/8/photography-and-the-historicism-of-poverty-shirley-baker-at-the-photographers-gallery
Ponte City, a photographic project led by Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse shown recently at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, demonstrates how architectural photography is capable of embracing social documentary. It also says much about the nature of the photograph as documentary evidence.
Planned at the height of apartheid regime confidence in the late 1960s, Ponte City is a 54-storey apartment building in Johannesburg which fell victim to a collapse in the property market and urban unrest. By the time it was completed in 1976, confidence among the affluent young whites for which it had been designed had collapsed and it became a refuge for displaced blacks from the countryside and the townships. As the building deteriorated, Ponte City increasingly turned into a magnet for criminals, prostitutes and drug dealers, an unavoidable symbol on the skyline of urban decay and the focus of a range of seething social tensions.
Undeterred, the squatters tried to clean up the building and make decent homes for themselves. Subotzky and Waterhouse began documenting the inhabitants, their apartments and lifestyles in 2007, when developers attempted to evict the illegal tenants in order (unsuccessfully) to refurbish the block. They photographed in the building extensively for over 5 years, making portraits of the residents, their doors and the views from their high-rise windows, and their TVs. They also collected a vast quantity of documents and other artefacts from the building including historical papers, planning applications, building plans, documentation, notebooks and drawings, scribblings, marketing material, newspaper cuttings, notices to quit, handwritten notes, screen shots and camera snaps.
The exhibition is in effect a camera-based installation which integrates documentation with photography. In many cases, the documents are actually superimposed on the photographs. An accompanying book presents the photography while 17 interlinked booklets, involving nine other writers, contain thematic essays and stories which compliment the body of images. Taken together, documentary evidence and photography not only illustrate the lives of people and their environment but also provide graphic contrasts between the realities of everyday life and the architects and developers’ glossy visions which supported the marketing of the building. One powerful exhibit combines a photograph of the servants quarters in Ponte City with planning applications and responses which make clear the authorities demands for 'screening the bantu servants from view'.
The exhibition poses two important questions. Can we consider Ponte City to be architectural photography? and can the documentary photographer can avoid the bias which inevitably accompanies involvement in a socially-charged project of this nature? Architectural photography embraces a gamut of styles from client-driven representation of pristine buildings to images of materials and construction process of the kind that Nigel Henderson created for Peter and Alison Smithson at Hunstanton School. This exhibition is an exploration of architectural photography through the life of a building – surely one of the most important consequences of the architect’s designs. As to the bias often found in documentary, the authors make sure that the photographs in Ponte City can only be understood in relation to other documents. By placing documents side by side and even superimposing them onto the photographs, the articulation of one into the other becomes clear. In linking the photography with a range of supporting documentary material, Subotzky and Waterhouse have provided a second opinion, as it were, to the veracity of the photography and we are able to test the moral assumptions of the images against at least several other sources. This approach also would also seem to have reduced the risk that the photography might at some point be detached and reinterpreted as art photography – the other fate of the documentary photograph.
There won’t be many visiting Somerset House’s exhibition of Chris Stein’s photographs of Debbie Harry and musicians from the ‘70s New York art scene who recognize as few of the people portrayed as me. OK, I do know Debbie Harry, David Bowie and William Burroughs and I’ve vaguely heard of the Ramones, but as for Iggy Pop, Joan Jett, Richard Hell, David Byrne, a whole stream of other singers and bands and, for that matter, Chris Stein himself…
Celebrities have their pull and so far as I could see most visitors had come to see the (‘iconic’, as the accompanying material and virtually every review call them) portraits of stars they already know. Awareness of my ignorance only grew as I walked this large and fascinating exhibition and overheard their knowing comments. But if like me you don’t know the subjects, there is a sense in which one can look past the iconic portraits and muse on what there might be to take away from an exhibition of over 50 images of this kind. Somerset House are staging this exhibition to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Debbie Harry’s band Blondie, of which Chris Stein is a founding member. Stein, who studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York (which he ‘left for a few years to be a hippy’), was a photographer before becoming a musician and began taking photographs of the emerging downtown New York art scene in 1968. A close personal bond developed between Chris and Debbie soon after they met in 1973 and Blondie, born a year later, quickly carved out a niche at the heart of the scruffy, down-at-heel but vibrant proto-punk artistic milieu. And Stein was in the right place at the right time as the underground culture, still confined to clubs like CBGB and Andy Warhol’s Factory, was about to burst into the mainstream.
The exhibition includes previously undisplayed images alongside well-known photographs, and all have personal notes provided by Stein which describe the subjects and his relationship to them. Most show the grit of the East Village apartments in which various members of the crowd lived, or backstage shots of Debbie lounging on a car just outside the legendary CBGB club in New York, the band having breakfast in Germany and house parties in the East Village. ‘I think the point of Chris’s charm as a photographer,” Debbie said talking about a photo of her with a burning frying pan ‘is to see beauty in rot and chaos and destruction and rubble’. This shot was taken when the couple discovered their apartment had burned down, an opportunity for Stein to capture beauty in the messy soot of the remains. Stein’s portraits are arresting, and he made the most of his subjects’ natural inclination to play up for the camera. But there are strong compositions amid the clutter and debris and he obviously imbibed enough surrealist influences at some points, as in his photo shoot for Punk magazine of Debbie with baby dolls at her feet, to give many a whacky feel.
What one can take away from this exhibition is a sense of the motivations behind and future journey of a personal archive. Stein’s introduction to his exhibition makes it obvious that he was fascinated by the small, incestuous and closely-tied New York music and art scene, even if his photography was at that stage an unconscious act of personal archive. Looking back though he muses on how lucky he was to have been part of the scene – ‘the heat of the streets, the fog, the violence, and the desolation’. His motivation was no more or less than any other personal archive – a family album, school and college photos, early family days, and so on: an unformed sense that at some stage in the future these mundane events would be significant because they are part of one’s identity. The ability to time-travel backwards drew Stein to photography. Like Brassaï’s photographs of graffiti, hookers and people in bars, his photos ‘exist as objects in the same way great sculptures take up emotional space’
Most personal archives progress into communal archives through the act of being shared with other members of one’s family or friends, or former colleagues. Few progress to become public archives, but some do. Whether the transition to public status happens depends on a number of factors. Like Stein’s exhibition, it helps if the subjects are well-known and infamous, although that won’t last forever. Private archives which attain enduring public status do so because of their ability to evoke the spirit of an age beneath a patina of documentary portraiture. It’s hard to argue that Chris Stein has not achieved this emotional space in his own personal archive.
Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and The Advent of Punk
Somerset House, London, 5 Nov 2014 to 25 Jan 2015
Copyright © All text and photography (other than where indicated) Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014.
Cite Alan Ainsworth, 'CHRIS STEIN’S PHOTOS OF DEBBIE HARRY – the journey of a personal archive', 27.12.2014 available at http://www.zenfolio.com/alanainsworthphotography/edit/blog.aspx#496516218
The Barbican’s latest exhibition presents nineteen leading photographers whose work explores the idea of architecture as a process which crucially shapes modes of human existence. In over 320 photographs, the exhibition offers an affirmation of architectural photography whilst at the same time posing fundamental questions about its traditional practices – and, by extension, those of architecture itself.
As David Campany argues in his introduction, architecture and photography soon became complicit and ‘conventional’ architectural photography is challenged - one way or another - by most of the photographers on display. Not all, of course, because the curators have (perhaps rather obviously) chosen Julius Shulman as the exemplar of conventional practice. His alluring images of sleek modernist 1950s Californian homes, with their carefully arranged people and objets, were conscious attempts to sell a dream lifestyle - complicit, certainly, but extremely successful at the time and which initiated a visual language which resonates still.
Yet signs that photography could say more had long been in evidence. In the 1930s, Berenice Abbot tellingly juxtaposed old and new in her portrait of New York modernity and Walker Evans brought a dispassionate viewpoint to his frontal photographs of clapperboard houses, garages, chapels, negro dwellings and roadside shops. With an eye for contemporary street iconography such as advertising hoardings and signs, the exhibition demonstrates how Abbot and Evans laid the basis of a modernist photographic language with which to describe the built environment of contemporary America.
Even while Shulman was glorifying Californian modernism, Lucien Hervé was reinterpreting in starkly mono tones the work of another modernist master. His high-key images of Le Corbusier’s work in Chandigarh zooms in on the master’s concrete forms, dramatically fractured cubist-like by shafts of light. Like other emigré Hungarians, Hervé deployed a photojournalist’s eye for detail with the compositional facility to know precisely when to use the human figures in counterpoint.
Fine art and conventional practice were now set on diverging paths. In the 1960s Ed Ruscha made a series of aerial photographs of parking lots around Los Angeles whose patterns demonstrate brutal intrusion unseen from the ground. His consciously artless ‘Los Angeles apartments’ was Ruscha’s counterblast to the Shulman school. The exhibition presents (in series, as the authors intended) images by Bernd and Hilla Becher, who rigorously documented industrial structures in the 1970s and ‘80s. Their unpopulated, decontextualised images of water towers, blast furnaces, chimneys, form a coherent taxonomy, part-documentary, part-industrial archeology and part-aesthetic of function.
Indeed, function was the new aesthetic. Stephen Shore’s images of street mundane in Texas, Los Angeles, New York and other cities imported a postcard aesthetic to built environment photography. Andreas Gursky is represented by two monumental images – São Paulo train station and an apartment block in Montparnasse – digitally-manipulated the better to show the control and order they impose on people and place by built structures.
Thomas Struth’s views of unpopulated streets from New York, Chicago, Dusseldorf and London to Pyonyang, Beijing and St, Petersburg, are essentially those of seemingly consistent and unchanging spaces framed by buildings. Appropriately located in their own enclosed spaces, the work of Hélène Binet and Luisa Lambri mount a challenge to architecture and conventional photography from the inside. Binet’s work deploys light and shadow to define internal space, fragments of structures animated by light as if they were a performance stage; Lambri’s attraction to interiority are self-consciously those of a female photographer – a response, as it were, to the male bombast of external forms.
In similar vein, the Barbican presents Hiroshi Sugimoto’s enormous blurred images of famous buildings; hugely evocative, they are the ultimate triumph of impression over detail.
More recently, photographers have seen the ravages, decay or even destruction of buildings as signifiers of architecture’s massive impact. The curators choices are first rate –Simon Norfolk’s pictorialist-inspired photographs of war-torn Afghanistan in soft dusk glows, Bas Pincen’s huge images of marginal city areas and Guy Tillem’s evocations of the decay of post-colonialist modernism in francophone Africa. Nadav Kandar evokes an impressionist aesthetic (compare Yibin I (Bathers) with Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières), juxtaposing old and new to explore the effects of China’s rapid industrialization in an impactful if melancholic fashion.
When a 45-storey tower in Caracas was abandoned mid-construction in 1994, it was colonized by 3,000 homeless people who reconfigured, decorated, and now maintain and police the building. The Barbican’s most telling challenge to architecture and conventional architectural photography lies in the work of the Dutch photographer Iwan Baan, who found the soul of this building in its messily populated yet vibrant interior – surely a world apart from the pristine, unpopulated exteriors of conventional practice.